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"From an urn already crumbled to dust": Kafka's use of parable and the midrashic mashal.

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought. (Psalm 78:1-4)

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IN August of 1917, Franz Kafka coughed blood for the first time. It was the first visible indication of an illness Kafka had known was coming--if not wished into existence. Seven years later he would die of starvation, unable to swallow through the pain of the tuberculosis which had spread to his larynx. In a letter to his close friend and literary executor Max Brod, written shortly after his diagnosis, Kafka spoke of his tuberculosis as a "symbol" of a much deeper trouble that had been festering within him for years at that point (Letter 137-138). Already prone to bouts of extreme mental anguish, Kafka struggled his last seven years to define himself to himself, and, parenthetically, to the world. In January 1922, two years before his death, Kafka suffered what he described as a "breakdown" in which it was "impossible to sleep, impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life, or, more exactly, the course of life" (The Diaries, 398).

In his journal Kafka strained to define this experience which he understood as the fracture between his internal and external worlds: "The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demonic or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed" (398). This fracture was the result of an endless introspection which Kafka felt was spiraling out of control. Becoming lost deeper and deeper inside of himself, a prisoner to his own thoughts, Kafka knew only that he must find, or at least determine, the terminus of this introspection. And while he feared the inevitable result to be madness, Kafka also clung to the possibility that this path was the natural pursuit of every human being. That faced with the absolute--or even the possibility of the absolute--we are all capable of falling into the imposing chasm that separates our finite worlds from the all too easily imagined infinite. This notion of a pursuit, which Kafka understood in metaphorical terms, was in itself the search for metaphor. It was the pursuit of the perfect literary expression of that which separates us from the possibility of us. Kafka's literary project, which time and again brought him to the brink of madness, was aimed at exploring, excavating, and illuminating the very topography of the "frontiers" that separate the human from the absolute. Kafka's writing is akin to the work of a cartographer, his ultimate goal to produce a map of the space between the external and internal world, between the finite and the absolute, between the signified and the signifier.

In the same diary entry from January 16, 1922, Kafka proposes this description of the pursuit which time and again had compelled him to question his very relationship with reality:
 "Pursuit," indeed, is only a metaphor. I can also say, "assault on
 the last earthly frontier", an assault, moreover, launched from
 below, from mankind, and since this too is a metaphor, I can
 replace it by the metaphor of an assault from above, aimed at me
 from above. All such writing is an assault on the frontiers ... it
 would require genius of an unimaginable kind to strike root again
 in the old centuries, or create the old centuries anew and not
 spend itself withal, but only begin to flower forth. (399)


Kafka sought to assault the very frontiers upon which beliefs and traditions are built. In this way, Kafka's literary project was in keeping with the rich Jewish tradition to explore, explain, and express the very foundations of tradition and belief, i.e., Scripture. The midrashic tradition within Judaism is the method by which the Scriptures are explored and explained in time and through time. It is a tradition as old as the Scriptures themselves, (1) for within Judaism the sacred word of God is an active, living, and evolving document meant to be engaged and continually re-viewed for each generation. One of the primary components of the midrashic tradition is the use of parable (mashal) to both engage and enlighten the audience of Scripture. It is this ancient literary form which Kafka utilizes time and again in his efforts to explore the frontiers between his external and internal worlds, a frontier which he believed had become an uncharted wasteland. In parable, Kafka located a narrative structure that appeared to re-present the relationship between his internal and external worlds. In the relationship between what a parable states and what a parable means, Kafka recognized the struggle between his understanding of the truth and his ability to express the truth. And he recognized the fundamental struggle within tradition to both convey truth and to keep us connected to the very foundations of truth.

In his biography of Franz Kafka, The Nightmare of Reason, Ernst Pawel portrays Kafka as a product of the emerging modern world, but he also asserts that Kafka belongs to a long literary, cultural, and religious tradition that has been compelled to define itself in the presence of the divine.
 Kafka's true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were
 an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting
 uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weather-beaten tombstones
 in Prague's Old Cemetery, seekers in search of reason for their
 faith. He was their child, last in a long line of disbelieving
 believers, wild visionaries with split vision who found two answers
 to every question and four new questions to every answer in seeking
 to probe the ultimate riddle of God. (100)


Kafka lived in the Post-Enlightenment world. He was a Jew who spoke and wrote in German. He read Goethe, Nietzsche, Heine, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Dickens, and Freud. And yet Kafka understood himself as inextricably tied to a tradition that for better or worse dictated how he understood his world. In this way, Kafka's writings echo the words of Psalm 78, for they are filled with "dark sayings from old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us."

