16. 05. 2024

Seth Rogoff: Kafka’s Walls and Towers

From the cover of Seth Rogoff's forthcoming novel The Castle (FC2 2024)

Note: My translations from the German critical edition preserve, to the best of my ability, the fragment’s original syntactical qualities. 

The Temporal Frame

In what has come to be known in the realm of Kafka lore as the octavo notebook C (one of eight blue octavo notebooks) there is a short prose fragment titled “Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer,” typically translated into English as the short story “The Great Wall of China.” In general, I appreciate the difficulties of the translation process that force the translator to find imperfect solutions. Translation is inherently imperfect – just as Kafka’s “translation” of a purported Chinese text into German is imperfect. The phrase chinesische Mauer (like “Great Wall of China”), for example, is a European term and would not have been used by Kafka’s Chinese narrator to describe the imperial state’s system of border fortifications.

The English rendering “The Great Wall of China” shifts the meaning. Where the English title centers the object, the wall, the German title places most emphasis not on the wall itself but rather on the construction process.

 At first glance, it would seem reasonable to assume that Kafka’s construction (Bau) relates to the raising of the wall, to the physical making of an architectural structure. While this is partly true, a focus on the construction of the physical wall misses the essence of the prose fragment. It is the first German word in the title, beim, that matters most – a mere contraction of a preposition and a definite article (bei dem). A more faithful translation of the German could begin as follows: During the construction… or When building… or Amid the construction… In other words, the story is not about the wall or the material construction of the wall as much as it is about the time – the interval – during which the wall is being built. Kafka’s wall is not a physical object; Kafka’s wall is a temporal frame.

The Interval of Construction

For those unfamiliar with this particular piece, allow me to briefly summarize. The fragment’s narrator is a former lower-level supervisor of a building crew on the wall. He was trained in the art of masonry from a young age and was responsible for managing a small team of day-laborers. This small team was part of a larger team of around five hundred workers, who were tasked with building a five-hundred-meter span of wall in approximately five years. The narrator’s building days are in the past, and in this piece he is presenting a kind of historical essay – or set of reflections – on the construction process.

The narrator begins with a basic observation that morphs into a question. The observation is that the wall was built not in a continuous fashion but piecemeal, in disconnected sections. Two five-hundred-meter sections, for example, would be joined into a kilometer-long span of wall only for this whole section to be abandoned when completed and its crews relocated. The result of this process was that the wall was not a singular structure; it was a hodgepodge of segments. The wall, in other words, was full of gaps.

The official purpose of the wall was to protect the empire’s territory from the “peoples of the north,” nomadic peoples who threatened Chinese imperial sovereignty and safety. “But how,” the narrator asks himself, “can a wall that’s not continuous provide protection?”

The answer is that it cannot provide protection. It gets worse. “Not only can such a wall not protect, the construction itself is in constant danger.” The wall disrupts life on the frontier; it unsettles the nomadic peoples. They adjust to the development of the wall; they relocate; they reorganize. As a result of these processes, the nomads gain a far superior understanding of the wall than those who build it, even than the high command, who planned the wall in the capital. By defining (or creating) the frontier, the wall causes or intensifies the very problem it proposes to solve.

The high command, according to the narrator, chose the method of piecemeal construction of the wall for the sake of the construction supervisors like himself, who need – on a psychological level – to maintain a baseline of inspiration in order to carry on with their work. Principally, the plan of piecemeal construction is meant to combat a kind of hopelessness that comes with the impossible task of completing a continuous wall of this unfathomable length.

After five hundred meters, these supervisors return to their distant villages. There, far from the frontier, they gain a sense of what the wall is what the wall means.  

It is only at the farthest point away from the northern wall, at home in his village in the southeastern corner of the empire, that the narrator comes to feel the significance of the wall. He does not know the wall in any real or material sense (it is unknowable). Likewise, the narrator cannot understand the wall, as his basic confusion clearly demonstrates. He can, however, feel the essence of the wall’s significance. He describes the scene of lower level construction supervisors setting out from their villages to return to work on a new section of wall:

… they left home earlier than was necessary, half the village accompanied them for long distances, the entire way was full of greetings, banners, and flags, they had never seen how big and rich and beautiful and lovely their country was, every countryman was a brother for whom a protective wall was built and who thanked them with everything he had and was for the rest of his life, unity! Unity! Breast to breast, a circle dance of the people, blood, no longer imprisoned in the meager circulation of the body, but sweetly rolling and yet returning through infinite China. 

In this scene, the wall-as-object has vanished. It is no longer bricks and mortar. It has become unity, brotherhood, and history. The more abstract the wall becomes, the further removed the wall is from the actual stone structures on the northern frontier, the more powerful it is. Not only is the physical wall not powerful, it actually threatens the empire’s safety. It is ludicrously flawed. The power of the wall is the idea of the wall.

The construction of the wall binds the Chinese empire together, not in any real or practical way but in the political imagination of the people. During the process of building the wall, China becomes China. The people become Chinese. The wall is the empire itself; it is unified Chinese society, shared Chinese culture, and common Chinese blood, or, at least, the imagination of a unified society, shared culture, and common blood. During the process of building the wall, the nomads become outsiders; they are represented as vicious barbarians with faces of the damned,” “gaping mouths,” and “jaws set with sharpened teeth.” Children, Kafka’s clearest windows into society’s soul, flee from these pictures in tears, despite the fact that they will never encounter such a figure.

