Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Franz Kafka's A Little Fable

I mentioned Gnosticism, transcendence, and Harold Bloom in discussing Charles Wright; Bloom discusses Gnosticism, transcendence and the following Kafka fable in Ruin the Sacred Truths, where he calls it "magnificent and appalling." Here is the whole thing:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid. I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
In the 1968 film The Lion in Winter Prince Geoffrey says to Prince Richard "What matters how a man falls," to which he replies "When the fall is all he has, it matters," which is a nice thought, but not Kafka's. Trapped in the prison world of the ancient Gnostics, changing direction, changing your fate, was supposed to provide freedom; for Kafka all that freedom amounts to is a choice of bad ends. What makes Kafka such a genuinely weird reading experience is how this grim outlook expresses itself as an odd sense of humor. We read Kafka's The Trial as a terrifying fable of our own inexpressible and unworldly guilt that we will never be rid of; as The Metamorphosis opens Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has been transformed into a ghastly giant bug, and as in a dream must figure out how he is going to get to work and continue living. This is the point, in school, when we talk about existentialism and the alienation of the twentieth century. But when Kafka read his work to his friends, he and they laughed so hard he had to stop reading to catch his breath. This anecdote, rather than philosophy, is a better thing to have in mind as you read Kafka.

1 comment:

Anarcissie said...

But see the Gospel of Thomas:

'(7) Jesus said: Blessed is the lion which the man shall eat, and the lion become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion shall eat, and the lion become man.'

More about this passage here:

My interpretation is that the Gnostics believed that if A devours B, B becomes part of A, for better or worse -- a kind of cohesive metempsychosis. In any case the fable seems to resonate or allude to the Gospel of Thomas, if it does not exemplify it, rather than entirely contradict it. We need not worry whether Franz ever saw the Gospel of Thomas; other channels were available to him: and his little fable gives off smoky wisps of the dream world.

It may not be entirely irrelevant that a man is the symbol of the Evangelist Matthew, and a lion of Mark. ( The symbols were taken from the Book of Revelations, which is full of suspects, usual and unusual.