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Friday, 8 April 2011

Franz Kafka: The Great Wall of China


The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

First, it has to be said that achievements were brought to fruition at that time which rank slightly behind the Tower of Babel, although in the pleasure they gave to God, at least by human reckoning, they made an impression exactly the opposite of that structure. I mention this because at the time construction was beginning a scholar wrote a book in which he drew this comparison very precisely. In it he tried to show that the Tower of Babel had failed to attain its goal not at all for the reasons commonly asserted, or at least that the most important causes were not among these well-known ones. He not only based his proofs on texts and reports, but also claimed to have carried out personal inspections of the location and thus to have found that the structure collapsed and had to collapse because of the weakness of its foundation. And it is true that in this respect our age was far superior to that one long ago. Almost every educated person in our age was a mason by profession and infallible when it came to the business of laying foundations. But it was not at all the scholar’s aim to prove this. Instead he claimed that the great wall alone would for the first time in the age of human beings create a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel. So first the wall and then the tower. In those days the book was in everyone’s hands, but I confess that even today I do not understand exactly how he imagined this tower. How could the wall, which never once took the form of a circle but only a sort of quarter or half circle, provide the foundation for a tower? But it could be meant only in a spiritual sense. But then why the wall, which was something real, a product of the efforts and lives of hundreds of thousands of people? And why were there plans in the book—admittedly hazy plans—sketching the tower, as well as detailed proposals about how the energies of the people could be strictly channelled into the new work in the future?

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel), detail: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; image by Quistnix! 2009)

There was a great deal of mental confusion at the time—this book is only one example—perhaps for the simple reason that so many people were trying as hard as they could to join together for a single purpose. Human nature, which is fundamentally careless and by nature like the whirling dust, endures no restraint. If it restricts itself, it will soon begin to shake the restraints madly and tear up walls, chains, and even itself in every direction.

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 fulfillments in a circle going in the opposite direction. But through the window the reflection of the divine worlds fell onto the hands of the leadership as they drew up the plans.

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel), detail: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; image by Marijn Streefkerk,2009)

And for this reason the incorruptible observer will reject the notion that if the leadership had seriously wanted a continuous construction of the wall, they would not have been able to overcome the difficulties standing in the way. So the only conclusion left is that the leadership deliberately chose piecemeal construction. But building in sections was something merely makeshift and impractical. So the conclusion remains that the leadership wanted something impractical. An odd conclusion! True enough, and yet from another perspective it had some inherent justification. Nowadays one can perhaps speak about it without danger. At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle: Try with all your powers to understand the orders of the leadership, but only up to a certain limit—then stop thinking about them. A very reasonable principle, which incidentally found an even wider interpretation in a later often repeated comparison: Stop further thinking, not because it could harm you—it is not at all certain that it will harm you. In this matter one cannot speak in general about harming or not harming. What will happen to you is like a river in spring. It rises, grows stronger, eats away more powerfully at the land along its banks, and still maintains its own course down to the sea and is more welcome as a fitter partner for the sea. Reflect upon the orders of the leadership as far as that. But then the river overflows its banks, loses its form and shape, slows down its forward movement, tries, contrary to its destiny, to form small seas inland, damages the fields, and yet cannot maintain its expansion long, but runs back within its banks, in fact, even dries up miserably in the hot time of year which follows. Do not reflect on the orders of the leadership to that extent.


The first turn of the Yangtze, at Shigu, Yunnan Province: photo by Jialiang Gao, 2003

Now, this comparison may perhaps have been extraordinarily apt during the construction of the wall, but it has at least only a limited relevance to my present report. For my investigation is merely historical. There is no lightning strike flashing any more from storm clouds which have long since vanished, and thus I may seek an explanation for the piecemeal construction which goes further than the one people were satisfied with back then. The limits which my ability to think sets for me are certainly narrow enough, but the region one would have to pass through here is endless.