KAFKA was compelled by the power of language. This compulsion produced in him the overwhelming need to write. In his letters and his diaries, Kafka frequently likened writing to salvation--his own and, to a certain degree, that of the world. The act of writing for Kafka invoked every part of his being and involved a near complete purging of his self onto the page. In describing the process by which he composed his story The Judgment (Das Urteil) in one all-night creative catharsis, Kafka compared the experience to giving birth: "the story came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime" (The Diaries 214). He was convinced that through writing he could not only find happiness for himself, but that he could "raise the world into the pure, the true, and the immutable" (386). This comment from his diary, coming less than a week after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, indicates a fundamental desire to find within his writing that which allows humanity to transcend itself and to move toward that which is the internal absolute, the universal, the divine.

Kafka's compulsion to write was tied to an understanding of language as that which traps us within this world while simultaneously alluding to a world beyond. For Kafka, language is both problematic and transcendent. Language is problematic in that it is inevitably tied to the material world in which we live. And it is transcendent because through the manipulation of language we are capable of exposing the gaps that exist between that which language signifies and that which allows language to signify. It is in this tension between the literal and the figurative that Kafka chose to locate his narratives:
 There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free
 from them by our very nature. For everything outside the phenomenal
 world, language can only be used allusively, but never
 even approximately in a comparative way, since, corresponding as
 it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property
 and its relations. (Blue Octavo Notebooks 30)


It is what allows us to move beyond the literal to the figurative that instills within language a transcendent power. For Kafka, to move beyond the literal is not only to express that which cannot be said literally, but to express that which is not literal. The figurative is not simply not the literal, it is more than the literal. It is beyond the literal. To advance to the figurative, one must begin with the literal and by process of imagination elevate the understanding to the figurative. It is this process which most interests Kafka. The gap between the literal and the figurative, across which the reader is compelled by language to traverse, is for Kafka also the space which language cannot adequately express.

In his essay "Language and Truth in the Two Worlds of Franz Kafka," Walter Sokel asserts that for Kafka language functions to illuminate the truth only referentially. Language is a device for relating to the truth, but it is a fundamentally inadequate device that can only really point us in the direction of the truth. Language "is a means by which human beings may receive an inkling of the invisible, true world" (180). Sokel's text offers a rather Platonic reading of Kafka, but in so doing it is able to expose an essential quality of Kafka's works, namely their focus on the space between the literal and the figurative.
 To be sure, language can never hope to represent the extrasensory
 reality, but it can hope to point toward it and thus to sharpen
 human awareness for it. Here, writing does not aim at the adeaquatio
 of linguistic formulation and reality. Such a "true" referentiality
 is completely beyond its reach. Language can only hope to capture
 the trace of something that has to be essentially and eternally
 absent from the sensory world. (180)


According to Sokel, Kafka understands that language cannot actually express truth but it can express untruth. And it is through uncovering "successive layers of untruth" that Kafka exposes the center of the onion as nothing more than an empty space. For Sokel, Kafka removes the possibility of a reliable or authoritative signifier to the signified.

But Kafka does more than just expose an empty space, he jumps into this space and explores its depths. For Kafka, the gap between the literal and the figurative measures the power of language. It is the gap that compels the reader to create something from a text that is more than a literal construction of the meaning of words. The movement from literal to figurative is that which allows language to live in time. It is that quality which allows the reader to do more than just understand a text: it forces him or her to interpret the text. This gap allows for possibility. And it compels the reader to participate actively in the creation of meaning.

The use of parable by Kafka marks his most concentrated effort to examine the space between language and that which is beyond language. In parable, Kafka finds a long tradition of hermeneutic discourse in which a literary form is understood as an exegetical key to other literary forms. The use of parable as an exegetical tool derives from the Ancient Middle Eastern traditions of Wisdom Literature. From the earliest echoes of tradition, parable has been utilized as a tool for enlightenment. Alwin L. Baum in his essay, "Parable as Paradox in Kafka's Stories," notes the "inherent ambiguity" present in parable. "It is an intrinsically paradoxical narrative which, in essence, may mean anything except what it says" (155). Parable is the narrative equivalent of the space between the literal and the figurative. Its literal meaning is nothing more than a shell which points to a meaning inside, a meaning that must be achieved. The parabolic narrative is nothing more than a vehicle to transport meaning. It is hollow at its core. It possesses no value unless it is interpreted, unless a meaning is realized by the reader.

It is the process of creating meaning from a text that is emphasized in parabolic discourse. Because wisdom is not something that can be given but must be earned, parable has been most traditionally linked to the transmission of wisdom within Western culture. In parable the text always points to something beyond itself. The emphasis is always on what is not literal, on what cannot be transmitted by the literal. The audience of a parable is compelled to go beyond what he or she knows, to the possibility of what he or she can know. The audience of a parable is forced to move from the signified to the signifier--to move from the echo of truth to the very source of truth itself.

In Jewish tradition the image of the palace as symbol for the Torah is a recurrent theme. For this reason, the image of the palace in parabolic discourse has also come to represent the ultimate source of truth. To penetrate the palace is to penetrate the truth. It is to gain access to the absolute, the universal. Throughout Jewish tradition, palace parables have been a standard device for investigating the nature of truth and the means by which humanity gains access to truth. The palace as bastion of truth is also a recurrent theme in Kafka's works.

