Amid cosmic despair man may sense that something is near to quench his thirst, but he remains without a positive relationship to God.

One of the functions of literature is to give the reader a sense of what it would be like to be another man or another woman in another time or place. To return from college to find one’s father dead and one’s mother married to his murderer: this is at least a part of what one senses in the plight of Hamlet. As the play unfolds, the spectator or reader is led into the labyrinth of a sensitive mind baffled by the consequences of what he feels he must do. The intelligent Elizabethan surely left the Globe with sympathy for the Prince of Denmark.

As the twentieth-century world continues to unfold in all its gore and splendor, it becomes almost impossible to understand that world, let alone to appreciate sympathetically what is happening to the minds and souls of men swimming in the flux of shifting ideologies. Yet there remains for us in the present century what the Elizabethans had in Shakespeare: there remains at least one important vantage point—the literature produced by artists swept up in the torrent. I should like to show how a few of the parables of Franz Kafka provide an insight into the plight of one important type of modern man: the man who has just grasped the notion that God is dead.

Franz Kafka, a German Jewish writer, was born in Prague in 1883 and died in Kierling in 1924, after living a fitful existence in which he was generally lonely even among his close friends. Kafka is one of the first major writers to grasp the emotional implications of the famous proclamation of Nietzsche’s madman: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” Some commentators maintain that Kafka was not the atheist that Nietzsche was. They may be right. My point, however, is not that Kafka himself lived out the implications of Nietzsche but that in his works he depicts men who live out those implications.

In any case, the point that both Nietzsche and Kafka seem to be making in their parables is not philosophical but psychological. Men could not, of course, kill a real God; but for modern man, there is no God. The God men used to serve is now considered a creation of man’s over-powerful imagination serving his strong desire for an approving, loving father. Today men can no longer act as if such a God existed. Yet sheer atheism misses the point. Nietzsche also means this: men must live in the abyss created by the death of their notion of God. And this is difficult. For Nietzsche himself, the death of God clears the way for the superman: but for others, the mass, the “much-too-many,” there is the smell of “God’s decomposition” and the “breath of empty space.” As one writer puts it, what troubles man is not “the absence of the experience of God, but the experience of the absence of God.”

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Kafka’s hero of his The Trial, for example, is just such a man. And Kafka’s parable world is peopled with men who can find fellowship neither with other men nor with God. They are lonely and exiled, frustrated in the desire to become a part of a meaningful whole, and too limited by nature to try to be supermen.

Consider as the first example this parable:

The Watchman

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 ought’nt to have done it,” I said. The watchman still said nothing. “Does your silence indicate permission to pass?” [This and other quotations from Kafka in this essay are from Parables and Paradoxes: In German and English (New York: Schocken Books, © 1958). Used by permission.]

I suppose the first reaction to a Kafka parable is, “What! Is that all?” And, of course, it is. Some of Kafka’s parables are longer, but many are just like this one—exquisite miniatures pregnant with meaning. In fact, I’d be satisfied to say that my commentary here peels off only one layer of the multi-layered onion of meaning contained in a Kafka parable.

Perhaps one should read it again. What is going on in the parable? Who is the “I”? Who is the watchman? Why does he not reply? Kafka is, I think, showing us a man who up till now has believed that someone has been concerned with his actions. This man has thought that there is an emperor (a symbol for God) who has a watchman (a symbol for man’s conscience) who will make clear the emperor’s will. But though the watchman seems to be there, he neither prevents trespassing nor explains his presence in any way. I take it that Kafka is suggesting that there never was an emperor in the first place. When a man grasps this, then he discovers that his conscience has gone silent and that there is no tribunal to which a man can appeal, no way to know right from wrong. He is left totally to his own devices. Yet—and this is the psychological problem—man still desires an authority; he wants to be told, “Yes, you may pass by,” or “No, wait, not yet.” As it is, he is left completely alone. Unlike Hamlet, he has no Horatio to talk to.

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Again, consider this parable:


They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other—since there are no kings—messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service.

