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Monday, 10 December 2012

Franz Kafka: The Warden of the Tomb


Untitled: photo by Lanzun varies varies vague (), 12 September 2012

PRINCE: The Warden of the tomb!
...(Servant leads in the Warden, holding him tight around the waist to prevent him from collapsing. Ancient red livery hanging loosely about Warden, brightly polished silver buttons, several decorations. Cap in hand, he trembles under the gentlemen's gaze.)
PRINCE: Put him on the divan!
...(Servant lays him down and goes off. Pause. A faint rattling in Warden's throat.)
PRINCE (again in armchair): Can you hear?
WARDEN (tries to answer but fails, is too exhausted, sinks back again).
PRINCE: Try to pull yourself together. We're waiting.
CHAMBERLAIN: (leaning over Prince): What could this man give information about? And credible and important information at that? He ought to be taken straight to bed.
WARDEN: Not to bed -- still strong -- fairly -- can still hold my end up.
PRINCE: So you should. You've only just turned sixty. Granted, you look very weak.
WARDEN: I'll pick up in no time -- feel better in a minute.
PRINCE: It wasn't meant as a reproach. I'm only sorry you aren't feeling well. Have you anything to complain about?
WARDEN: Hard work -- hard work -- not complaining -- but very weak -- wrestling bouts every night.
PRINCE: What d'you say?
WARDEN: Hard work.
PRINCE: You said something else.
WARDEN: Wrestling bouts.
PRINCE: Wrestling bouts? What kind of wrestling bouts?
WARDEN: With the blessed ancestors.
PRINCE: I don't understand. D'you have bad dreams?
WARDEN: No dreams -- don't sleep.
PRINCE: Then let's hear about these -- these wrestling bouts.
WARDEN (remains silent).
PRINCE (to Chamberlain): Why doesn't he speak?
CHAMBERLAIN (hurrying to Warden): He may die any minute.
PRINCE (stands up).
WARDEN (as Chamberlain touches him): Don't, don't, don't!
...(Fights off Chamberlain's hands, then collapses in tears.)
PRINCE: We're tormenting him.
PRINCE: I don't know.
CHAMBERLAIN: Coming to the castle, having to present himself here, the sight of your Highness, this questioning -- he no longer has the wits to face all this.
PRINCE (still staring at the Warden): That's not it. (Goes to divan, bends over Warden, takes his little skull in his hands.) Mustn't cry. What are you crying for? We wish you well. I realize your job isn't easy. You've certainly deserved well of my family. So stop crying and tell us all about it.
WARDEN: But I'm so afraid of that gentleman there ----- (Looks at Chamberlain, more threatening, then afraid.)
PRINCE (to Chamberlain): If we want him to talk I'm afraid you'll have to leave.
CHAMBERLAIN: But look, your Highness, he's foaming at the mouth. He's seriously ill.
PRINCE (absent-mindedly): Please go, it won't take long.
...Exit Chamberlain.
...Prince sits on edge of divan.
PRINCE: Why were you afraid of him?
WARDEN (surprisingly composed): I wasn't afraid. Me afraid of a servant?
PRINCE: He's not a servant. He's a Count, free and rich.
WARDEN: A servant all the same, you are master.
WARDEN: I didn't want to say things in front of him which are meant only for you. Haven't I already said too much in front of him?
PRINCE: So you're on terms of intimacy, and yet today is the first time I've seen you.
WARDEN: Seen for the first time, but you've always known that I (raising his forefinger) hold the most important position in the Court. You even acknowledged it publicly by awarding me the medal "Red-as-Fire." Here! (Holds up the medal on his coat.)
PRINCE: No, that's the medal for twenty-five years' service at Court. My grandfather gave you that. But I'll decorate you, too.
WARDEN: Do as you please and grant me whatever you think I deserve. I've acted as your tomb Warden for thirty years.
PRINCE: Not mine. My reign has lasted hardly a year.
WARDEN (lost in thought): Thirty years.
WARDEN (remembering only half of the Prince's remark): Nights last years there.
PRINCE: I haven't yet had a report from your office. What's the work like?
WARDEN: Every night the same. Every night till the heart beats as if it were about to burst.
PRINCE: Is it only night duty, then? Night duty for an old man like you?
WARDEN: That's just it, your Highness. It's day duty. A loafer's job. There one sits, at the front door, with one's mouth open in the sunshine. Sometimes the watchdog pats one on the knee with its paws, and then lies down again. That's all that ever happens.
WARDEN (nodding): But it has been changed to night duty.
PRINCE: By whom.
WARDEN: By the lords of the tomb.
PRINCE: You know them?
PRINCE: They come to see you?
PRINCE: Last night, too?
WARDEN: Last night, too.
PRINCE: What was it like?
WARDEN (sitting up straight): Same as usual.
...Prince stands up.
WARDEN: Same as usual. Quiet till midnight. I'm lying in bed -- excuse me -- smoking my pipe. My granddaughter is asleep in the next bed. At midnight comes the first knock at the window. I look at the clock. Always to the minute. Two more knocks, they mingle with the striking of the tower clock, but I can still hear them. Those are no human knuckles. But I know all that and don't budge. Then it clears its throat outside, it's surprised that in spite of all that knocking I haven't opened the window. Let his princely Highness be surprised! The old Warden is still here! (Shows his fist.)

