by Tim Sommers
In high school, I attended a “debate camp” at a small university in southeastern Missouri. I was thrilled to visit my first college bookstore while there and I bought a cheap, slender volume out of the remainders bin called “Parables and Paradoxes”. It was written by Franz Kafka. I am embarrassed to say that I recognized the name only because I was a big fan of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges and he mentioned Kafka here and there. In one essay, for example, Borges used Kafka to illustrate how great writers rewrite the works of their own precursors. Surveying a disparate collection of works, Borges says that “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of these writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist.”
The difference between Kafka and Borges that struck me almost immediately was that despite the labyrinthine, elliptical, and self-referential character of Borges’ stories it always seemed more or less clear to me what they meant; whereas Kafka’s stories seemed clearly to mean something, but it was never clear to me exactly what. What is the meaning of that hideous machine that writes on human flesh, the secret trial where Joseph K. is never charged but loses his life, of Gregor Samson transformed into a gigantic bug? The very elusiveness of meaning in Kafka intensifies the search for it.
It’s not just me. Psychologists asked subjects to read either “The Country Dentist” by Kafka or a rewritten version that changed all the weird, unexplained bits. Subjects who read the Kafka story were better able to spot hidden patterns in rows of letters afterwards than those who read the “normalized” version. The experimenters theorize that encountering the unexpected can increase people’s ability to creatively search for meaning. They call it “The Kafka Effect”.
As a senior in high school, I typed and typed a disjointed, juvenile paper on Kafka on an ancient mechanical typewriter. Around page thirty, I stopped because my fingers where too cramped and sore to go on, but I still didn’t have the meaning of Kafka down on paper. I could only report what other, prior readers, thought that his subject was: the death of God, the rise of bureaucracy, his Jewishness, or (somehow) the Holocaust (though he died twenty years prior).
The best I could offer myself was that the meaning of Kafka might be found in my favorite parable “Couriers”.
“They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers. As a result, there are only couriers. They gallop through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service.”
My great insight? Kafka thinks life is meaningless and that the curse of the modern world is that we are aware of its meaninglessness.
I liked that parable so much that, much later, working as a courier out of St. Louis, I wrote it on the wall of the bathroom in the warehouse. Even later, I wrote a script about a courier’s long day besieged on all sides by different groups of people after him for reasons he couldn’t understand. And I used the conceit of that courier reading “Couriers” off that wall, without knowing that he himself had written it there. (If anyone’s interested in optioning a script, let me know.)
Not long after I first encountered Kafka, I saw the movie “After Hours” (Martin Scorsese, 1985) I knew immediately, of course, that it was, to use that grotesque, overused word, Kafkaesque. (And, also, very funny, in pretty much the same way Kafka is funny.) But near the end it was actually, in fact, Kafka. The dialogue between the bouncer (Clarence Felder) and the protagonist (Griffin Dunne) is – word-for-word – the parable “Before the Law” from “The Trial”.
The plot of the movie in outline, if not in detail, is the plot of Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, “The Castle”. In “The Castle” the protagonist K. tries endlessly and unsuccessfully to get to a castle. (If you’ve ever tried to cross the Charles bridge in Prague and walk up to the castle, you might suspect this is a simply literal description of the difficulties involved in doing so.) Except for a few minutes in the bland Mid-Town office where he works as a word-processor, “After Hours” is just an epic chronicle of one man’s attempts to go home. At one point the main character, Paul Hackett, explains to a man (who seems to just be looking for a hook-up, but whom Paul convinces to take back to his apartment) that “I just wanted to leave, you know, my apartment. Maybe meet a nice girl. And now I’ve got to die for it!”
