Franz Kafka: Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China)


Franz Kafka: Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer


Let me begin by recounting a little story that has been taken from the collection with the title given above- and that will show you two things: the greatness of this writer and the difficulty of articulating it. Kafka purports to be retelling a Chinese legend:


The emperor, so the story goes, has sent you a message-you, the individual, his paltry subject, the insignificant shadow cowering in the remotest distance before the imperial sun. The emperor, from his deathbed, has sent a message to you alone. He commanded the messenger to kneel down by his bedside and whispered the message to him. So important to the emperor was this message that he ordered the messenger to repeat it back in his ear. He confirmed the accuracy of the statement with a nod of his head. And in the presence of all those assembled to witness his death-all the obstructing walls having been broken down, the grandees of his empire had gathered round in a circle on the vast and lofty staircases-he dispatched the messenger. The messenger sets out without delay. A powerful, indefatigable man, he forces a path for himself through the crowd, thrusting out now one arm, now the other. If he encounters resistance he points to his chest, on which the symbol of the sun is emblazoned.

He makes rapid progress, more so than anyone else would have done. But the throng is so vast, their dwellings have no end. If only he could reach the open fields, how he would fly! And soon you would hear the glorious sound of his fists hammering at your door. But instead, how vainly he labors-he is still struggling to make his way through the chambers of the innermost palace. Never will he get to the end of them. And even if he succeeded in this, nothing would be gained-he would still have to fight his way down the stairs. And even if he succeeded in this, nothing would be gained-he would still have the courtyards to cross. And after the courtyards, came the second, outer palace; then more staircases and courtyards; then beyond them another palace; and so on for thousands of years. And even if he managed at long last to force a path through the outermost gateway-but never, never can this happen-he would find the imperial capital lying before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its dregs. No one can fight his way through that, let alone with a message from a dead man. -But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.


I will not interpret this story for you. You need no guidance from me to realize that the person addressed here is, primarily, Kafka himself. But who, then, was Kafka? He has done everything in his power to bar the way to an answer. It is impossible to overlook the fact that he stands at the center of his novels, but what happens to him there is designed to reduce to insignificance the person who experiences it, to render him invisible by concealing him at the heart of banality. And the cipher "K.," which designates the protagonist of his novel Das SchloB [The Castle], tells us no more than the initials on a handkerchief or the lining of a hat, and is certainly not enough to enable us to recognize the person who has disappeared. The most we can do is weave a legend around this man Kafka. It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering that there are such things as mirrors.

But to return to the initial story: I would like at least to suggest how not to interpret Kafka, since unfortunately this is almost the only way to establish a link with what has been said about him up to now. Admittedly, to provide a religious interpretation of Kafka's books, as has been done, is plausible enough. And such ideas may very possibly be aroused or even confirmed by the sort of close acquaintance with the writer enjoyed by Max Brod, to whom we are indebted for the publication of Kafka's works. Nevertheless, this approach amounts to a particular way of evading-or, one might almost say, of dismissing-Kafka's world. Doubtless, it is impossible to refute the assertion that in his novel Das SchloB Kafka wished to depict the higher powers, the realm of grace, whereas in Der ProzeB [The Trial] his aim was to portray the lower world of the law courts, and in his last great work, Amerika, he described earthly existence-all of these topics to be understood in a theological sense. The only problem is that such methods are far less productive than the admittedly much more challenging task of interpreting a writer from the center of his image world. To give but one example: the case against Joseph K. is played out in an everyday world, in backyards or waiting rooms, but always in different and unexpected places which the accused does not so much enter as find himself in by mistake. One day, for instance, he finds himself in an uppermost gallery.

The banks of seats are packed full of people who have crowded in to follow the proceedings. They have come expecting a lengthy session, but conditions up there are almost unbearable. The ceiling (ceilings are almost always low in Kafka) presses down on them. So they have even brought cushions with them to lean their heads on. -But this is an image that precisely copies the grotesque faces familiar to us from the capitals surmounting the pillars in so many medieval churches. Of course, this is not to imply that Kafka intended to imitate them. But if we think of his works as a reflecting surface, a long-forgotten capital of this sort might easily appear to be the actual unconscious object of such descriptions. In that case, the interpreter would have to look for its reflection at precisely the same distance from the mirror as the reflected model, only in the opposite direction. In other words, it would have to be sought in the future.

