Saturday, April 8, 2017

What Kafka Tells Us About 2017

Whenever I teach, I've learned over time to write out what I want to say and then divert from it in class, so here's the prepared text.

We're going to start, as every talk about Kafka ever does, by reading his quick parable from The Trial, 'Before The Law'. 

(Call on someone to read it)

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. 'It is possible,' answers the doorkeeper, 'but not at this moment.' Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man bends down to peer through the entrance. When the doorkeeper sees that, he laughs and says: 'If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. Even the third of these has an aspect that even I cannot bear to look at.' These are difficulties which the man from the country has not expected to meet, the Law, he thinks, should be accessible to every man and at all times, but when he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his furred robe, with his huge pointed nose and long, thin, Tartar beard, he decides that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. There he sits waiting for days and years. He makes many attempts to be allowed in and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. The doorkeeper often engages him in brief conversation, asking him about his home and about other matters, but the questions are put quite impersonally, as great men put questions, and always conclude with the statement that the man cannot be allowed to enter yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, parts with all he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he takes each gift: 'I take this only to keep you from feeling that you have left something undone.' During all these long years the man watches the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets about the other doorkeepers, and this one seems to him the only barrier between himself and the Law. In the first years he curses his evil fate aloud; later, as he grows old, he only mutters to himself. He grows childish, and since in his prolonged watch he has learned to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar, he begs the very fleas to help him and to persuade the doorkeeper to change his mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive a radiance that streams immortally from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses in his mind into one question, which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend far down to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man's disadvantage. 'What do you want to know now?' asks the doorkeeper, 'you are insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to attain the Law,' answers the man, 'how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?' The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: 'No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.' "

Has there ever been a more Jewish paragraph than this? Kafka spent two pages making fun of characters who tried to interpret the parable and how pointless it is to try to interpret something so open-ended, so since it's so stupid to try to interpret it, let's try to do exactly that. 

What do you think it means?

(when ready to transition)

So I maintain, this is just about the most Jewish secular text that's ever been set down on paper. First you have a parable that is so open-ended that it can mean anything at all, which means that thinking people will never be able to resist the temptation to ascribe meaning to its ambiguities. In two-thousand years, they're still going to try to interpret this paragraph and come up with ever new meanings for it. 

So why is this Jewish? I would answer that what makes it Jewish is the idea that the authorities, out of spite, went to the trouble to design a door tailor made to bewitch you to the point that all you can do is look at the door for your entire life? Christianity would never say that, Christianity would say that God loves you and he wants you to go through the door made for you. Atheism or hedonism would say, 'just walk away, there are other doors, and you don't even have to walk through a friggin' door', but Judaism, or for that matter, Existentialism, believes that there are doors that you will always have to struggle to walk through, and you might as well pick a door that appeals to you. Judaism is in large part based on the idea that you're going to wrestle or at least grapple intellectually and emotionally with God, it not only puts a door in front of you whose appeal to you is impossible to resist, but puts a guard who warns you that even if you get through the guard and though the door, you'll have to face a new and even more alluring door with a guard who is even stronger. "He who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" 

What door does America stand in front of in 2017? Some say the door is Trump, some last year said the door was Bernie, some say it's the status-quo, some say it's capitalism, some say it's liberalism, some say it's immigration, some say it's nativism, but the one thing we all seem to agree on is that Modern America is stuck in front of a door, can't get through it, and refuses to walk away.

Assuming that we can walk away, what would be so terrible if we did? Again, Kafka has a kind of answer.


ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back and said to the watchman: "I ran through here while you were looking the other way." The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. "I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it," I said. The watchman still said nothing. "Does your silence indicate permission to pass?". . . 

I'm not going to ask a rather pointed question here. In order to ask what this answer means, I'm going to first ask, is this an answer?

(allow for discussion, when it winds down) 

I'll say about this that to my way of thinking, this is an answer by being a non-answer. When this guy goes through a door with a watchman, his first thought is if he had permission. I suppose it then follows that the next question is, what will the watchman do in response to his going through the door without permission? Will there be retaliation, will there be consequences, what's being risked? Is this guy even a watchman? Like the object in every parable, the door itself is just a McGuffin - it's the device to move the story forward, and it means everything and nothing - in other words, whatever you want it to mean. I take that to mean that whatever the situation in our lives, among our families and friends and communities, among our cities and countries, there is no way of knowing what comes next. All we have is the anxiety of knowing that even if we have the most infinitesimal choices in our lives, we still have an infinity of choices within that infinitessence, and we will always worry that we didn't pick the best choice, because of course we never do. That's life, that's existence which either precedes essence, as existentialism would have it, or is of an essence that we can never truly know, as the Tanakh and the Kabbalah would tell us. 