The wall creates empire rather than empire creating the wall. The wall creates the figure of the emperor rather than the emperor (who might have decreed it) the wall. The people come to know the emperor not directly but indirectly – and the only way for the individual villager to “communicate” with the emperor is through the medium of the wall. Otherwise, the emperor is totally unreachable. He fades into unreality, into history, into myth. The wall remains present in the villagers’ imagination as the emperor (and even the empire itself) becomes lost to the past.

The interval of construction (beim Bau) is not defined by the actual building of a wall – there is no wall. The interval of construction is the fabrication of political identity. The interval of construction is the process of creating political subjectivity. The interval of construction is the formation of complex bonds between individuals, communities, and structures of power.  

A New Conundrum   

There is a seemingly tangential moment in Kafka’s prose fragment. According to the narrator, the announcement of the building of the wall shifted the atmosphere throughout the empire. In the early years of the wall’s construction, a heightened state of imagination generated “mental confusion.” The narrator writes:

Human nature, essentially careless, of the nature of blown dust, cannot stand being constrained, and if it is constrained, it will soon begin to pull madly at its shackles and rip apart the wall, chains, and itself. 

The narrator provides a specific example of this phenomenon: a certain book published by a scholar, in which the building of the wall is compared to the story of the biblical Tower of Babel. What destroyed the tower, the scholar claims, was not primarily God’s wrath. The real problem with the tower was that it was built on a technically faulty foundation. Owing to vastly improved building techniques and labor skills, the Chinese wall, the scholar maintains, far surpassed the ancient tower in terms of its sturdiness. This was important, because, according to the narrator’s account of the scholar’s book, the wall itself was no mere wall. It was built to be the foundation for a “new Tower of Babel.” The bulk of the scholar’s book outlines plans—albeit opaque ones—for the design of such a tower.

The scholar’s account baffles the narrator. How could a wall, the narrator wonders, act as a foundation for a tower? How could a tower rest on this particular wall, which, if it were ever completed, would be but a quarter circle or at most a semicircle, certainly nothing close to a full circle? On a literal level, the narrator concludes, such a partial circle cannot possibly be the foundation for a tower to the heavens. The only way of reconciling the scholar’s illogical proposition is to understand “the tower” in a spiritual sense—as metaphor. But the reading of the scholar’s tower as metaphor only leads the narrator into a new conundrum. If the tower is meant symbolically, as metaphor, why build an actual, material wall? Why were thousands of workers sent to the frontier to lay brick on brick for decades or even centuries? Why would an entire country need to be mobilized to fulfill the spiritual goal of a symbolic tower with an utterly material wall?

 The Tower Rises

In the Bible, the descendants of Noah’s son Shem migrate to Babylon. There, they unite in common purpose and build a tower toward the heavens. It is to be a material gateway from the mundane world to the divine realm. The children of Shem are able to accomplish this amazing feat because they can all communicate with each other; they speak the same language. The Tower of Babel is the manifestation of social harmony; it is the product of collective desire to touch the body of God.

The power of this collective desire, this harmony, threatens God. With such a tower, what is distant –the heavens – becomes near. What is separate becomes joined. What is unimaginable becomes knowable. What is abstract becomes material.

God strikes down the tower. He punishes the children of Shem by scrambling their language. Communication breaks down. Social harmony is destroyed.

The Tower Falls

The scholar’s notion of the Chinese wall as a foundation for a new Tower of Babel is a delusion. A wall is meant to divide inside from outside, self from other, civilized from barbarian. Such a structure can never be the foundation for a tower like the Tower of Babel—the ultimate symbol of social harmony and collective desire. The wall’s horizontality contradicts the tower’s verticality. The wall’s politics contradict the tower’s transcendence. The wall’s fear contradicts the tower’s hope. The wall is authoritarian, hierarchical; the tower is democratic and egalitarian.

On one key point, however, the scholar has it right: the Tower of Babel, democratic and egalitarian, built on a foundation of shared language and collective desire, is fatally weak. Its foundation crumbles. The tower falls and collapses into dust.

The Message and the Dream

The narrator tells us, his readers, a parable. On his deathbed, the emperor whispers a message to a messenger. The messenger is supposed to deliver the message to you. The distance between the messenger, who is with the emperor at the heart of the imperial court, and you in your village in a distant province is insurmountably vast. The way is blocked by countless obstacles. The messenger can never make it. The message will not be delivered. Niemand dringt hier durch und gar mit der Botschaft eines Toten an einen Nichtigen / Nobody breaks through here and especially with a message from a dead man to a nonentity. “Still,” the narrator concludes the parable, “you sit at your window and dream it when evening comes.”

This dream is the wall.

Seth Rogoff is a novelist and scholar of media studies, literature, and cultural analysis. He is the author of the novel The Castle (FC2 2024), an intertextual exploration of Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss. His other novels include First, the Raven: a Preface (2017), Thin Rising Vapors (2018), and The Kirschbaum Lectures (2023). With the former NBA player Kendrick Perkins, he co-authored the memoir The Education of Kendrick Perkins (St. Martin’s 2023), which explores the intersection of sports, race, history, and media. His book The Politics of the Dreamscape (Palgrave 2021) focuses on the cultural history, literary theory, and politics of dreams and dream interpretation. His shorter work has appeared in many journals, including The Forward, BODY, Cagibi, Epiphany, Eclectica, and Rain Taxi. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam’s Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). He received a MA in European Intellectual History from Duke University and a BA in the interdisciplinary program Literature and History from Washington University in St. Louis. Currently, he teaches media studies at Anglo-American University in Prague, CZ.