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Franz Kafka's "Before the Law"

Many of us Lost fans have noticed and commented on (both here and elsewhere) the possible resonances between Season Five’s final scenes and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In that play, two characters wait for Godot, who doesn’t show up. Godot might, or might not, be God, and it’s easy to read the play as espousing a sardonic existentialism not unmixed with religious cynicism. Ben’s despair—maybe even disgust—at having been kept waiting, and his anger at being so facilely dismissed by Jacob, might place Jacob in the role of the mysterious Godot, and hint at both religious and philosophical themes that seem in keeping with Lost’s willingness to grapple with the big stuff, while not being afraid to blow things up.

Be that as it may, I want to try to convince you that there’s actually another story that Lost was referencing in those final scenes: Franz Kafka’s short parable, “Before the Law.” It’s really small, just 641 words in the English translation, and it is accessible here. Click on it. Read it. I’ll wait.

Good, wasn’t it? This short parable was published by itself in Kafka’s life, and later as part of his unfinished novel The Trial. In that novel, a man is taken by the police and assumed to be guilty for a crime that goes unmentioned. The hero feels guilty, like he’s finally been caught, and we’re left with the impression that Kafka is commenting on our tendency to be burdened by guilt for even non-existent crimes, and to desire a repentance that’s nearly impossible to acquire in the conditions created by the modern state. It’s a great novel. You should read it.

As far as the parable goes: one possible reading is a religious one. Kafka (1883-1924) lived in what is now the Czech Republic, back when it was part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Although he was of Jewish extraction, he was raised to speak German (the language of the empire), and while his Czech was good, he chose to write in the language of the government, not the language of the Jewish minority living in Prague at the time. Kafka wasn’t much of a practicing Jew at all, although his works are imbued with themes drawn from the Judaic tradition.

In the religious reading of the parable, the Law stands for Mosaic law and Jewish law—the Commandments, the dictates of the Old Testament, and the cultural traditions that were canonized into religious mandates. These laws form a part of Judaic messianism, the belief that a messiah-potential is born every generation, but the right one just hasn’t quite found (or made) his way yet. The laws are what hold the world together as it waits for the messiah. The countryman is waiting for his access to these laws, or his place in the world as it is held together by these sacred yet inaccessible rules. What makes these rules inaccessible is the countryman’s own inability to see how one cardinal law applies to him: the law of each person having his own way into the realm of law.

Because of Kafka’s rather lazy faith, I’m inclined to think the religious reading is too limiting. The Law can be not just Mosaic law and all that other stuff, but also judicial law (like cops and robbers) and, more importantly, natural law. And by natural law, I mean the laws of natural philosophy (like gravity) and humanistic philosophy (like the possibilities of inalienable rights). Natural law, then, is the rules that govern the universe—the not-necessarily-religious guidelines by which we and our world exist.

So in wanting access to the Law, the countryman wants to understand how the world works: who or what is pulling his strings, who or what is creating and destroying, who or what is in charge. The Law is the man behind the curtain, and the countryman just wants his peak. He expects the Law to make it hard for him, so he’s easily defeated by the doorkeeper, who uses intimidation and hyperbole to keep him from accessing what is rightfully his. The countryman falls for this intimidation because, not having access to the rights the Law grants him, he doesn’t know he’s being tricked—all he understands is fear and the threat of physical punishment, not his own sacrosanct status as a subject to the Law.

The countryman’s entire existence is waiting. He is waiting for the Law to make itself open, not able to reach an understanding of the Law because he is too busy waiting for the Law. The only progress (or change) that the countryman undergoes is an increasing association of the doorkeeper with the Law: “He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law.” Because the countryman doesn’t understand the Law’s accessibility, he begins to misidentify it. The countryman goes from misunderstand the Law to misreading the rather arbitrary figure of the gatekeeper as the Law: he is mistaking presence for significance. (His inability to see that, in waiting, he has begun to see even less clearly than before is symbolized by his failing eyesight and hearing.)

The doorkeeper’s final words, and the final words of the parable, are: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.” Turns out, the Law may be an unfeeling entity, but it is one that has the possibility of access for all (all, that is, individually). The despair of the parable comes from our realization that the man’s entire life was spent hoping for an answer that was waiting for him. There’s also the rather awful possibility that, in being trapped and waiting, the countryman did get access to the Law, after all. In that sense, the only Law is that there is no Law, only waiting for death—at least for this countryman, whose experience of the Law is perforce as individual as having his own door.

Ben is definitely the countryman. Jacob is the Law. Richard is probably the doorkeeper (he does, after all, open the door to Jacob’s lair). Ben is the one waiting desperately for access—he told Locke that the way it works is that Jacob asks you to come, and we get the impression that Jacob never asked Ben to come. But not-Locke knows that the only way to get access to Jacob (access to the Law, access to the secrets of the Island) is to ask for it, to walk through the door and ignore the doorkeeper.

Ben’s despair at watching not-Locke access Jacob with such ease, just by asking, made Ben realize that his waiting wasn’t patience but futility. His willingness to destroy the Law/Jacob was anger at never realizing that his own door was always there, just waiting for him to open it. If everyone has individualized access to the Law, and possibly then even individualized experiences of it, Ben’s experience is one of despair, frustration, and patricide. The Law, in short, is much like Ben’s life.

Fun Facts About Kafka:

• He’s no relation of mine, names notwithstanding.

• Zadie Smith wrote a pretty great biographical essay of him for the NY Review of Books. According to her, he was a vegetarian and a pretty diligent bureaucrat.

• He was engaged three times total. Two of those times were to the same woman.

• He died of consumption (tuberculosis).

• He has the honor of having had his named adjectivized. The first recorded instance of “Kafkaesque” is from a 1947 New Yorker article.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. " Zadie Smith wrote a pretty great autobiographical essay of him"

    Don't you mean biographical?

    Your review was great. It left me wondering what would've happened if Ben had just walked in before to talk to Jacob

  2. Great review, and thanks for the link to the parable. I now feel sorry for Ben, just as I felt sorry for the countryman. They both did not take the initiative to get what they both really wanted...to walk through that door. Of course, I am probably way off in the connection here. I need to pnder more...

    Thanks again!!

  3. Thanks, Gustavo. That's one of those awful mistakes for which there is no excuse.

    I've fixed it now.

  4. I wouldn't call a minor slip-up an unexcusable mistake. I can only imagine the slip-ups *I* would have if I wrote reviews.

    Back to the parable, I has just occurred to me that Ben's story acts as sort of a way of overcoming the countryman's. Ben got to cross the gates and confront "the law". It goes well with what you said in the last review (LOST X The Stand) about intertextuality: it's not copying or alluding, it's borrowing the previous meaning to expand it into something new.

    And that's only one of the reasons I love LOST so much.

  5. It reminds me of a Neil Gaiman "Sandman" story.

  6. The parable tells me that in order for a person to gain justice, that person must have the knowledge of the system to operate that “justice system” that isn't designed to enable. If a person does not have the knowledge, that person must employ an advocate to represent the person on this mission. Since justice is also relative to the person, the situation and the context, justice is individualized and for any given circumstance there is only one form of it. The moral of this parable is that people need advocates to help them find their way.

  7. VERY interesting connection! I came across "Before the Law" via Derrida's analysis of the story. Judith Butler was inspired to investigate gender in the same way after reading Derrida's criticism. She says, "The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object."
    Needless to say, Kafka was brilliant and I am constantly blow away when I read anything by him. (LOST is great too!)


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