Friday, January 4, 2008

More on the Location of the Infinite: Where Kafka Goes Wrong

I found this beautiful article by Father Giussani, "How We Become Christian." In it he speaks about a mistake that Kafka made:

I end with a phrase from the novelist I quoted earlier, Kafka. But see why I quote him, for what reason: Kafka says, “Even if salvation [the meaning of life] does not come [he was an atheist], I want to be worthy of it in every moment.” What greatness, what magnanimity, what stoicity! It’s great; he said it in all seriousness. For him, it was so. “Even if salvation does not come, I want to be worthy of it in every moment”–for if someone does not try to be worthy of salvation in every instant, even if it does not come, then he is no longer a man. For man is a heart that desires and breathes, and is made for happiness, for truth, for justice and for love. So you try in every moment to be worthy of this aspiration, even if the answer does not come. But Kafka makes one mistake. If I were in a classroom I would ask, “Who can tell me where Kafka goes wrong?” In this: that he lives every moment in such a way as to be worthy of salvation, but he does not ask for salvation, he does not beg for it. This is the last word I leave to you: “begging.”
We are sinners as much as you like, but beggars. “Yes, Lord, I love you.” I live begging from You the capacity to make progress, to keep on, to be faithful, to go on, begging from you that capacity to love you. Nothing can come from us; everything comes from him, from this man who was born of Our Lady two thousand years ago and is present now. “I will be with you all days, till the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20)–all days till the end of the world! And He is present and lets us get a glimpse of Him through the exceptionality that He operates in those who believe in Him. However little we are, if we believe in Him, if we say, “Yes Lord, I love You,” then something happens in us that makes another who sees us say, “How can you be like that? How on earth are you like that?” But the greatest transformation, the greatest exceptionality is the man who begs the Mystery to be able to know, love and serve Him–begs. It is prayer. Prayer is only begging, begging from God the capacity to be able to express once more Peter’s phrase: “Lord, you know I love you.” Any of us can repeat this, whatever happens, in whatever state of mind he be.


In a previous post, I looked at Kafka's parable, "Before the Law," and thought quite a bit about what it was that made the gate impossible to pass through. In the parable, the man from the country does indeed ask, he even prays (which is, after all, a form of begging), for admittance, but the doorkeeper will not grant him permission. My thought was that the man from the country needs a yes, and he could find any number of them lying about...But part of the internal logic of the parable is that he needs the "yes" from the doorkeeper, who refuses to give it.

In any parable, in order to begin to interpret it, we need to try out various meanings for each element in the parable. Who could the gatekeeper be? What is the gate? Even: What is the Law?

It is impossible to interpret this parable as an allegory of the Christian experience because Kafka was not a Christian; as Don Giuss points out, he was an atheist. And yet, when Christians approach a parable about a gate, it is impossible for us to forget that Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep...Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture" (John 10:7b & 9bc). And like the gate in Kafka's parable, this gate to the sheepfold "was made only for you," that is to say, Christ is for each one of us according to our particular needs and gifts and through our circumstances, which constitute the method through which he calls us.

Christ is our indestructible "yes" (you knew I was working my up to this, didn't you?). He is the one who affirms our humanity and corresponds to our desire, so much so that he ceases to be merely the permission, or ticket, we seek in order to be admitted to justice, truth, beauty, etc. -- he is the gate itself, the means by which we enter reality and learn to live, truly live. He is the one we must beg, we must apply directly to the Gate and walk boldly past the doorkeeper, whose power and authority are figments of Kafka's imagination -- or of the man from the country's imagination -- or of ours... 'Where, O doorkeeper is your victory? Where, O doorkeeper is your sting?'

If Kafka failed to beg, it was because he was expecting a "no" -- the relentless no of death.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."