Kafka on watch

‘I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: ‘I ran through here while you were looking the other way.’ The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. ‘I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,’ I said. The watchman still said nothing. ‘Does your silence indicate permission to pass?…’ – Franz Kafka, “The Watchman”.[1]


The Watchman, like much of Kafka’s shorter works, is elusive and impossible to trace. “The Watchman” is not reproduced in modern editions of Kafka’s Complete Stories, only an obscure collection from 1954. It is attributed without explication to various places, from Kafka’s Notebooks by Derrida, to collected English editions of his parables. Kafka’s work too suffers the fate of misinterpretation familiar to many seemingly high-brow writers, as pressed by time-constraints, writers now assume a mastery of authors whose work they haven’t had time or interest to engage in. Immersion is key, to the point of near-drowning. Some writers, like Kafka, or Georges Bataille, or dozens of others, you have to get lost in, and be unsure of your purpose or your argument. Retaining just an awareness of my orientation as a reader within a strange place of thought, some stories have become to me like a labyrinth of mirrors.

Kafka is not simply a humourless poet of quiet and desolate crannies. His writing speaks rather the experience and limits of the modern individual, prevented from accessing truth, decisive judgement or decision before impossibly wide and inaccessible powers. A clear answer is given but never understood: everyone except the individual (K.) understands the situation, and find it all faintly ridiculous how K. insists on going his own way, steadily undermining his own status, like a bug colliding against a window pane. Kafka himself was clear about his technique in these modern parables, ironically so: by their very nature parables are incomprehensible – and were one to understand them their power would come undone: ‘All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already’.[2]


Merry Yule to one and all too.

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[1] See Kafka, “The Watchman”, in Dearest Father. Stories and Other Writings, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins; notes by Max Brod (New York: Schocken, 1954), 332 f.

[2] Kafka, “On Parables”, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, in The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (London: Vintage, 2005), 457.

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