Now Kafka was a fantastic middle point between Judaism and Existentialism - influenced enormously on the one hand by the stories of the Tanakh and of, believe it or not, both the Yiddish Theater and Reb Nachman of Bretslav, and on the other by existentialists like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. His great talent was as a teller of Bible-like parables. His novels are not quite as good because they're really just a loose collection of parables with filler. But unlike Reb Nachman, who used his parables to show the existence of God, Kafka used these parables, and he'd often use Reb Nachman's framework, to show that God is immaterial to how we ought to live. God may very well be there, but we have to proceed as though he isn't. 

So let's skip to the second-to-last parable (call on someone to read):

The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible--when there is no one to destroy this possibility and no one to suffer its destruction; hence the graves will open themselves. This, perhaps, is Christian doctrine too, applying as much to the actual presentation of the example to be emulated, which is an individualistic example, as to the symbolic presentation of the resurrection of the Mediator in the single individual.
The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.

Now, if this strikes you as controversial to Judaism, I would refer you to another Reb Nachman, Nachmanides, who said, or at least according said to that 70's movie The Disputation with Christopher Lee, that Moshiach will only come when we deserve him. And it's entirely possible that we will only deserve him by being so good that we no longer have need of him. 

So now we have to talk about how do we get to the point where we can either be worthy of Moshiach's coming or no longer have need of him? And in order to do that, we have to talk at least a little bit about the milleu in which Kafka was himself. 

He grew up in Prague, which was, perhaps, the Boston of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wasn't Capital City and far from the Largest City, it was a small, beautiful, culturally relevant, relatively prosperous third city of an Empire that only took up the East Coast of the German speaking lands. And unlike Germany, which was basically monoglot and as Hitler proved, rather uniform in its ethnicity and culture, though that never stopped the various provinces from hating each other, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was probably the most multi-cultural place in the world. There were something like two-dozen separate nationalities, all of which spoke different languages, hated each other, an hated being part of the Empire. As my father pointed out to me, the only people who loved the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the Austrians whom, as Hitler proved, wanted to be German, was the Jews - who had no territory on which they could aspire to nationhood. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was, like all Empires really, an autocracy, but was, relatively speaking a liberal one. In terms of advancement and the suffrage of the various issues on which citizens could vote, it was more liberal and tolerant than any truer democracy of its age. And Jews prospered accordingly in it.

The Prague of its time was emblematic of the Jewish situation everywhere at every time. There were 30,000 German speakers in this town of 300,000 who ruled Prague as a ruling class. Half were gentile, half were Jewish. If history tells us anything, and I'd recommend the book Antisemitism and the Western Tradition by David Nirenberg to demonstrate this, the rich prosper and elevate the Jews as a kind of civil servant class. We'll leave cultural explanations of why for another day, but what it inevitably means is that Jews inevitably become the symbol of the occupying class. Everywhere, we are seen as a foreign import that prospers on the backs of a native underclass that is more deserving than we, and we become the symbols of their oppression. We are the evil Christkillers who prevent Jesus from returning, we are the evil monotheists who turned the classical world away from reason, we are the evil bloodsucker race who pollutes the purity of the great race's blood, and now we are the evil occupiers and imperialists who prevent self-determination. The antisemitic blood libel always changes but it's always there, and some Jews believe it themselves as well as gentiles, and it's always easy to believe, because in a perverted way, it has a film of truth. If human nature were different and less ambiguous, perhaps all those things which fanatical ideologies wanted would be possible. But Judaism, wherever it's gone, has been the great exception, and drives people who have a two-dimensional view of the world insane. And because we're not protected the way the real rulers are, we're the only people upon whom really meaningful retribution on ruling class is taken. It hasn't happened here yet, but if it never does, it'll be the first place for which that is true.

So let's switch gears again and talk about some Kafka stories.

Kafka began his mature writing the night after Yom Kippur in 1912, almost exactly two years before World War I, with the short story, The Judgement - you can infer the Jewish connotation for yourself. It was part of, as he saw it, a tryptich of three stories in which fathers triumph over sons. We can spend the whole rest of the time talking about Kafka's relationship to his father and his characterization of fathers. But instead of talking about fathers in of themselves, it's better to talk about fathers as metaphors. A metaphor for a dying society in which an older generation simply won't give way, they have a more old-fashioned, more authoritarian, more patriarchal way of looking at the world, and by sheer will to power, they are triumphing over a new way of life that is more sensitive and more accepting. Now in today's America, both the right and the left have their patriarchal resentments. The right talks about paternalism, the father state telling us what's best for us. The left talks about patriarchy, the system by which men pose as father figures who know best and keep women subservient. 

