Monday, February 20, 2012

Number Sixty-Six

Er ist ein freier und gesicherter Bürger der Erde, denn er ist an eine Kette gelegt, die lang genug ist, um ihm alle irdischen Räume frei zu geben, und doch nur so lang, daß nichts ihn über die Grenzen der Erde reißen kann. Gleichzeitig aber ist er auch ein freier und gesicherter Bürger des Himmels, denn er ist auch an eine ähnlich berechnete Himmelskette gelegt. Will er nun auf die Erde, drosselt ihn das Halsband des Himmels, will er in den Himmel, jenes der Erde. Und trotzdem hat er alle Möglichkeiten und fühlt es; ja, er weigert sich sogar, das Ganze auf einen Fehler bei der ersten Fesselung zurückzuführen.

He is a free and secure citizen of this earth, for he is attached to a chain that is long enough to make all areas of the earth accessible to him, and yet only so long that nothing can pull him over the edges of the earth. At the same time, however, he is also a free and secure citizen of heaven, for he is also attached to a similarly calculated heavenly chain. Thus, if he wants to get down to earth, he is choked by the heavenly collar and chain; if he wants to get into heaven, he is choked by the earthly one. And in spite of this he has all the possibilities, and feels that it is so; indeed, he even refuses to attribute the whole thing to a mistake in the original chaining. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

He is a free and secure citizen of the world because he is on a chain that is long enough to allow him access to all parts of the earth, and yet not so long that he could be swept over the edge of it. At the same time he is also a free and secure citizen of heaven because he is also attached to a similar heavenly chain. If he wants to go to earth, the heavenly manacles will throttle him, if he wants to go to heaven, the earthly manacles will. But for all that, all possibilities are open to him, as he is well aware, yes, he even refuses to believe the whole thing is predicated on a mistake going back to the time of his first enchainment. [Hofmann]


Free and in chains; doubly free, on earth and in heaven, and doubly chained by each. His freedom in either domain is limited by the length of the chain, which luckily is no longer or shorter than is necessary to cover the entire earth right on up to but not over the edge. Since the heavenly chain is similar, that means he can go all over heaven, too, right up to the edge. It's unusual to think of heaven with an edge, but it must have at least one, to divide it from the earth.

The word citizen has a sterile, abstract quality that doesn't do justice to the parochial nuance associated with Bürger. The word suits the limitations of the chain. He has all the possibilities, even if he has no way of realizing them.

This state of affairs, it seems to me, is the most characteristic of Kafka. It isn't just about being neither here nor there, because the person in question is always also both here and there, both already and neither one yet. Kafka's writing has far less to do with now and then, and deals almost exclusively with already and not yet. Again and again he divorces possibility and accomplishment, so that what is accomplished happens without apparently realizing any possibility, and what is possible will never happen, and yet not cease to be possible.

What is possible can never happen, because it ceases to be a possibility the moment it is realized, but this is just a stupid logic trick. I don't believe Kafka wanted to waste his time pretending that reality abides by logic. Instead, I think he returns to this divorce because it is his experience, and readers return to Kafka because this is their experience as well; possibility becomes an endless game of keep-away.

Mistake is another idea that looms over Kafka's writing. Mistakes are much less important than sins to the usual way of thinking, but in Kafka this seems to be reversed. Unnoticed and unconscious oversights are far more serious in their consequences than deliberate sins. Ordinarily, sin is attributed to man's failure to use his free will correctly, because man's will is corrupted. But to this other way of thinking, the problem isn't with man's will, or rather the problem isn't that man wills to have wrong things, but instead that man doesn't will consistently enough to pay sufficient attention to what he's doing so as to avoid mistakes.

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