Kafka's most pointed reading of the palace as symbol of truth can be seen in his parable "The Imperial Message," located in the middle of his short story "The Great Wall of China." In "The Great Wall of China" the very foundations upon which a society is constructed and how these foundations are constructed is explored through a description of the process by which the Great Wall of China was built. In the parable "The Imperial Message," that sits inside this larger story (which is the parable's metatext), the very idea that truth can be communicated is called into question. In the parable an emperor lies on his deathbed, his very last wish to communicate a message "to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow who has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun." The emperor calls his messenger to his bedside and whispers the message into his ear. He has the messenger repeat the message to him to ensure the message is correct. He then, in the last act before his death, commissions the messenger to take flight and deliver the message to "you" at once. The narrative then proceeds to describe the vast and overwhelming impediments that stand between the messenger and "you," the recipient of his message. This elaborate description offered by the text goes to great lengths to emphasize the ability and desire of the messenger, but it goes to even greater lengths to describe the reasons why the emperor's message will never be delivered. The parable ends with a somber matter-of-fact statement. "But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening falls."

The two narratives speak to each other, as they also speak about each other. To construct a meaning from "The Imperial Message," the reader must relate the parable to the context in which it is deliberately set, "The Great Wall of China." In this story, not only has the "high command," a body that alone possesses the power to command that the Great Wall be built, existed from the beginning of time but so has the very decision to build the wall. The Great Wall will always be in the process of being built because it cannot be otherwise. It has been commanded for all eternity. It has been commanded by an emperor whose very image exists only on "an urn already crumbled to dust." For Kafka, the world lives and acts on the commandments of this emperor, but the message he sent to explain his commandments will never reach us. In this way, we possess the "truths" of our traditions, but not the knowledge of why they are "true." In constructing a parable about the disconnect between the source of truth and the actual truth, inside a medium designed to transmit the truth, set within a metatext that questions the very foundations upon which truth is constructed, Kafka is not only playing with the construction of meaning; he is calling into question the construction of meaning as he attempts to construct it. It is a house of cards built on a card table in the back of a moving pickup truck.

IN his parable, "On Parables," Kafka laments the uselessness of parabolic discourse. In parable the text states a fact or gives an instruction, but these facts and instructions do not mean what they state. Instead, these facts and instructions refer to "some fabulous beyond, something unknown to us, something which even he [the teller of the parable] cannot designate more precisely." Parables reproduce the words of the wise, but these words prove "useless in daily life." Inevitably all that one can take from a parable is that "the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and that we already knew."

The term parable is from the Greek parabole, which translated literally means to "put side by side" or "to compare one thing with another" (Naveh 8). It is a term, as Baum notes, which "suggests analogical rather than analytical discourse" (155). In the mind (and hands) of Kafka, parable is the most deceptively obvious of literary forms. Parable appears to offer nothing but answers, when in reality it offers nothing but questions. The location of meaning in parable is transient. Meaning can only be located in the process of interpretation that is dependent on the active participation of the reader. Parable demands interpretation in a way that other literary forms do not. And in the act of interpretation, the parabolic narrative becomes extraneous. The actions, locations, and characters in a parable only point to something beyond themselves. Their literal sense evaporates in the act of interpretation. As Baum states, parable "is an open-ended comparison in which the chain of signifiers automatically cancels its literal sense" (155). The emphasis in parable is not on the signified, but only on the process by which we attempt to locate the signifier. Parables imply "patterns of association which may be bonded to the actual signifier only by the slightest tether of semantic, or even phonemic paradigm" (155).

This emphasis on interpretation in parable is an emphasis on possibility. Parabolic discourse is resistant to singular interpretation because the foundation of meaning in parable exists outside of the narrative structure--just as the foundation of all meaning exists outside the system of signification. Parabolic meaning is dependent on when the parable is told, where the parable is told, and who is telling the parable. Because the process of interpretation is an essential component of parabolic discourse, where and when the parable is presented (and therein interpreted) is critical. In Biblical Parables and Their Modern Re-Creations Gila S. Naveh emphasizes the context in which a parable is produced and presented.
 Parables ... were told or written in a special ideologico-political
 context and knowing the context and the metatext for a particular
 parable facilitated considerably the task of the interpreter. (20)


The context and metatext (the larger surrounding narrative in which the parable is placed) together instruct the audience of the parable in how to interpret the parable. Without a context or a metatext a parable is severed from those features which provide a foundation upon which to build meaning. Without a context or a metatext, a parable is nothing more than an impenetrable shell. The parabolic context generates both a truth and an authority that is foundational to its meaning. It does so exclusive of the narrative. Therefore, this foundation is dependent not on the story but on the storyteller.

