Kafka and the Coincidence of Opposites

Romanticism and Buddhism

Kafka and the Coincidence of Opposites

Dennis McCort, Syracuse University

This study traces the mystical idea of the coincidence of opposites through Kafka's short fiction as well as through his letters and diaries. It constitutes a kind of cautionary argument against current cultural-constructivist interpretations that mean to undermine the view of Kafka as primarily a spiritual writer. This essay appears in _Romanticism and Buddhism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

Bei der nächsten Zusammenkunft zeigte ich dann Doktor Kafka meine gebundene Auswahl der [tabloid] Titelblätter. . . . Ich sagte: "Es ist ein Bildersalat—bunt und widerspruchsvoll wie das Leben." Doch Kafka entgegnete kopfschüttelnd: "Nein, das stimmt nicht. Die Bilder verdecken mehr als sie enthüllen. Sie gehen nicht in die Tiefe, wo alle Widersprüche mit einander korrespondieren."

[At our next meeting I proceeded to show Doctor Kafka my bound selection of (tabloid) title pages. . . . I said, "It's an image salad—colorful and contradictory like life itself." Shaking his head Kafka disagreed: "No, that's not it. The pictures conceal more than they reveal. They don't penetrate the depths, where all contradictions correspond with one another."]

—Gustav Janouch, Gespräche mit Kafka


  1. The epigraph cited above has Kafka commenting to his friend Janouch on the trivial matter of tabloid sensationalism. What is not trivial is his implicit allusion to his own deepest mystical experience when he observes that front-page stories, skimming the surface of events as they inevitably do, fail to go "in die Tiefe, wo alle widersprüche mit einander korrespondieren" ["into the depths where all contradictions correspond with one another"] (Janouch 136). Kafka knew these inner "depths" directly as rarefied and blissful states of consciousness, mystical states, in which even something so fundamental to human experience as the principle of contradiction, the very bedrock of logic, was left far behind. I am going to argue here that this subtle sense of a coincidentia oppositorum, as an inner sanctum beyond all taint of resistance or friction, lay at the heart of Kafka's religious sensibility, and that the latter, in turn, lay at the heart of his literary sensibility.

  2. More specifically, my aim in the following pages is to identify and examine the particular dynamics of Kafka's mysticism through an analysis of this principle of the coincidence of opposites, first as a recurrent motif in his intellectual life, and then as a thematic and structural force in several key works of short fiction. Since the coincidentia, as the "abstract essence" of dialectical logic, may be said to subsume all experiential content, it becomes intrinsically more interesting as form than as content, and we will thus be examining a variety of Kafka's coincidentia-generated binaries (e.g., conscious/unconscious, freedom/bondage, wisdom/ignorance), first in a series of short parables and finally in two of the longer short fictions, "Die Verwandlung" ["The Metamorphosis"] and "Vor dem Gesetz" ["Before the Law"]. Moreover, since the coincidentia, understood in the German and other mystical traditions familiar to Kafka as the original Oneness of the pairs of opposites, is precisely what the human mind obscures as it conceptually bifurcates things in order to "get at them," we will be focusing especially on those relatively rare instances in Kafka's fiction in which the mind of the character or persona goes beyond its own intrinsic limits. This is in support of the case for Kafka's mystical insight as a mainspring of his literary creativity and, more generally, for Kafka as essentially a spiritual writer, convinced in the end of the human being's capacity to transcend, however remote the possibility, the suffering of separation built into his or her own dualistic consciousness.

  3. In addition, along the way and especially in my "Conclusion," I will suggest how Kafka's mysticism is best to be regarded in the context of the current cultural-constructivist approach to his works, an approach, like poststructuralism generally from which it derives, tending to cast doubt on Kafka's serious literary interest in spiritual transcendence. Essentially, I will argue that there is no need to impugn the spiritual dimension of the fiction in order to view it as a conduit of currents (variously religious, political, materialistic) coursing through its own culture. In Kafka the spiritual and the cultural are perfectly compatible—indeed, as I aim to show, it is part of his literary (and spiritual) genius to reveal them as such.

  4. In summary, then, my aim in the pages that follow is threefold: 1) to clarify the dynamics of Kafka's literary mysticism by tracing its core principle, the coincidentia oppositorum, in a series of works; 2) this, in order to support the view of Kafka as primarily a spiritual writer, vis-à-vis current interpretive trends such as cultural constructivism which tend to ignore, if not expressly deny, the transcendental dimension in his work; and 3) to view the subtle relationship between these two interpretive approaches in terms of a spiritual paradox that Kafka himself well appreciated.

