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MLN 121.3 (2006) 647-678

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Burial Without Resurrection.

On Kafka's Legend "Before the Law"

Cornell University

Why, of all places, is the legend "Before the Law" narrated, interpreted and discussed "In the Dom,"1 to quote the chapter's title? If you expect that the various attempts to trace that story back to kabalistic or Chassidic sources would at least ask, if not answer that question, you will be disappointed. As usual, the author's civil and religious identities predetermine certain questions while excluding others. Kafka was a Jew. Hence there is no sufficient reason to explain why a decisive event in his Trial is situated in a church. In order to lift the taboo we have to shift the focus, at least preliminarily, from such commonplaces as Kafka and Judaism or Kafka and the Kabala2 to the problem "Kafka and Christianity."

Since Roland Reuss and Peter Staengle, in the one and only valid Kafka edition for a long time to come,3 have liberated the chaos of this [End Page 647] author's work from Gutenberg galaxies editorial phantasms, we are, finally, able to see patterns emerge. Within the material of The Trial, one can determine roughly three groups of manuscripts.4 There is, first, a complex of texts which starts with K.'s arrest and leads via his assault on Fräulein Bürstner and "The Flogger" chapter straight to "The End." Then, there are the texts which describe his encounters with the court: "First Investigation;" "Empty Conference Room;" "Lawyer Fabricant Painter;" "Merchant Beck [sic!] Dismissal of the Lawyer;" and "Uncle Leni." According to the Reuss/Staengele edition, these last two chapters were either written in that temporal order, hence with respect to the plot's chronology in reverse, or else simultaneously. It should also be noted that the one which is entitled "Uncle Leni" bears the crossed-out mark "End" at the bottom of one page.5 Since the manuscript continues for a few more pages, it is not only unclear whether this word was written down immediately or inserted later, but also at what point it was deleted. The last of the three sections is also the last text written. It is the chapter "In the Dom."

The common thread holding together all of these Penelopean attempts to tie and then untie again the various strands of a consistent story is "the little Chinese poem," which Kafka, between November 24, 1912, and January 21 and 22, 1913, first quotes and then subjects to an extensive exegesis in his letters to Felice Bauer.6 [End Page 648]

        In the Dead of Night

Bent over my book in the cold night I
    forgot to go to bed in time.
The perfumes of my gold embroidered quilt
    have evaporated already, the fireplace is extinct.
My beautiful mistress, who hitherto has struggled
    to control her wrath, snatches away the lamp,
And asks: Do you know how late it is?7

The three fundamental oppositions unfolded in the poem are: man and woman; book and bed; light and darkness. In Kafka's reading, they undergo a striking series of metamorphoses, in the course of which the poem turns from "beautiful" (F 257) to "horrible." (F 263)

1. It is "proof that nightshifts are the privilege of men everywhere in the world, even in China." (F 118) This is the reason why, "[h]ere, as opposed to China, it's the man who wants to take the light away from his lover," in order to prevent her from writing late at night, and that, although "he avidly grabs" these same "letters from the mailman." (F 158)

2. If Felice were only to come near him, Kafka would have to stop writing. For "you cannot be lonesome enough when you write, it cannot be quiet enough around you when you write, the night is still not night enough then."8 Hence "the best way of life would be to be incarcerated with paper, writing tools and a lamp within the innermost room of a spacious locked up cellar." (F...


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