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Kafka Before The Law Essay Competitions

Reaching for the Axe: Kafka and the Language of Power

Natalie Lam

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“Kafka makes novelists nervous,” (33) writes the celebrated novelist Zadie Smith. As if looking over her shoulder, Smith notes that “either [Kafka] is too good for the novel or the novel is not quite good enough for him—whichever it is, his imitators are very few” (33). Smith’s uneasiness, her sense, however understated, that Kafka does not quite fit within conventional literary boundaries, reflects a critical discomfort felt not only by Kafka’s professional peers but the writer himself during his lifetime. In his own diary, Kafka lamented “the dependency of writing” on the everyday, the “helpless” nature of his work (Tagebücher 551).1 Yet Kafka continued to write, producing literature of a sort—a literature by nature a-literary, a literature that contained within itself its own undoing. Conventional novelists have a right to be nervous.

In his early career, Kafka wrote that literature was meant to convey to the reader a truth so demanding that its mode of transmission was necessarily violent: books were to be “the axe that destroyed the frozen sea within us” (Briefe).2 This statement evidences literary idealism of a sort, assuming first that literature is capable of communication at all, and also that this communication may transcend limitations of space, time, and culture. A common view of literature would append to this manifesto the idea of universal and accessible communication, transmitted from author to reader without struggle. However, Kafka effectively denies this last assumption through his choice of metaphor. The figure of the axe suggests not peace but a sword: Kafka’s message brings paradox and struggle, rather than literary gospel. It is a violent transmission with the power to unsettle and alienate. Kafka’s writing does not settle easily with the reader any more than it did with the author.

Other literary works “assume at least some kind of rational relationship between the individual and the world” (Smith 33). Kafka is different. Though novelistic in form, Kafka’s Trial features multi-level chaos—the inherent confusion of surface-level events, the lack of traditional plot structure, the apparent madness of its conclusion—that suggests that Kafka’s version of the individual-world relationship is either wildly irrational, or possibly non-existent. The casual reader does not understand. Persistently frustrated in his search for a rational explanation of his arrest, the protagonist K. effectively learns that he cannot understand. Thrown into contact with a host of minor characters and events, he does not even know where to fix his attention in order to gain understanding. Kafka himself declares that writing is “a joke and a despair” (Tagebücher 551). How, then, is one to extract the truth from a work that turns its own insides out in a search for meaning and apparently ends with none?

Meaning, in Kafka’s works, cannot be assumed or positively defined. Viewed through the typical literary paradigm of rational relationships between character and surroundings, with its supposed intent of making truth more accessible to the reader—viewed through these expectations, The Trial is essentially meaningless, a world in which the Law perverts rather than represents assumptions of order. In the Penal Colony is not only meaningless, but ghastly: a world in which communication, in the form of a sentence, is literally etched into condemned men’s bodies. Care, of course, is taken to “keep the inscription clear” (Penal Colony 147). Kafka’s works fail to fit the conventional mold, which associates literature with communication, law with justice, words with meaning. If such a mold even exists, Kafka dismantles and inverts it, leaving behind a great uneasiness, a sense of displacement: a central disquiet.

True to this disquiet, the worlds of The Trial and Penal Colony are bureaucracies notable for their perplexing limits, their mindless adherence to process. Events do not yield increasing meaning, either within or without the stories. Instead, events and supporting characters proceed inscrutably, yet with self-assurance; it is as if the laws of these worlds are apparent to every inhabitant except the protagonist. At the moment of his arrest, K. becomes suddenly aware of a hidden bureaucracy, complete with tiers of magistrates, judges, and a high court. His subsequent search for understanding constantly encounters limitations, complex rules and procedures by which everyone abides, but no one can explain. When asked, the man who initially appears in his room to arrest him answers only, “We are not authorized to tell you that. [. . .] Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course” (Trial 3). K.’s search, which concludes only with his violent death, does not shed light on the source of authority that legitimizes his arrest, that authorizes and un-authorizes others. Even the High Court, with its “Judge whom he had never seen” (Trial 228), remains hidden from K. The Law, which typically signifies an individual’s acceptance and comprehension of authority, remains a perpetual mystery.