  5. To be sure, the awareness of an expansive inner sphere where "the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles" (James 298), could touch and even freely mingle, was hardly unique to Kafka. The idea of the coincidentia oppositorum is well ensconced in the history of German mysticism. As the great figures of that history tell us, the coincidentia is that abyssal point in deepest consciousness whence originate and whither return all the categorical pairs that presume to organize experience by bifurcating it (good/evil, true/false, subject/object, etc.). Eckhart calls it the single Eye through which God and man view each other and, elsewhere, "the identity out of the One into the One and with the One" (qtd. in Ross 270).[1] In a sermon he waxes ecstatic over his vision of the purified soul for which "[t]he whole scattered world of lower things is gathered up to oneness when the soul climbs up to that life in which there are no opposites" (Eckhart 173). A century and a half later we have from Nicholas of Cusa the coining of the Latin phrase coincidentia oppositorum as a designation for the trinitarian God in his meditation manual for monks, De visione Dei. One of the exercises Nicholas urged on his charges as a way of experiencing the coincidentia was to stand in a semicircle facing a wall in whose center hung a picture of Jesus whose eyes beamed out to meet those of all the viewing monks simultaneously (Miller 133). Thus the identity of the one and the many.

  6. One can easily trace the ubiquitousness of the idea among post-Eckhartian mystical and even not so mystical thinkers from Böhme and Silesius to Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, and, of course, Hegel.[2] Nor is the idea uniquely German or even predominantly Western. One need only consider the ancient Indian tradition of advaita Vedanta, which views ultimate reality as "not-two" and suffuses various permutations of both Hinduism and Buddhism. One of those permutations would be Zen, which affirms the fundamental identity of samsara and nirvana, or form and emptiness, in its revered "Heart Sutra." Indeed, Zen Buddhism's unique fusion of humor and mystical paradox is, in its way, "Kafkaesque," and I will not hesitate in the pages that follow to draw on Zen's looking-glass logic as I attempt to shed light on some of the more baffling paradoxes in Kafka's parables.

  7. As one of many names for the unio mystica, the mystical insight par excellence, the coincidentia seems to be ontologically prior to any particulars of religious culture. If we view it as the hub of the wheel to which so many religious-cultural spokes point, then it seems sound to argue, with respect to Kafka, that the coincidentia came first and foremost out of his own mystical experience and that it therefore conceptually supersedes (which is not to say "invalidates") the many frustrating and often confusing attempts by scholars to identify his mysticism with particular religions, from Hasidism/Kabbalism (Jofen, Grözinger) and various admixtures of Judaism and Gnosticism (Walther, Sokel) to theosophy (Ryan, Sokel) and, most recently, the Eastern wisdom traditions (Lee, Whitlark, Ryan). This is a confusion Grözinger himself acknowledges when he says, for example, in trying to pin down "a Jewish background to Kafka's thoughts," "Nor is his [Kafka's] use of biblical topoi in the aphorisms any more indicative on their own [of such a background], for they could just as easily have found their way to Kafka via Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhardt" (165).

  8. Background

  9. Let us begin near the end with Kafka's "Eckermann," Gustav Janouch. If the young friend is to be trusted as a reliable witness to Kafka's thinking-out-loud in his last years, the idea of the coincidentia was never far from the latter's thoughts. To wit, Janouch recreates no fewer than three conversations in which Kafka portrays life and death as most intimate antagonists. In one, the older, wiser man attempts to console the younger, upset over his parents' impending divorce, with the promise of the new life that is sure to spring from the ashes of familial strife: "Man muß hinter dem abgestorbenen Laub, das uns umraschelt, schon das junge, frische Frühlingsgrün sehen, sich gedulden und warten" ["Beneath the dead leaves rustling around us one must be able to sense already the young, fresh green of spring, and then be patient and wait"] (252). The seed of the one is already germinating in the other. The opposites are always mingling in subtle ways that escape our notice. Indeed, such dialectical transformation demands of us nothing less than a mindful, stoic patience ("Man muß geduldig alles in sich aufnehmen und wachsen" ["One must patiently take everything into oneself and let it grow"]), for it entails the daunting challenge of bursting "[d]ie Grenzen des ängstlichen Ich" ["the boundaries of the fearful ego"] (252). Such patience issues, then, from a deeper self, a self beyond the defensive ego that keeps the opposites apart. Janouch proceeds to call this patience