PRINCE: You're threatening me?
WARDEN (doesn't immediately understand): Not you. The one at the window!
PRINCE: Who is it?
WARDEN: He shows himself at once. All of a sudden window and shutters are open. I just have time to throw the blanket over my granddaughter's face. The storm blows in, promptly puts the light out. Duke Friedrich! His face with beard and hair completely fills my poor window. How he has grown throughout the centuries! When he opens his mouth to speak the wind blows his old beard between his teeth and he bites on it.
PRINCE: Just a moment. You say Duke Friedrich? Which Friedrich?
WARDEN: Duke Friedrich, just Duke Friedrich.
PRINCE: Is that the name he gives?
WARDEN (anxiously): No, he doesn't give it.
PRINCE: And yet you know -- (breaking off) -- Go on!
WARDEN: Shall I go on?
PRINCE: Of course. All this very much concerns me. There must be an error in the distribution of labor. You're overworked.
WARDEN (kneeling): Don't take my job away, your Highness. Having lived for you all these years, let me also die for you! Don't wall up the grave I'm struggling toward. I serve willingly and am still strong enough to serve. To be granted an audience like today's, to take a rest with my master -- this gives me strength for ten years.
PRINCE (putting Warden back on divan): No one's going to take your job from you. How could I get along without your experience? But I'll appoint another Warden, then you'll become Head Warden.
WARDEN: Am I not good enough? Have I never let anyone pass?
PRINCE: Into the Friedrichspark?
WARDEN: No, out of the park. Who'd want to come in? If ever anyone stops at the railing I beckon to him from the window and he runs away. But out! Everyone wants to get out. After midnight you can see all the voices from the grave assembled around my house. I think it's only because they are so closely packed together that the whole lot of them don't burst through my narrow window. If it gets too bad, however, I grab the lantern from under my bed, swing it high, and with laughter and moaning these incredible creatures scatter in all directions. Then I can hear them rustling even in the farthest hush at the end of the park. But they soon gather again [. . .]

Franz Kafka: from The Warden of the Tomb (Der Gruftwächter), 1916-17, from Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1936, translated by Tania and James Stern in Description of a Struggle, 1958

Figure of a Guardian: Chinese Funerary Sculpture, 6th-7th centuries AD, Northern Qi (550-577) to Sui (581-618) dynasty. Lead-glazed ware: molded, brick-red earthenware with medium-green, lead-fluxed glaze; cold-painted pigments over localized unglazed areas; 64 x 19 x 15.5 cm (Department of Asian Art, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

File:British Museum tomb guardian.jpg
Stone tomb guardian, part human part jaguar, from San Agustin, Colombia, circa AD 300-600: photo by BabelStone, 21 August 2010 (British Museum)


Chinese tomb guardian: artist unknown, Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD): photo by Arne Kuilman, 16 July 2012 (Hong Kong Museum of Art)

File:Jarai tomb (guardian spirit sculpture).jpg
A headmast guardian spirit sculpture from a Jarai tomb in a small cemetery near Kon Tum, Central Highlands, Vietnam: photo by Rdavout (Renaud d'Avout d'Auerstaedt), 21 June 2008

A 7-Eleven in Chishang, Taitung County, Taiwan: photo by Mike841125, 3 August 2008

A warehouse or office park under construction, somewhere near Worms, Germany: photo by Ingolfson, December 2007




"Then I can hear them rustling even in the farthest hush at the end of the park. . . ." -- just over there perhaps.


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, edge of moon next to pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

conditions which are so may
be replaced, in which

field of motion corresponds
to line, i.e., system

silver of low sun reflected in channel,
sunlit green canyon of ridge across it

Hazen said...

‘But out! Everyone wants to get out.’ Apparently, even the dead can become dissatisfied, won’t stay put. Kafka takes another turn at liminal existence, where everything is in between, ever and always, and resolution unlikely. Great choice in those final two photos: what a grim, denatured world. That tomb-like 7-Eleven ostensibly in Taiwan could exist anywhere . . . which itself is another sort of nowhere-ness.

TC said...

"‘But out! Everyone wants to get out.’ Apparently, even the dead can become dissatisfied, won’t stay put. Kafka takes another turn at liminal existence, where everything is in between, ever and always, and resolution unlikely. Great choice in those final two photos: what a grim, denatured world. That tomb-like 7-Eleven ostensibly in Taiwan could exist anywhere . . . which itself is another sort of nowhere-ness."

This goes straight to the doubleness and hypnagogic strangeness of the piece, and exposes something of Kafka's unique method.

The Prince is the owner of the Friedrichspark and its tomb, a sort of mysterious Nowhere. "For my family this tomb represents the frontier between the Human and the Other and it is on this frontier that I wish to post a guard..."

You'd think the Prince would know what is going on in and about the property. Yet it seems to come as a surprise to him to learn that his warden, by now old and exhausted from the long ordeal, has been on duty all these years, guarding the family tomb. Furthermore, the warden reveals that he neither dreams nor sleeps but stays awake all night, involved in wrestling bouts with ghosts attempting to escape the tomb premises.

Kafka was habituated to writing in a state of sleep deprivation.

He wrote by night, as he said, "entirely in darkness, deep in my workshop". The sleep-deprived state seems to have worked as a kind of drug, enabling him to tap into otherwise inaccessible images and thoughts.

A diary note appears to confirm this: "Again it was the power of my dreams, shining forth into wakefulness even before I fall asleep, which did not let me sleep... I feel shaken to the core of my being and can get out of myself whatever I desire. It is a matter of ... mysterious powers..."

The warden guards a boundary between worlds, that of the living and that of the dead. A job that allows little rest for the weary.

The Prince's chamberlain describes this nocturnal work as "a real guarding of unreal things beyond the human sphere".

The further along we go these nights, the more it comes to seem that the unreal things are escaping from their carefully fenced-off nocturnal precincts and invading the daytime world, whose smug inhabitants almost seem not to have suspected that these ghostlike presences have been lurking there all along, biding their time, awaiting an opportunity to emerge...