This essay is a response to Franz Kafka’s parable Before the Law. It was originally assigned as part of POL 318: Law and Society, taught by Sarah Staszak in the Spring 2010 semester at Princeton University.
As Derrida has commented, “before” is not necessarily a spacial preposition, it can also be interpreted temporally. Under this lens, the parable’s elements take on an interesting outlook. Initially, there is no law: the gatekeeper exists before law does. The man from the country desires participation, not passage: he wishes to be a part of the legislative procedure. When the gatekeeper states that is it possible that the man may pass, but prohibits it, he creates law: words which restrict some action that is otherwise possible. This restriction, despite possibility, distinguishes the “law” we speak of here from physical “laws”, like gravity: it is given, not discovered*, and we choose to obey.
The moments when the gatekeeper states that the man may not pass, and when he steps aside are linked; both are the moment when he ceases being before the law. On the one hand, he physically steps aside from the path between the man and the law, and on the other, he brings law into being. Remaining – as he does – unable to pass the gate, even though he dies of it, the man from the country accepts the law, and implicitly consents to his government by it. Truly, it is not the gatekeeper blocking his path, but the law. However, by his reticence to violate the sourceless dictum of the gatekeeper, he accepts not just the law, but his inability to enter into the legislative process. Passing through the gate would grant him entry into the law in two ways: in the spacial reasoning of the law being beyond the gate, and in the figurative sense that he would then be a component of making the law: by deciding what its limits are.
The parable seems oriented around a conflict. At first glance, it appears that the man from the country is in conflict with the gatekeeper, but this is a false assessment. In fact the man from the country is in conflict with the undefined authority which gives the law, and in which the law is held. This is the same undefined authority that we see whenever a receptionist acts in a pettifogging manner, because “that’s the policy”. The individual exercising the diffusely-authored authority (the gatekeeper, in this case) neither understands, nor knows the source, nor rationale for the rules that they express, and – more crucially – are required to enforce on others. These features of that authority makes it impervious to rationality. Since there is no agency or understanding associated with the enforcement (or the enforcer) of the authority, there can be no reasoning with it, no debate or compromise. We see this in the conversations between the gatekeeper and the man from the country. They make small talk, but are unable to discuss the substantive issue before them: why must the man not pass.
Structural aspects of the depiction echo components of true legal systems. The layers of gatekeepers evoke the many layers of the courts. That the man must spend all his wealth to go nowhere, but that the spending is only for the appearance of having done something echoes the seemingly limitless costs of retaining lawyers just to maintain legal stalemates. The time that the man must spend at the gatekeeper’s side signifies the extensive nature of court battles. Finally, that the gate is for the man alone shows the true nature of the courts: they do not make pronouncements on general norms, just on specific cases**.
Some might categorise this assessment as of the parable pessimistic, but while it is certainly not optimistic, it might be better categorised as realistic (despite being highly surreal***, and absurd). At its root, though, though, the parable is absurd, and it promotes absurdism. In the most literal sense, and on the face of the parable, the man from the country seeks higher meaning (the law), but is unable to acquire it, and instead dies broken, and unfulfilled by his search. The words chosen by the gatekeeper clearly evoke a higher power than him commanding his actions, yet the man finds no evidence of such, and is eventually destroyed by the collusion between his pursuit of law, and his inability to make headway. However, the man from the country – even when faced with with the final truth of his situation – fails to come to terms with the absurd nature of his predicament.
Indeed, Kafka cunningly manages to enforce this absurdity upon his readers. Just as McCarthy imprints upon readers of The Road a sense of the bleak, grey emptiness of the novel’s world through the use of stark, simple language, Kafka exposes his readers to an appreciation of absurdism when they consider his text. While there may be true meaning at the heart of the parable – and, certainly, by its characterisation as a parable, and utterance by a priest, there is implication is that there is a lesson at its heart – it is impossible for the reader to be sure of finding it. The reader is thereby forced into the position of the man from the county (and – more generally – all people, at least from an absurd viewpoint) by seeking such meaning, without being able to find it.
This is where the man from the country stands, has stood, and that with which he is faced.
*despite what natural law theorists may say
**despite what some commentators say of the Supreme Court