Kafka’s Parable, or, Literature Between Past and Future

On February 12, 2015 by admin

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Supriya Chaudhuri

Suhita Sinha Roy Memorial Lecture, Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi, 9 January 2015. This lecture was delivered in the evening of 9 January, Professor Jasodhara Bagchi having passed away in hospital that morning. It was a long day of great grief and bitterness, ending with this formal, pre-arranged public occasion. For me it was an occasion of profound sadness and double remembrance, a ‘speaking to spirits’, as perhaps all memorial lectures should be.   


I was recently asked to lecture on Hannah Arendt, and I found myself re-reading her 1961 book of essays, Between Past and Future, where she quotes this parable from Kafka:

He has two antagonists: the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that some time in an unguarded moment – and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet – he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other.

Kafka’s parables, says Arendt, ‘unique perhaps in this respect in literature, are real παραβολαί, thrown alongside and around the incident like rays of light which, however, do not illuminate its outward appearance but possess the power of X-rays to lay bare its inner structure that, in our case, consists of the hidden processes of the mind.’ I am not quite sure what Arendt meant by ‘incident’ here, since no actual event is specified: rather, the story itself gives us the structure of an incident which remains partly hypothetical, projected in the parable’s dream-like conclusion. In the tale, an unnamed ‘he’ is pressed forward by an antagonist from behind, and pushed back by an antagonist from the front. He fights both, not unaided, for ‘the first supports him in his fight with the second … and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first.’ Yet, as Kafka says, it is not just a fight between the two antagonists, since ‘he’ too is present, and who really knows what his intentions are? But he has a dream, or a hope – that in a dark night, he would be able to jump out of the line of combat and watch, like an umpire, while the two antagonists fight each other.


I will return to this parable and what it appears to illuminate. But let us begin with an obscurity, for the dream presents us with a textual difficulty I have not yet been able to resolve. The story Arendt cites is taken from a set of untitled aphorisms entered in Kafka’s diary between the 6th of January and the 29th of February, 1920. All the sheets on which they were written, except the first, were then torn out of the diary, possibly when he sent his diaries to Milena Jesenská (with whom, as is well known, he formed an intense attachment, and who translated his work into Czech). The ‘Notes from the year 1920’ were included in volume 5 of Kafka’s Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Max Brod and published in New York in 1946 by Schocken Verlag, which is the edition Arendt used. It is a revised and expanded version of the first 5 volumes of the Prague edition of Kafka’s Gesammelte Schriften, published in 1935-37 by Heinrich Mercy Sohn. Arendt quotes the German passage in its entirety, and notes that she has slightly modified Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation, which also appeared in New York in 1946 in a collection named The Great Wall of China (Arendt 227-28):

Er hat zwei Gegner: Der erste bedrängt ihn von hinten, vom Ursprung her. Der zweite verwehrt ihm den Weg nach vorn. Er kämpft mit beiden. Eigentlich unterstützt ihn der erste im Kampf mit dem Zweiten, denn er will ihn nach vorn drängen und ebenso unterstützt ihn der zweite im Kampf mit dem Ersten; denn er treibt ihn dock zurück. So ist es aber nur theoretisch. Denn es sind ja nicht nur die zwei Gegner da, sondern auch noch er selbst, und wer kennt eigentlich seine Absichten? Immerhin ist es sein Traum, dass er einmal in einem unbewachten Augenblick – dazu gehört allerdings eine Nacht, so finster wi noch keine war – aus der Kampflinie ausspringt und wegen seiner Kampfeserfahrung zum Richter über seine miteinander kämpfenden Gegner erhoben wird.

Max Brod’s edition of his friend’s writings was of course notoriously subjective, even idiosyncratic: moreover, Kafka is every editor and textual critic’s dream – or nightmare. So perhaps appropriately, in the new critical edition of Kafka’s works published by S. Fischer Verlag between 1982 and 1999, based on the all the extant manuscripts and early editions, the dream itself – that is, the conclusion to the parable – is missing. I have checked authoritative transcripts of the 1920 Diary, as well as the new translation of the Shorter Works, Volume I, also published under the title of The Great Wall of China by Malcolm Pasley – whose collection of Kafka manuscripts forms the nucleus of the Kafka archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford – and not only are there slight variations in language, but the episode itself ends at ‘und wer kennt eigentlich seine Absichten?’ (‘and who really knows his intentions?’)