Because of the unique relationship between narrative and meaning, parabolic discourse functions in terms of certain assumptions. The first assumption of parabolic discourse is that "regular" language, the literal, is not sufficient to express the message of the parable. The emphasis on the process of interpretation, of moving beyond or through the text to some larger, more significant meaning, assumes that a literal explanation of this meaning is not sufficient. Instead, the reader must be forced to construct meaning by moving from the literal to the figurative. In this way, by placing a parabolic text in multiple contexts, or set against multiple metatexts, a parable can produce multiple interpretations. The dynamic nature of parabolic meaning, therefore, allows parable to move through time as both a source of wisdom and as an exegetical tool.

The second assumption inherent in parable is the agreement between author and audience that a decipherable message will be produced, i.e., that the parable will contain a "truth" to be uncovered. The parabolic contract is a complicit act in which meaning can only be measured in terms of that agreement:
 parables produce desire in both the addressor and the addressee
 who become willing to continue their condition, namely to go on
 decoding parables. They instill in the addressee a genuine passion
 for the game of finding out their "truth" and put him in a state of
 desire. (Naveh, 14)


This agreement becomes part of the foundation upon which meaning is built. Without the agreement, the possibility of "truth" is moot. The audience of a parable must be willing to accept that there is something to be gained in the process of interpretation. And they must accept that what will be gained is founded in something beyond them and their world; that it is grounded in the absolute--in that which exists as the foundation of truth.

The third assumption necessary to parabolic discourse is implied by the first two. The emphasis in parable is not on the narrative but on the process of interpreting the narrative. It is not enough to understand the actions, locations, and characters of the parabolic narrative: you must process these components and achieve a meaning beyond the literal text. This need for interpretation, and the fact that interpretation is dependent on the context of the parable, results in the traditionally esoteric nature of parables. (2) The audience in parabolic discourse is either inside or outside the realm of meaning. If a parable is intended for an addressee, he or she will understand it. If the addressee is ignorant of the context in which the parable is used or the metatext against which the parable is set, he or she is incapable of producing the intended meaning, or any transcendent meaning. In this case, the addressee is left with the literal text that is nothing more than a simple story.

The gap between what the text literally states and the meaning the text intends is a structural feature in parable. The space between the literal and the figurative, between the signified and the signifier, is a necessity for the transmission of "truth" in parable. Parable compels its audience to construct what is not said in the text by relating it to the context in which the parable is used. It forces the audience to bridge the gap of the text, the gap between what the text states and that to which the text alludes. This "perpetual invitation to name the signifier" produces a dialectic in which the truth is revealed only by means of the exchange between text and context (22). As Naveh points out, this is a gap between the obscured and the revealed that is dependent on a "perpetual invocation" of some shared authority (28). The movement from signified back to signifier necessitates the construction of a bridge that traverses the contextual gap.

Kafka's reading of parables in "On Parables" is intentionally deceptive. In the case of "The Imperial Message," the metatext is the larger story in which it was originally placed, "The Great Wall of China." In terms of the parable "On Parables," there is no metatext. This parable is left, quite consciously, without a metatext or a context in order to render it without a bridge. As such, Kafka purposefully manipulates the reader and forces him or her to investigate the very process by which meaning is constructed. He forces the reader into the gap. "On Parables" emphasizes the necessity of parable to express the inexpressible, the incommunicable, the "true," by forcing the audience beyond the literal but not all the way to the figurative. Kafka forces the reader to pay attention to the very process by which meaning is created. We live in a world where parables are read and interpreted irrespective of their foundations of meaning, irrespective of tradition. This is Kafka's point. What now? How do we construct meaning in a world where the very foundations of meaning have been rendered obsolete, or at best suspect?

KAFKA spent much of his adult life struggling with his relationship to his Jewish heritage. Consequently, Kafka often found himself intrigued by those aspects of Judaism that appeared foreign to him and his world. In fact, in 1911 Kafka was so inspired by his experience with a traveling Yiddish theatre troupe that visited his hometown of Prague that he not only befriended the troupe's lead actor, Yitzhak Lowy, but he also worked to promote the troupe within Prague's Jewish community. Kafka found himself attracted to the sense of community and tradition that pervaded this exotic group of Eastern Jews. As a middle-class, assimilated, Western Jew living in one of the principal cities of the Austro Hungarian Empire, Kafka was to a large degree displaced from his Jewish roots. It was for this reason that the Yiddish theatre so intrigued him. In their act of storytelling and their presentation of their Jewishness, Kafka witnessed the possibility of tradition. He experienced a connection to a truth that existed outside of his time and his world. Over 100 pages of Kafka's diaries are devoted to descriptions of and reflections on the shows he attended and his subsequent relationship with the players. In an entry written just a couple days after attending his first show, Kafka declares his interest in learning more about Yiddish literature,
 which is obviously characterized by an uninterrupted tradition of
 national struggle that determines every work. A tradition,
 therefore, that pervades no other literature, not even that of the
 most oppressed people. (The Diaries 70)