Against whom was the great wall to provide protection? Against the people of the north. I come from south-east China. No northern people can threaten us there. We read about them in the books of the ancients. The atrocities which their nature prompts them to commit make us heave a sigh on our peaceful porches. In the faithfully accurate pictures of artists we see these faces of damnation, with their mouths flung open, the sharp pointed teeth stuck in their jaws, their straining eyes, which seem to be squinting for someone to seize, someone their jaws will crush and rip to pieces. When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms. But we know nothing else about these northern lands. We have never seen them, and if we remain in our village, we never will see them, even if they charge straight at us and hunt us on their wild horses. The land is so huge, it would not permit them to reach us, and they would lose themselves in the empty air.

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel), detail: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; image by Marijn Streefkerk, 2009)

So if things are like this, why do we leave our homeland, the river and bridges, our mothers and fathers, our crying wives, our children in need of education, and go away to school in the distant city, with our thoughts on the wall to the north, even further away? Why? Ask the leadership. They know us. As they mull over their immense concerns, they know about us, understand our small worries, see us all sitting together in our humble huts, and approve or disapprove of the prayer which the father of the house says in the evening in the circle of his family. And if I may be permitted such ideas about the leadership, then I must say that in my view the leadership existed even earlier. It did not come together like some high mandarins quickly summoned to a meeting by a beautiful dream of the future, something hastily concluded, a meeting which by evening saw to it that the general population was driven from their beds by a knocking on the door so that they could carry out the decision, even if it was only to set up a lantern in honour of a god who had shown favour to the masters the day before, so that he could thrash them in some dark corner the next day, when the lantern had only just died out. On the contrary, I imagine the leadership has existed since time immemorial, along with the decision to construct the wall as well. Innocent northern people believed they were the cause; the admirable and innocent emperor believed he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent. Even back then during the construction of the wall and afterwards, right up to the present day, I have devoted myself almost exclusively to the histories of different people. There are certain questions for which one can, to some extent, get to the heart of the matter only in this way. Using this method I have found that we Chinese possess certain popular and state institutions which are uniquely clear and, then again, others which are uniquely obscure. Tracking down the reasons for these, especially for the latter phenomena, always appealed to me, and still does, and the construction of the wall is fundamentally concerned with these issues.

Now, among our most obscure institutions one can certainly include the empire itself. Of course, in Peking, right in the court, there is some clarity about it, although even this is more apparent than real. And the teachers of constitutional law and history in the high schools give out that they are precisely informed about these things and that they are able to pass this knowledge on to their students. The deeper one descends into the lower schools, the more the doubts about the students’ own knowledge understandably disappear, and a superficial education surges up as high as a mountain around a few precepts drilled into them for centuries, sayings which, in fact, have lost nothing of their eternal truth, but which remain also eternally unrecognized in this mist and fog.

Afternoon light on the gorge of the Yangzi River, Yunnan Province
: photo by Peter Morgan, 2005

But, in my view, it’s precisely the empire we should be asking the people about, because in them the empire has its final support. It’s true that in this matter I can speak once again only about my own homeland. Other than the agricultural deities and the service to them, which so beautifully and variously fills up the entire year, our thinking concerns itself only with the emperor. But not with the present emperor. We would have concerned ourselves with the present one if we had recognized who he was or had known anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying—and it’s the single curiosity which consumed us—to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was hardly possible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from the close or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. Of course, we heard a great deal, but could gather nothing from the many details.

Our land is so huge, that no fairy tale can adequately deal with its size. Heaven hardly covers it all. And Peking is only a point, the imperial palace only a tiny dot. It’s true that, by contrast, throughout all the different levels of the world the emperor, as emperor, is great. But the living emperor, a human being like us, lies on a peaceful bed, just as we do. It is, no doubt, of ample proportions, but it could be merely narrow and short. Like us, he sometimes stretches out his limbs and, if he is very tired, yawns with his delicately delineated mouth. But how are we to know about that thousands of miles to the south, where we almost border on the Tibetan highlands? Besides, any report which might come, even if it reached us, would get there much too late and would be long out of date. Around the emperor the glittering and yet murky court throngs—malice and enmity clothed as servants and friends, the counterbalance to the imperial power, with their poisoned arrows always trying to shoot the emperor down from his side of the balance scales. The empire is immortal, but the individual emperor falls and collapses. Even entire dynasties finally sink down and breathe their one last death rattle. The people will never know anything about these struggles and suffering. Like those who have come too late, like strangers to the city, they stand at the end of the thickly populated side alleyways, quietly living off the provisions they have brought with them, while far off in the market place right in the middle foreground the execution of their master is taking place.