All throughout history, 'father' has been a poetic metaphor for a larger superstructure that keeps people in place. The more present the structure feels, the more like a prison it feels, no matter how objectively good this structure provides for in people's lives, it does not feel that way. When we're in the middle of the chaos of war and poverty, we have a longing to return to order. But when we are, as Kafka was, from an assimilated upper-middle class background where it is clear that life, however disappointing, is not going to get any better than it is right now, the chaos of the outside world calls out to us, and there's a homing device in all of us that's receptive to returning to it. It often seems as though the more privileged we become, the more all of us have a longing to smash that privilege into a million pieces, because the privilege reminds us of what we still don't have, and teases us with how tantalizingly close we are to a better life. Whether you're liberal or conservative, alt right or intersectional warrior for social justice, it all seems to be part of the zeitgeist we feel today. Our prosperity doesn't make us more satisfied, it makes us less. America is, by any objective standard, a better country to live in now for more people than ever before, and yet, ever since the beginning of the 21st century, we've been miserable as a country. One thing after another - Lewinsky, Bush v Gore, 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, Obamacare, the 2016 election, wherever we fall on the political spectum, the polarizing debates about these things have made us feel less trusting, less happy, and more powerless.

So let's talk about The Judgement for a second. It is about nothing more or less than a father who sentences his son to death by drowning, and the son obliges. Don't look at this as a familial tale, look at this as an American one, look at it from the point of view of Social Security, a program founded when there were 27 workers for every retiree, and when the last Baby Boomer retires, there will be less than 3 workers for every Baby Boomer retiree, and that's before the effects of mass automation on employment. While my parents are in many ways the precise opposite of this Baby Boom phenomenon to leave their children worse than they found them, the entire millenial generation has been handed something not unlike a financial death sentence by our parents and grandparents that will indenture us at best to US student loans and at worst to East Asia who bails us out at still worse rates of exchange.

Let's now think about Metamorphosis. You all know the story: Prague Salesman turns into giant bug. The original translation into English translation is a gigantic insect . But here, there is a very specific problem. To say that someone is turned into an insect is value neutral, it emphasizes the absurdity of what happens and gives definition to Kafka's idea that isn't really there in the German. The problem though is that Kafka insect, he said 'monstrous vermin', or in German 'ungeheuren ungezeifer', a spiritual insect. When you hear 'ungeheuren ungezeifer', you realize that what's important is not that he's an insect, but that he's vermin. Now think of that Freud phrase: The narcissism of small differences. Gregor might not even be an insect, he is just seen as an insect. Maybe he's a schizophrenic who's convinced himself that he's an insect and is therefore treated like vermin by his family, or maybe vermin is just a metaphor for how he's viewed by the people in his life, and he's simply internalized it. We just don't know, but what we do know is that if there were two words Hitler loved to use in his speeches, it's 'ungeheur' and 'ungezeifer'.

As he acclimates to his new condition, his vision and memory dims, so does his ability to think verbally, but that's no different than how a malnourished prisoner would decline. He eats rotting food, he has an offensive odor that permeates everything, and even the sister, supposedly the most sympathetic member of the family to him, can't bear to look at Gregor. This is the moment when we realize that prison reform is at the back end of the liberal policy dreams, and we have more prisoners in this country than any substantial in the world either in raw tallies or per capita, and that includes authoritarian regimes like China and Russia

But imagine prisoners who seem insect-like and are not secluded in far-away prisons, but right next to you, on Park Heights Avenue and North Avenue and around the looted CVS at Penn Quarter. When you're in Station North, when was the last time was that you looked into the eye of a North Avenue beggar? You know that there is a less than 1% of a 1% chance that anything will happen except that he'll try a little harder to make you give him money, but the panic it triggers in you is unmistakable. As a bug, Gregor can't make himself understood in German anymore, but even were Gregor not a bug, even if this bug spoke something like German, would he be able to make their plight understood considering that everybody is already pre-conditioned to find the point of view of someone who looks different unsympathetic? When he dies, he's emptied out with the garbage. I don't need to tell you more about what Jewish experience The Metamorphosis can give us an uncanny look into except to point out that Gregor was the only person in the family who works, and the rest of the family has nothing to do but further resent the vermin in their lives. What ultimately was the problem which brought Hitler to power? It was jobs, Hitler was supposed to be the 'jobs Chancellor.' How did Hitler bring jobs? By making war on people he said were vermin. How was he able to do this? Because the biggest problem of unemployment is not necessarily the chance of starvatio,n because in a first-world country there a relatively small chance of that, it is the injured sense of humiliation unemployment gives, and when people are humiliated, they will do anything to retaliate.