In the years following this experience Kafka sought on many occasions, and via many different avenues, to revivify his "own clumsy Judaism" and connect to his Jewish roots (Diaries 167). These efforts included reading the Tanak, Heinrich Graetz's History of the Jewish People, Meyer Pine's Histoire de la Litterature Judeo-Allemande, and Jacob Fromer's Organism of Jewry, as well as multiple attempts at studying Hebrew. All of these efforts, along with a lifetime spent within the marginalized Jewish community of Prague and his longstanding relationships with devoutly Jewish friends provided Kafka with an invaluable connection to the long and complex Jewish literary and religious tradition. (3) And it was the Jewish use of parable, represented most fully in the elaborate tradition of the midrashic mashal, that appears to have had the most pervasive influence in Kafka's writings. (4)

ONE of the first documented uses of parable in the Hebrew tradition is located in II Samuel 12:1-7. Here the prophet Nathan is sent by God to King David with a parable. In Nathan's parable a rich man with a large flock of sheep takes the lone lamb from his poor neighbor to feed a guest. The parable infuriates David, causing him to call for the death of the rich man. Set against the sin of David against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, the parable is intended as a lesson for David to force him to understand the wrong he has committed against his neighbor. But this parable is also a lesson for the audience of Scripture, who will also be compelled to judge their own actions in terms of the rich man, the poor man, and the lamb.

Nathan's parable indicates a fundamental understanding within Hebrew tradition of the power of parable to instruct and enlighten a given text or situation. The use of parable in Hebrew tradition is most prevalent in midrash, the Jewish tradition of scriptural exegesis. Midrash, as a literary form, dates back to the birth of Rabbinic Judaism (1st Century C.E.). The earliest recorded use of parable in exegesis was by Rabbi Hillel, a sage and contemporary of Jesus (a Jew also noted for his use of parable as a didactic tool). Midrash, the purest expression of the role of Scripture in Judaism, delights in plurality of interpretation. Scripture is an endless fount of information and instruction. In the Hebrew tradition every word of Scripture is said to have "70 faces." What is meant by this is that Scripture will speak to every generation in accord with its needs. Each passage, each word of Scripture is pregnant with a multitude of meanings that speak to each and every generation about its place in the world and about our responsibility to each other.

The midrashic tradition understands Scripture to have two meanings, a literal-historical meaning (P'shat) and an ethical-instructional meaning (D'rash). The purpose of midrash, then, is two-fold. First, it is to illuminate the literal meaning of the text. And second, it is to enable the midrashic audience to move beyond the literal to the figurative meaning of Scripture. In order to facilitate this movement from literal to figurative, midrash utilizes parable (mashal). In this way, parable's function within midrash is rhetorical, didactic, and exegetical. In the Hebrew tradition, mashal is a powerful tool used to maintain tradition in time and through time. As David Stern asserts in his essay "Midrash and the Language of Exegesis," midrash serves a religious function that "helped to restore the sense of God's presence through discourse" (121). This discourse is the web of communication between the text of Scripture, the midrashic sage, and the Jewish community. It is the process by which Scripture speaks to the world "now" instead of being heard merely as an echo from the past. The very purpose of midrash is "to reinvoke God as a familiar and intimate presence" (121).

The Hebrew term mashal comes from a root which means both "to rule" and "to resemble." Over time the noun form of the term produced multiple connotations and applications, most related to some illustrative or allegorical literary form. In the Bible, the noun mashal is used to refer to any language used in a figurative way. In biblical usage mashal can mean anything from metaphor to proverb to allegory. It is not until the advent of Rabbinic literature that we see mashal being used exclusively to denote parabolic discourse (Stern 9). Here, mashal is finally understood as a specific exegetical tool that must be applied to a certain context (or metatext) in order to function.

The function of mashal in midrash is not simply illustrative; it is much more complex. Mashal is used in midrash not only to instruct an audience but also to persuade them. It is a religious tool used to convince a certain audience of the "truth" present in a specific scriptural text. In this way, mashal is not only didactic, it is also rhetorical. Its very function is transformative. It is intended to transform its audience by compelling them to process the scriptural passage as it relates to their world and their life. The function of the midrashic exegete is to guide his or her audience across the gap that exists between the literal text of scripture and its figurative meaning in the "here and now." The midrashic exegete accomplishes this task by using mashal. In Parables in Midrash, Stern describes the task of midrash in terms of the space between text and meaning. "The midrashic interpreter in this sense is literally a translator: one who carries the text across a divide, who negotiates the space between the text and its comprehension" (44). In this way, midrash is primarily concerned with maintaining the presence of Scripture in the contemporary world of the Jewish community. In bridging the gap between the literal and the figurative understanding of the text, midrash is intent on bridging the gap between the words of Scripture and the reader of Scripture, of spanning the distance between signifier and signified.

