Critical Review of Franz Kafka’s Before the Law, a parable within a parable
In using the form of the parable (Kafka had a special talent for parables), Kafka shows he is the equal of the Zen masters, who realized that one way to jar their students towards a consciousness-changing insight was through the use of koans. Kafka’s parables are to Europeans what the koans are to the students of Zen. With parable, as with the koan, the form is everything – content is secondary to form.
Here is an example of a parable from a Buddhist sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
And this is the opening verse from a well-known collection of Zen koans:
The great Way has no gate; There are a thousand different roads.
If you pass through this barrier once, you will walk independently in the universe.
– The Gateless Gate, The Classic Book of Zen Koans1
Some material from the bible could be described as parables.2 With all parables, paradox is the essential element. Paradox directs the reader to look inward for some fresh insight and wisdom. Knowledge may lead to understanding, but never to wisdom.
Kierkegaard valued parables and stories as forms better suited to the study of philosophy. Parables direct the reader to self-examination, provoke self-discovery, and cultivate the capability of developing the self.2
Symbolism in Kafka’s Before the Law
Readers can ponder the many possible meanings for the symbols in Before The Law. The ‘law’ could be: Enlightenment, God, religion, ethics and morals, truth, the meaning of life, your life’s purpose (‘this gate was meant only for you’), the great mystery of the universe, or simply the law – that system of rules used to administer justice. Who is the doorkeeper? And who is the man from the country? And what does the door stand for? The beauty of this work of art is that it speaks to each reader differently. Many readers will be perplexed. And some will simply despise it. Others could be frustrated. It is like a koan. No matter which way you turn to find logic, you find only paradox. And then you might see that trying to make sense of the parable using your logical thinking leads nowhere – leads to a door guarded by a doorkeeper who refuses to let you in. This parable within a parable (as part of the novel The Trial) is intended to perplex.
Two types of possible interpretations of Before the Law
a) Existentialist interpretations:
- Be bold as you follow your life’s journey. You will encounter obstacles and you must push on fearlessly. The man from the country is not barred from entering – he is afraid to enter without permission. No one said it would be easy. There is a price of admission – one must ignore the doorkeeper’s veto. The man from the country decides to wait, thereby neglecting to exercise his existential responsibility.
- You must not submit to the doorkeepers in your life – those who wish to steer you away from your authentic self.
- Rules suck the life out of you – do not let them grind you down to inaction. March past the doorkeeper, and the next, and the next. Fight them if you must.
b) Anti-existentialist (or post-existentialist) interpretations:
- Accepting the mystery of the unknown, foregoing the search for a unifying explanation, allows you to focus on life as it happens in the present. It is pointless to sit and wait for permission to live, while frittering away your life.
- Accepting absurdity and arbitrariness in the world leads to letting go of a need to control your life, to achieve success according to societal expectations, to be somebody rather than to be yourself. Letting go of control leads to inner peace.
Does Kafka’s parable lead to nihilism? No, there is no nihilism here. It is simply suggesting that you cannot sit around waiting for admittance to the law (whatever it is), while wasting your life away. You must live in each moment of time that you are alive as if it is the only moment. Otherwise, like Kafka’s man from the country, you risk living for the sake of the search – a search for something that is not available to you. Do not wait to discover that when most of your life is behind you.
This is the opposite of nihilism – while it annihilates the future and does away with all hope, it affirms the notion that being alive now is all there is. So, be alive, or rather – live! Instead of searching for the law, or truth, or meaning – just live!
The law, or truth, or meaning, can be found in the living of every moment in authentic relationship (Buber, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Camus). There is no need to assume any personal responsibility (Ellison, Sartre, Tillich, Frankl) for anything else.
When one lets go of the search for God, for truth, for purpose or meaning, for a theory of everything, for an explanation of all that is – it is then that one can be free to live with God, with the law, with nature, with oneself, with the world. The gate is made only for you, but there is no path to it. There is no way for you to get there from where you are. It is a gateless gate. Once you pass through the gate that is not there, you are free, because you are no longer looking for the law (truth, meaning, etc.)
Martin Buber loved the Hasidic tales. The one about the three rabbis and a maggid who wishes to save their people from harm, suggests that God (or truth, or the law) does not require religion or rules or prayer. All the fourth rabbi could do was to tell the story. And it was sufficient, “(f)or God made men because he loves stories.” Good stories keep the reader engaged by creating tension, through a complication – something that makes the life of the main character difficult. In Before the Law, a man wants to know the law. He believes it should be available to all. But a doorkeeper tells him he cannot enter, and invites him to wait. Maybe he will be allowed to enter later. And there is the complication. The reader is in suspense. Will the man gain entrance?
Kafka does not provide a satisfactory closure to the complication. At the height of tension – when the man is close to death – the doorkeeper shuts the door. For the reader, the parable has the same ending as the shutting of the door has for the man from the country. Our desire for a happy ending is thwarted. The law is inaccessible to the man from the country. And maybe God, truth, meaning – in a way humans can describe it – is inaccessible to us humans.
What does the work tell me about my own existence?
I love simplicity. But in Art I am drawn to complexity, ambiguity, and paradox. A character in Bergman’s Autum Sonata says she can live in her art, but not in her life. For life is one great paradox. There is no point in letting life pass me by while I search for the doorway to my truth. Truth is here, all the time. Just as it is nowhere, never. Kafka’s simple and yet complex parable is like a Bach piano concerto, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, Rumi’s poetry, Maui surf at sunset, the call of the kookaburra, a child’s laughter. Explanation is not required. Words are unnecessary.
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside.
Rumi (version by Coleman Barks)
In oneself lies the whole world, and if you know how to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either that key or the door to open, except yourself.
- Yamada, Koun, The Gateless Gate, Wisdom Publications, Boston 2004
- Bonsignore, John, In Parables: Teaching Through Parables 12 Legal Studies Forum, 191 (1988)