    Doktor Kafkas Lebensgrundgesetz, den er mir mit beharrlicher Nachsicht einzuimpfen versuchte, ein Grundsatz, von dessen Richtigkeit er mich mit jedem Wort, jeder Handbewegung, jedem Lächeln und Blinzeln seiner großen Augen und dem ganzen langjährigen Dienstaufenthalt in der Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungs-Anstalt überzeugte.
    [Doctor Kafka's life principle, with which he attempted to inoculate me with persistent care, a principle of whose validity he convinced me with every word, every hand gesture, every smile and squint of his large eyes and with the whole long-suffering term of service in the Workers' Accident Insurance Company.] (252)
  10. The other two conversations show Kafka in even more impressive attitudes of spiritual heroism and accentuate the tendency of the Gespräche, at the hands of the uncritical devotee, towards hagiography. In one, Kafka becomes something of a Nietzschean Übermensch in the sense of one who has embraced the impossible commandment of amor fati: "Ich habe zu allem ja gesagt. So wird das Leid zum Zauber und der Tod—der ist nur ein Bestandteil des süßen Lebens" ["I have said yes to everything. Thereby does suffering become enchantment, and death—that is merely a component of sweet life"] (237). In the other, he is endorsing the mystical pronouncements of the Taoist sage, Chuang Tsi: "Durch das Leben wird nicht der Tod lebendig; durch das Sterben wird nicht das Leben getötet. Leben und Tod sind bedingt; sie sind umschlossen von einem großen Zusammenhang" ["Through life death is not quickened; through death life is not destroyed. Life and death condition each other; they are comprehended by a great connection"]. To which Kafka appends: "Das ist—glaube ich—das Grund—und Hauptproblem aller Religion und Lebensweisheit" ["That is, I believe, the fundamental and foremost problem of all religion and worldly wisdom"] (208).

  11. Such late-life aperçus, including the epigraph to this essay, show the continuing prominence in Kafka's worldview of an essentially mystical idea probably familiar to him since childhood. To be sure, particular notions of the coincidentia from many different cultural quarters did converge over the years in Kafka's receptive and fecund imagination. There were, from early on, the miraculous tales of the old Hasidic holy men whose powers enabled them to traverse the boundary between life and death with ease, tales known to Kafka through the Baal Shem collections of Buber and Peretz and forming part of his religious-cultural background as a member of the Prague Jewish community (Jofen 30-31, 42). Then there was the dialectical thought of German Romanticism and Idealist philosophy in which Kafka was steeped in his latter days at the German Gymnasium and again more intensively at the University of Prague. As Heidsieck so ably documents, "from late 1902 until the end of 1905 Kafka attended [as an extra-curricular activity] meetings of the philosophers' club or Louvre-circle," learning a great deal from the core group of the club made up of "three academic lecturers and several students from the university's philosophy department" (5). Kafka's favorite Romantic author was the kindred troubled soul, Heinrich von Kleist, whose brilliant essay, "Über das Marionettentheater" ["On the Marionette Theater"], had cast the coincidentia in lapsarian-mythic terms of Paradise Regained: "Mithin . . . müßten wir wieder von dem Baum der Erkenntnis essen, um in den Stand der Unschuld zurückzufallen" ["And so . . . we would have to eat once again from the tree of knowledge in order to fall back into the condition of innocence"] (Kleist 127). We can't become innocent again by "undoing" our self-awareness but we can transcend the limits of either condition by fusing both into a higher third. Kafka's twist on this, in the parable, "Das Kommen des Messias" ["The Coming of the Messiah"], is the obscure pronouncement, "Der Messias wird . . . erst einen Tag nach seiner Ankunft kommen" ["The Messiah will . . . not come until one day after his arrival"] (Hochzeitsvorbereitungen 67; hereafter H), a dazzling paradox asserting, in effect, that what is already here cannot "arrive." Time and eternity, or experience and innocence, coincide!

  12. A further academic influence was the course in philosophical psychology that Kafka took in his senior year at the Gymnasium. Here he was introduced to some of the new cognitive research of the Leipzig experimental psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (Heidsieck 4-5), which led in turn to his preoccupation with the thought of Wundt's colleague, Gustav Theodor Fechner. A fascinating blend of mystic and scientist, Fechner had obsessed for years over the age-old mind-body conundrum, being driven by it to invent the discipline of psychophysics which became a milestone in the measurement of mental processes (Chaplin and Krawiec 36). Fechner's text, Elemente der Psychophysik (1860), already a classic by the turn of the century, may well have been used in Kafka's course and would, at the very least, have been cited by Kafka's professor in that course, Emil Gschwind, who had studied at Leipzig under Wundt (Heidsieck 5). The book's importance here lies in its outlining of a careful series of experiments applying Ernst Weber's law of the "just noticeable difference" in physical stimuli (body) to the measurement of sensory thresholds (mind), leading to Fechner's final pronouncement that mind and body are identical (Chaplin and Krawiec 36). We don't know whether, or how well, Kafka may have appreciated the scientific underpinnings of Fechner's identity hypothesis, but it seems safe to assume the mere assertion by science of the identity of these hoary philosophical antipodes, along with their broader extension, Natur and Geist, stirred his imagination profoundly.