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel), detail: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; image from Rose Marie & Rainer Hagen, Pieter Bruegel, 1999))

There is a legend which expresses this relationship well. The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald 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 have come to witness his death—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 dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into 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 marvelous 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 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, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes.

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; image by Quistnix! 2009)

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...


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 Schloss 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.

......Walter Benjamin:
Franz Kafka: Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China), radio talk broadcast July 1931, translated by Rodney Livingstone in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934, 1999

Zeno of Elea's Racecourse Paradox: Suppose a runner needs to travel from a start S to a finish F. To do this he must first travel to the midpoint, M, and thence to F: but if N is the midpoint of SM, he must first travel to N, and so on ad infinitum (Zeno: ‘what has been said once can always be repeated’). But it is impossible to accomplish an infinite number of tasks in a finite time. Therefore the runner cannot complete (or start) his journey.

Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Franz Kafka: The Great Wall of China (Beim bau der Chinesischen Mauer), 1917, posthumously published, 1931 (excerpt); translated by Ian Johnston, 2009


TC said...

To paraphrase the line from the loony surfing colonel in that Apocalypse movie from the Twenties -- or was it the Sixties? -- there is nothing I love so much as the smell of a pristine post in the morning.

And while we're on nothing... nothing, probably, will ever account for the full structure of intention behind the obviously exorbitant expenditure of time and trouble on this one; though late on, in the after-hours, there did arrive a dim inkling of a sort of a motive, or pseudo-motive; having to do with the idea that in striking upon this plot, the futile repetitive circular orbiting of an ultimate impossibility -- a sort of periplus in which the navigator is perpetually blinded by dry tears and so does not notice the futility of the endeavour -- Kafka was not only establishing the major narrative arc of his final great, larger works to come, but also anticipating the forms of life and consciousness of a future century, that is, ours, in which there has come ample proof of the truth of his perception that to attempt to escape a closed system is doomed to failure from the first moment anyone opens her or his mouth to speak a word.

aditya said...

'nothing, probably, will ever account for the full structure of intention behind the obviously exorbitant expenditure of time and trouble on this one'

Your annotation nails the question, Tom. But what is the question? I keep forgetting. Also your commentary on the man himself (not specifically how or why he wrote but the human being he was); through a series of posts (The Bachelor's Ill Luck The Wish to be a Red Indian and the others) is very touching and insightful.

The intentions behind this one.. Kafka created stories out of the tiniest of plots. They all had an (irrelevant) precision which encompassed the whole. He invisibly impregnates the story with an enigmatic, initially imperceptible, oblique mystery then blatantly gifts it all to the anxious reader buying him into believing the definitive presence of a methodical plot.

There is very little one can do to to doubt the narrator's imperceptibly deceiving motives in The Great Wall of China; esp. when there has been woven such a strangely perfect web of 'conceptions' - most of them are 'born out a social unanimity' or are 'universally proclaimed' -a universe or a society the reader plunges always in media res and the author manipulates at will.

For one Kafka writes in this story-

After all the wall was intended, as was universally proclaimed and known, to be a protection against the peoples of north.

with a universal proclamation at stake, why would anybody question the statement and its possible evolution. Two pages turn and Kafka questions the verity of the very statement denying it altogether! leaving the reader bemused perplexed & not to mention befooled by the sting in the tale which should only flourish further.

There are chunks missing. You don't know about them and then when you do realize they have been missing certain pieces appear out of nothing but now you don't know if they are the ones you had been waiting for. But they have already arrived. Haven't they?

The narrator wont utter that one elusive word the reader's been waiting for.

You spend the evening leaning onto a table looking outside the window at the children playing in the public park. And then somebody walks in holding the trestles to the very table. You can tell it by the particular polished timber limbs- you always had them under the top. But before you can bend to take a look ..

ps- Sorry for the long ad-lib ramble but i had been thinking about him lately.