CITY OF WORDS Hop­ing Against Hope

Kafka’s writ­ing al­lows us in­tu­itions and half-dreams but never to­tal com­pre­hen­sion

Geist - - Contents - Al­berto Manguel

Yes­ter­day morn­ing, I woke up from trou­bled dreams and found my­self think­ing about Kafka and Gre­gor Samsa’s meta­mor­pho­sis. A ques­tion was ring­ing in my head: why does Gre­gor’s meta­mor­pho­sis oc­cur? Why is it that Gre­gor wakes up one morn­ing from trou­bled dreams and finds him­self trans­formed into a gi­ant in­sect?

“We read to ask ques­tions,” Kafka wrote to a friend. In­deed. Read­ing Kafka, we sense that th­ese elicited ques­tions are al­ways just beyond our un­der­stand­ing, promis­ing an an­swer but not now, per­haps next time. Some­thing in his writ­ing—some­thing un­fin­ished, care­fully con­structed, left open to the el­e­ments—al­lows us ap­prox­i­ma­tions, in­tu­itions and half­dreams but never to­tal com­pre­hen­sion. His are texts pre­cise and se­vere, each page ob­tained “through anger,” he says, “blow after blow.” Kafka of­fers us ab­so­lute un­cer­tain­ties. His style is summed up in his de­scrip­tion of tree trunks in the snow. “In ap­pear­ance they lie smoothly and a lit­tle push should be enough to send them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wed­ded to the ground. But see, even that is only an ap­pear­ance.”

Read­ing Kafka al­lows us to dis­cern in his work a kind of the­o­log­i­cal in­tu­ition, a slow and grad­ual as­cent to­ward a ter­ri­ble god that of­fers us at the same time hap­pi­ness and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of en­joy­ing it. For Kafka, the Gar­den of Eden still ex­ists, even though we no longer in­habit it. Like the law at whose doors waits the pro­tag­o­nist of the fa­ble told in The Trial, the in­ac­ces­si­ble Eden re­mains open for us un­til the mo­ment of our death. Vladimir Nabokov, sub­tle reader of Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis, rec­og­nized in the fan­tas­tic tale a de­scrip­tion of our daily fate. “The in­sect into which Gre­gor is trans­formed,” Nabokov told his stu­dents at the uni­ver­sity, “is a type of cock­roach that has wings be­low its shell. And if Gre­gor found th­ese wings, he would have been able to spread them and fly out of his prison.” And Nabokov added: “Like Gre­gor, some Joes and Janes are not aware that they have wings un­der their shells, and can fly.”

By means of this dou­ble game of sal­va­tion and guilt all Kafka’s work is built. His hu­man and an­i­mal heroes, who, like Gre­gor Samsa, pass from one con­di­tion to the other, are guilty with­out guilt, guilty sim­ply be­cause they ex­ist. No one knows for what of­fence Josef K. in The Trial is con­demned, nor for what fault K. will never reach the Cas­tle. The crime com­mit­ted by the pris­oner in The Pe­nal Colony can­not be known, not even by the pris­oner him­self, ex­cept by means of the nee­dle that en­graves, with in­fi­nite con­vo­lu­tions, the in­ef­fa­ble sin on his liv­ing flesh. Guilty with­out knowl­edge of their crime, saved but with­out means of sal­va­tion, we hu­man be­ings are for Kafka mod­ern in­car­na­tions of Odysseus, whose forced re­turn is con­stantly im­peded by a capri­cious and per­sis­tent god. Kafka’s an­swer to Max Brod, who, fed up with so much ap­par­ent pes­simism, had ex­claimed, “But if you say that, there’s no hope!” is well-known. “Oh no,” Kafka said with a smile. “There is hope, but not for us.” Un­der such al­ways alien hope we spend our la­bo­ri­ous days and ag­o­niz­ing nights.

Ayear be­fore his death, in the Ger­man spa of Müritz, Kafka met his sis­ter Elli and her three small children. One of the children tripped and fell. The oth­ers were about to burst out laugh­ing when Kafka, to pre­vent the child from feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated for his clum­si­ness, said to him in an ad­mir­ing tone: “How well you per­formed that fall! And how ad­mirably you stood up!” We can sup­pose that through­out his life, fall after fall, know­ing all the while that he was hop­ing in vain, Kafka hoped that some­one would speak to him th­ese few words.

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