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Kafka's China and the Parable of Parables

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 325-337 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0080

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 325-337

I should like to begin and end this essay with a parable; one that is both dizzying and familiar; all the more dizzying perhaps for being so familiar. What happens in between my beginning and my end will be not so much an interpretation of the parable or a commentary on it as an unravelling of it, an exploration of one of the spaces the parable opens up. We could see the parable, even with all the vertigo it offers, as a seamark, or known face, a remembered gesture: we look at it, we go away, we travel (to China), we come back. It has not changed, but perhaps we have. The parable is about parables, but then, as has been shrewdly said, all parables are. It is by Franz Kakfa, probably written in 1922-1929, first published in 1931.

Many complain [the parable says] that the words of the wise are again and again only 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 to some actual place, which we could just about do if the result was worth the journey; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something he too cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say only 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.
Thereupon a man said: Why are you so reluctant? If you followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that free 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.

We might call the space this parable opens up -- one of the spaces, the space I want to explore -- the space of reading. Reading as a habit, an addiction to understanding and bewilderment; and if we did our topic would then be, in Geoffrey Hartman's phrase, the fate of reading. There is of course an interesting double meaning in this haunting phrase. It is not only that reading has a fate, that things happen to it, that it occurs in history; it is also that reading is a fate, one lives it as an adventure, a form of happiness or a form of risk, even a form of damage. It is not something other than life, it is life, or a piece of it. No one has understood this better than Hartman: "It is almost a mode of life, something you cannot shake off, something that follows and pursues you. Reading is fate: we are like characters in a certain kind of mystery story, who are drawn unwillingly into a plot that we alone, rather than the official investigator, can unriddle." My essay attempts to build on this understanding, particularly on Hartman's paradoxical sense that the habit of reading leads to an interest in unreadability -- where the unreadable is quite different from the unread, or the brutally misread, or the incomprehensible.

First, a few remarks on the narrative form and tilt of the parable -- in the spirit of Hartman's principle that an attention to form is not the worst way of getting beyond formalism. The parable is a fully dramatized piece of work: there are speakers but no detachable authorial voice beyond those of the speakers: there are the many, then a one [einer], then another [ein anderer]. There are three positions here -- at least three -- but no position outside them, no position that is not caught up in the play of meanings in front of us. Or rather, there is a position outside them, but it seems to me blinder than any position needs to be or ought to be. Attending to the play of meanings, as we are about to do, is of course a position beyond that of the particular players in...


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