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Posts Tagged ‘Kafka’

The art of book vandalism

In history, reblog on July 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Many centuries ago in China, shortly before the construction of the Great Wall, Emperor Qin commanded that all books must be destroyed. The only ones excluded were useful manuscripts, like books on astronomy and agriculture. Jorge L. Borges wrote that in order for the leader to truly establish himself as the first emperor of the unified kingdoms of China, he must first erase history. The emperor prevented the forces that shattered this unity, in turn hastening the construction of the structure. For imaginative purposes, one could think of the Wall as being made of books instead of bricks, since the burning of books was totally in conjunction with the project.

Franz Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, a most exemplary piece showing the so-called “Kafkaesque process of non-arrival” (see John Updike’s introduction to Franz Kafka: the Complete Short Stories), speculates how the Chinese citizens were socialized into the project by having the entire educational system revolve around the notion of “building”. The most important skills were related to constructing something indestructible, in the masonic sense of the word.

(There is a legend that Emperor Qin ordered some 500 Confucian scholars to be buried alive, in response to some illustrious people who opposed his tyrannical ways.)

Borges, the librarian of the world, pursued the idea that books constitute the substance of the universe in The Library of Babel. That was the extent of his bibliophilia. This fictional essay is the first Borgesian piece that I ever loved. What was most astonishing is how he calls attention to the physical constitution of the book rather than the text. For him, even the pages and the binding are sublime.

Today, contemporary artists have found a lot of uses from the physical constitution of books. The pictures are from OffBeatEarth:

Below are promotional images for Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.

 

Kafka, Borges and Perfection

In book review, literary on July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

The following piece, “Before the Law”, is the introductory parable of Franz Kafka: the Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and with foreword by John Updike. What a powerful hook! The closest literary companion of Kafka is the Argentinian master of labyrinths, Jorge L. Borges. Kafka writes best in parables and short narratives. Borges never published a novel.

The literary figures of Kafka and Borges (not necessarily the empirical authors) are obsessed with perfection.  While Borges pretended that the books he wanted to write have already been written, Kafka never “completed” his stories — i.e. they are complete and perfect in their incompleteness. For these two authors, the notion of literary perfection is in the negative.

I’ve never seen a more perfect preamble for a collection than this:

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing.” During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

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