Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bricks in the Wall -- Story #2

STORY: "The Great Wall of China" by Franz Kafka, translated from German by Willa and Edwin Muir


BASICALLY: If a Chinese man had actually written this during the construction of the Great Wall, this piece could just be considered an essay on the manner of the wall’s construction, the character of the Chinese empire, and a few philosophical explorations. But it was written by a German man in 1917.

And that German man, Franz Kafka — author of such uplifting and optimistic works as The Trial and Metamorphosis — chose to write about the wall as if he were an aging man in ancient China, reflecting on paper about how exactly he had helped to build it. The piece could have just as easily, with some minor omissions, been a readable, apparently factual article about the origins of the Great Wall of China. With the deletion of the rare first-person-voice appearances, it could have been a speculative historical essay. But as it is it’s a story. A genre-bending one, bringing to mind Robbe-Grillet’s plotless and purely descriptive story “The Escalator,” but a story nonetheless, and one with a lot going on in it.

But the story of what? The main character talks about why it was that the wall was built in sections, for the first half of the essay, and that’s something worth noting, because this story is built in sections too. Just as, as Herodotus said, “Character is fate,” who we are dictates in large part what will happen to us, so too is the subject of this story also its structure, its form, and its thematic content.

After a time, the story digresses from its previous exploration to daydream a bit about a theoretical emperor who sends a herald to give a message to you—yes, the second-person POV comes into play here, in an interesting way—but that messenger can never reach you, because he is much like Zeno’s arrow in the famous paradox, which every time it has traveled half the total distance, it will have to travel half of what’s left, and of what’s then left, and so on ad infinitum.

The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
It’s all a bit...what’s the word...Kafkaesque? No. Something else. What’s really interesting to me, is that this digression has also been published alone elsewhere as “A Message from the Emperor.” This story is actually an infinite number of stories, an infinite set to be divided infinite times in an infinite number of ways. I thought I was reading one story. It turns out I was reading two. Maybe I was reading a million. Or ten billion.

In this way, it’s a beautiful metaphorical meditation on history itself, hence, perhaps, the historical subject. The story of the building of the Wall can be told in a sentence. But what of all the stories of all the builders and of all the places it passed through and of all the lives it affected? History may be as fractal as cosmology. Just as the Wall was composed of who-knows-how-many-millions of stones, so too is its story composed of stories, some of them perhaps, impossibly, bigger than the biggest story, than the overall matrix.

Such inquiry can be disorienting, and discouraging in its unendingness. So perhaps don’t follow it all the way to the end, the story suggests.

In those days many people, and among them the best, had a secret maxim which ran: Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point, and then avoid further meditation. A very wise maxim, which moreover was elaborated in a parable that was later often quoted: Avoid further meditation, but not because it might be harmful; it is not at all certain that it would be harmful. What is harmful or not harmful has nothing to do with the question. Consider rather the river in spring. It rises until it grows mightier and nourishes more richly the soil on the long stretch of its banks, still maintaining its own course until it reaches the sea, where it is all the more welcome because it is a worthier ally. - Thus far may you urge your meditations on the decrees of the high command. - But after that the river overflows its banks, loses outline and shape, slows down the speed of its current, tries to ignore its destiny by forming little seas in the interior of the land, damages the fields, and yet cannot maintain itself for long in its new expanse, but must run back between its banks again, must even dry up wretchedly in the hot season that presently follows. - Thus far may you not urge your meditations on the decrees of the high command.
Later, after some discussion about rumors surrounding the wall — (that it was to be a pedestal for a new Tower of Babel) and some beautiful writing about the vastness of China and the remoteness of everything, about how “the building of the wall in particular, with its abundance of human material, provided a man of sensibility with the opportunity of traversing the souls of almost all the provinces” — the story ends in the middle of an inquiry into the attitudes of the emperor; it asks only up until a certain point, and then avoids further meditation.

This adds yet another piece of evidence of this piece’s tightly woven thematic cohesion, and suggests that a danger of such a philosophical focus on perfection and order risks the loss of actual human narrative, of the story and the stories behind the history.


Lisa said...

Wow, Mike--Kafka! I bow to your prodigious powers of making sense of one of the strangest writers ever to blow the minds of mere mortals like myself. I've never thought of him as a math-y writer before, though, so the fractal connection is really intriguing me. It seems to connect him to Calvino, maybe Borges, in a way I hadn't considered before. Thanks for this.

Melissa said...

I'm sure y'all read the recent NY Times Magazine article about the Kafkaesque story of Kafka's papers. Awesome read. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/magazine/26kafka-t.html?ref=franzkafka

Lisa said...

Melissa, that WAS a great read. Thanks for the link! I feel a little sorry for the cat lady, though.

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