David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Kafka: Diogenes


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

I don’t see this parable mentioned too often, but it portrays the most severe internalization of some of Kafka’s obsessions. Everything is internalized. But while we have A, the controlling deity who answers to no one (shades of Jaynes!) and C, the unknowing worker, who is this B? Is it Klamm or the Mayor from The Castle? The father in “The Judgment”? The academy of “Report to an Academy”? Karl, Huld, or Titorelli in The Trial?

Yet it is B that chooses not to share the knowledge B gains from A with C, the very knowledge that would assuage C’s fear, or at least temper it with some sense of duty, responsibility, necessity, anything. Or does B? C does not get to ask B that question. Maybe B cannot explain to C what C does not understand. Maybe B is mediating between two entities that speak incompatible languages: one of command, one of action. Maybe C does not have an option other than to act, and C’s dreams of explanation are meaningless and cannot be satisfied. C only waits for the next order. B’s barked commands may be the only thing that C can understand. B, the messenger and interpreter, can never be sure of being properly understood. And what then of A?

And why is it that we are inside of C’s mind, while B and A are opaque? Are we reading only in C’s language?


  1. But the most sinister part of the parable is in the very last sentence: “he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.” I read this as the possibility or the inevitability that there is miscommunication in this chain of command, and the horror of the parable lies not in the hierarchies of knowledge/action or the ignorant servility of C, but in the fact that the degree of blindness and distortion increases the farther one gets. I read the horror not in C’s position, but in B’s: not that C, that dumb galoot, can’t understand the importance of B’s commands, but that B himself has potentially misunderstood what A was trying to say in the first place. Action is based on inherent failure. We keep moving backwards from the Castle, the more backwards the more we try to get in. And couldn’t this also be seen not just as a political parable, but a parable about consciousness? Even if I’m not sure what you mean by “everything is internalized.” And now, thinking about it again, isn’t the whole structure of this parable a paradox? A says to B, “you must not live.” B misinterprets that (unclearly, cloudily, let’s presume neurotically or psychotically) and somehow this becomes an order to give to C: thus the injunction against action becomes pure action and almost automatism. Diogenes teaches Alexander.

    Okay, now I’ve jumped in the deep end.

  2. To me it reads like a reconfiguration of An Imperial Message, complete with alluded-to emperor: there Kafka provides a spatial metaphor for the failure of meaning to be communicated (it’s too far to go), but here it’s vaguer (a structure of three circles, three personifications). I think the lack of a mechanism, the lack of a clear understanding of the source of B’s behavior, is the point. If you could say “B is lying” or “C is a fool” or something similar, you’d be closer to neutralizing its capacity to torment. But the allegory Kafka sets up here is just a cover for the sick uncertainty of the situation.

    (For comparison: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/imperialmessage.htm)

  3. Well, isn’t this just a more complicated version of Telephone? Fact of life.

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