  13. It certainly influenced his close friend, the Prague jurist and moral philosopher, Felix Weltsch, who took the same psychology course at the Gymnasium, and whose entire scholarly career, it may fairly be said, was a relentless pursuit—often with Kafka—of the question, as Schillemeit puts it, "wie kommt es überhaupt zu 'Wirkungen' des Geistes in der Welt der Erscheinungen" ["how it is at all possible for spirit to have 'effects' on the world of phenomena"] (168). In several books well known to Kafka—one of which, Gnade und Freiheit [Grace and Freedom] (1920), Kafka even critiqued in galley proofs—Weltsch framed the coincidentia in terms of a kind of creative via media, a "Weg der Gnade" ["way of grace"] or "Weg der Freiheit" ["way of freedom"] (depending on whether God or man was viewed as the agent of transformation), as part of his search for a moral solution to the "Vitalität"-versus-"Geist" or instinct-versus-free will dichotomy (Schillemeit 169-70). Without exaggeration the influence of Fechner's identity hypothesis may be said to have spanned the long years of the Kafka-Weltsch friendship and beyond, ending with the appearance in 1936 of Weltsch's socio-political commentary, Wagnis der Mitte [Risking the Middle Way], and beginning with Kafka's curt report to Oskar Pollak in a letter of November, 1903, "Ich lese Fechner, Eckehart" [I'm reading Fechner and Eckhart"] (Briefe 20). Thus, around the time Kafka and Weltsch were introduced by Max Brod, Kafka was reading, in tandem, a modern scientific champion of mind-body identity and medieval mysticism's most profound exponent of the coincidentia.[3]

  14. No doubt the fullest flowering of this principle in Kafka's mystical sensibility occurred during 1917-18 when, in the flush of his emancipation from the insurance agency, he was able to bring an intense intellectual focus to the task of recording his paradoxical spiritual insights in aphoristic form in some eight octavo notebooks. Many of the most intriguing of these play with the cosmology of Messianism and the Second Coming, themes rooted in Kafka's deep familiarity with various popularized strains of medieval Kabbalism and its contemporary phase, Hasidism (Grözinger 13-14, 165-78; Jofen; Walther 38, 113-14). Freethinker that he was, Kafka traversed Jewish, Christian and Eastern wisdom traditions, noting parallels, with ease and delight. As for specific mystical expressions of the coincidentia oppositorum coming from his own religion of Judaism, two are especially worthy of mention. First there was the sixteenth-century kabbalist Isaac Luria's notion of "tzimtzum," that is, the primordial kenotic space of Divine contraction out of which the pairs of opposites constituting the universe were said to arise. (The visionary thought of Luria, the Baal Shem Tov of Martin Buber's collection of Hasidic tales, is often cited by kabbalistic scholars as a precursor of the Hegelian dialectic.) Even more important for Kafka's eclectic cosmology, according to Grözinger, was the mystical theology of the eighteenth-century Hasidic Maggid (preacher), Dov Ber, who used the image of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, an image prominent in Kafka's aphorisms, to represent the hope of man's ultimate redemption from the pairs of opposites that dog the human mind. Thus Grözinger: "Only after man leaves the material world—or, in the words of the Maggid . . . [o]nce man comprehends the truth of the Tree of Life, this other truth [of the Tree of Knowledge] fades away in the light of the truth of Oneness, of the elimination of opposites. This is the truth of the Tree of Life, the eternal truth which is present in the unity of all being" (171). Grözinger connects Kafka to these and other kabbalistic traditions through the latter's associations with Buber and Georg Langer (also an avid collector of Hasidic tales), and through "his own studies, through conversations with friends, and through family life as well as through observations of Jewish life in Prague, especially in the synagogue" (4).

  15. Many of the aphorisms having to do with the Fall, suffering and redemption show a progressivist chiliastic or even quasi-Hegelian structure culminating in some aspect of the coincidentia oppositorum, the final freedom promised by man's release from the prison of the principle of contradiction. Thus, for example, the above-cited prophecy, quoted here in full,

    Der Messias wird erst kommen, wenn er nicht mehr nötig sein wird, er wird erst einen Tag nach seiner Ankunft kommen, er wird nicht am letzten Tag kommen, sondern am allerletzten
    [The Messiah will not come until he is no longer necessary; he will not come until one day after his arrival; he will not come on the last day but on the very last] (H 67)

    in which not one but two pairs of opposites, time/eternity and desire/fulfillment, are brilliantly conflated, thereby revealing that our very longings and expectations actually create our illusory sense of temporal sequence and separation. He will "come" when he is no longer needed, that is, when our grinding spiritual hunger ceases to blind us to His eternal presence. The moment of this cessation, a moment out of time, is the identity of need and fulfillment. And since the one versus the many is an antinomy like any other, when these particular opposites reunite, so do they all in Messianic epiphany. (In Rinzai Zen, which takes a spiritual perspective very similar to Kafka's, it is said that to solve the mu koan, the one typically assigned as a first meditation exercise to novices, is to solve all koans.[4] )