So let's now think of what I'd call the greatest of Kafka's short stories, The Penal Colony. This is the one about 'The Machine' which The Princess Bride so memorably riffed on. In this colony, if the prisoner is handed a death sentence, it's by one officer who serves as judge, jury, lawyer, and executioner. No trial, the officer simply hooks the prisoner up to a machine designed to kill the prisoner over a period of twelve hours by writing the crime into the prisoner's back with needles - literally a tattoo of flesh. The similarity to the death camps doesn't need any elaboration, but what does need elaboration is the officer's description of the machine at its height, and I'll do a slight dramatic reading here about the decline of the machine that will hopefully prove that Kafka can be shockingly funny.

"How different an execution was in the old days! A whole day before the ceremony the valley was packed with people; they all came only to look on; early in the morning the Commandant appared with his ladies; fanfares roused the whole camp; I reported that everything was in readiness; the assembled company--no high official dared to absent himself--arranged itself around the machine; this pile of cane chairs is a miserable survival from that epoch. The machine was freshly cleaned and glittering, I got new spare parts for almost every execution. Before hundreds of spectators--all of them standing on tiptoe as far as the heights there--the condemned man was laid under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What is left today for a common soldier to do was then my task, the task of the presiding judge, and was an honor for me. And then the execution began! No discordant noise spoiled the working of the machine. Many did not care to watch it but lay with closed eyes in the sand; they all knew: Now Justice is being done. In the silence one heard nothing but the condemned man's sighs, half muffled by the felt gag. Nowadays the machine can no longer wring from anyone a sigh louder than the felt gag can stifle, but in those days the writing needles let drop an acid fluid, which we're no longer permitted to use. Well, and then came the sixth hour! It was impossible to grant all the requests to be allowed to watch it from nearby. The Commandant in his wisdom ordained that the children should have the preference; I, of course, because of my office had the privilege of being at hand; often enough I would be squatting there with a small child in either arm. How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last and fading so quickly! What times these were, my comrade."

So this of course begs a question, when any form of justice is improperly applied, do you then blame the improper application, or do you blame the form of justice?

So here, for what it's worth, is my answer. Justice, when improperly applied, is not justice. The results, statistically and conceptually, will always speak for itself. If you have to justify any system by saying that it's simply been improperly applied, be it Communism and Socialism, or libertarian views of capitalism, or imperial conquest, or a cult of personality around a Presidential candidate, if the vast majority of the results you can point to is failure, then the problem is not that it's been improperly applied, the problem is that you have a conception of human nature that requires the neatness of a machine, and is therefore inhuman. There was never any chance that your belief was ever going to be anything but a disaster when implemented.

So what happens at the end of The Penal Colony? The Officer, realizing that the machine will never be used again, sacrifices himself to be the machine's last victim. He believes in his mode of justice so greatly that he's willing to kill any number of people, including himself. We used to see this kind of ideological fanaticism in Europe, but who can look at 2016 and not think to ourselves that it's come to America? There are 300 million privately held guns in this country, any number of which could be in the hands of vigilantes, and don't just think to yourself that these vigilantes can only come from the Right, it's entirely possible when apprehended, the vigilante will say that he did what he did in the name of social justice.

We could do similar interpretations with The Burrow and The Hunger Artist and various parts of Kafka's novels, there's even a very short story called 'The Bucket Rider' about a dystopian world in which survival depends on coal. In the 19th century, that was absolutely true, and it would appear that in the 21st century, we could be heading back there... But I'm worried we're running out of steam, so let's talk about the story that most obviously parallels 2017: The Great Wall of China.

There's so much that can be said about its contemporary relevance, but the story i not at all what you'd expect, It has the tone of a scholarly article, and it has a weird spiral logic with parables within the parables, it's more like Borges than Kafka and it's kind of dry as Kafka admittedly can be. But there are three brief quotes worth saying aloud here on the second paper I provided.