Kafka's work is prophetic. The precisely registered oddities that abound in the life it deals with must be regarded by the reader as no more than the little signs, portents, and symptoms of the displacements that the writer feels approaching in every aspect of life without being able to adjust to the new situation. His only reaction to the almost incomprehensible distortions of existence that betray the emergence of these new laws is a sense of astonishment, mixed with elements of panic-stricken horror. Kafka is so possessed by this that he is incapable of imagining any single event that would not be distorted by the mere act of describing it-though by "description" here we really mean "investigation." In other words, everything he describes makes statements about something other than itself. Kafka's fixation on the sole topic of his work-namely, the distortion of existence- may appear to the reader like obsessiveness. But this impression, as well as the inconsolable earnestness, the despair, in the writer's gaze, is merely a sign that Kafka has abandoned the idea of a purely poetic prose. His prose may prove nothing; but it is so constructed that it can be inserted into passages of argument at any time. We may remind ourselves here of the form of the Haggadah, the name Jews have given to the rabbinical stories and anecdotes that serve to explicate and confirm the teachings-the Halachah. Like the haggadic parts of the Talmud, these books, too, are stories; they are a Haggadah that constantly pauses, luxuriating in the most detailed descriptions, in the simultaneous hope and fear that it might encounter the halachic order, the doctrine itself, en route.

Indeed, procrastination is the true meaning of that noteworthy and often striking fullness of detail which according to Max Brod lay at the heart of Kafka's search for perfection and the true way. Brod observes: "Of all the aspects of life to be taken seriously, we may say what a girl in Das ScbloB: says of the enigmatic letters from the authorities-namely, that 'the reflections to which they give rise are interminable.'" But what Kafka enjoys about these interminable reflections is the very fear that they might come to an end. Hence, his love of detail has a quite different meaning from that of an episode in a novel. Novels are sufficient unto themselves. Kafka's books are never that; they are stories pregnant with a moral to which they never give birth. This is why Kafka learned-if we must discuss matters in these terms-not from the great novelists but from much more modest writers, from mere storytellers. The moralist Johann Peter Hebel and the enigmatic Swiss Robert Walser were among his favorite writers. We have drawn attention to the dubious religious interpretations of Kafka's work, according to which the Castle is to be seen as the seat of grace. Yet it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings. The fact that the Law never finds expression as such-this and nothing else is the gracious dispensation of the fragment.

Whoever doubts this truth may be persuaded by Max Brod's account of what Kafka told him in conversation about the planned conclusion to the novel. After a long, restless life in the village, a life without rights, K. lies exhausted on his deathbed, exhausted by his struggles. Then, at last, at long last, the messenger arrives from the Castle, bringing the decisive piece of news: K. has indeed no legal right to live in the village, but because of various subsidiary factors he is to be allowed to stay and work there. At this point, however, K.'s life ebbs away. - You can see that this story inhabits the same mental world as the tale with which I began. We also learn from Max Brod that Kafka had a particular village in mind-Ztirau, in the Erzgebirge-as a model for the village at the foot of the Castle hill. For my own part, I am reminded of the village referred to in a legend from the Talmud. It is a legend related by a rabbi in reply to the question why Jews prepare a festive meal on Friday evenings. He tells the story of a princess who is pining away in exile, far from her fellow countrymen, among a people whose language she does not understand. One day this princess receives a letter bearing the news that her fiancé has not forgotten her and has set out on the journey to see her. The fiancé, says the rabbi, is the Messiah, the princess is the soul, and the village to which she has been exiled is the body. And because she has no other way of communicating her joy to the people around her who do not know her language, the soul prepares a festive meal for the body.