Over time, the use of mashal in the Hebrew tradition changed dramatically. Beginning with its use in the midrash of the early Rabbinic Period, mashal was strictly understood in the context of exegesis and ethical instruction. The culmination of the mashal in the midrashic tradition is the great midrashic compilations of the Middle Ages (especially the Rabbah collections of the 10th and 11th centuries).

With the rise of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, mashal was used in a distinctly different fashion. The medieval kabbalists transformed mashal into a "literary vessel of esoteric doctrine" (Stern 217). Emphasis on the esoteric in Kabbalah produced a "strategy of hermeneutical concealment" in which the mashal functioned as a locked box that could only be opened by a select group of learned scholars who held the key (217). In certain cases, meshalim (the plural of mashal) were used in kabbalistic discourse as a means of misleading or intentionally confusing the unlearned, or under-learned, reader. In the kabbalist tradition, the distinction between inside and outside the realm of meaning is emphasized. At this time, meshalim did not function as tools for the instruction of wisdom so much as they functioned as narratives about wisdom (223). In kabbalistic discourse mashal is strictly directed toward the absent and the unknown. Meshalim serve as a passage to a privileged realm of wisdom accessible only to the initiated.

During the rise of Chassidic Judaism that took place in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, distinguished rabbis used meshalim as a method for conveying their teachings. The Chassidic tradition understood mashal as primarily a didactic tool (Naveh 108). Scripture was still understood as the foundation of truth and authority, but the aim in using mashal was less about exegetical or ethical instruction and more about spiritual growth. Here, as was the case in Kabbalah, the mashal has become detached from its exegetical origins, and instead was rarely if ever used in conjunction with Scripture.

The history of the mashal in Hebrew tradition bemoans a widening gap between signified and signifier (literal and figurative) in Hebrew tradition that will eventually become the thematic basis for much of Kafka's work. Parable is fundamentally a form of coded discourse. The audience of a parable must be conversant in the context (and metatext) with which a parable is juxtaposed. If not, the ability to interpret a parable, let alone acquire the wisdom that is the intended product of parabolic discourse, is highly improbable. The ability to produce significant meaning from a parable is directly related to the contextual and metatextual knowledge of the addressee. Naveh defines this quality of parable in terms of referentiality. For Naveh, parable is uniquely "auto-referential": "in parables, the internal system of veridiction, with its syntactic and semantic components, is left in charge to tell the addressee whether his or her decoding is accurate or not" (25). Parable is inherently polysemantic. It is capable of providing multiple meanings and multiple levels of meaning. The more competent the parabolic reader, the more he or she will understand, the more meaning he or she will take from the text.

This link between contextual and metatextual knowledge and significant meaning is critical to understanding how the gap between parable and addressee has widened significantly since parable was first used to illustrate the sin of David. Parable used in conjunction with Scripture, as a means for scriptural interpretation, places the parable directly (and literally) alongside its metatext. Set within a specifically religious homiletic discourse, as midrashic meshalim were often positioned, places the parabolic narrative within an obvious and apparent context. Over time Hebrew tradition has witnessed the parable being slowly wrenched further and further away from a readily apparent context. The result has been that parable has become less about bridging the gap between literal and figurative, between narrative and wisdom, and more an effort to point to the gap as that which separates the few from the many.

This fissure between parable as access to wisdom and parable as a discussion about access to wisdom is best illustrated by a parable from Maimonides, the Medieval Jewish sage. Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) was a twelfth century philosopher and codifier of Jewish religious law who is indisputably the most important and influential Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages. His "Parable of the Palace" represents not only the longstanding tradition of the palace as seat of truth and wisdom, but also the growing influence of both kabbalistic and philosophical thought on Jewish tradition in the Middle Ages. (5) In Maimonides' version of an ancient parable-type, "the ruler is in his palace, and his subjects are partly within the city and partly outside of the city." The bulk of the narrative describes the varying degrees of proximity to the ruler for the various subjects strewn about the complex array of walls and passages that compose the ruler's habitation. As the narrative builds to a conclusion, a contrast is produced between those close to the emperor and those even closer. And yet, even those subjects who have "entered the inner court" and come closest to the ruler's very presence are not any more capable of seeing or hearing the ruler.
 For after their coming into the inner part of the habitation, it is
 indispensable that they should make another effort; then they will
 be in the presence of the ruler, see him from afar or from nearby,
 or hear the ruler's speech or speak to him.


For Maimonides it is not enough to enter the palace to hear the words of the ruler. It is not even enough to enter the inner-most rooms of the ruler's private quarters. It is only after the subject has made "another effort" that he or she will be in the presence of the ruler and able to hear him. This extra effort is not described. What one must do to take that extra step and gain access to the ruler and to the truth is unknown. Or more correctly, it is left only to those who know. What is the extra-effort needed to access the truth? For Maimonides, if you know, you know.