Er hat zwei Gegner, der Erste bedrängt ihn von rückwärts vom Ursprung her, der Zweite verwehrt ihm den Weg nach vorne. Er kämpft mit beiden. Eigentlich unterstützt ihn der Erste im Kampf mit dem Zweiten, denn er will ihn nach vorne drängen und ebenso unterstützt ihn der Zweite im Kampf mit dem Ersten, denn er treibt ihn doch zurück. So ist es aber nur teoretisch, denn es sind ja nicht nur die 2 Gegner da, sondern auch noch er selbst und wer kennt eigentlich seine Absichten?

(Text of Tagebuch 17. Januar. 1920, Samstag from http://homepage.univie.ac.at/werner.haas/1920/tb20-006.htm , link to Werner Haas: Franz Kafka: Briefe und Tagebücher
http://homepage.univie.ac.at/werner.haas/provided at http://www.kafka-research.ox.ac.uk/ accessed Monday 5 January 2015)


So who really knows Kafka’s intentions? I certainly don’t, and I cannot pretend to having even a fraction of the textual expertise required to solve the problem of where Brod got his dream from, and why the order of the fragments in Malcolm Pasley’s translation – about which he says ‘the whole sequence is here restored for the first time’ – is slightly at variance with the Diary transcript in German. Were I a Kafka scholar, which I am not, I might have a conjecture as to the origins of Brod’s conjecture (if Brod was indeed responsible) that so elegantly allows Kafka’s protagonist, ‘He’, to escape, even arbitrate, the endless strife of his two antagonists:

His dream, though, is that some time in an unguarded moment and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other.

As it is, I am left with a dream without an origin: and in this condition of being cast textually adrift, a condition of discomfort, but also of secret pleasure for the literary scholar, I am at least free to speculate on what the parable means. These notes of Kafka’s, all about an unnamed figure who is only identified by the pronoun ‘he’ – darker and more mysterious than Rabindranath Tagore’s fantasy about an ungendered ‘shey’ – suggest an attempt to dramatize, or to render through parable and metaphor, conflicts suffered in what we can only call the dark night of the soul. On the 17th of January, when he wrote this fragment – or parable – he was struggling with the feeling (recorded elsewhere in so many other ways) of being blocked, of being caught up in a wave-like motion of forward and back, of being imprisoned, and of being judged by many judges: ‘His own frontal bone blocks the way (he bloodies his brow by beating against his own brow.)’ Four days earlier, on 13 January, he had written: ‘He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this obstruction, again, he derives the feeling that he is alive.’ But in the dream – should we call it Brod’s dream or Kafka’s? – he imagines a dark night, darker than any night has ever been, which offers him the possibility of escape to an unspecified location, where he can himself become a judge or spectator (θεωρός would be the Greek word for it) of this mortal combat.

Who are the antagonists Kafka speaks of, those who push him forward and back? Surely Hannah Arendt is not alone in thinking that they are the past and the future, history and possibility: in other words, the time-space continuum into which the human is inserted, and which is broken up, by reason of this insertion, into a struggle of hostile forces. This is how Arendt puts it:

This past, moreover, reaching all the way back into the origin, does not pull back but presses forward, and it is, contrary to what one would expect, the future which drives us back into the past. Seen from the viewpoint of man, who always lives in the interval between past and future, time is not a continuum, a flow of uninterrupted succession; it is broken in the middle, at the point where “he” stands; and “his” standpoint is not the present as we usually understand it but rather a gap in time which “his” constant fighting, “his” making a stand against past and future, keeps in existence. Only because man is inserted into time and only to the extent that he stands his ground does the flow of indifferent time break up into tenses; it is this insertion – the beginning of a beginning, to put it into Augustinian terms – which splits up the time continuum into forces which then, because they are focused on the particle or body that gives them their direction, begin fighting with each other and acting upon man in the way Kafka describes. (Arendt 10-11)


As Arendt says, the past here is not a dead weight or burden that pulls us back but rather a force that pushes us forward, swallowing each event as it occurs into itself and expelling, propelling us into the future: and the future is the weight that presses us back with its burden of expectation, of unknowing, of fear. ‘Blocking’ is the term Kafka uses, and in the same sequence of aphorisms, on the 2nd of February, he spoke again of the ‘he’ who understands no feelings other than fear, grief and desolation, all others being merely illusions, mirror-images of our experience and our memory: ‘we experience them only before and after the real event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning to the east or the west.’

