Current Genres of Fate

by Paul North

Redon crying spider 1881In these monthly posts I will survey the landscape of “fateful thinking,” as we glimpse it on the moons orbiting old Europe today. The premise will be that in politics, culture, academia, medicine, economics, and private life, among other regions of experience, we—those in charge and those charged up and those under the thumb of others in this orbit—tend to express ourselves, on the most important matters, in fateful terms. “It has to be like this or that.” Whether we are correct or not when we say “it is” and mean “it must be,” “it has always been,” we regularly call on such statements to support our most critical decisions. Let us assume provisionally that, despite so much hurried change, with all our freedom of imagination and all our progress, we still tend to base our decisions on what must be the case, what could not be otherwise, what comes out of a finished past or certain future and determines the core of our being. In our times these sound like old-fashioned, even ancient sentiments. For the purposes of this survey, I shall assume that “fateful thinking” is as at home in the new as it was in the old. Fate ideas operate equally in science and religion, although “fate” certainly takes distinct forms in each. What remains then is to describe and analyze those forms, the current genres of fate, in hopes of discovering by chance a way of living in which the idea of life has not already been settled in advance.

Current Genres of Fate 1: Kafka's Innocents

When did the idea of fate arise, the one in which every tiny detail of life, every twist in life's way is a sign that says: “no way out.” Classical labyrinths have exits, though they are hard to find. When did the intuition of a labyrinth whose doors open back into itself take over the imagination? When did we enter into zones of experience in which the exit brings us back to square one? Some think it was the work of the Protestant Reformation. Iris Murdoch attributed it to the rise of science: “The idea of life as self-enclosed and purposeless is of course not simply a product of the despair of our own age. It is the natural product of the advance of science and has developed over a long period.” Whatever its origins, when certainty about the destiny of any single human life is taken away, every tiny event becomes a possible portal to destiny. When fate toppled from its throne at the end of history, fateful thinking seeped back into everyday life, filling its crevices. Institutions like law and bureaucracy grew exponentially alongside the rise of science, and this only intensified the seepage of fate into the crevices of life. Institutional protocols took on the offices of destiny and made destiny into a matter of finding the right office.

Life's suffusion with fate had a peculiar consequence: we became innocent again. It is a new Eden, except that, under this version of fate, whereas in the Garden we could do nothing wrong because there was not yet any wrong in the world, now we can do nothing wrong because our actions are so severely limited by the strictures that surround us. We can do nothing really wrong because we really can do so little. Kafka wrote about this constricting context and its new innocence.

Whatever else you might say about human relations in Kafka's great novels and stories, one thing seems true: no one lies. If the stories took place in the Garden of Eden this would not be surprising. Or if they were stories of love or friendship, lying would truly be out of place. But in fact the situations of Kafka's fictions are as complex and fallen, as squalid and corrupt as any in the modern world. Rumors fly, legal systems are oppressive and confusing, the family seems made to thwart children rather than to foster them; in short, there is no clear way for an individual to get ahead, to pursue their fortune. And so, from our perspective at least, there should be endless reasons for deception. Indeed, where honesty gets you nowhere, deception might be the only way to get ahead. Everyone in these Kafkan situations should lie. Yet no one lies.

The novel The Trial would have ended before it began if on the first page the protagonist had simply lied. “You must be mistaken, I am not Josef K.” The novel continues, of course, because he does not misrepresent himself. This is especially astonishing because the society portrayed in the novel seems to be one big lie, or at the very least a pile of confusions. Strangers wake the protagonist Josef K. from sleep and arrest him without naming his crime, and the story tells about his attempts to defend himself without this crucial bit of information. Yet like everyone else in his surroundings, Josef K. is scrupulously sincere. To be sure, he protests. But his protests are weak. They look like polite questions: “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” Obviously he can't contest the charges, since he does not know whether he is guilty or innocent. How could he, when he hasn't heard what he is supposed to have done. And still, isn't the first instinct of any adult or child when accused to say: “It wasn't me!” This kind of protest, whether it is true or false, is sometimes enough to make the whole situation go away. Nothing like this happens in The Trial. Peculiarities are taken as a matter of course. “K. was living in a nation of laws, wasn't he? Peace reigned, the legal code was intact, who would dare assail him in his own home? He always tended to take everything as lightly as possible, to believe the worst only when the worst happened, to make no precautions for the future, even when everything threatened him.” His attitude of “lightness” is of course the most peculiar thing in the novel. It is an expression of the new innocence that could only exist in a totally fateful milieu.

