Monday, November 19, 2012

The Parable Of The Doorkeeper*


Franz Kafka (1915):
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has also come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it."

The original:
Vor Dem Gesetz

Vor dem Gesetz steht ein Türhüter. Zu diesem Türhüter kommt ein Mann vom Lande und bittet um Eintritt in das Gesetz. Aber der Türhüter sagt, daß er ihm jetzt den Eintritt nicht gewähren könne. Der Mann überlegt und fragt dann, ob er also später werde eintreten dürfen. »Es ist möglich«, sagt der Türhüter, »jetzt aber nicht.« Da das Tor zum Gesetz offensteht wie immer und der Türhüter beiseite tritt, bückt sich der Mann, um durch das Tor in das Innere zu sehn. Als der Türhüter das merkt, lacht er und sagt: »Wenn es dich so lockt, versuche es doch, trotz meines Verbotes hineinzugehn. Merke aber: Ich bin mächtig. Und ich bin nur der unterste Türhüter. Von Saal zu Saal stehn aber Türhüter, einer mächtiger als der andere. Schon den Anblick des dritten kann nicht einmal ich mehr ertragen.« Solche Schwierigkeiten hat der Mann vom Lande nicht erwartet; das Gesetz soll doch jedem und immer zugänglich sein, denkt er, aber als er jetzt den Türhüter in seinem Pelzmantel genauer ansieht, seine große Spitznase, den langen, dünnen, schwarzen tatarischen Bart, entschließt er sich, doch lieber zu warten, bis er die Erlaubnis zum Eintritt bekommt. Der Türhüter gibt ihm einen Schemel und läßt ihn seitwärts von der Tür sich niedersetzen. Dort sitzt er Tage und Jahre. Er macht viele Versuche, eingelassen zu werden, und ermüdet den Türhüter durch seine Bitten. Der Türhüter stellt öfters kleine Verhöre mit ihm an, fragt ihn über seine Heimat aus und nach vielem andern, es sind aber teilnahmslose Fragen, wie sie große Herren stellen, und zum Schlusse sagt er ihm immer wieder, daß er ihn noch nicht einlassen könne. Der Mann, der sich für seine Reise mit vielem ausgerüstet hat, verwendet alles, und sei es noch so wertvoll, um den Türhüter zu bestechen. Dieser nimmt zwar alles an, aber sagt dabei: »Ich nehme es nur an, damit du nicht glaubst, etwas versäumt zu haben.« Während der vielen Jahre beobachtet der Mann den Türhüter fast ununterbrochen. Er vergißt die andern Türhüter, und dieser erste scheint ihm das einzige Hindernis für den Eintritt in das Gesetz. Er verflucht den unglücklichen Zufall, in den ersten Jahren rücksichtslos und laut, später, als er alt wird, brummt er nur noch vor sich hin. Er wird kindisch, und, da er in dem jahrelangen Studium des Türhüters auch die Flöhe in seinem Pelzkragen erkannt hat, bittet er auch die Flöhe, ihm zu helfen und den Türhüter umzustimmen. Schließlich wird sein Augenlicht schwach, und er weiß nicht, ob es um ihn wirklich dunkler wird, oder ob ihn nur seine Augen täuschen. Wohl aber erkennt er jetzt im Dunkel einen Glanz, der unverlöschlich aus der Türe des Gesetzes bricht. Nun lebt er nicht mehr lange. Vor seinem Tode sammeln sich in seinem Kopfe alle Erfahrungen der ganzen Zeit zu einer Frage, die er bisher an den Türhüter noch nicht gestellt hat. Er winkt ihm zu, da er seinen erstartenden Körper nicht mehr aufrichten kann Der Türhüter muß sich tief zu ihm hinunterneigen, denn der Größenunterschied hat sich sehr zuungunsten des Mannes verändert. »Was willst du denn jetzt noch wissen?« fragt der Türhüter, »du bist unersättlich.« »Alle streben doch nach dem Gesetz«, sagt der Mann, »wieso kommt es, daß in den vielen Jahren niemand außer mir Einlaß verlangt hat?« Der Türhüter erkennt, daß der Mann schon an seinem Ende ist, und, um sein vergehendes Gehör noch zu erreichen, brüllt er ihn an: »Hier konnte niemand sonst Einlaß erhalten, denn dieser Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt. Ich gehe jetzt und schließe ihn.«
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*Doorkeeper or gatekeeper?  The original German is Türhüter, a compound word meaning door + guard.** German has two words Tür and Tor which mean door and gate, respectively. Both stem from the same root and are obviously cognate with "door." Kafka would have used doorkeeper instead of gatekeeper, but the metaphorical gatekeeper is more entrenched in English.