Such is the power of Kafka’s thought-landscape, or thought-event, as Arendt calls it, that it is difficult for us to abstract ourselves from the situation here described, the mortal struggle of past and future over, and with, the human person whose presence alone converts the scene into a battleground, for without him (or her, a pronoun not used by either Kafka or Arendt) there would be no conflict, perhaps no time, or a purely ‘homogeneous empty time.’ But Walter Benjamin, who invented this phrase to describe the historical time of clocks and calendars, also imagined the past as a wind that blew from Paradise – that is, from what Kafka calls the origin – raising a storm that got into the wings of the angel of history and blew him into a future towards which his back was turned:

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin and Kafka are at one in imagining the present as catastrophic, but distinct in their understanding of time, which Benjamin theorizes in terms of compelling abstractions – the homogeneous empty time of history, that is, the onward flow of events in which ‘the true picture of the past flits by’ – and the messianic now-time, or jetztzeit, of rupture, redemption, or revolution. But for Kafka, at least in this succession of fragments, the object is not a theorization of time or of history as such, but the problem itself of the insertion, as Arendt calls it, of the human between past and future: ‘merely by being alive he is blocking his own way.’

This paradox is what makes the dream so impossible. For if we accept that the conflict – of past with future and of both with the human who blocks their way – is caused by the mere presence of the human, by the insertion itself, how can his removal from the scene of combat allow him to arbitrate the fight? Surely the fight must cease, time settle into an even, unpunctuated continuum, unless – wild thought – the combatants fail to notice his absence? In the dark night of his escape, darker than any night has ever been yet, could Kafka’s protagonist – ‘he’ – be promoted to the role of umpire over a contest that has lost its object, but continues as though it were present? We have to answer: not unless it is a dream, or a fiction. And this brings me to the point of the parable as I understand it. Caught between past and future, trapped in history, bloodying his forehead against his own frontal bone, Kafka’s protagonist ‘has no conception of freedom.’ It is only in the dream that he is able to step unobserved out of the line of combat and judge – because of his experience of fighting – the strife of his antagonists. But the dream is a suspended possibility (adrift, moreover, in its peculiar condition of textual uncertainty): and in this respect, I would suggest, it is like literature. It is literature, or the condition of the literary, that constitutes this conjectural space, this impossible time, that Kafka’s protagonist imagines for himself.

Kafka rarely, if ever, speaks of literature directly, and he does not attribute any redemptive or emancipatory power to it. But he did write a parable ‘On Parables,’ where he registered the complaint that ‘the words of the wise are always mere parables, and of no use in daily life, which is the only life that we have.’ Parables speak not of actual places, but of ‘some fabulous yonder, something that is unknown to us … and therefore something that cannot help us down here in the very least.’ The problem therefore, is that:

All these parables really mean no more than that the inconceivable is inconceivable, and that we knew already. But the cares that we actually have to struggle with each day are a different matter.

One man then said: ‘Why do you resist? If you followed the parables, then you would become parables yourselves, and thus free of your daily cares.’

Another said: ‘I bet that is also a parable.’

The first said: ‘You have won.’

The second said: ‘But unfortunately only in parable.’

The first said: ‘No, in reality; in parable you have lost.’


The riddle of this bet is hard to unlock. But in the parable as a whole Kafka seems to be telling us something about the structure of the literary – or to put it more abstractly, the figural – which inhabits a ‘fabulous yonder,’ an unmarked space and time that cannot even be properly described, like the place to which the protagonist in the struggle between past and future is ‘promoted’ in his dream, because of – and this is important – ‘his experience in fighting’. The protagonist has not ‘become a parable’, but has taken his mortality, his suffering, his knowledge, into the conjectural moment when he can judge the strife to which he is subjected.