The Trial is an inverted tragedy, which is not the same as saying it is a comedy. Josef K. is not righteous, like Antigone. He never once denies the validity of the law. Nor does he act as though the court might have exceeded its authority. Antigone denies the human court and shows obedience to a higher court, the judgment of the gods. Later, her corpse becomes a shining sign of the victory of heavenly justice over earthly law. In contrast, Josef K. accepts the one court, contradictions and all, even while he resists its attention to him. The strange combination of acceptance and resistance leads him deep into a tangled web of rumors, delays, and violations of common liberties, perpetrated by decrepit representatives of the phantom court.

This form of fate tickles the feelings. You can neither understand it conceptually nor experience it with the senses. You recognize it by the sub-conscious feeling that you are caught in a net of relations so fine you cannot slip out. As a genre of fate it is not exactly new, but it does seem to have spread beyond all conceivable bounds. No one can do wrong, under the form of fate as an inescapable web, because no one can do anything. Language was thought to be one of these webs, in linguistic theories of the mid-20th century—recall the image of the “prison house of language.” Our medical system is a more current web. Once you are within the medical logic, every act implies more treatment. The choices narrow until the decisions are as if made for you. Democracy, especially in its new passion for “security” is like this as well. In foreign policy, everything is to be judged according to its “threat.”

What do these webs have in common? They are all immanent. At some point in history, fate moved house. It left its comfortable transcendent home, on Olympus or in the will of God, and moved into the world. It became immanent. Immanence is a theological principle that says that the causes of the world lie within the world. The world's causes inhere in its creatures and processes, that is: the causes do not lie in an independent zone outside the effects. You can see how the principle of immanence, for all the advantages it may give us over principles of transcendence, forms the basis for the idea of fate as an inescapable web. If the causes of things inhere within those very things, it is hard to imagine that they could ever be different.

In Kafka's version of immanent fate (a very extreme, if not the most extreme version), the web is exactly like a spider's. The more you pull away from it, the more entangled you become, and if while entangled you struggle some more, you draw the attention of the dreaded spider. The web feeds off resistance. A fly is as trapped as its will to escape. This relation can be looked at in reverse as well. Seen the other way around, the web's catching power is a reflection of the desire for freedom of movement. To say it in a convenient slogan: it takes a fly to make a web. Or, as Kafka writes in 1917 more than a year after he gave up The Trial as unworkable, “A cage went seeking a bird.”

If we see things this way, backward, as though institutions close in on us the more we try to escape them, does anything change? In this backward view, the system goes hunting for gullible souls who will take it seriously enough to do it the honor of resisting. By resisting, like Josef K. does, we strengthen the immanent, web-like matrices, which grow and thrive because of our attempts to pull away from them. Our pull gives them an iron grip. To be sure, these institutions present themselves as monopolies on prestige or authority. They give us our identities and, equally, at times, threaten to take them away. And we all scramble to get into them—universities, nations, social classes—. Yet, if we follow this Kafkan logic, they—intricate systems of goods and privileges, webs of fate—are themselves the needy ones. They need us to tear at the doors, they need us to resist their erratic impositions. They need us to desire them but also to protest, and sometimes to revolt in order to strengthen their powers. If, rejecting institutions' needs, we cease to struggle—as many of Kafka's innocents do, not Josef K. perhaps, but the others who never think to resist—does this form of fate not loosen and weaken?