Should I Stay in or Can I Get Out of Here? Movement, Failure, and Kafka’s Bargain



by Menachem Feuer

Franz Kafka loved to stay on the move. He traveled and kept a travel diary. From his travel diaries, we also learn that Kafka went to spas; he liked to exercise and move his body. Like many European Jews in his generation, he wanted to be healthy and happy. But when it came to his life, his faith, and his future, Kafka didn’t feel like he was making any progress.

Kafka felt he was failing to move in the right direction. Sometimes he felt he wasn’t moving at all. In order to understand whether or how he could move, Kafka turned the question of movement into parable. By way of his fiction, he encountered the possibilities of movement. Kafka wondered whether fiction would enable him to move or if it suspended movement? Was Kafka, as he says in one journal entry, “stuck to this spot,” or could fiction, as we see in a few of his parables and fictions, help him to transcend his location and go… elsewhere?

These parable-based meditations on movement brought Kafka face to face with failure and the possibility of madness. They prompted him to reflect and decide on whether or not to make a “bargain,” as he says, with madness. This bargain necessarily affected his movement and prompted Kafka to, as he says in his journals, “cultivate” failure.

Following Sancho Panza, Standing Before the Law, or… Leaving

With Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes gave us a book that, as Milan Kundera argues, inaugurated modern literature. The spirit of modern fiction is epitomized in the journeys of Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. Kafka was acutely aware of what made it so important a text for any European writer of fiction. Like them, Kafka is a part of a comic, novelistic tradition, which originates with Don Quixote. On the other hand, Kafka is also a part of a tradition that is steeped in storytelling and parable. Drawing on both sources, Kafka created his own parable of Don Quixote (a Jewish-Greek one, so to speak). But in Kafka’s parable, there is a different question. Its concern is with movement.

In the parable, “The Truth of Sancho Panza,” Franz Kafka’s narrator tells us how and why Sancho Panza followed Don Quixote to the very end. Sancho Panza followed the wayward Don Quixote “philosophically” and, as an added benefit, such “pursuit” was entertaining (in a comedic sense).

A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.

It’s left for the reader to come to the final conclusion, which is that Sancho Panza’s happiness (in the face of his remaining days on earth) is based on the fact that he knows he can philosophically follow a figure of comedy. But the narrator is unsure of whether this is done out of a “sense of responsibility.” In other words, the act of following Don Quixote – whether as Sancho Panza or as a reader – may or may not be an ethical act.

On the other hand, Kafka suggests – in the same parable- that Sancho Panza would have done things differently if, instead of going on the “maddest,” “uninhibited…exploits,” Don Quixote took Sancho Panza “as his preordained object.” To be sure, these exploits were prompted by Quixote’s consumption of fiction. But if Don Quixote explored the path of friendship rather than nomadic wandering based on this or that story, Sancho Panza’s journey would also change: it would no longer be a comical and fictional journey.

Instead of exploring friendship, the parable suggests that the philosopher follows the journeys of the comical figure. Its journey is also wayward; but at least it’s entertaining. The problem is that the journey of fiction displaces the journey of friendship.

In contrast to this parable, which suggests that fiction enables Sancho Panza and the reader to go on “the maddest…uninhibited exploits,” Kafka’s “Before the Law” suggests that a character – a “man from the country” – who gets stuck before the law and cannot move.

Before the law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the law. But the doorkeeper cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he can be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take not: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.

The man from the country decides to just stay stuck to his spot. As he stays on this spot, he ages and becomes feeble. He feels as if his “attention” will somehow change everything:

During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers…He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; late, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish…at length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are deceiving him.

He becomes childish, confused. But before he dies, a final question comes to his lips, a “question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper”: “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper tells the man from the country that the gate he was guarding was only for the man of the country – it was “made only for you” – however, “I am now going to shut it.”

The punch line is that you had the possibility of going through, but you decided not to move. The guard left the man from the country with the choice to move. And this was his risk. It has his bargain. But the man doesn’t decide And his journey ends at the door, before the law. At the very least, he, like Moses in a sense, gets to glimpse the light of the law – but from other side of the door.