It needs only a minute shift of emphasis in this story from the Talmud for us to find ourselves in Kafka's world. Modern man dwells in his body as K. does in the village: as a stranger, an outcast who is ignorant of the laws that connect this body to higher and vaster orders. Much light is shed on this aspect of his works by the fact that Kafka frequently places animals at the center of his tales. The reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time-as a mouse or a mole-you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings. Incidentally, it is worth paying attention to the kinds of animals Kafka chooses to embody his ideas. They always dwell in the interior of the earth, or, like the beetle in "Die Verwandlung" [The Metamorphosis], they are creatures that hide away on the ground, in cracks and crannies. This scurrying away seems to the author the only appropriate behavior for the isolated members of his generation and their context, with their ignorance of the law. Yet this absence of law is the result of a process of development. Kafka never tires of describing his fictional realm as dust-laden, rotten, and outmoded. The dingy rooms in which the Trial is enacted are just like the regulations that hold sway in the Penal Colony, or the sexual habits of the women who lend K. moral support. But the depravity of this realm is palpable, and not just in the unbounded promiscuity of the women characters. The same uninhibited brazenness can be seen in the activities of the higher authorities, who have rightly been seen to playas cruel a game of cat and mouse with their victims as the one played by the lower organs of power. "Both worlds are a murky, dust-covered, poky, airless labyrinth of chancelleries, offices, waiting rooms, with an endless hierarchy of junior, senior, very senior, and quite unapproachable officials and sub-officials, lawyers, clerks, and messenger boys who look outwardly like a parody of a ludicrous and senseless bureaucracy." As we see, even the people in power are as lawless as those at the bottom of the pile, and creatures from every level of society mix indiscriminately; the only bond that unites them is a unique feeling of anxiety. This anxiety is not a reaction, but something organic. And we can readily specify what it is constantly and infallibly alert to. But before its object is defined, the remarkable dual nature of this organic fear should give us pause. For it is-and this takes us back to the mirror image with which we began-at one and the same time and in equal measure both fear of the primeval, the immemorial, and also fear of what is close by, the immediate future with all its urgency. In a word, it is fear of an unknown guilt and of the atonement, which brings only one blessing: it makes the guilt explicit.

For the clearest deformation that is characteristic of Kafka's world has its roots in the fact that what is great, new, and liberating here manifests itself as atonement, in cases where the past has not seen through itself, confessed, and been finished with. This is why Willy Haas was fully justified in decoding the unadmitted guilt that the trial of Joseph K. conjures up: it is guilt over forgetting. Kafka's writing is simply full of configurations of forgetting-of silent pleas to recall things to mind. And this holds good whether we think of "Die Sorge des Hausvaters" [The Cares of a Family Man]-of that strange talking spool called Odradek, whom no one can classify; or of the dung beetle, the hero of "Die Verwandlung," whom we know all too well to have been a human being; or of the "Kreuzung" [Crossbreed], the animal that is half-kitten, half-lamb, and for which the butcher's knife might well come as salvation.

If to my garden I go

To water flowers among the trees,

A little hunchback's standing there

And he begins to sneeze.

These lines come from a mysterious folk song." The little hunchback, too, is something that has been forgotten, something we once used to know; he was then at peace with himself, but now he blocks our way to the future. It is highly revealing that Kafka was able to recognize (though unable to create) the figure of a supremely religious man, a man who is in the right. And where did he find him? In none other than Sancho Panza, who has freed himself from a promiscuous relationship with his demon by directing the demon toward another object than himself, so that he might pursue a peaceful life in which he has no need to forget anything. As Kafka's brief but magnificent interpretation expresses it: "Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of the years, by feeding him with a great quantity of romances of chivalry and adventure during the evening and night hours, in diverting from himself his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote. This demon knew no restraint in carrying out the maddest exploits-which, however, for lack of a preordained object (one that should have been Sancho Panza himself), did no one any harm. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps from a certain feeling of responsibil- ity, and derived great and useful entertainment from them to the end of his days."

If the author's large-scale novels are the well-tended fields that he has bequeathed to us, the new volume of stories from which this interpretation has been taken is the sower's bag that is filled with seeds-ones which have the strength of the natural seeds that sprout from graves even after millennia, and that we know will still bear fruit.


Radio talk broadcast July 1931. “Gesammelte Schriften”, II, 676-683. Translated by Rodney Livingstone.


1.         “Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer” (The Great Wall of China) is a posthumouscollection of Kafka's short fiction edited by his friend Max Brod and published in 1931.

2.         Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826), German journalist and author, was much esteemed for his use of dialect in his writings. As editor and chief writer for the Badischer Landkalendar, an annual publication not unlike the American Old Farmer's Almanac, he produced an enormous volume of poetry and prose.

Robert Walser (1878-1956), Swiss poet, novelist, and short-story writer, was revered by Benjamin for his mastery of the brief impressionistic sketch. See Benjamin's essay "Robert Walser" (1929), in this volume.

3.         Willy Haas, Gestalten der Zeit (Berlin: Kiepenheuer, 1930), p. 176. See also Benjamin's review of Haas (titled "Theological Criticism") in this volume.

4.         The source is Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Munich: Winkler, 1966), pp. 824-825.



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