Maimonides' "Parable of the Palace" is unique in a long tradition of parables of the palace. To begin with, it does not belong to any specific context. During the height of the midrashic tradition, parables of the palace were utilized to explore and explain a specific scriptural passage. They were placed in a specific context and in conjunction with a specific metatext. Not only does Maimonides remove his parable from a scriptural context, but the very message of the narrative points toward the inaccessibility of scriptural truth for any but the privileged few who "know" Maimonides' parable does not provide access to wisdom or truth; instead it merely states the inaccessibility of such truth for the un-initiated. This parable is not a vehicle for enlightenment or transformation; it is a metaphysical statement about the nature and location of truth.

In this long, complex, and evolving tradition of parabolic discourse Kafka found an appropriate narrative vehicle to explore the act of meaning-making. In parable, narrative, tradition, and the possibility of truth converge. And in this union, Kafka located a unique opportunity to not only investigate his own relationship to his Jewish heritage; he also located the opportunity to challenge the very stability of this unity. In Kafka, the act of parable construction becomes an experiment which attempts both to penetrate this union of narrative, tradition, and truth and to test those bonds that appear to hold them together.

IN a letter to Gershom Scholem dated June 12, 1938, Walter Benjamin asserts that "Kafka's work presents a sickness of tradition" ("Some Reflections" 143). Parable within the Hebrew tradition had always celebrated the magnificent ubiquity of God. Kafka's parables, in contrast, mourn the absence of God from tradition. The gap between the signified and the ultimate signifier for Kafka had grown into a gaping chasm. In the Hebrew tradition, the message of salvation was found in the process of interpretation. Interpretation was a means to an end. Kafka's texts understand interpretation as nothing more than a means, with no end in sight. The end (the absolute) is a modern impossibility. The pursuit of the "last earthly frontier" had sent the modern world hurtling toward madness. It has left it spiraling out of control in an endless introspection. Kafka's work compels its reader to engage in the process of interpretation but it leaves the reader there, in utero. It is the process alone that the reader is left with at the end of the Kafkan parable. It is the process which is all we have left. Kafka's parabolic discourse is nostalgic in this way. As Benjamin points out in his seminal essay, "Franz Kafka: On the 10th Anniversary of His Death," Kafka does not wish to re-locate or re-construct the bridge from signified to signifier.
 Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables for himself. Yet
 his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the
 contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the
 interpretation of his writings. One has to find one's own way in
 them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily. (124)


Kafka locates readers in a place they have never been before. They are stuck in between what is known and what can possibly be known, between the literal and the figurative. This is why Benjamin states that Kafka's reader must find his or her way. This is what makes Benjamin describe the narrative journey in Kafka as circumspect, cautious, and wary.

By entering and remaining in the gap between the literal and the figurative, between the signified and the signifier, Kafka never allows his stories (or his reader) to navigate the gap completely. To do so would be to point to a stable bridge between the two. It would mean that we had received our messenger and been given access to our message from a dead emperor. It would mean that we had found some way to reconstruct an urn already crumbled to dust.

In his unfinished novel The Trial, Kafka constructs the story of a nearly anonymous man, Joseph K., who is arrested one day for no apparent reason. The story follows K. as he is processed through a complex and befuddling legal system in a desperate attempt to defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. In the midst of this story which depicts one man's helpless struggle to bring reason to an unreasonable situation, Kafka tosses to K. (and to the reader) a parable as one would toss a life ring to a person fallen overboard. Only in this instance, there is no intention of saving K. or the reader. The life preserver is only intended to keep you and K. afloat--and adrift.

This parable has often been removed from The Trial and presented on its own as "Before the Law." In this brief narrative, a man seeks to gain access to the Law, but "before the Law stands a doorkeeper." The doorkeeper denies him immediate access through the door, which presumably leads to the Law, but implies that this prohibition might be contingent. When the man inquires as to the possibility of future access, the doorkeeper responds, "It is possible, but not at the moment." When the man peers around the doorkeeper and through the open door,
 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."


The man is obviously overcome by these comments and instead of forcing the issue takes the stool that is offered by the doorkeeper and seats himself next to the door. The man sits there "for days and years." During these many years the man begs, pleads, and even bribes the doorkeeper in hopes of gaining entrance through the door. He grows old until "his eyesight begins to fail and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are deceiving him." Soon he is on the verge of death, but before he dies he notes to himself that there is one question he has yet to ask the doorkeeper: "Everyone strives to reach the Law, so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper's response ends the parable, "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

Here again Kafka positions his parable within a metatext that is meant to instruct the reader on how to interpret the parable. And yet, as is the case with "The Imperial Message" in relation to "The Great Wall of China," the reader's impulse will be to translate the larger work in terms of the message of the parable. In a reversal of the traditional parable-metatext relationship, Kafka's parables assert themselves as hermeneutical keys for understanding the larger narrative. This is an intentional deception by Kafka. Neither parable is a key to understanding the larger narrative; they merely draw attention to the gap in which the story takes place. Both serve to emphasize the inherent failure that faces the reader in attempting to bridge the text to some significant meaning.