In The Trial, the concept of law no longer possesses its traditional associations with truth, justice, and political participation. The Judge, in his removal from K.’s situation, fails to judge, whether justly or unjustly. The legal process does not condemn or acquit but, instead, gradually erases the accused. In his growing bewilderment, K the everyman is relocated from his familiar surroundings into a strange new world. It is possible to attribute this displacement to a corresponding shift in language: Thomas Kavanaugh employs the language of semiotics, the construction of signs, to make sense of K.’s apparently nonsensical universe. The Trial, Kavanaugh argues, demonstrates a change in the “codes,” or constructions of reality, that human beings use to create and convey meaning. K.’s arrest marks the beginning of a long string of “discordant messages” (Kavanaugh 245)—that is, events and statements that contradict and challenge the reality with which K. is familiar. Because he cannot interpret the workings of the world according to his usual “code,” K. is reduced to unsuccessful attempts at bare understanding:

[his] goal is no longer that of expression and manipulation, but that of simple comprehension. The adventure of Joseph K. is an adventure of the mind, the adventure of a semiologist in spite of himself. It is the hope of penetrating the code, of restoring order and meaning to his disintegrating world that most characterizes Kafkaesque man. (245)

According to Kavanaugh, The Trial is deceptive, failing to yield the message both K. and the reader expect. The never-ending search for message in the codes, the attempt to interpret this world where no words mean what they meant yesterday, is only “an act of language founded upon an absence, an irretrievable alienation from all meaning” (253). The message is only mirage. A trial does not guarantee justice, not as K. understands it. Words literally fail here, no longer expressing their expected meanings; they signify not truth but a void, a space of total silence.

This silence is more literally enacted in Kafka’s Penal Colony: in this short story, the condemned likewise do not receive notice from the sentencing authority. Instead, the sentence is engraved mechanically on their bodies using a needled machine known as “The Harrow” (Penal Colony 144). Like Joseph K., the condemned have “had no chance of putting up a defence” (Penal Colony 145), and their self-proclaimed judge, the new Commandant, is absent from the scene of punishment. But whereas Joseph K. is subsumed in der Prozess, the condemned of Kafka’s Penal Colony bear witness to its logical end, distinguishing the story from The Trial, yet making it a strangely fitting companion piece. In its isolation, the penal colony is a spatial depiction of K.’s internal displacement. Over the colony hangs the sense that words have failed; there is no need anymore for language, too reminiscent of ordered relationships between a term and the entity it actually represents. At the climax of the tale, when the officer in charge of operating The Harrow climbs beneath it himself, having assigned himself the sentence “Be Just,” his action is met with total silence. Neither the formerly condemned man nor the explorer utters a word to stop him, and in the operation of the deadly machine “everything was quiet, not even the slightest hum could be heard” (Penal Colony 164).

Writing is, as Kafka wrote, helpless, dependent (Tagebücher 551). Although Kafka’s work depends on language as its means of transmission, it inverts and shatters the relationships—between an object and its descriptor—for which language is typically used. Kafka was keenly aware that language depends upon allusion “for anything outside the sensory world” (Kafka, qtd. Language 375), yet readers perpetually encounter non-sensory, abstract ideas in Kafka’s writing. Are these merely the appearance of ideas? Is Kafka’s use of language, as Kavanaugh claims, simply a front for the absence of all meaning? While works such as The Trial and Penal Colony certainly subvert traditional meanings of words such as “law” and “guilt,” this does not preclude the substitution of different meanings altogether. In these works, Kafka’s language belongs to a different universe of meaning and naming, the extra-sensory: it is as if these meanings exist in a hidden space, behind the typical associations of certain language with certain concepts. Kafka’s language is that of the void, of the loss of all sensory-dependent meaning in favor of “a very special, non-referential, merely allusive language . . . a means by which human beings may receive an inkling of the invisible, true world” (Language and Truth 375).

Where is this invisible and true world in Kafka’s work? It lies underneath the world of surface-level events and logical expectations, in strange utterances and parables. In The Trial, K.’s constant struggle to understand his arrest does not bring enlightenment, as might be expected; instead, the clearest picture of K.’s situation comes from a short parable near the end of the work, delivered to him by seeming accident. As he waits in an almost-deserted cathedral for a guest who never arrives, K. is summoned to the altar by a strange priest who narrates the parable of a man from the country seeking entrance to the gate of the Law, an ambiguous and powerful force. However, the doorkeeper of the gate prevents the man from entering; and so he gives up his material goods as bribes, his remaining years as proof of his sincerity. As he is dying, withered, and blind, he asks the doorkeeper why no one but himself has ever sought the Law, and the doorkeeper answers that the gate of the Law was once created solely for him, but now it will be shut. Thus the tale ends, and the priest proceeds to relate several contradictory interpretations of its meaning. “Before the Law,” while bewildering in itself, clearly applies to K., who is essentially in the same position as the country dweller: he seeks entrance to the courts of the Law in order to understand his arrest, but cannot gain admittance. No amount of time or effort avails him. Like the country dweller, K. is effectively paralyzed “before the Law,” unable either to enter into its mysteries or to exit its sphere of influence.