  16. The other Second-Coming prophecy, dated November 30 (1917) in the third notebook, shows, or at least implies, a similar synthesis of double antinomies (a coincidence of coincidences) as it looks forward to the revelation of the identity of God and man and the oneness of inner and outer worlds "in der symbolischen Aufzeigung der Auferstehung des Mittlers im einzelnen Menschen" ["in the symbolic demonstration of the resurrection of the mediator in the individual"] (H 66). ( I understand Kafka's sense of symbolisch here to be similar to Goethe's [a means by which one being not only represents but also participates in another] or Jung's [a bridge through which opposite shores connect].) Just as striking are key thematic variations scattered throughout the aphorisms, such as the identification of Paradise with this earthly vale of tears ("[Es ist] möglich, daß wir nicht nur dauernd im Paradiese bleiben könnten, sondern tatsächlich dort dauernd sind" ["(It is) not only possible that we could remain permanently in paradise but that we actually already are there permanently"] [H 69]) or its subjective correlative, the insistence, beyond imagining, of the inseparability of suffering and bliss:

    Nur hier ist Leiden Leiden. Nicht so, als ob die, welche hier leiden, anderswo wegen dieses Leidens erhöht werden sollen, sondern so, daß das, was in dieser Welt leiden heißt, in einer andern Welt, unverändert und nur befreit von seinem Gegensatz, Seligkeit ist.
    [Only here is suffering suffering. Not in the sense that those who suffer here will, because of this suffering, be exalted in some other place, but in the sense that what in this world is called suffering is, in another world, unchanged and merely liberated from its opposite, bliss.] (H 80)

    This is no different than Novalis's ecstatic anticipation in the supremely mystical Hymnen an die Nacht [Hymns to the Night]:

    Und jede Pein Wird einst ein Stachel Der Wollust sein. [And every pain Will be a spur To blissful gain.] (20)
  17. Scholars have, of course, noted this or that aspect of the picture I am endeavoring to present here more globally and with a heightened sense of its significance as a context for Kafka's creativity. Although he does not specifically locate Kafka within the German mystical tradition of the coincidentia oppositorum, Hartmut Binder, for example, does note the strong tendency in the aphorisms towards the fusion of contraries: "Die Gegensätze, die, auf Held und Gegenspieler verteilt, in den Erzählungen und Romanen die Handlung in Gang bringen, werden in den Parabeln und Aphorismen zum Paradox zusammengefaßt. . . . Dieses Zusammenzwingen des Gegensätzlichen zur Identität ist charakteristisch für Kafkas Paradoxe" ["The contraries, as allotted to hero and counterpart, which in the tales and novels set the plot moving, become in the parables and aphorisms condensed into paradox. . . . This fusion of oppositions into identity is characteristic for Kafka's paradoxes"] (235). Hans Walther grounds Kafka's Messianic vision "[i]n der kabbalistischen Literatur des Mittelalters" ["in the kabbalistic literature of the Middle Ages"] which conceives the Fall in dialectical terms as the chaotic proliferation of alienated pairs destined to come together again: ". . . die Spaltung in Gutes und Böses, Lebendiges und Totes, Reines und Unreines, Heiliges und Profanes. . . . In der messianischen Erlösung werden jedoch mit der gefallenen Welt auch alle jene Scheidungen, die ihr Wesen ausmachen, verschwinden" [". . . the split into good and evil, life and death, pure and impure, sacred and profane. . . . But in the Messianic redemption the fallen world, along with all those separations that make up its being, will disappear"] (113). More pessimistically, Walter Sokel, in noting the prominence in Kafka's worldview of the double bind for man (in particular Jewish humanity) created by the pairs of opposites, sees him as tending strongly towards a separatistic Gnostic cosmology, affinities to Kabbalism notwithstanding. In other words, for Sokel, Kafka is too strongly attached to the transcendent God of light to affirm an ultimate reconciliation with Jehovah, "who is a God of life and its promise on earth" ("Between Gnosticism and Jehovah" 71). Sokel's signature image for this view is from the well-known aphorism in notebook 3 that has man bound by two chains around the neck which alternately pull him upward toward heaven and downward toward earth, always against the direction in which he seeks to move. One wonders what Sokel makes of the numerous aphorisms that prophesy redemption.

