Jorge Luis Borges on Franz Kafka (1981)

In 1981 Cardinal published a collection of all the short stories which Kafka published during his lifetime, from the first story in 1904, to the last ones published just after his death in 1924 – a working life of precisely 20 years. They are all here in new translations by J.A. Underwood. The edition is interesting because it gives a brief textual explanation before the major stories, explaining when they were written, and when published.

It also contains a brief three-page essay on Kafka by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which can be summarised as follows:

Why Kafka wanted his works destroyed

Borges starts with Kafka’s injunction to Max Brod to burn his works. He compares this to Virgil’s request to his friends to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. As a practising author Borges gives a nice interpretation of both men’s wishes to destroy their masterworks, namely they didn’t want them actually to be destroyed, but

longed to disburden themselves of the responsibility that a literary work imposes on its creator.

Anyone familiar with The Trial or The Castle can immediately see how this applies to Kafka; they’re great works but they’re nowhere near finished and the effort to review, reorder and restructure them, and then to write all the linking passages and the final chapters required to bring them to a successful conclusion would daunt a lesser man and was clearly beyond Kafka. All he felt was the guilt and shame of failure.

Kafka’s works are like:

a parable or series of parables on the theme of the moral relationship of the individual with his God and with  his God’s incomprehensible universe.

They are less like what we call literature and closer to an ancient religious work like the Book of Job. Borges emphasises Kafka’s religious, and specifically Jewish, motivation. He thinks Kafka saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want his writings to demotivate others (as they surely must have).

Borges goes further and suspects Kafka could a) only dream nightmares and b) was interested or hypnotised by delay and failure, which is why he produced a body of work solely about nightmares, and about nightmares which never reach a conclusion but are endlessly delayed… Borges thinks Kafka’s own imaginative vision wore him out.

And knowing how it wore him down, is why Kafka wanted the works burned, so as not to discourage others from seeking for happiness. (This is the same sort of terminology Brod uses in his defence of not burning the works in his afterword to The Trial).

When Borges first read Kafka

Borges slips in a memory of his own youth when he first came across Kafka; He was reading an avant-garde magazine full of modish experiments with text and font and layout but which also included a story by Kafka which, to his eternal shame, he thought insipid and so ignored.

Kafka’s Jewishness

He thinks Kafka’s Judaism is central. He thinks Kafka was as much in awe of his father as Israel is of its punishing God. He thinks Kafka’s Jewishness ‘set him apart from humanity’ and was ‘a torment to him’. So far so fairly basic.

Hierarchy and infinity

More interestingly, Borges goes on to speculate that Kafka’s work is underpinned by two big ideas, subordination and infinity. In almost all his stories we find hierarchies and those hierarchies tend to be infinite. Thus:

  • the hero of America roams across the land of the free until he is admitted to the great Nature-Theatre of Oklahoma which is an infinite stage, no less populous than the world
  • the hero of The Trial tries to understand the nature of the hierarchy of the Court and the authorities who have arrested him and are managing his case, but every step of the investigation only reveals how impenetrably vast and never-ending the hierarchy is
  • the hero of The Castle is summoned to work for authorities at a castle who never acknowledge him or his task

Infinity and incompletion

Borges says some critics complain about the fact that all three novels are unfinished and lament the absence of the chapters which would complete them. Borges says this is to misunderstand Kafka, to misunderstand that his subject was precisely the infinity of obstacles his heroes had to overcome. The novels are incomplete because it is ‘essential’ to their artistic purpose that they remain incomplete.

Borges compares the impossibility of completing a Kafka novel to Zeno’s paradox about the impossibility of movement.

Suppose Zeno wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on. Describing the task in this way requires Zeno to perform an infinite number of tasks which is, of course, impossible. (Wikipedia)

Intolerable situations

Moving swiftly on Borges suggests that Kafka’s greatest gift was for inventing intolerable situations. Anyone thinking of The Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony would agree.

But Borges instances something a little different, which is the tremendous imaginative power of some of his ideas, which engrave themselves on our minds.

Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; this happens over and over and, in the end, it can be predicted in ad­vance and so becomes in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual. (The Zürau Aphorisms)

These short parables from early in his career describe something different from the longer works: it is something to do with infinity and paradox, but harder to define, and less amenable to the kind of sociological interpretations which the novels are routinely subjected to.

Invention over craft

Borges makes a few controversial claims right at the end of this short essay:

Kafka’s craft is perhaps less admirable than in his invention, certainly in the way that all the stories feature basically the same character, Homo domesticus, ‘so Jewish and so German’, so desperate to keep his place in his bank or office or profession or employment.

He says ‘plot and atmosphere are the essential characteristics of Kafka’s work and not the convolutions of the story or the psychology of the hero.

We can quickly agree that few of the novels or stories have a ‘plot’ in the conventional sense of a beginning, middle and an end. His most famous stories tend to record a steady decline in circumstances and psychology until the protagonist dies.

When Borges writes that Kafka’s work doesn’t bother much with the psychology of the hero, I suppose what he means is that none of his protagonists are changed by events in the way that a classical novel is all about the change and growth in thinking and opinions of its main characters. The protagonists psychologise at very great length indeed, but, in a sense, it is always the same problem they are worrying over, and they are permanently caught in the same predicament or trap which shows no real psychological development or change.

Which is why Borges concludes that the short stories are superior to the novels, because they capture this atmosphere and this plight with greater purity and force.

Personally, I disagree. I think everyone should read The Trial because it gives you the essence of the Kafkaesque – and that the stories, being far more diverse, strange, varied and complex than the novels, tend to confuse and perplex your view of who Kafka is: the more you read of him, the less confident you become about being able to make useful generalisations.


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The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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