This paralyzing paradox, this invisible no-place created between entry and exit, is addressed by philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his work Homo Sacer.Here, Agamben explores the concept of the sovereign exception (13), wherein the sovereign power is both included in the law as law-giver and excluded from it as an individual not subject to the law’s authority. This simultaneous inclusion and exclusion can be framed in terms of potentiality, which “maintains itself in relation to actuality in the form of its suspension; it is capable of the act in not realising it, it is sovereignly capable of its own im-potentiality” (Agamben 32). In the same sense, it is possible to be included in the law through one’s own exclusion, exclusion which acts as suspension. Thus Agamben’s reading of Kafka’s parable, by arguing that in it “law affirms itself with the greatest force precisely at the point in which it no longer prescribes anything” (35), applies these terms of inclusion and exclusion to the sovereignty of the Law. It does not make positive demands, yet its authority is compelling—a law “in force without significance” (36).

The Law makes no demands upon the country dweller who attempts to enter its gate, yet for the rest of his life he never leaves the gate from which it exercises this negative power over him. He cannot enter (be included), and is thus excluded from the law. However, in his exclusion, he takes on a relation to the law and is thus included (one might say “entrapped”) in the law. He is the inverse of the sovereign authority, who is included in the law as the source of authority, yet not bound by the law—ultimately, excluded (one might say “freed”) from the law. Later in his work, Agamben discusses this concept of the homo sacer, an individual who is the sovereign’s symmetric opposite. Originating from a facet of Roman law, which states that this man may be “killed, but not sacrificed” (60), the homo sacer is literally “sacred”: he is not “holy” in the traditional sense, but actually a man “set apart,” the sovereign’s counterpart in no-place. Where the sovereign is excluded from the law in order to be above it, the homo sacer is outside the law so that he may be killed. This is an expression of bare life: as Agamben argues, “the first foundation of political life is a life that may be killed, which is politicized through its very capacity to be killed” (59). Therefore, because the homo sacer is outside the law and can be killed, he cannot be sacrificed from within the law. The law does not include him, though it is the law that allows any man to kill him; and thus, in a sense, he is still under the law. This paradigm fits the parable of the country dweller, who is not included in the law and must die outside it, unable to leave its sphere of influence yet unable to enter.

It is not difficult to extrapolate this concept of homo sacer to Kafka’s larger works outside the parable. In its immediate context, “Before the Law” clearly reflects K.’s own story: though K. is left free to move about in the physical sense, his greater being is paralysed in no-place by a law which apparently demands nothing from him, yet which does not let him go. Like the country dweller—which is to say, like the homo sacer—K. is not included in the Law, and the Law asks nothing of him. It only accuses, and that accusation remains “in force without significance” (Agamben 36) with all the force of the door of the Law figured in the parable. The initial accusation draws K. into the Law’s sphere of influence, the no-place of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. The Law holds the sovereign position here, and the unseen Judge is inaccessible through the Law, placing him both inside and outside it. In relation to the sovereign authority, K. plays the role of homo sacer, the man whose position cannot be resolved from within the law, who may be killed outside it but not sacrificed.

Kafka’s Penal Colony, by contrast, locates the homo sacer in his proper sphere: the camp. Unlike The Trial, which centers on K. as the figure subject to yet not partaking in sovereign authority, Penal Colony reveals the space for this state of inclusion and exclusion, rather than focusing on the homo sacer figure itself. Here, the everyman observer is not the figure of homo sacer. Although the explorer who witnesses the executions is simultaneously included and excluded from the actual proceedings as “neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged” (151), he ultimately escapes the colony’s confines and does not suffer under its “sovereign” authorities. Instead, those who suffer are the colony’s inhabitants. The colony itself serves as the space of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, the camp as according to Agamben: the “structure in which the state of exception—the possibility of deciding on which founds sovereign power—is realized normally” (Agamben 109). In other words, this is a place where power has no limit, in which potentiality (the unlimited “possibility of deciding”) is made concrete.

Inhabitants of the camp represent politicized bare life, a crowd of homines sacri who may be killed outside the law but not sacrificed within it. They are excluded from the sphere of law and legal recourse, yet the marks of the law on their bodies denote their subjection to its sovereign authority. This is a subjection stripped of all logic, even the potential justification of language. As the officer states, there is no reason to verbally deliver sentences to a condemned man, for “he’ll learn it on his body” (Penal Colony 145). The sentence in question? “Honor Thy Superiors” (Penal Colony 144). This is bare life, the body deprived even of communication—for rational communication assigns communally rather than individually mediated meanings to concepts of law and power—and its flesh subjected to the dictates of power.