  18. The Fiction

  19. Yet, as fascinating as the foregoing sketch of mingled influences is, these surely were for Kafka no more than gratifying corroborations of what he already knew first-hand from his own deepest inner experience; and it could only have been from such experience, from the post-spatial pointal abyss of the coincidentia, that he was writing when he baited Weltsch in a letter with the indirect question "ob die Welt aus einem Punkt zu kurieren ist" ["whether the world can be cured from a single point"] (Briefe 187).[5] On at least one occasion, and probably more than that, this centering or healing effect of the coincidentia took the form for Kafka of the experienced identity of the writer with the process of writing.[6] This occurred during the night in which he jotted down the entire text of "Das Urteil" ["The Judgment"] in a single trance-like sitting. For once he felt he had fully experienced the elusive condition of pure writing, "as though the tale had written itself through him using him only as its medium" (Sokel, "Frozen Sea" 75). Sokel emphasizes Kafka's sense, recorded in his diary, of the "forward movement of the tale which carried him along as though in water" (75). This effect of flow or swimming, analogous to orgasm, is a common metaphor in mystical literature East and West for the bliss of the coincidentia.

  20. For Kafka writing was from the beginning an almost instinctive kind of spiritual practice, a way of breaking through what he called "the frozen sea" of incessant self-absorbtion to a "total opening of body and soul" (qtd. in Sokel, "Frozen Sea" 71, 75).[7] It was Kafka's "royal road" to the creative unconscious and the deeper states of being. In its best moments it meant a perfect congruence between his personal will as writer and the autonomous thrust of the process. It was in this sense of surrendering the neurotic need to control the moment to the effortless flow of the coincidentia that Kafka could describe the songs in his head in "Die Sirenen" ["The Sirens"] as so many "verführerische Nachtstimmen" ["seductive voices of the night"] beckoning him in the evening to his desk after another dreary day of adjusting claims (Parables and Paradoxes 92). To the extent that those voices could on a given evening write themselves through Kafka, Kafka could experience even the ghastliest of them, even the sirens with their hideous claws and sterile wombs, even Gregor Samsa, as beauty itself: "[S]ie konnten nicht dafür, dass die Klage so schön klang" ["They couldn't help it that their lament sounded so beautiful"] (Parables 92). All images expressive of Kafka's alienation from the body ("eine fremde Schweinerei" ["an alien obscenity"] [Briefe 131]), whether his own (Gregor, "Der grüne Drache" ["The Green Dragon"]) or the woman's (the sirens, K.'s rolling around with Frieda in beer puddles in the inn of the castle village), would be redeemed through the mysterious alchemy of the coincidentia. When the song could sing itself, all would be transformed by that Beauty that is in no way opposed to ugliness. Only the mystical notion of such a Beauty reconciles us to Kafka's otherwise shocking offence to ordinary sensibility in the conversations with Janouch in which he twice conflates love with filth: "Die Liebe schlägt immer Wunden, die eigentlich nie richtig heilen, da die Liebe immer in Begleitung von Schmutz erscheint" ["Love always inflicts wounds that never properly heal, since love always appears in the company of filth"], and shortly thereafter, "Der Weg zur Liebe führt immer durch Schmutz und Elend" ["The way to love always leads through filth and misery"] (239, 242).

  21. But not only did the coincidentia "write" Kafka, he also wrote (about) It—one is almost tempted to say only (about) It—as an analysis of much of the short fiction and the immortal "Verwandlung" makes clear. "Die Zelle ["The Cell"]," for example, can certainly be read as Kafka's mystical vision of the identity of conscious and unconscious mind,[8] or mind and body:

    "Wie bin ich hierhergekommen?" rief ich. Es war ein mäßig großer, von mildem elektrischem Licht beleuchteter Saal, dessen Wände ich abschritt. Es waren zwar einige Türen vorhanden, öffnete man sie aber, dann stand man vor einer dunklen glatten Felswand, die kaum eine Handbreit von der Türschwelle entfernt war und geradlinig aufwärts und nach beiden Seiten in unabsehbare Ferne verlief. Hier war kein ausweg. Nur eine Tür führte in ein Nebenzimmer, die Aussicht dort war hoffnungsreicher, aber nicht weniger befremdend als bei den andern Türen. Man sah in ein Fürstenzimmer, Rot und Gold herrschte dort vor, es gab dort mehrere wandhohe Spiegel und einen großen Glaslüster. Aber das war noch nicht alles.

    Ich muß nicht mehr zurück, die Zelle ist gesprengt, ich bewege mich, ich fühle meinen Körper.

    ["How did I get here?" I exclaimed. It was a moderately large hall, lit by soft electric light, and I was walking along close to the walls. Although there were several doors, if one opened them one only found oneself standing in front of a dark, smooth rock-face, scarcely a handbreadth beyond the threshold and extending vertically upwards and horizontally on both sides, seemingly without any end. Here was no way out. Only one door led to an adjoining room, the prospect there was more hopeful, but no less startling than that behind the other doors. One looked into a royal apartment, the prevailing colors were red and gold, there were several mirrors as high as the ceiling, and a large glass chandelier. But that was not all.