In contrast, Kafka’s deep desire to move is apparent in his parable, “The Departure.” The narrator tells the reader that “I ordered my horse to be brought form the stable.” But the servant, says, the “Master,” “did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted.” He hears a “trumpet” in the distance and abandons his home and servants. Like Abraham, it seems as if he is responding to a call to leave.

When his servants ask him where he is going he says, “I don’t know…just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.” The repetition of “out of here” shows how urgent (and even mad) it is for the narrator to leave. When asked whether he “knows” his goal, the master, frustrated, replies, “Yes…I’ve just told you. Out of here – that’s my goal.”

Despite this intense desire to just leave and get “out of here,” Kafka’s journals reflect his fear that fiction may not help him to move anywhere. Instead of moving, Kafka worried that when he wrote he would – as he states in his January 24, 1922 diary entry – “stay chained to this spot.” While Don Quixote and Sancho move and follow each other through the pages of a book, Kafka doesn’t know if he will leave “this spot.” Perhaps he, like Sancho Panza, can follow them “philosophically.” Is he really going anywhere? And are we, Kafka’s readers, also caught in the possibility that – even though reading comedy promises a kind of philosophical movement in the direction of comedy – we aren’t going anywhere?

Kafka pondered whether the movement he was yearning for would come through marriage or literature. But he also wondered whether or not such movement – in either- was possible. While the gatekeeper – before the law – tells him that it is possible for him to cross, he doesn’t move. Nonetheless, the possibility remains. But what does it mean that his fictional subject fails to move in one story but moves in another? Is this a ruse? Doesn’t this paradox – so to speak – paralyze Kafka’s ability to move? Since movement is a possibility, is fiction simply a means of differing movement across the threshold? Does Kafka’s fiction, in other words, convey a failure to move?

Kafka’s Bargain: Literature as the Cultivation of Failure

In a well-known letter to Gershom Scholem and in his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that the “beauty” of Kafka’s fiction is the “beauty of failure.” This expression doesn’t make sense. Failure is ugly, not beautiful. It’s painful. How could it, like beauty, make one happy?

Kafka’s diary entries show us something that his novels and short stories sometimes disclose; namely, his struggles with failure and his desire for happiness have to do with movement. In a journal entry on “crows,” Kafka points out how he sees himself as a bird who can sometimes float to the heights and “waver” over the abyss of eternity. In that entry, Kafka points out that although he has no “help” in the heights, his friends offer him help in the lower realms (when he falls from the heights).

Kafka says the same thing in his short story “The Investigations of a Dog.” Both the bird (of the entry) and the dog (of that story) are alone and feel alienated and unhappy. That is the price of being spiritual; however, both the bird and the dog admit that friends “help” one to feel happy.

As in these stories, Kafka often associates the literary experience (and dreaming) with unhappiness and failure, while he associates happiness with friendship. In his February 2nd diary entry, Kafka notes the “happiness of being with people.” The next day, Kafka tells us that it is “impossible to sleep; plagued by dreams, as if they were being scratched on me, on a stubborn material.”

Immediately following this, Kafka reflects on the meaning of failure and tries to pinpoint failure as the source of his affliction (in dreams and reality). Like his dog character, he “investigates.” He uses a language to describe failure that is oddly Cartesian. He literally tries to perceive failing as such:

There is a certain failing, a lack in me, that is clear and distinct enough but difficult to describe: it is a compound of timidity, reserve, talkativeness, and halfheartedness; by this I intend to characterize something specific, a group of failings that under a certain aspect constitute one clearly defined failing…This failing keeps me from going mad, but also from making any headway.

Kafka’s description of failure, like Benjamin’s, is ironic. Failure keeps him sane. It protects him from madness! But, on the other hand, it also keeps him (like Gregor Samsa in his room) from “making any headway.” Nonetheless, Kafka feels that he must “cultivate” failure because if he doesn’t he will lose his mind. The word cultivation suggests that failure – for Kafka – is an artform.

Kafka must write late at night to keep from going mad and he equates this activity with a bargain. In this “bargain,” with madness, he “shall certainly be a loser.” But, at the very least, his failure will be beautiful. The problem is that he will not, as I noted above, move anywhere. Kafka is stuck. One the one hand Kafka is not happy because he cannot move; on the other hand, he is happy because he’s not mad. With every bargain comes a sacrifice. In his “bargain with madness,” he has to give up movement in the name of fiction. It is a bittersweet endeavor. But it is comedic; in a dark, ironic sense. (Unless, it really is possible to move in literature and not be “chained to this spot.”)