The Law is inaccessible to the man in the parable. The Law is inaccessible to Joseph K in The Trial. This is not new information to the reader of the novel. Following "Before the Law" in the novel is a lengthy debate between K. and the priest who presents him with the parable, as to the meaning of the parable. Their debate centers on the veracity of the doorkeeper and whether he can be considered a champion of the man or an opponent. K. cannot bring himself to trust the doorkeeper, regardless of the priest's assurances. Frustrated, K. asserts that to trust the doorkeeper would be to equate his word with that of the Law.

"No," said the priest, "it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary."

"A melancholy conclusion," said K. "It turns lying into a universal principle." (220)

The Law, just as the message from the emperor, is Kafka's expression of the signifier. It is the absolute made suspect. The truth is no longer possible for Kafka, but our knowledge of its existence makes us sure that it once was. We strive for the truth. And our pursuit always ends in failure. In his letter to Scholem, Benjamin attempted to qualify Kafka's genius, "Kafka's real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility" ("Some Reflections" 143). According to Benjamin, in order to understand the beauty of Kafka "one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of failure" (144). The overwhelming impotence expressed in Kafka's work is, in part, the birth of the modern aesthetic. Benjamin labels this beauty in terms of failure, and it is this failure to connect the external world to his internal world that drove Kafka to explore the space that lay between the two. Once there, he found the landscape strewn with impediments, obstacles, and barriers. Failure in Kafka is the result of the inexpressibility of the inexpressible coupled with the human compulsion continuously to strive toward expressing the inexpressible. We may know it is impossible, but we cannot help but keep trying.

Midrash sought to fill in the gaps of a sacred text that promised nothing but truth. It sought to bridge the gaps not only between and within the stories, but also the gaps between the very words of the text. Kafka was born into a world where the gaps were all that were left. And instead of trying to bridge these gaps, he takes the reader down into them. He forces the reader to investigate the gaps, to look around, to observe, to experience. For Kafka, the gaps are traversed only by means of expectation, not in actuality. We "know" only because we assume that we will, not because we truly do; not because we truly bridge that gap in language or in parable.

Works Cited

Baum, Alwin L. "Parable as Paradox in Kafka's Stories." Modern Critical Views: Franz Kafka. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 151-68.

Benjamin, Walter. "Franz Kafka, On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 111-40.

--. "Some Reflections on Kafka." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 141-45.

Fishbane, Michael. "Inner Biblical Exegesis: Types and Strategies of Interpretation in Ancient Israel." Midrash and Literature. Eds. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, New Haven, CT: Yale U.P., 1986. 19-40.

Kafka, Franz. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Ed. Max Brod. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1991.

--. The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum H. Glazer. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.

--. The Diaries: 1910-1923. Trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg. Ed. Max Brod. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

--. Parables and Paradoxes. New York: Schocken Books, 1958

--. Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

--. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Ed. Max Brod. New York: Schocken, 1937. Naveh, Gila Safran. Biblical Parables and Their modern Re-Creations: From "Apples of Gold in Silver Settings" to "Imperial Messages." Albany, NY: State U. of New York Press, 2000.

Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.

Sokel, Walter H. "Kafka as a Jew." New Literary History 30 (April 1999): 837-53.

--. "Language and Truth in the Two Worlds of Franz Kafka." Modern Critical Views: Franz Kafka. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 169-82.

Stern, David. "Midrash and the Language of Exegesis: A Study of Vayikra Rabbah, Chapter 1 ." Midrash and Literature. Eds. by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1986. 105-126.

--. Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1991.

Notes

(1) In his article, "Inner-Biblical Exegesis: Types and Strategies of Interpretation in Ancient Israel," Michael Fishbane contends that midrashic activity was a critical component of the actual formation of the Hebrew Scriptures. See Midrash and Literature New Haven, Connecticut: Yale U. P., 1986. 19-40.

(2) For a more extensive discussion of the esoteric nature of parables, see David Stem's Parables in Midrash, pp 49-50.

(3) Kafka's relationship with his Jewishness is complex, and as such, is an oft-debated subject within the field of Kafka studies. For a good reading of Kafka's relationship to Judaism (including his experience of the Yiddish theatre troupe) see Walter Sokel, "Kafka as a Jew," in New Literary History 30 (April 1999). 837-53.

(4) For a nearly complete collection of Kafka's parabolic experiments see Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes. New York: Schocken Books, 1958.

(5) The entire text of Maimonides' parable used here is translated by Naveh in Biblical Parables and Their Modern Re-Creations, p 33.
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Title Annotation:Franz Kafka
Author:Powell, Matthew T.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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