    I do not have to go back again, the cell is burst open, I move, I feel my body.] (Parables 116-17)

    I see this parable as the artistic apotheosis of Fechner's identity hypothesis. It enacts the lightning-flash realization by the first-person narrator of the coincidence of opposites: at first we have the cell with its two rooms, one lit by a bland electric light, the other more colorful and lit by a great glass chandelier. These rooms are, as often in self-reflective dreams, the conscious and unconscious minds respectively, the narrator identifying with the safe but monotonous light of reason or conscious awareness, for here is where he stands, not daring to do more than sheepishly peer into the more colorful, more promising ("hoffnungsreicher") adjacent room. But he senses that the conscious mind alone will not get him out of the prison of dualism ("Hier war kein Ausweg" ["Here was no way out"]), for it is that mind, with its subject-object structure, that constitutes the prison. He also senses, wisely, that a caution-to-the-winds plunge into the more mysterious, more promising "Fürstenzimmer" ["royal apartment"], though its walls be decked with great mirrors of self-revelation that are themselves illuminated and integrated by a Jungian mandala-like chandelier, will avail him little since there will be no conscious ego to appreciate all this self-knowledge. Neither the dualism of consciousness nor the monism of unconsciousness will free him. There being nothing he can do, no move he can make, he gives up. And it is precisely in this giving-up, this total letting-go of the intent to be free, that freedom happens—suddenly, effortlessly, mysteriously: "Ich muß nicht mehr zurück, die Zelle ist gesprengt, ich bewege mich, ich fühle meinen Körper" ["I do not have to go back again, the cell is burst open, I move, I feel my body"]. He is no longer a consciousness that has an unconscious, or a mind that has a body; now he is the body, and, being the body, now knows it in a way far superior to before. Liberation is trumpeted in a separate concluding paragraph as a fait accompli, implying that the event itself takes place in the silence between paragraphs, in other words that, as the coincidentia of conscious and unconscious, or mind and body, or "before" and "after," it defies narration which can properly function only by keeping all these pairs separate. Perhaps that which cannot be told occurs on the unmentioned threshold between the rooms, a spatial analog to the temporal silence between paragraphs.[9]

  22. Kafka's familiarity since Gymnasium days with the psychology of Gustav Fechner bore other fruit as well. Fechner's careful probing of the gray area between mind and body in the performance of the earliest stimulus-response experiments helped Kafka to crystallize his own independently acquired mystical understanding of the mind as a dialectical field generated from the matrix of the coincidentia. Fechnerian influence is quite apparent in "Der Wächter" ["The Watchman"] in Kafka's ironic play with the idea of thresholds of sudden awareness:

    Ich überlief den ersten Wächter. Nachträglich erschrak ich, lief wieder zurück und sagte dem Wächter: "Ich bin hier durchgelaufen, während du abgewendet warst." Der Wächter sah vor sich hin und schwieg. "Ich hätte es wohl nicht tun sollen", sagte ich. Der Wächter schwieg noch immer. "Bedeutet dein Schweigen die Erlaubnis zu passieren?". . .
    [I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: "I ran through here while you were looking the other way." The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. "I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it," I said. The watchman still said nothing. "Does your silence indicate permission to pass?". . . (Parables 80-81)

    Here Kafka dramatizes the inverse dialectical relationship between simple and self-consciousness, the two ordinary human levels. Spontaneous action, the proverbial Zen sword stroke, happens when one forgets the "watcher." But the instant he is remembered, self-doubt and awkwardness come storming back. Subtly implied in this Zen "koan" (perhaps through the Ich-Erzähler [first-person narrator] who recalls the event) is a matrix from which both states spring and on which they remain existentially dependent. (A traditional Zen mondo asks: "When the two disappear into the one, where does the one go?") Also implied is a tiny seed of irritation nascent to the spontaneous state, a seed which, at a certain point in its growth, will cause the narrated I-persona suddenly to recall the watcher who abruptly ends the free flow of action: thus the passage from innocence to experience, or childhood to adulthood, termed by Lacan "the mirror phase," a lapsarian image also favored by Kleist in his masterful "Über das Marionettentheater." It is from Fechner that Kafka came to understand the term Schwelle [threshold] in a psychological sense. As Heidsieck tells us, "Fechner empirically demonstrated that sensory impressions and their concomitant feelings require a minimal (noticeable) intensity to enter into consciousness. He applied this concept to aesthetics and introduced the term aesthetic threshold, which Kafka is using here as well [i.e., in an incidental text discovered by Max Brod]" (28). Fechner's concept of Schwelle helped Kafka to grasp intellectually what he knew well from inner experience, that states of consciousness, mystical no less than other kinds, are related to one another in both a "gradual" and "sudden" sense. There is psychospiritual evolution, perhaps largely unconscious, towards illumination, climaxed by a sudden burst of insight; or, as in "Der Wächter," there is a kind of reverse event: blissful child's play aborted by the sudden appearance of the Other.

