BEFORE THE LAW

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 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 doorkeepers. 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 Tartar 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 attempts 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 the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything."

During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets 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 contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas 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 darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware 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 question 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 toward 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 insatiable."

"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 admittance?"
The doorkeeper recognizes 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."

--Franz Kafka

Before The Law (Vor dem Gesetz) is one of Kafka's better known works. It is taken from his longer novel The Trial (Der Prozess) and is often read as one of Kafka's most sustained treatments of textual problems of interpretation, semantic origin, as well as the obvious religious, existential, and legal themes running through the text.

The law is here presented by Kafka as a textual notion. As Helene Cixous would later write, the text is the law (see her book Readings). The law is the text, meaning that the law is first of all a textual problem, that is a problem of linguistics, interpretation, communication, semantics. And what is the barrier to interpretation, to reading, to writing, to any discursive space? It is "not knowing" the way to enter. It is not knowing how to start. (In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous talks about writing as "getting going". "One has to get going: this is what writing is." We also have similar themes at play in the writings of Jacques Derrida (for instance, in his collection of essays Writing and Difference). The only barrier to the law is not knowing how to enter. We cannot write, we cannot read, we cannot understand, until we have taught ourselves how to initiate ourselves into a practical, that is sometimes discursive, space, an architecture of reading and writing.

Yet, to read, to write... What are these things? What are these things in Before the Law. We can also observe this problematic in Kafka's parable The Problem of Our Laws. There, Kafka explicitly discusses the notion of interpretation and sets it as that which is semantically originary--that is, the origin of meaning insofar as Kafka (like Jacques Derrida) would be willing to admit to the concept of the origin.

Seeing that the man, the man who is from the country, from the outside, is at his end the doorkeeper, a hairy creature, tells the man: "The door was made only for you." The door was made only for that man. And so each of us must find our own path into reading, into reading. "Why has no one else come here?" When he asks this, the doorkeeper recognizes from the question itself, that the man from the country is at the end. In asking, in beginning to wonder about the relation between the law and the other, it can be seen that the man is beginning to recognize the solitude of reading, of writing. Cixous also wrote in her book Readings that Kafka wrote in total solitude. Total solitude. This is the law. This is the way in. It is also the most difficult path, for Kafka.

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