In the penal colony, not even the semblance of judicial process remains, and the disturbed explorer “had to remind himself that this was . . . a penal colony where extraordinary measures were needed” (Penal Colony 146). Such “extraordinary measures” mark a transition away from a communally understood law into the arbitrary actions of the individual in power, actions which the exercise of power effectively legitimizes as law. In Agamben’s camp, this transition perpetually recurs, until law no longer signifies itself, simply the sovereign action; and the sovereign action signifies law. This transition, in itself a loss of meaning, marks the camp as the “threshold in which law constantly passes over into fact, and fact into law, and in which the two planes become indistinguishable” (Agamben 110). In short, this is the place of no-place, an “invisible, true” world (Language and Truth 375), the source and container of the central disquiet.

And thus the shifting of the codes, the subversion of language, does open up into nothingness, a hidden interplay between life and law and power. However, this is no deceptive mirage. As Walter Sokel argues, Kafka’s perception of the “debasement of language [i.e., its dependence on the sensory and forced allusive quality in speaking of the non-sensory] . . . allows a substantial elevation of the status of literature” (Language and Truth 375). Through his work, Kafka sought to convey a message that defies and destroys the means of its own transmission: a message that is by nature a-literary. Unlike typical literature, which wisely serves to convey only manageable truths of which its conventions are capable, Kafka’s work enacts the incommunicability of certain truths—in The Trial and In thePenal Colony, truths about the nature of law and power—by insisting on their communication. These are truths of the no-space, hardly nameable in ordinary language, hardly comfortable. Kafka’s axe, a precise and unsettling communication from the “enormous world” in his head (Tagebücher 306), does shatter and startle the frozen sea within. It shakes and disquiets the reader’s expectations, associations, and very world. This is what enables Kafka to claim, beyond adherence to language or convention, “I am literature,” and Zadie Smith to respond with entirely appropriate consternation, “Bloody hell” (3).


1.             In quoting Kafka’s diaries, I have used the translations given by Walter Sokel in his article “Language and Truth in the Two Worlds of Franz Kafka.” (The German Quarterly, 1979: 364–84), as Sokel’s choice of words is relevant to the argument presented. To preserve the original references, page numbers have been given from Kafka’s “Tagebücher.”

2.             Translation quoted from Walter Sokel’s essay, “Frozen Sea and River of Narration” (New Literary History, Vol. 17.2, 351–363). Sokel’s emphasis on Kafka’s ideal literature as transcendent and communicative provides a foundation for discussion about the medium and goal of communication in Kafka’s Trial.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Kafka, Franz. Briefe, 1902–1924. Ed. Max Brod. New York: Schocken Books, 1958.

—. “In the Penal Colony.” Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum Glazer. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.

—.Tagebücher, 1910–1923. Ed. Max Brod. New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

—. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

Kavanaugh, Thomas M. “Kafka’s ‘The Trial’: The Semiotics of the Absurd.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 5 (1972): 242–253.

Smith, Zadie. “The Limited Circle Is Pure: Franz Kafka Versus the Novel.” The New Republic (Nov. 2003): 33–40.

Sokel, Walter. “Frozen Sea and River of Narration: The Poetics Behind Kafka’s ‘Breakthrough.’” New Literary History 17 (1986): 351–363.

—. “Language and Truth in the Two Worlds of Franz Kafka.” The German Quarterly 52.3 (1979): 364–84. Web.

James R. Elkins

Kafka's "Before the Law"


BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness, he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

 A Reading of Kafka's "Before the Law"[audio; 2:57 mins.] [an alternative reading of "Before the Law" :: 5:09 mins.]

 The parable leaves me with questions ringing in my ear; I imagine them (coming from you and from me) as they cascade forth:

what is this? why are we reading this parable? no reason to beat around the bush, get to the point: is there some purpose in reading this? what am I supposed to do with this?

another cut at it: what can I carry with me from this reading of “Before the Law”? is there something I need to learn about literary reading by working with this parable?

off stage (right): who is Kafka? why does he write this way? if he wants this story (parable) to mean something why doesn’t he just tell us what it means?

off stage (left): what is The Law? is this supposed to be a “symbol” or something? a “symbol” of what? why are literary folks always so enamored with symbols?

The curtain slowly begins to descend on our little parable, and still the questions tumble forth:

what is a parable? how does one of these things work? (I suspect you knew a thing or two about parables before you read this one. Ah, caught you.)

what, if anything, do you want to say about Kafka’s little parable? (and why say anything? isn’t “reading” it enough?)

does it matter (and how) in your reading of the Kafka parable that you happen to be a law student?