What is this moment, or to put it more generally, what is the time of literature? It is easy enough to say that literature is a representation, that it is produced in real time by the actions of human agents and that it is closely tied to the historical conditions by which it is determined. This is obviously true, but it is also true that the time of reading (like the time of reflection, of thought, of daydream, of play) is time taken out, a taking out of time, which escapes from the linearity, the motion forward and back, that Kafka ascribes to his everyday struggle. Art, literature, music – but perhaps literature especially because of its attachment to the immersive structure of fable – play games with time, not because they are not part of our lived time, nor because they do not make use of the temporality (or temporizing, Derrida would call it) of language, but because they produce, with each time of experiencing, a kind of disjunction, a rupture, a standing out, within the everyday structures that enclose them. Let me call this the presentness – etymologically allied to the presence, and the presentation (in the sense of a gifted, or given time) – of literature between past and future. This presentness is experienced by all of us who have the capacity, so to speak, of being ‘lost in the daydream’ of art: by which I do not mean that art does not insistently recall us to a sense of things as they are, but that the time of the reflection is itself an interregnum, like the ‘game-time’ experienced by the gambler, the ‘imagined time’ projected by the fabulist. The present as we commonly understand it is of course in ordinary time as well, if we think of lived time as ‘a punctuation of occasions, of presents, only a flashing of instants in which everything is given and taken back in the same instant, without our being able to hold onto the instants or hold ourselves inside them’ (Louis Marin, On Representation, 150). And it could be objected that the experience of reading is also in the same way a succession of instants, since we cannot hold on our thoughts, and as we progress from word to word, from moment to moment, we inhabit a phenomenological continuum that cannot be held still. You cannot read the same book twice, Heraclitus might have said. But there is also a sense in which literature recuperates lost time, makes it present (which is why it is a re-presentation), holds it as though in a receptacle. Here is Proust on the hill at Doncières, which Marcel first sees ‘through a translucent screen of hoar-frost’ in The Guermantes Way:

Its reflected form, even without my realizing it, was silhouetted against the slightest impressions that I formed at Doncières, and among them, to begin with this first morning, the pleasing impression of warmth given me by the cup of chocolate, prepared by Saint-Loup’s batman in this comfortable room, which seemed like a sort of optical centre from which to look out at the hill … Imbued with the shape of the hill, associated with the taste of hot chocolate and with the whole web of my fancies at that particular time, this mist, without my having given it the least thought, came to infuse all my thoughts of the time. (Chapter I)


Those who remember their Proust will recall that the hill at Doncières is presented to us in the aspect of a gaze that is returned (‘I could not take my eyes from this stranger who was looking at me for the first time.’) There is a curious link here with Benjamin’s notion of the aura of the art-work. In his words: ‘To experience the aura of an object means to invest it with the ability to look back at us. This ability corresponds to the data of mémoire involontaire. … That Proust was quite familiar with the problem of the aura needs no emphasis.’ (Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire 204). This is a less celebrated example of mémoire involontaire than the famous madeleine which, dipped in tea, brought back in a single rush of involuntary memory the whole sensory world of Marcel’s childhood in Combray: ‘when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.’ (Swann’s Way: Overture)

But the point I want to make is not about ‘involuntary memory’, tied, as Proust says it is, to the smell and taste of things in the ‘real’ world (though the operation of memory can certainly induce the characteristically Proustian daydream). Rather, I will remind you that the Proustian account, in the act of reading, must itself approximate the action of the madeleine, of the cup of hot chocolate: it must summon up ‘this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence,’ so that it is the reading of Proust, not the eating of a cake, that is sufficient to take us out of ourselves, to allow us to stand, as if in the ‘optical centre,’ to look out at the phenomenal world of event and memory. It is the literary text, the art-work, not the object of description, that communicates its aura, its suspended gaze, to us as readers. And it is the writer, in her absorption and ‘distance’, not as a person but as a function, who produces the aura, who assumes for the purpose of the world she creates the role of arbiter, of ‘umpire’.

‘Nowadays a dream has a hard time in the world outside,’ wrote Ernst Bloch. Particularly if one is living in the dream, which may be why Rabindranath addressed the lover of the Meghadutam in a spirit of friendly commiseration:

হে নির্জন গিরিশিখরের বিরহী, স্বপ্নে যাহাকে আলিঙ্গন করিতেছ, মেঘের মুখে যাহাকে সংবাদ পাঠাইতেছ, কে তোমাকে আশ্বাস দিল যে, এক অপূর্ব সৌন্দর্যলোকে শরত পূর্ণিমা রাত্রে তাহার সহিত চিরমিলন হইবে। তোমার তো চেতন অচেতনে পার্থক্য জ্ঞান নাই, কি জানি, যদি সত্য ও কল্পনার মধ্যেও প্রভেদ হারাইয়া থাক। (মেঘদুত, রবীন্দ্র রচনাবলী ৫/৫১০)

Bereft lover on the lonely mountain-top, who has assured you that you will be united forever, on a beautiful full-moon autumnal night, with the one you embrace in your dreams, her to whom you send messages by a cloud? You cannot even distinguish between the animate and animate, who knows if you are not confusing the real and the imaginary?  (My translation)