On His Deathbed: Is the Bargain is Over?

When Kafka, on March 5th, 1924, is confined to this bed for three days because of an “attack,” his friends come to his bedside. He feels a “sudden reversal. Flight. Complete surrender. These world shaking events going on within four walls.” On March 6, Kafka tells us that everything has changed: he experiences a “new seriousness and weariness.”

Kafka now wonders if he will die, if he would “choke to death” on himself? He fears that the “pressure of introspection” will diminish and that he will no longer be able to reflect on his failure (or anything for that matter). He will, as he said before, succumb to madness. He can no longer wage the battle against it… by “cultivating” failure.

Kafka, apparently for the first time in his life, wants to take a different approach to madness and death. He wants to move ahead instead of going nowhere and dying:

Mount your attacker’s horse and ride it yourself. The only possibility. But what strength and skill that requires! And how late it is already!

Kafka now wants to be happy. And while he thought, before this, that cultivating failure was the “only possibility,” he seems to have changed his mind. Now he reflects on nature and feels “jealous” of its happiness. Kafka rethinks the meaning of happiness and realizes how desperately he needs help.

In the past, when I had a pain and it passed away, I was happy; now I am merely relieved, while there is this bitter feeling in me… Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.

Eight days later Kafka seems to have found help. He tells us that he has a “pure feeling” and a “certainty of what has caused it.” Kafka saw “children. One girl especially (erect carriage, short black hair), and another (blonde; indefinite features, indefinite smile); the rousing music, the marching feet.”

He then identifies himself as a “one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice in his rescue.” Nonetheless, he is happy because of the “arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the fight; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy to the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”

In other words, Kafka’s help is found in seeing children who are simple and innocent. They are “ignorant.” But he doesn’t say this as a self-congratulatory intellectual who looks down on the ignorant so much as someone who realizes that simplicity of life is redemptive. The fact that he allows himself to be affected by the children helps him to survive. In his vision, failure is not cultivated.

Nonetheless, Kafka notes how, three days later, “the attacks, my fear, rats that tear at me and whom my eyes multiply” still afflict him. And now madness seems to set in as well as a kind of happiness. His fear of death – apparently – allows madness to break in:

March 19. Hysteria making me surprisingly and unaccountably happy.

Kafka doesn’t give up; but he realizes that even if he “moves, “ he will still have to return to his death room:

April 4. How long the road is from my inner anguish to a scene like that in the yard (of children playing) – and how short the road back. And since one has now reached one’s home, there is no leaving it again.

Kafka wants to leave and move but he realizes that he has to go back “home” and die alone. His failure seems to keep him from moving, again. The cowardly option – it seems – is to fight, alone, against madness through pondering and cultivating failure. It is the short road and it leads to unhappiness (or slight glimpses of the “beauty of failure”). But the long road leads him back to humanity. Kafka is caught up in this dialectical movement (to and fro) in his stories and in his diaries.

For Kafka, it seems, literature is the space of failure (not just life); while life itself – like the ignorant children he sees in the yard -is about happiness and movement (outward). But as an intellectual and a reflective man, Kafka must address his private failures. He may take the long road to see his friends and be inspired by children to plow forward, ignorant of what is to come; but Kafka can also take the short road and cultivate failure so that he can deal with the anguish that eats him up inside.

Either way, Kafka was always looking for what helps. The question for Kafka and perhaps ourselves is….what help is the most important and why? If it is “cultivated,” failure may be beautiful; but, without friends to help or to read to, failure may only lead to deep humiliation and pain not relief.

Can Kafka Get Out of Bed?

In “The Double Session,” Jacques Derrida suggests that there is a connection between literature, reading, and the bed. In French the word “lit” means both ‘bed’ and ‘reads’. Derrida makes reference to this in order to open up the meaning of textuality in which the sematic and syntactic meaning of language, so to speak, lay down and read each other. In contrast to Derrida and building on Kafka, I would argue that literature is not simply the suspension of language it also prompts the suspension of movement by way of effacing the distinction between moving and not moving.