Reputedly, "[o]ne of Kafka's favourite pieces was a short parable, entitled 'Before the Law,' which was printed no less than three times: in the almanac Vom Jungsten Tag, in the Jewish weekly Selbstwehr, and in the ninth chapter of The Trial. Critics, including Kafka himself, have ever since busied themselves with making sense of this paradoxical story." Franz Kuna, Kafka: Literature as Corrective Punishment 132 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974).

How is one to make sense of Kafka's parable, "Before the Law"? Joyce Carol Oates, in her foreword to an edition of Kafka's "complete stories and parables" contends that "Franz Kafka's stories and parables are not at all difficult to read and to understand. (To explain�that is another matter�and a peripheral one.) In fact, one might claim that alone among the greatest of twentieth-century writers Kafka is immediately accessible. His unique yet powerfully familiar world can be entered by any reader and comprehended feelingly at once, regardless of background or literary training." [Joyce Carol Oates, "Kafka as Storyteller," in


 �and he may or may not be� "People prefer stories neat. Recognizable characters, familiar motives, and recurring scenarios of conflict and resolution are typical elements of our workaday narrative world." [Richard K. Sherwin, Law Frames: Historical Truth and Narrative Necessity in a Criminal Case, 47 Stan. L. Rev. 39, 40 (1994)] [Sherwin goes on to note: "Forces beyond our reckoning and control�forces like chance, fate, or even illusion�seem to have no place in the legal system. For how could we judge in a universe that does not recognize human agency? What could judgment mean in a world without motivation and intentionality, in a world where things just happen? Without order and certainty about the past (historical truth) and the present (narrative necessity) there is no place for us. Fear of human obsolescence and chaos may thus make even the lie a haven." Id. at 80.]["Lawyers and legal scholars can learn to assess more candidly their own and others' meaning making habits. This includes evaluating omissions, inconsistencies, and plotlines that flow from deep (usually hidden) beliefs and assumptions about what truth and justice are and how they operate in the world. These beliefs in turn often stem from subconsciously assimilated story forms, myths, and popular images. If this is so, we need to recognize and assess the effect of these ingrained preferences on how we tell stories as well as on how we hear them, being particularly alert to the exploitation of instinctive preferences for narrative techniques like causal linearity, story closure, and tantalizing scripts and stereotypes." Id. at 81-82]


 One way of reading Kafka's parable, "Before the Law," not at all uncommon among lay readers is to be told by a reader something like this: The parable doesn't really make any sense

We might use the following commentary by James Hillman on Plato's commentary on the goddess Ananke, or Necessity, as a counter-reading of Kafka's parable:

Plato put[s] [necessity] right in the middle of his myth: Necessity, she who turns the spindle on which are wound the threads of our lives.

Remember the tale: The goddess Ananke, or Necessity, sits on her throne amid the Fates, her daughters, companions, and aides. But it is she, Ananke, who establishes what the soul has selected for its lot to be necessary�not an accident, not good or bad, not foreknown or guaranteed, simply necessary. What we live is necessary to be lived. Necessary to whom? To what? To her, Goddess Necessity. Necessary because necessary? Hardly an answer. We have to speculate.

Who and what is Ananke? First, she is extremely potent among the powers of the cosmos. Plato cites only two great cosmic forces: Reason (nous or mind) and Necessity (ananke).” Reason accounts for what we can understand, for what follows reason's laws and patterns. Necessity operates as a "variable"� sometimes translated as “erratic,” “errant,” or “wandering”—cause.

When something doesn't fit, seems odd or strange, breaks the usual pattern, then more likely Necessity has a hand in it. Though she determines the lot you live, her ways of influencing are irrational. That is why it is so difficult to understand life, even one's own life. Your soul's lot comes from the irrational principle. The law it follows is Necessity, which wanders erratically. Little wonder that we readers are drawn to biographies and autobiographies, for they offer glimpses of how irrational Necessity works in a human life. Although Necessity's rule is absolute and irreversible, this determinism is indeterminate. Unpredictable.