Here’s my attempt to just mention some of the plot points. [Spoilers, obviously.] Paul meets a woman at a coffee shop who writes her number in his copy of “The Tropic of Cancer” on the pretense of selling him one of her sculptor-friends paper-mache bagel and cream cheese paperweights. He calls her and she invites him to the SoHo loft where she is staying with the sculptor. He goes on an insane cab ride, flying around in the back seat while the driver speeds and swerves through traffic, and his last twenty-dollars blows out of the window. When he gets to the loft the woman’s artist friend lets him in and asks him to work on her paper-mache sculpture for a while so she can take a rest. The original woman reappears and they go out for coffee again and on the way out he notices a twenty-dollar bill (his?) stuck to the sculpture. The women tells him crazier and crazier stories (the first and least crazy ends with “he would scream out, ‘Surrender Dorothy!’ That’s all! Just ‘Surrender Dorothy!’”) and Paul also becomes convinced, for a number of reasons, that she has a lot of burn scars (for example, the sculptor responses to his, “You have a great body” with “Yeah, not a lot of scars”). He provokes a fight and leaves. It’s raining and he discovers the subway fare has gone up and he hasn’t got enough change. He begs the subway attendant to help him out, but the man replies. “I can’t do that. I could lose my job…I could go to a party, get drunk, talk to someone…who knows?” Paul takes shelter in a bar. The bartender offers to help him with subway fare, but finds he doesn’t have the key to cash register. Paul promises to fetch them in exchange for subway fare. While at the bartender’s apartment he accidentally overflows his toilet and inadvertently raises suspicions that he is the burglar that had been hitting the neighborhood again and again. And that’s about the first half hour. Before the night is over, Paul is pursued by an ice cream truck and an angry mob. I am leaving a lot out, including a suicide and a murder. There are coincidences and unexpected consequences that loop back onto themselves until, in the basement of a punk rock club, a lonely woman encases him in plaster to hide him from the angry mob. Unfortunately, she leaves for a moment and he is stolen by the real burglars – who think it is just an ordinary sculpture.
In the final scenes Paul, still encased in plaster, tumbles out of the back of the van onto the pavement in front of the office building where he works. The fall shatters the plaster and – now free but disheveled and covered in white dust he goes inside – through enormous, ornate, golden gates (while bells toll) – and up to his office. He sits down at his desk. Though it was clearly beyond the technology of the time, his computer types-out, “Good Morning, Paul.” Then the camera takes a swirling, disorienting trip around the office as the credits begin. It’s easy to miss it, but when the camera passes by Paul’s desk again, he’s not there. He’s gone. What does it mean?
One explanation I’ve heard is that he was never really their because he is dead; that is, that he died earlier in the film and everything since has been unreal. Apparently, Scorsese’s first cut of the movie ends with Paul in the van encased in plaster. Scorsese says that he showed that version to his father, who got angry and told Scorsese, “You can’t let him die.” So, maybe, Paul’s disappearance is just Scorsese’s way of having his cake and eating it too. He’s not dead, he’s dead. But there’s some reason to think that if Paul died, he, in fact, died much earlier than that. In the DVD commentary to the film Scorsese refers to the cab driver as “Charon” – the ferryman who transports souls across Styx to the land of the dead. So, maybe, Paul dies in that crazy taxi ride and the rest is just a prelude to his arrival at the gates, which are really the gates to hell (or, maybe, even heaven (they are gold and there is a bell tolling)).
But there is another, simpler explanation that I prefer – an explanation that made me, I believe, finally understand Kafka. (It’s also the explanation my wife, Stacey, offered immediately the first time she saw the film. So, there’s that.) Here it is. Between the time the camera leaves him and the time it returns, Paul got up and walked away.
Two things worth remembering. The first is that though Kafka doesn’t get a single mention on the relevant Wikipedia pages, there is an argument to be made that he is not only a practitioner but one of the inventors of the genre “black comedy”. His literary executor and friend Max Brod described Kafka as laughing to the point of tears when he read his stories aloud to friends. The second is that while K. and Joseph K. and Paul Hackett are constantly portraying themselves to others as helpless victims of circumstance, they all lie and wheedle and are given to occasional bouts of meanness (Paul Hackett: “I said I wanna see a Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight, now cough it up…”) and just plain weirdness (the protagonist of “The Castle” licks his landlord’s daughter’s face at one point, to her consternation). If you are convinced that Paul is a helpless victim of circumstance in the film, let me ask you this. He’s in Manhattan the whole time, why doesn’t he, especially early on, just walk home?
So, why does Joseph K. die never knowing what he is on trial for and in what court? Maybe, because he never steps up, takes responsibility, and takes action. Maybe, the crucial line in “Couriers” is not “shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless”, but that “they dare not [put an end to their miserable existence], because of their oaths of service”. Their oaths of service to whom since there are no kings? And, anyway, there’s more than one way to “put an end to [one’s] miserable existence”.
So, maybe, Paul Hackett just walked away. And maybe Kafka just thought it would be easier for us to walk away – or step-up – if we were laughing.
Kafka should have the last word.
“Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
“Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.”
“Another said: I bet that is also a parable.”
“The first said: You have won.”
“The second said: But, unfortunately, only in parable.”
“The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.”