The lover of the Meghadutam, a fictional character, inhabits the dream, and could not survive outside it. This is not an option for us: as Kafka said, we cannot become parables ourselves, and thus free of our daily cares. Nor is there room to doubt the reality of his struggles with ‘the brutal fact of imprisonment’ (‘He’, 17 January). Yet there is, nevertheless, a ‘presentiment’ (10 January) of what Plato called το έξαίφνης, the ‘suddenly-now’ or moment, that allows us to perceive, all at once, two dimensions of non-time, the instant and eternity: that opens up a kind of breach in, or at least another perspective upon, the linear progression of time. This other perspective is what Heidegger would call ‘being alongside,’ Sein-bei, (rather than ‘being in’) things or events as they are. In his translation of the Parmenides (156D), Friedrich Schleiermacher rendered to exaiphnēs, which could also mean an ‘emergence’, or ‘flaring up’ as Augenblick (eye-glance), a term influentially expounded by Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers, but most memorably by Martin Heidegger. Translators of Being and Time prefer to render Heidegger’s Augenblick not as ‘moment’ but more literally as ‘glance of the eye’, or ‘moment of vision’ (SZ, 328 n.2, 338 n. 2, B&T 376, 387-88). Heidegger expressly distinguishes this from the simple ‘now’ (dem Jetzt) of time:

This term [der Augenblick] must be understood in the active sense as an ecstasis. It means the resolute rapture with which Dasein is carried away to whatever possibilities and circumstances are encountered in the Situation as possible objects of concern, but a rapture which is held in resoluteness. The moment of vision is a phenomenon which in principle can not be clarified in terms of the “now” [dem Jetzt]. The “now” is a temporal phenomenon which belongs to time as within-time-ness: the “now” ‘in which’ something arises, passes away, or is present-at-hand. ‘In the moment of vision’ nothing can occur; but as an authentic Present or waiting-towards [Gegen-wart], the moment of vision permits us to encounter for the first time what can be ‘in a time’ as ready-to-hand or present-to-hand. (SZ, 338; B&T, 387-88)

Is it going too far to relate the suspension, or promotion, that Kafka speaks of, with Heidegger’s Augenblick, or ‘moment of vision’? Heidegger’s own reading of Rilke at the close of his commentary on the Parmenides is prejudiced, not to say narrow: it seems to express a profound misunderstanding of literature.  Nevertheless, I think it is possible to see Kafka’s dream as offering his embattled protagonist a moment of vision, an Augenblick that opens up what would otherwise remain closed. In that moment, viewing both past and future, Kafka’s ‘he’ inhabits a present that is not of the ‘here-and-now’, but is infinitely renewable, always in a state of emergence, or perhaps of becoming. We can at least speculate that this is the condition of the literary.

But there is a material sense in which literature occupies both space and time, and becomes an object of historical contestation: and so before I conclude, I would like to return to the textual problem with which I commenced. We know that Kafka left all his published and unpublished works to Max Brod, with the injunction that they be ‘burnt unread and without remnant’ after his death. Brod did not honour this request, and published The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, and the Collected Works before he fled Germany for Palestine in 1939, stashing away a vast quantity of papers (his own as well as Kafka’s) in suitcases and vaults. On Brod’s death this material passed to his secretary Esther Hoffe, who sold some prize items abroad (such as the manuscript of The Trial for $2 million) and some of it found its way to private collectors, to the German Literary Archive in Marbach, or (like Malcolm Pasley’s collection) the Bodleian Library in Oxford. On Hoffe’s death in 2007 her daughters Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler asserted their right of inheritance to the papers (ten boxes stored in safe deposit vaults in Zurich and Tel Aviv) and proposed to sell them to the highest bidder, actually by weight, kilogram by kilogram – saying that it was not necessary to make an inventory. They were supported by the German Literary Archive in Marbach (the holder of the largest repository of Kafka manuscripts) which claimed Kafka for German literature, intending to buy the manuscripts from the sisters. They retained Israeli lawyers for the trial, against the National Library of Israel, who argued that Brod willed his papers to a public archive, and that his works and Kafka’s belonged to the permanent heritage of the Jewish people. Expectedly, the court in Tel Aviv ruled in favour of the National Library of Israel (in 2012) but Eva Hoffe (her sister Ruth had died earlier that year) was said to be planning an appeal – about which I have no information. In fact caches of Kafka autographs – for example a collection of about 100 letters bought jointly in 2011 by Oxford and Marbach (the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive) – have surfaced from time to time, to be immediately acquired. In 2011, when the Tel Aviv trial was in progress, Judith Butler wrote a long, polemical essay called ‘Who Owns Kafka?’ in the London Review of Books, examining the rival claims of the Zionist state and the German literary establishment, and recalling, at one point, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem covered by Hannah Arendt, which also turned, to some extent, on a claim made by the Zionist state. On the whole Butler is skeptical of these claims, and she reflects with some sadness at the close on “those forms of profit-making that exploit even the most anti-instrumental forms of art, and those forms of nationalism that seek to appropriate even the modes of writing that most rigorously resist them. An irony then, to be sure, that Kafka’s writings finally became someone else’s stuff, packed into a closet or a vault, transmogrified into exchange value, awaiting their afterlife as an icon of national belonging or, quite simply, as money.”