**hüter is cognate with the English word/concept "to heed."

29 comments:

  1. I am living this parable right now.

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    1. The most comforting and humane comment of all, L.

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  3. Well, a path not taken is a path never known.So how many paths will You journey on before you expire.

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    1. A few more, I hope. You? And welcome to this little corner.

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  4. Congrats on the Instalanche!

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  5. And it is a powerful parable.

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  6. Hey, congrats, chick!

    I'm not sure I get this parable, but I like it anyway.

    I may just sit here a while on this stool and try to figure it all out...

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    1. Darcy: I think the parable is Rorschach test, meant to show the reader something personal as well as universal. For me it's the objective barrier I faced trying to enter patent law as scientific bumpkin. That is why I wrote the blog post in the first place. I'm putting myself through that again.

      OTOH, it's the faceless bureaucracy frustrating everyone--which is why I linked it in a comment on Althouse to a story she wrote about Benghazi and the faceless DNI. I suspect is where it got noticed first--so I owe her thanks for her forum.

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    2. Thank you! I really didn't get it, but my attempt at subtle humor also missed. :P

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  7. A variation: High in the Himalayas in a cave lives the guru known as the All-Knowing guru. One day, crawling slowly and painfully on all fours, a pilgrim arrives and collapses at the guru's feet.

    The pilgrim is ragged and starving, and having searched for the guru the whole world over for forty long years, is now old and near death.

    He gazes upward at the guru, and through his parched, cracked lips he whispers, "You are the one who knows the meaning of life?"

    The guru, tenderly bending over the trembling seeker, gently answers, "Yes, my son ...life is ...a river."

    The seeker quickly props himself up on an elbow and repeats "Life is a RIVER?"

    The guru, lifting his eyebrows in surprise, answers, "You mean, it's NOT a river?"

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    1. Your parable lacks the meaner edge of Kafka's but in the end presents the same scarecrow/tinman/cowardly lion "you had it all along in you power" message.

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  8. I hope somebody will explain the meaning - sigh.

    I don't got it.

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    1. I don't got it

      Maybe you do got what it takes--you just have to apply yourself again or try a different door. Not saying it's an easy parable to understand.

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  9. Insty, in addition to being the world's worst photographer while thinking, in a drunken stupor that he is the greatest, is also a law prof, which makes this parable all about him. His ego knows no bounds, just as his eye has no training.

    Hey Glenn, how about posting some more out-of-focus bar pictures - that's where you live, right?

    But back to the issue at hand - congrats on the linkage, CL - you are a star!

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    1. Sixty: I could use your advice on sanding concrete--which grit is best?

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    2. Wow, tough question, which raises many more questions - where is said concrete located, what is it used for, what kind of aggregate is in it, what finish will be applied, how much has to be removed using abrasives, and so on.

      If I had to sand concrete I would use the finest grit I could to start with, use good dust collection and a respirator. I think a diamond abrasive will give you the best results in the final stages.

      I wish you well, sounds like a tough job.

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    3. Outdoors, poured concrete bar top. It's pretty smooth already, but I want it to look and feel like a finished garage floor: link

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    4. Hmm, interesting. I would start with, yeah, I know, how predictable, 60 grit on a random orbit sander. Watch the progress, then move progressively up through about 150 grit. At that point I would start applying sealer - whatever kind you prefer to work with, then sand that after it dries.

      Apply more, sand more, using ever finer grits until you get the finish you want.

      The process consists of sanding the concrete as smooth as possible, then sand the finish. Finish is easier to sand and ultimately what your eye sees.

      Hope this helps.

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  10. Consider the times and circumstances that caused Kafka to write this parable. Those that don't know history are doomed to repeat it.

    Ah well. Interesting times.

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    1. Yes. Click on my tag "1915" and read some of the real life horrors.

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  11. I assume that the next parable shows the old man's son applying to become a gatekeeper?

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  12. The gateway was always open. The man begged for entry but he never struggled with the gatekeeper, either physically or by argument, for something he believed was his right. It was his personal gateway, so it was also his personal gatekeeper. His own fear and lack of resolve was the gatekeeper and it stopped him effortlessly.

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  13. His own fear and lack of resolve was the gatekeeper and it stopped him effortlessly.

    This.

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    1. The story is all that. What it is not is an excuse for giving up.

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  14. At first take it's bleak & pessimistic, a parable of failure & waste --he wasted his life because he failed to ask the question ("Where IS everybody?") in time.

    But had he asked it timely, there'd be no story --no parable.

    Then we-the-people would have to cope with all the human failure and wastage that would never have happened if only we'd had the parable.

    So, the theme, could one say, is 'redemption through sacrifice'?

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  15. Kill the gatekeeper. Never let a bureaucrat tell you, 'no.'

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  16. Hey, my father was born in 1915.

    Oh, wait, never mind...

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