One essential theme I continue to dwell on periodically is embedded in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law – a deliciously ambiguous parable that is part of his 1925 novel The Trial – about a man from the country who goes to the king’s castle in order to gain entry before the Law. (Kafka doesn’t explain what he means by “the Law” – and there is little consensus on this point – but I take it to mean “the Law” as in “why things must be as they are”, and in this context the King would be the ultimate authority here …)
And so he is granted permission to appear for the Law, and is led to a gate that leads to it. While the gate appears to be open, there is a gatekeeper preventing him entry and who tells him that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down by the side of the gate. There he waits for days, then months, all the while asking and negotiating with the gatekeeper to let him through. And although the gatekeeper continues to suggest that entry continues to be a possibility – but not just yet – eventually years go by and he ends up waiting his entire life, to no avail, never gaining entry. Then, when he is about to die, he wonders why he was the only person waiting at this gate seeking entry before the Law. The gatekeeper tells him that, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close this gate”.
Kafka has the unique gift of being able to capture a critical insight into the larger human condition and weave it with great literary skill into an allegory that gives it away – but not quite. As a result, we can’t always be sure of what aspect of our lives he is writing about. Countless interpretations have been provided by those who have studied Kafka’s writings over the years, intrigued by his efforts to challenge us beyond the usual boundaries of our thinking about the world and the role we play within it.
What I believe what he wrote about here is, once again, his own acute experience of being in the world without an apparent reason, and feeling compelled to make the assumption that there is an aspect of our existence that provides the justification for it. And while this reason may be staring us directly in the face from the very day that we were born and brought into this world, how will we ever recognize it for what it is?
And so it appears that – while having evolved towards the capacity of being able to consider a reason for being, as in the question “I want to know why I am this way, and for what purpose?” – being allowed to confront this question is no guarantee that you will be able to get it answered even if you are willing to dedicate a lifetime to it! At the same time, this is very much an individual question, in the sense that it is meaningful only for those who feel the need to pursue the answer for it.
Other than that, we make it up as we go along – that is our fate, it seems. As such, we will be the exclusive authors of our own fate according to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). As he writes in 1945 in Existentialism is a Humanism:
That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything that he does.