If the trial pitted Kafka by the kilo against Kafka as Jewish icon, it also revealed what Butler might have called the enigma of non-arrival. In fact the term she used was ‘the poetics of non-arrival,’ and she chose her examples from several of Kafka’s parables, including ‘The Coming of the Messiah’, ‘An Imperial Message’, and ‘My Destination’ (alternatively ‘My Departure’), where the end of the narrator’s ‘immensely long journey’ is defined only as ‘away-from-here’. For Butler there is a resonance here with the unfulfilled instructions Kafka gave to Brod, a message over which, once sent, he had no control. For why, indeed, did Kafka not burn the rest of his papers himself (he had already burnt 90% of his writings) rather than leave it to Brod to destroy them? As Butler says,

His letter to Brod is a way of giving all the work to Brod, and asking Brod to be the one responsible for its destruction. There is an insurmountable paradox here, since the letter becomes part of the writing, and so part of the very corpus or work, like so many of Kafka’s letters that have been meticulously preserved over the years. And yet the letter makes a demand to destroy the writing, which would logically entail the nullification of the letter itself, and so nullify even the command that it delivers. So is this command a clear directive, or is it a gesture in the sense that Benjamin and Adorno described? Does he expect his message to reach its destination, or does he write the request knowing that messages and commands fail to reach those to whom they are addressed, knowing that they will be subject to the same non-arrival about which he wrote?

Indeed, since Kafka had asked Brod to burn his papers unread, he should not even have read the letter, and so not received the message. Yet if he had not read the letter he would not know he had been asked to burn the papers unread, and so he could receive the message only by disobeying it. For Butler, who is interested in the peculiar combination of the didactic and the lyrical in Kafka’s parables, this problem of the message or the addressee is compounded by his reflections on the impossibility of writing letters: as she quotes, ‘How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait.’ Perhaps it is not merely fanciful to think of Kafka’s ghosts as like the postmen in the autumn woods of whom Shakti spoke, stuffing their bags with letters which do not reach their destination:

হেমন্তের অরণ্যে আমি পোস্টম্যান ঘুরতে দেখেছি অনেক

তাদের হলুদ ঝুলি ভরে গিয়েছে ঘাসে আবিল ভেড়ার পেটের মতন

কতকালের পুরনো নতুন চিঠি কুড়িয়ে পেয়েছে অই হেমন্তের অরণ্যের পোস্টম্যানগুলি

একটি চিঠি হতে অন্য চিঠির দূরত্ব বেড়েছে কেবল

একটি গাছ হতে অন্য গাছের দূরত্ব বাড়তে দেখিনি আমি।


In the autumn woods I have seen many postmen wandering

Their yellow sacks are full, like sheep’s bellies bulging with muddy grass.

What letters have they picked up, ages gone, old and new,

Those postmen in the autumn woods?

The space between one letter and another grows continually,

I have not seen space grow between tree and tree. (My translation)


Let me use this paradox to reflect on the textual crux of the parable I began with, that is, the dream. Was it part of what Brod received from Kafka – we should imagine so, since he published the parable in this form – and if so, where did it go? Why does it not appear in the transcripts of the 1920 Diary, or in Malcolm Pasley’s scrupulous restoration and translation? If the text had never existed, we would be in no position to talk about it, and the dream could not have served to illustrate, as it has done for me, the condition of literature between past and future. Yet suspended in its doubtful, unattested state, it has nevertheless left its indelible impression, like the marks on the mystic writing-pad of which Freud speaks, upon me as upon others who read Brod’s edition of Kafka. Among these readers we should count, Mallarika told me, the absent person whose memory we honour today, Suhita Sinha Roy. In this respect Kafka’s parable is like all dream-work, and like literature itself, which is a message without a destination, and without a proper, legitimate place, but which celebrates, Butler might have said, the poetics of non-arrival.


Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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