Kafka, near his death, wanted to move out of his bed. He wanted to see the world. And he wanted to start a new life. But he felt he would fall back into the bed. The best figure for this fear is, of course, Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day as a bug. Initially, he can’t leave his bed.

When Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa wakes up in the morning, he wonders if and how, as a bug, he can move. He takes notice of his body. In astonishment he thinks about how he was a body that is nothing to do with who he was or…thinks he is. What is it? How can he move it?

The narrator lays it out for the reader:

It was very easy to throw off the cover; all he had to do was puff himself up a little, and it fell off by itself. But after this things got difficult, especially since he was unusually broad. He would have needed hands and arms to lift him up, but instead he only had numerous little legs, which were in every different kind of perpetual motion and which, besides he could not control. If he wanted to bend one, the first thing that happened was that it stretched itself out; and if he finally succeeded in getting this leg to do what he wanted, all the others in the meantime, as if it set free, began to work in the most intensely painful agitation. (7, The Metamorphosis, trans. Stanley Corngold).

Ultimately, he leaves his bed and moves around the room. At one point, Samsa leaves his room. But when he does, he gets an apple thrown into his back and, from that moment on, he remains confined to his room and slowly dies. He dies without family and friends. However, instead of dying in his bed, he dies on the floor and in the dust.

In the end, it seems as if Kafka realized that he could not “leave this spot.” But he worried that that spot might not be in front of the page of literature (“on” the bed, reading, “lit”). Like Samsa, he could die, totally alienated, outside the text, on the floor. On the floor, dead, he truly fails. However, it is his desire to move and the possibility of movement that counts. Failure – in life or death – is inevitable. But it is willed, cultivated failure that counts.

What Kafka feared most is that he would die – like the man from the country – “before the law” and that he would not pass the threshold to a place that transcends “this spot” of finitude. But, ultimately, being before the law is his best option. Better to be stuck to this spot, before the law, and in his bed (book), than to die on the floor.

Final Thoughts and Questions

But if the writer happens to pass beyond the threshold, as he claims he did when he wrote “The Judgment” (in one long sitting), then this shows that it is possible to leave. Nonetheless, Kafka realized that no matter how much he tried, he would always return to “this spot.”

What is most fascinating about all this is the fact that we, Kafka’s readers also return but, like Sancho Panza, we must entertain the possibility that in following Kafka we have decided to follow a modern Don Quixote. When we read, we, like Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, forsake friendship. But, on the other hand, perhaps, as the narrator muses about Sancho Panza, we do so out of a “sense of responsibility.” But isn’t this the philosophical reflection on the cultivation of failure an abdication of responsibility to others? Couldn’t we go to better places with friends than with fictional characters? Does traveling to a different level of interpretation or understanding make our lives more meaningful or does friendship? “What” helps? Or is the better question “who” helps?

While you pause to answer these questions, don’t forget that even though you are transported to another place when you think, you are still “chained to this spot” – before this page. Kafka knew that imaginary transports have an end and so does life. It can end on the page or it can end on the floor. But it can live on with those who read you. And those people are, in some way, like your friends. As readers, we stop what we are doing to spend time with a text, its characters, and its questions. And many of us think that reading Kafka may, somehow, help. After all, aren’t you reading and thinking about Kafka today…in this spot? When you read, don’t you stop moving? It seems as if Kafka’s bargain with madness paid off. Now his bargain is ours.

If that is true, than that means we have made a bargain with madness. However, that doesn’t make us crazy so much as comical. After all, as Walter Benjamin once said, the beauty of Kafka’s work is the “beauty of failure.” But the subject of this beauty of failure is not a tragic figure. It is the fool (the one that Sancho Panza and the reader follows). The “truth” (playing on Kafka’s “The Truth of Sancho Panza”) that both Sancho Panza and Franz Kafka share – which is, according to Benjamin, Kafka’s “only certainty” – is that “a fool can help.” Like Sancho, we follow a Don Quixote. But Kafka knew that although Don Quixote may be moving, he may not be.

So…who is the bigger fool in this bargain?

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.