Saturday, December 10, 2011

Number Thirteen

Ein erstes Zeichen beginnender Erkenntnis ist der Wunsch zu sterben. Dieses Leben scheint unerträglich, ein anderes unerreichbar. Man schämt sich nicht mehr, sterben zu wollen; man bittet, aus der alten Zelle, die man haßt, in eine neue gebracht zu werden, die man erst hassen lernen wird. Ein Rest von Glauben wirkt dabei mit, während des Transportes werde zufällig der Herr durch den Gang kommen, den Gefangenen ansehen und sagen: »Diesen sollt ihr nicht wieder einsperren. Er kommt zu mir.«

One of the first signs of the beginnings of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to be moved from the old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will only in time come to hate. In this there is also a residue of belief that during the move the master will chance to come along the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: "This man is not to be locked up again. He is to come with me." [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A first indication of glimmering understanding is the desire to die. This life seems unendurable, another unreachable. One no longer feels ashamed of wanting to die; one petitions to be moved from one's old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will come to hate. A last vestige of belief is involved here, too, for during the move might not the prison governor by chance walk down the passage, see the prisoner, and say: "Don't lock this man up again. He's coming with me." [Hofmann]

Commentary

The desire to die shows understanding is only just beginning. This is entirely equivocal, but I believe it means that a desire for death is a kind of maturity, like accepting death, and it comes about in part because one despairs of changing life. If "another life" refers to the beyond, then the desire to die arises not because one wants to reach the new life but because one believes one can't. Unreachable -- this could mean that the new life beyond ... and we should not assume this is what's meant but only include the possibility that it is ... doesn't exist, but what is unreachable usually exists, but is out of reach. Perhaps, as Kafka discussed in the previous aphorism, it is a matter of point of view.

Is it that one tries to find a new life but despairs that it will be really new, is all too sure it will only be as painful as the old? Being ashamed of the desire to die is here understood as resignation, accepting a painful life and refusing to try to alter it, so the change of cells does seem to mean death and not simply a change of life. The belief in actual change is the residue of something fuller, almost certainly the illusion or fantasy that one is beginning to know for what it is. Perhaps, by some chance, there is another life after all. The motives of the governor cannot enter into consideration, grace or works. I don't think the governor's own confinement to the prison is relevant either, because he belongs to a wholly different, messianic order.

Why doesn't the prisoner petition for his release, or an end to prisons? Is the wish to die actually a meager wish? Perhaps the problem with this wish is that it isn't a real wish at all. Wanting a new cell, this implies the one who wants death dares not ask for freedom but only for something that is more or less the same, not real change. Another arrangement of familiar old factors, nothing new.

1 comment:

Vivienne Roberts said...

It seems to me that Kafka does not mean the wish for physical death but for death of the ego, which separates itself from the rest of humanity. Man must be free, yet he is held in shackles by his inability to see beyond his limited mind, blinded by desire and fear. The first glimmering of understanding is to see the whole structure of the self and its ways, how it is the creator of conflict. In fact, it is an evil thing since it is self-enclosed, and therefore cannot love. Kafka said that self-knowledge is a duty, and he was right. As you said, this is no doubt why in Kafka's stories there is a sole protagonist struggling with his mind, and the struggle is the struggle of the ego. There is no point in changing cells, the air would be equally bad, you have to break free. The hope to be saved is a residue of belief and it too must be discarded with the death of ego.
One is reminded of The Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, where the Inquisitor banishes the Christ of wanting to set man free.