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling 208-209 (New York: Random House, 1996) How does a reader get beyond mere reading, recording of words, naming of characters, ascertaining the plot? Thomas C. Oden, writing about Kierkegaard's parables asks, perhaps rhetorically, whether Kierkegaard's parables are "mere entertainment, revealing the comic side of human pretenses" or perhaps, they are "subtle poetry, with virtually inexhaustible levels of meaning?" [Thomas C. Oden, “Introduction,” to Thomas C. Oden (ed.), Parables of Kierkegaard vii-xviii, at ix. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978)] Oden goes on to note, that in reading Kierkegaard's parables, readers are, "in a sense taken unawares into potentially new levels of insight when they identify vicariously first with the character who poses the dilemma and then with the developing circumstances of the plot that metaphorically bestows some unexpected angle of vision on the dilemma. So the readers often do not quite grasp what has hit them in this fantasized situation until they move more deeply into the self-examination that the parable elicits and requires. Thus, it should be remembered that, however witty these stories may be, Kierkegaard's purpose was not simply to amuse, but to edify . . . to draw his readers into self-awareness, to sensitize moral and spiritual consciousness to the task and gift of authentic human existence." Id. at xii.

footnote: Edify. Not a word I use every day, but one I remember from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1974)(a book that, left to my own whims, would be required reading in law school). In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig talks about edification as one of the goals he has in mind for his mini-lectures on philosophy, little lectures he identifies with the talks one might have heard on the old-time Chautauqua circuit. Here's the way Pirsig puts it:

What is in mind [for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] is a sort of Chautauqua�that's the only name I can think of for it�like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and its seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. . . . Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for." [pp. 15-16] [Later in the narrative, Pirsig comments on his "series of lecture-essays"a "sort of Chautauqua"that he finds has turned out to be "so hugh and difficult. Like trying to travel through . . . mountains on foot."] [p. 172]

 I have tried to make explicit my intention that Lawyers and Literature be a course of reading that invites reflection and introspection. Some of the readings for the course are quite explicit in this regard, others draw us into reflection by a more indirect route. Consider the Kafka parable, as Thomas C. Oden does Kierkegaard's parables, as "indirect communications" that "confront us with a choice between possibilities of self-understanding, so that in the process of having to choose, we discover ourselves, or something of ourselves. Parables are indirect both because they tend to 'deceive the hearer into the truth,'" and because a parable "inconspicuously requires us to make imaginative choices, so that in doing so we are in some sense offered the possibility of more fully choosing to become ourselves." [Oden, Parables of Kierkegaard, at xiii]

  Gerry Spence, arguably one of the best trial lawyers of modern times, observes that: "On their first day in law school, they [law students] should begin to learn that simple caring for their suffering brothers and sisters of the human race is the most important gift any lawyer can give." Gerry Spence, From Freedom to Slavery: The Rebirth of Tyranny in America 60 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). How would you put Spence's observation to use in reading Kafka's parable, "Before the Law"?

 We have been talking about Kierkegaard, a writer drawn to parables, and I thought you might find this Kierkegaard parable of interest:

It is related of a peasant who came to the Capital, and had made so much money that he could buy himself a pair of shoes and stockings and still had enough left over to get drunk on—it is related that as he was trying in his drunken state to find his way home he lay down in the middle of the highway and fell asleep. Then along came a wagon, and the driver shouted to him to move or he would run over his legs. Then the drunken peasant awoke, looked at his legs, and since by reason of the shoes and stockings he didn't recognize them, he said to the driver, "Drive on, they are not my legs." [S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, p. 187]

 A Margaret Atwood poem: "Hesitations Outside the Door"

A student in Lawyers and Literature made the following observation in her course paper: “I wish I had had Kafka parable's 'Before the Law' as a required reading for orientation.” What do you think this student had in mind? See: Kafka Final Examination Question

For an interesting follow-up on this idea of getting past the doorkeeper, see the fairytale: Cinderella. For a 1980s account of my reading of "Cinderella" with students in a Women and the Legal Profession seminar, see: Cinderella: The Mythic Lives of Women Law Students

When law dominates us, or is presented as a unitary, autonomous prism through which the world can be seen, experienced, and ordered, we act like Cinderella’s step-sisters, hacking off whatever parts of the foot that don’t fit the shoe the Prince asks us to wear. The obliviousness of the step-sisters to their condition is total; they learn of the costs of willing to be the Princess when the Prince discovers their mutilations and rejects them as false brides.

"The King’s son picked it [the shoe] up, and it was small and dainty, and all golden. Next morning, he went it to the father, and said to him: ‘No one shall be my wife but she whose foot this golden slipper fits.’ Then were the two sisters glad, for they had pretty feet. The eldest went with the shoe into her room and wanted to try it on, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said: ‘Cut the toe off; when you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.’ The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s son. Then he took her on his horse as his bride and rode away with her. They were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried:

'Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There’s blood within the shoe,
The shoe it is too small for her,
The true bride waits for you.'

Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was trickling form it. He turned his horse round and took the false bride home again, and said she was not the true one, and that the other sister was to put the shoe on. Then this one went into her chamber and got her toes safely into the shoe, but her heel was too large. So her mother gave her a knife and said: ‘Cut a bit off your heel; when you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.’ The maiden cut a bit off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s son. He took her on his horse as his bride, and rode away with her, but when they passed by the hazel-tree, the two little pigeons sat on it and cried:

'Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There’s blood within the shoe,
The shoe it is too small for her,
The true bride waits for you.'

He looked down at her foot and saw how the blood was running out of her shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking quite red. Then he turned his horse and took the false bride home again."

Cinderella is a fairy tale that law students might find instructive. Does the instrumentalism of law school practicalism result in the kind of self-mutilation performed by Cinderella’s step-sisters?

Kafka, as a university student, "first studied chemistry for a whole fortnight, then he took German for one term, then law�this last only as a makeshift, with no preference for it . . . . A plan to continue his German studies in Munich . . . was never carried out. Law he took up with a sigh because it was the school that involved the least fixed goal, or the largest choice of goals�the bar, the civil service�that is to say, the school that put off longest making a decision and anyhow didn't demand any great preference. On the subject of Kafka's dislike of the study of law, which he never attempted to conceal, I find the following entry in his diary of (1911): 'Out of an old notebook: Now in the evening, after studying since six o'clock this morning, I noticed how my left hand clasped the the fingers of my right hand for a few moments, in sympathy.' " [Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography 40-41 (New York: Schocken Books, 1937)]

"On July 18, 1906, Kafka obtained his doctorate in jurisprudence at the Imperial and Royal Karl-Ferdinand German University of Prague.

He did the usual so-called year in the courts, i.e. the unpaid practice in the law courts which those lawyers who intend to be called to the bar have to go through. Kafka never had any intention of following a legal career�he used this year only as a breathing space after the strain of the examinations, and also as a breathing space in which to look round for a properly paid job. . . . [W]hen it came to the point of choosing a profession, Franz postulated his job should have nothing to do with literature. That he would have regarded as a debasing of literary creation. Breadwinning and the art of writing must be kept absolutely apart, a 'mixture' of the two, such as journals, for example, represents, Kafka rejected�although at the same time he never laid down dogmas, but merely withdrew, as it were, with a smile, explaining that 'I just can't do it.' . . .

What we both strove after with burning ardor was a post with a 'single shift'�that is, office from early morning till two or three in the afternoon . . . ." [Brod, id. at 78-79]

Footnote: "[W]ith a brutal directness Kafka willed himself into the slavery of a certain kind of office-work. Brod interprets this as a noble, misguided effort to keep his art pure and uncommercial; another line of critics argue the influence of the bureaucracy on the stories. But the plain question is: why the particular job, so carefully studied for? How does it manage to be for years the daily occupation of the man who is thinking up those stories?" [Paul Goodman, Kafka's Prayer xvii (New York: Hillstone, 1976)]

On Parables:

"Parable serves as a laboratory where great things are condensed in a small space." [Mark Turner, The Literary Mind 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)]

A parable uses ordinary language to explain the unknown. Parables rely upon imagery and ordinary experience to engage the reader. A parable moves the reader from the known to the mysterious. "At the heart of the parabolic method lies a recognition of the power of language . . . to awaken the imagination, to stir the will, to shape our very understanding of reality and to call us into being and response." [Nicola Slee, Parables and Women's Experiences, 80 Religious Educ. 232, 235 (1985)]

"A parable is an extended image, or word-picture, drawn from experience. It is created for the purpose of making an analogy with something that is unknown to us. By using what we know of the ordinary experience as our model, we can construct analogies by which to comprehend the unknown." [Charles T. Davis, Parables <websit>] [The Davis commentary, previously posted on the web, is now no longer available.] [Permission to quote from the commentary was graciously given by Professor Davis, Appalachian State University, now retired.][Professor Davis points out that: "Parables do not intend to convey information. They act as pointers or direction markers."]

One reader's response to the parable: "We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words�not just into any words but if we can into rhythm and blues." [Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 198 (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1995)]

"It is a truism that the prisoner always knows more about the prison keeper than the prison keeper knows about him. But the deeper human tragedy is that the prisoner, who knows so much about the prison keeper, runs the risk of becoming like him. There may be a certain degree of 'equality' in this appropriation, but it is always self-destructive. And, ultimately, it is the prison keeper who wins because his onetime charge now generalizes his old guard's habits of mind farther into the future than the life of his former guard. This freezes the flow of human emotions into habits of mind that have already proved to be destructive. The gods of life must expect something more from the prescient prisoner. Perhaps this thing is only a refusal to impose on the future the smallnesses of mind that have been imposed on the past and on the present." [James Alan McPherson, A Region Not Home: Reflections From Exile 168 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)]

Biblical teachings are often expressed in the form of parables. A web search on "parables" and "interpretation" indicates that a vast majority of websites that focus on parables deal with Biblical parables. [On Biblical parables, see generally, John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Niles, Illinois: Argus Communication, 1975); Sallie McFague, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975); Nicola See, Parables and Women's Experiences, 80 (2) Religious Education 232 (1985)] [For a religious person talking about Jesus' parables, see: How to Interpret Jesus' Parables :: video; 9:30 min.]

