Thursday, December 01, 2005

kafka, derrida, before the law

In his “Before the Law,” Derrida uses Franz Kafka’s story with the same title to discuss the questions “who decides, who judges, and with what entitlement, what belongs to literature?” (188). In doing so, Derrida equates literature with Kafka’s Law, to explore these questions and answers. Derrida however misses some key elements of Kafka’s “Before the Law” that lead further to answering the questions about literature.

Although Derrida shares the same Jewish heritage with Kafka, he does not mention some of the heavy Jewish allusions that further link literature with Kafka’s “Before the Law.” The first of these is the Law itself. For the ancient Jews and Christians, the Law (Torah in Hebrew) was not only the commandments of God, but also the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Law (or the Torah) makes up the foundational narrative for the Hebrews. It is their story, their history, and their literature. The Torah is also about the creation of the Law, or the commandments of God. It tells the story of how Moses brought the Law (commandments) from Mt. Sinai to the Israelites.

Even though Derrida explicitly discusses Kafka’s text having “Before the Law” as both the title and first line of the narrative, he fails yet again to make the connection that the story of the Law has with the Law (Torah). The first book of the Torah,Genesis, like “Before the Law,” also uses its opening line as its title. Genesis in Hebrew is Bereishit, which is Hebrew for “beginning.” This is also the first word of Genesis, usually translated, “In the beginning,” which is then followed with the account of the creation. While in the context of the first book, Genesis, the title connotes the beginning of the creation, Genesis (Bereishit, beginning) as the first book of the Law connotes a beginning of the Torah, or the beginning of the Law.

Although the first line of “Before the Law” is often read as spatial location, such that the doorkeeper is standing in front of the Law, this is not the only possible reading. The German “Vor dem Gesetz steht ein Turhuter” and English “Before the Law stands a doorkeeper” can also be read as a chronological positioning; the doorkeeper standing at a time prior to the law. Just as the Torah starts with a beginning prior to creation and the Law (and subsequently tells of both of their coming to be), “Before the Law” begins with a time before the creation of the Law and also tells of its creation.

So when is the Law created in Kafka’s story? It is created as soon as the countryman asks the doorkeeper for admittance and accepts the denial from the doorkeeper. Here is the Law. The countryman gave authority to the doorkeeper and the doorkeeper issued a rule, a command, a law. The gate stands wide open and there is no physical barrier preventing the countryman from passing. The doorkeeper even steps aside, not blocking the countryman’s way. What blocks and prevents the countryman from passing through the gate is the newly created Law, the command from the doorkeeper to not trespass. The countryman, in obedience to the Law, follows its dictate and never passes through the gate, dying in the process.

Just before the countryman dies, the doorkeeper tells him, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it” (184). The gate was private to the countryman, just as the Law was. It was by giving authority to the doorkeeper, and abiding to the doorkeepers command, that the countryman chose what was Law. The countryman could never access the Law by passing through the gate, because passing would have negated the doorkeepers command, thus annihilating the Law. The gate was the access to the Law because it was where creation of and contact with the Law occurred, not because it was a passage to the Law.

Similarly, a text becomes literature when authority is granted to the author (explicitly or implicitly) and the reader accepts it as such. Just as the countryman chose what command from the doorkeeper he would accept as Law, it is the reader that chooses what text from the author will be accepted as literature. The Law or literature (Torah, Law, commandments, writings, narrative, books) is not merely the command or text, it is in its acceptance and use as such. “Who decides, who judges, and with what entitlement, what belongs to the Law?” Answer: the countryman who approaches the gate. “Who decides, who judges, and with what entitlement, what belongs to literature?” Answer: the reader who approaches writing.


  1. Did you really write this? I've never seen you use capitals before.

  2. yesh, i was too tired and lazy to convert it to lower-case. plus, i thought it'd be easier to read with capitalization and didn't want the Law to lose it's emphasis. it's a journal for a reading in my philosophy through literature class.

    i really like the idea i've got going here and am thinking of exanding on it and submitting it to uvsc's literary criticism journal.

  3. I think you have missed a great deal here--Derrida wd not concern himself with a biographical context of the writing, tho he does allude to a religious moment in the story and then writes of Hegel. However, if Derrida misses any part of Before the Law at all, we might assume that Derrida has only missed a rewriting of Before the Law in Waiting for Godot, a chance well-missed, and the dialogue between the feminine and the masculine in the law as truth without story, tho Derrida does go into great detail about the sexual structure in Freud's writing and the reformation of Kant's repression by the categorical imperative. I think Derrida has read this well, and you miss too much by saying Derrida does not explicitly state a link between law and literature. You can hear at differed points in his writing the beginning of the Book of John, where Derrida most finds this rapport among Law, Literature and the Church.

  4. This is an excellent summary, which I am grateful to have found.


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