The first is, in a rather grotesque parallel, Kafka writes

"the command deliberately chose the system of piecemeal construction. But the piecemeal construction was only a makeshift and therefore inexpedient. Remains the conclusion that the command willed something inexpedient...",

Here's the second quote. Try to reverse the polarities in your mind:

"Against whom was the Great Wall to serve as a protection? Against the people of the north. Now, I come from the southeast of China. No northern people can menace us there. We read of them in the books of the ancients; the cruelties they commit in accordance with their nature make us sigh in our peaceful arbors. The faithful representations of the artist show us these faces of the damned, their gaping mouths, their jaws furnished with great pointed teeth, their half-shut eyes that already seem to be seeking out the victim which their jaws will rend and devour. When our children are unruly we show them these pictures, and at once they fly weeping into our arms. But nothing more than that do we know about these northerners. We have not seen them, and if we remain in our villages we shall never see them, even if on their wild horses they should ride as hard as they can straight toward us--the land is too vast and would not let them reach us, they would end their coarse in the empty air." 

The meaning of the parallels here are so clear that I think we should just let them speak for themselves. So let's end with Kafka's second attempt at a story about building a wall. But before we read it, let me ask that you try to think of what this means in a world where there are so many sources, so disputed, that we don't know what's true anymore. Kafka lived at the end of the European era, and in some ways marked the beginning of the Jewish one. Jews always flourish when the world is in transition, we've been so adaptable that we often seem to be the yeast through which history works, and many people mistaken that for parasitism. Just consider that since Biblical times, there was no universally accepted great Jewish writer of fiction until Franz Kafka. The whole Renaissance and Enlightenment passed us by, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Moliere, Goethe, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Melville, Flaubert,  all hugely influenced by Jewish writing, and all of whom have things to say about individual will and character and destiny, and posterity hardly remembers a single Jew is present to say anything about it. No doubt, a large part of that's due to antisemitism, but it's also partly because individuality is only a primary concern in Judaism when we talk about the individual's relationship to a community. But the modern era comes along, with all its anxieties about how communities and the systems which hold communities in place can rub out individuality, and how an individual can struggle to survive and maintain his dignity in a place where everything conspires to rob him of it, and suddenly Jewish fiction writers proliferate like rabbits. That starts with Kafka, but how much longer can it last? In the online era, algorithms can predict our future choices better than we can ourselves, and it's possible that the people who control that information can form us into anything they want. Human nature may have been solved. So if that's the case, then the modern era is very much like the medieval one, and as accelerated as the progress of our world seems today, we may be, as unlikely as it still seems, headed for a very different, superstitious world again, in which religion will have to be our great consolation. And with that in mind, let's read this last fragment. Don't read it as a piece of nostalgia from the distant past, read it as a potential warning for our future.

Call on someone

The news of the building of the wall now penetrated into this world. This, too, arrived late, some thirty years after its announcement. It was on a summer's evening. Ten years old, I stood on the bank of the river with my father. As befits the significance of this much discussed moment, I remember the smallest circumstances. He held me by the hand--he liked to do that even when he was very old--and with his other hand he stroked his long and very thin pipe as if it were a flute. His large, sparse, stiff beard moved in the wind; enjoying his pipe, he looked upwards across the river. This made his pigtail, which was an object of reverence to children, sink lower, softly rustling against the gold-embroidered silk of his holiday gown. At that moment a bark came to a stop in front of us; the boatman beckoned to my father to descend the slope, while he himself climbed up to meet him. They met each other in the middle; the boatman whispered something in my father's ear. To get even closer to him, he embraced him. I did not understand what was said and saw only that my father did not seem to believe the news. The boatman tried to convince him that it was the truth, but Father still could not believe it; the boatman, with all the passion of a sailor, almost tore his clothes open on his breast in order to convince him that it was so. Father became quieter, and the boatman leaped back into the bark with a clatter and sailed away. Meditatively, my father turned his back toward me, knocked out his pipe and stuck it in his belt, stroked my cheek, and pulled my head toward him. This was what I liked most, it made me very happy, and so we returned home. There the rice soup was already steaming on the table, several guests were already gathered, and the wine was just being poured into the cups. Without paying any attention to all this, my father began to report from the threshold what he had heard. Naturally, I have no exact recollection of his words, but because of the extraordinary nature of the circumstances involved, which was enough to impress even a child, their meaning sank into me so deeply that I stil feel able to give a kind of verbatim version of them. And I do so now because these words were very characteristic of the popular interpretation. Thus, my father said more or less the following: A strange boatman--I know all who usually sail past here, but this one was a stranger--has just told me that a great wall is going to be built to protect the Emperor. As you may know, the infidel nations, wth demons among them too, often gather in front of the imperial
Kafka never finished many of his stories, but like in Michelangelo, he always gets to the essence in what's already there. As Orwell said, the object of power is power, and if the wall is built, it's not built to keep East Asians or Russians or Near-Eastern infidels or Mexicans out, but to keep us in. Here endeth the lesson. 

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