This time Kafka talks about “they”: he is including society as a whole in his picture. Men have been offered the chance to lead, to rule, to become governors; but what do they do, every last one of them? They all become couriers, and no one is left to make sense out of their missions or their messages. The only reason they do not end it all is that they have taken an oath to serve. But serve whom? Nobody. There is no one to serve—no king, no god. What a picture of modern man in a technological and bureaucratic society in which everyone is sworn to do his job but no one must meddle with ultimate problems! To live and not to ask what life is about is to hurry from place to place carrying meaningless notes and shouting nonsense.

In another parable of man in society, Kafka describes the erection of a beautiful temple:

The Building of the Temple

Everything came to his aid during the construction work. Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another. The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers. No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple—or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should. Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone—from what quarry had they come?—for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.

This vision shows the horror of recognizing that an amazing and apparently beautiful edifice, a temple for worshiping God, has been built with stones all of which have been defaced. Allegorically it pictures the horror of discovering that a society, a church, or even a brand-new utopia that has looked great in the planning stage, and has even gone together well at its initiation, is really a heap of ugly, sinful men.

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The construction of the society was easy, but individual blocks of society were defaced from the beginning. Why? Kafka suggests at first a simple explanation—“the clumsy scribbling of senseless children’s hands.” But he dismisses this. The scratching is too deep, perhaps, too significant; it must have been done by barbaric mountain dwellers. It was they who made their “entries” on the stone ledgers of men’s hearts, and for an eternity outlasting the temple these marks will remain. No man may build well with those badly marred stones.

Kafka goes no further in his analysis, but a Christian might. The quarry from which these stones came is located in the Garden of Eden and the barbaric mountain dwellers are Kafka’s counterpart to Adam and Eve. The effects of Adam’s act as a stonemason are still present and will continue to be present. The image of God in man will remain defaced regardless of the kind of society man is put into.

We should not be so taken by this parable that we feel Kafka is a Christian in spite of himself. He makes it very clear in his own writing (and Max Brod corroborates the point in his biography of Kafka) that he is not even an orthodox Jew, let alone a Christian. But, as we can see from the parables, his particular religious beliefs do not prevent him from shrewdly analyzing man’s plight.

We can see this analysis even more profoundly in another and, for us, a final parable:

The Spring

He is thirsty, and is cut off from a spring by a mere clump of bushes. But he is divided against himself: one part overlooks the whole, sees that he is standing here and that the spring is just beside him; but another part notices nothing, has at most a divination that the first part sees all. But as he notices nothing he cannot drink.

This seems to me to be a graphic illustration of the problem Paul presents in Romans 7:13–25, without the solution Paul gives. Certainly this parable shows us a man separated from life-giving water by an insignificant physical barrier. The real barrier is in the man himself. For although one part of him recognizes the situation, recognizes his need, the part of him that informs his will is blind. Man’s reason has been severed from his will. He cannot act. Kafka’s man is left in the desert.

Indeed, one of the significant facts that strike a reader of Kafka is that so few of his works point to a solution of the situation man faces. Certainly none of them suggests the Christian concept of God’s grace. One of his parables even ends on a note of cosmic despair: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.” Thus for man as Kafka sees him there is no hope. In this world is the hurrying courier who may stop by the watchman to get his permission to pass and who may at times sense that something is near that may quench his thirst. But he will never know the certainty of a significant place in society nor a positive position in relation to God. All he can experience is the absence of God, the death of God.

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What shall we moderns say, then, as we leave the theater of Kafka’s parables? If we have read Kafka carefully, I think we can begin to sympathize with the psychological experience of many modern men. The growing popularity of the theater of the absurd leads us to admit that many people are becoming aware of the chaos that underlies their life and the void that constantly threatens them. Often college students, for example, read Kafka and find his work an objectification of their own mental turmoil. As Christians we must see and sympathetically understand these men around us. Then we must witness to them as they are and where they are. We are called on to assert to them clearly and sympathetically that God is, that he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and that he will reveal himself to a man who may now believe God is dead.

Speaking in our own parabolic form, we might say: The emperor does reign; he has sent his son to show us how to live, and then to die for us. Our task is to stand as watchmen and conscientiously direct men to the emperor’s throne via the cross of his Son.

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