For an excellent introduction to parables and an argument on their use to philosophically-inclined readers, see Thomas C. Oden, "Introduction," to Thomas C. Oden (ed.), Parables of Kierkegaard vii-xviii (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978).

On the use of parables in legal scholarship, see David M. Zlotnick, The Buddha's Parable and Legal Rhetoric, 58 Wash & Lee L. Rev. 957 (2001); Robert A. Burt, Constitutional Law and the Teaching of Parables, 93 Yale L.J. 455 (1984).

On the ending of "Before the Law," consider the following commentary by a 19th century, Pennsylvania lawyer, Daniel Agnew, who served on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:

Law! All-pervading—inscrutable energy! Who can comprehend or measure it? When darkness profound brooded over space, and all matter lay in unshapen chaos—before sun, moon, or stars had risen, or forms of loveliness had enraptured sight—law had its being—immortal, invisible, incomprehensible—its seat the bosom of Jehovah, its form the voice of God. Flowing out with his attributes, keeping pace with nature, and filling infinity, it baffles human inquiry. Man’s finite faculties stop at the threshold, and fail to solve its mystery.

[Daniel Agnew, The Spirit and Poetry of Law. An address, delivered originally in aid of the Soldiers’ relief society of Beaver, Pa., revised and delivered before the students and faculty of Mt. Union college, Ohio, October 1st, 1865, and published at their request. By the Hon. Daniel Agnew, LL.D. 3 (Philadelphia: Sherman & Co., Printers, 1866)]

Gerry Spence makes usie of the door metaphor: Doors of Risk[video; 2:58 mins.] [A few minutes with Gerry Spence, talking about: The Value of Fear :: 5:19 mins.]

A Screenwriters Perspective on Showing the Weakness of a Character: Most Important Element In Developing Character by John Truby [video; 5:19 mins.]. See also: John Truby on a Character's Weakness and the Way We Come to Care for a Character[video; 2:52 mins.]

Kafka Parables (video presentations): A Little Fable [1:16 mins.] The Next Village [1:03 mins.] The Street Window[1:29 mins.]Absent Minded Window Gazing[1:43 mins.] The Vulture [2:34 mins.] Clothes[1:54 mins.] Give It Up [1:33 mins.] Prometheus[1:56 mins.]

Ian Johnston translation of "Before the Law"

Kafka - Wikipedia Constructing Franz KafkaThe Kafka Project

Critical Review of Franz Kafka's Before the Law, a parable within a parable

A Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Videos: Franz Kafka Mini DocumentaryFranz KafkaFranz Kafka's Diaries-1913Kafka PhotosFrank Kafka's The Trial � pt2 � pt3 � pt4 � pt5Montagevideo

Articles & Essays

The Deconstruction and Reification of Law in Franz Kafka's "Before the Law" and The Trial
Patrick J. Glen, Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal

Franz Kafka, Lawrence Joseph, and the Possibilities of Jurisprudential Literature
Patrick J. Glen, Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal

Kafka: Before the Law (1996)
Luiz Costa Lima, Crossroads

Waiting Before the Law: Kafka at the Border
Henk van Houtum, Social & Legal Studies

Franz Kafka's Outsider Jurisprudence
Douglas E. Litowitz, Law and Social Inquiry

Franz Kafka, Before the Law
Giorgio Agamben

Kafka (Videos)

"Before the Law"
[2:56 mins.] [Orson Wells narration]

Alon Levi Film Adaptation of the Parable
[8:56 mins.]

Franz Kafka Mini Documentary
[5:33 mins.]

David Foster Wallace on Kafka
[9:28 mins.]

Literature: Franz Kafka
[10:32 mins.]

On Parables

Teaching Stories

The Interpretation of Parables, Allegories and Types
Andrew S. Kulikovsky

Six Blind Men and the Elephant

John Godfrey Saxe "The Blind Men and the Elephant"
video animation; 2:38 mins.

"The Blind Men and the Elephant"
read by Tom O'Bedlam

Blind Men and the Elephant


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