kafka’s office


‘It’s certainly an excellent arrangement,’ the official says, ‘always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.’ We can easily picture, or even recall, arrangements that are excellent for some and hopeless for others, and that is what the phrase ‘in other respects’ invites us to do. But the larger rhythm and grammar of the sentence ask us to go beyond this option, to think both contrary thoughts at once, taking excellence and hopelessness as partners in an intricate dance, each calling for and implying the other; as if the arrangement is excellent because it’s hopeless, hopeless because it’s excellent. Can we manage this logical feat? And where are we?

We are in a room at the Herrenhof Inn, in Kafka’s novel The Castle. The time is around 5 a.m.; K, the land surveyor hired by the castle authorities, but not as yet entrusted with any land-surveying, has an appointment with an official. His great goal, we have learned by now, is not necessarily to get on with his work but rather to be directly acknowledged by the higher officials of the castle, to experience something other than the many evasions and obstructions he has met with so far.

more from the LRB here.