Saturday, January 28, 2012

Number Fifty-One

Es bedurfte der Vermittlung der Schlange: das Böse kann den Menschen verführen, aber nicht Mensch werden.

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

It took the intercession of the serpent: Evil can seduce a man, but not become human. [Hofmann]


Both translations mark this aphorism cancelled.

So the indestructable part mentioned in the previous aphorism is actually what is human, and precisely this would be the divine endowment. Evil is never total, but must coexist with good.

This aphorism suggests to me that Kafka was trying to make sense of the story of the fall, specifically to account for the involvement of the serpent. If man falls through his own failing, then why include a seducer as well? Why complicate matters by making man the accomplice of an inhuman agency? It must be because goodness can't be goodness, nor can it be as innocent of any concept of evil as Adam and Eve were, and yet give rise to evil somehow. Evil requires contamination from an external source.

It's interesting that the word used here was Vermittlung, which can mean arrangement, and even translates to office on some occasions. Mediation or intercession are words that strike me as pretty strictly geometrical and abstract, touching only on the position of the serpent, but these other possibilities put the serpent in the position of an arranger or official. It is interesting to speculate what this perhaps unintended nuance might mean when we think of Kafka's courts and castles. There is in each case a mediation between a foreground figure, albeit one whose availability to us as readers should not be taken for granted simply on that account, and another agency so remote that it can't even be included in the farthest reaches of the background: the law, the judge, the castle. Between the attenuated foreground and utterly obscure background yawns a boundless middle ground of mediation, offices, messengers, specialist amateurs, other clients, support staff ...

It's tempting to say that everything gets lost in mediation, until you try to get a handle on the foreground or background figures; then you find they are so entirely lacking in anything of their own that it is only in mediation that they begin to take on outlines. Obviously, what lies beyond the court or the castle is so far off and obscure that its existence can only be taken on faith, but who was Josef K before he was accused? Even the details of his former life are revealed only in the oblique light of the court, and his existence after the accusation was made is understood entirely in terms of his connection to the court. The K of The Castle is even more of a sphinx; there is nothing even remotely like a satisfactory "psychological" accounting for his actions. Any adaptation of either novel that insists on casting these characters as protagonists in any way will fail.

Why was this aphorism cancelled? I think it must have been because Kafka doesn't want to make such a strong connection between the folkloric figure of the devil and the mediation that so interests him. Is mediation evil? Even if it doesn't set itself the task of destroying others, doesn't exhibit any malice? So perhaps this is something he wanted to work out a bit further.

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