What are we doing in this world now, if not making money for them? in actual fact we’ve always been doing it for them: building their monuments, their pyramids and towers, their walls. Walls that have been erected to separate us from humanity, to instil us with a belief that our identity is something else.
Kafka lamented this condition in his The Great Wall of China: “Why then.. did we leave our homes, the stream with its bridges, our mothers and fathers, our weeping wives, our children who needed our care, and depart… to the wall in the north?” Why leave everything that unites us in order to build a wall that will separate us?
Even before the wall was built, the mere conception of its possibility had already pulled us away. The “Why?”, says Kafka, is a question for the high command: they know us. “They, absorbed in gigantic anxieties, know of us, know our petty pursuits, see us sitting together in our humble huts.” But the Great Wall is nothing new, it is just a seemingly novel idea to come from a High Command that has “existed from old time… from all eternity.” Yet even the novelty of the idea is false, for that too, the idea to embark on a massive separation, has also existed for all eternity.
Judaic mythology blames our separation on a divine action of retribution against human pride. It was God who destroyed Babel and condemned humanity to become an atomised species, jabbering different tongues. But the erection of walls, or the provocation of the new to build walls, were the first great crimes against humanity. In Kafka’s story it is implied that the idea of making the wall preceded any apparent need for it. Kafka’s message could be: the High Command realised that they can only have power if humanity is a divided species, and everything we have now stems from that basic inspiration: Divide, and thou shalt conquer.
As a bureaucrat Kafka was well aware of the obscurity of empire, of the opaqueness of the system itself. Where clarity can be found it is more illusive than real. He writes: “The farther one descends among the lower schools the more… does one find teachers’ and pupils’ doubts of their own knowledge vanishing, and a superficial culture mounting sky high round a few precepts that have been drilled into people’s minds for centuries, precepts which, though they have lost nothing of their eternal truth, remain eternally invisible in this fog of confusion.”
But what Kafka intuits in his story is that what the Emperor is building is not just a wall but a labyrinth. A labyrinth that will protect the truth from escaping. To get the message out we can no longer rely on the straightforward exchange of a pony express galloping over a flat plain. The idea, any idea, has now to navigate through the complex space of the labyrinthine construction that is civilisation. The purity of the message is sullied and soiled almost even before it has been uttered. The great irony of our information age is that all messages must become rarefied and succinct if they are to survive the maze of jabber. The result is a sensationalism which has become insipid in the network of constant exultations.
Communication through wide open spaces buried the truth of its messages in the time it needed to cross those vast reaches. Now that distance has been conquered it is the crampedness of the space that defeats truth and obscures meaning. Kafka’s dismaying conclusion still rings true for despite all the swiftness of our Internet, and “though… the gruesomeness of the living present,” can be irrefutably conveyed by those who convey their messages to us, we “laughed, shook our heads and refused to listen any longer. So eager are our people to obliterate the present.”
In a world of babble our listening faculties become atrophied by the abusive overdose of gibberish we are subject to: “there is a certain feebleness of faith and imaginative power in part of the people, that prevents them from raising the empire out of its stagnation.. and clasping it in all its palpable living reality to their own breasts…”
Kafka was brilliantly lucid in his perception, and, perhaps because of that, he disguised any revolutionary ideas within his irony. In order to survive the day to day we had better be submissive to the system: “To set about establishing a fundamental defect here would mean undermining not only our consciences, but, what is far worse, our feet.” To keep standing it is best to conform to the Emperor, or to the authority of the Great Father. The idea possesses great common sense, but a submission to it means that the sadistic arm of the Emperor will continue to slap us all and its fingers will steal from us over and over again, while accusing us of being forever indebted to it, and forever condemned to pay back our debt. The Emperor prays on us and plunders the world, and, so, frankly, it seems like a good time, perhaps there has never been a better one, to establish the fundamental defeat and begin the task of pulling down the walls of the labyrinth we are lost in.