  23. We can also infer, through the mini-drama enacted in "Der Wächter," Kafka's sense that the mystical state, insofar as it comprehends these discrete lesser states of mind, is the only escape from the "Zelle" (two rooms) of dualism. It is not really to be viewed as the "third" phase of the Romantic-triadic myth of the Fall, a linear view, but as an apotheosis of the first two phases, a blending of the best of each: the seamless joy of spontaneity and the discriminative power of "difference," a true coincidentia oppositorum.

  24. "Robinson Crusoe" presents another trope for the putatively split human mind as its own trap, only here the trap is agoraphobic rather than claustrophobic as in "Die Zelle":

    Hätte Robinson den höchsten oder richtiger den sichtbarsten Punkt der Insel niemals verlassen, aus Trost oder Demut oder Furcht oder Unkenntnis oder Sehnsucht, so wäre er bald zugrunde gegangen; da er aber ohne Rücksicht auf die Schiffe und ihre schwachen Fernrohre seine ganze Insel zu erforschen und ihrer sich zu freuen begann, erhielt er sich am Leben und wurde in einer allerdings dem Verstand notwendigen Konsequenz schliesslich doch gefunden.
    [Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.] (Parables 184-85)

    Robinson is exposed to the dangers lurking behind every tree of the uncharted island. So at first he stays visibly perched at its peak, believing, like the prisoner in "Die Zelle," that remaining within the relatively safe, overt space of consciousness (here the upper strata of the mysterious island of self) offers the best hope of rescue. But he soon begins to suspect that hope for deliverance from "up here" and "out there" (compare the blocked exit doors of the blandly lit room of conscious reason in "Die Zelle") is delusive and that his best bet is to explore "seine ganze Insel" ["his entire island"]. And so, no longer clinging to the safe conscious nor avoiding the threatening unconscious sphere, Robinson places himself at the optimal vantage point of any experiential moment, at the coincidentia oppositorum that is Self, and begins to enjoy the bracing freedom of the dialectical swim of the pairs (say, conscious and unconscious, abandonment and rescue) into and out of each other. That Kafka is thinking here in terms of the higher dialectical logic of the coincidentia that liberates rather than the either-or Aristotelian sort that binds, is made clear in his closing characterization of Robinson's rescue as occurring "in einer allerdings dem Verstand notwendigen Konsequenz" ["by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable"]. Since rescue here would seem anything but "logically inevitable," we take Kafka's words as a cue to probe beyond the confines of two-dimensional to the spaciousness of three-dimensional logic. At that indeterminate moment when Robinson surrenders utterly to his isolation, he is rescued—by his True Self, the coincidentia oppositorum, which by virtue of Its absolute non-discrimination between abandonment and rescue, constitutes the only true rescue.

  25. Dialectical logic is the logic of the mystic. Its insight is that the members of any polarity are existentially interdependent (no abandonment without rescue, no up without down, etc.). The mystic experiences this law as applying, not just to interior linguistic reality (the categories by which the mind organizes the world), but to exterior physical reality as well, hence to all phenomena without exception. This being the case, it dawns on him or her that no particular thing is ever "real" in and of itself, in the sense of being an independently existing substance, but merely acquires a kind of illusory reality by virtue of its negative attachment to its own counterpart. (Some such insight, it seems to me, lies behind the binary emphasis of Saussurean linguistics as well as the poststructuralist claim that language cannot refer to anything outside itself.) This realization brings freedom from "the pairs of opposites that dog the human mind," as the tradition of Advaita Vedanta has it. Thus Robinson's "rescue."

  26. The mystic in Kafka knew that dialectics promises emancipation from the separative prison of dualism. Recall his paradoxical assertion, quoted above, of the identity of happiness and suffering, the latter somehow, mysteriously, "unverändert und nur befreit von seinem Gegensatz" ["unchanged and merely liberated from its opposite"]. In "Der Kaiser" ["The Emperor"] Kafka lends depth and nuance to this vision of an inner dialectical law governing the universe by claiming that faith in the workings of that law must not be allowed to preclude doubt, that indeed faith and doubt are as inextricable as any other pair of opposites and are themselves a manifestation of the law. A drop of doubt in a sea of faith is no problem (and for reasons having nothing to do with quantitative difference): "Viel Aufsehen machte das natürlich nicht; wenn die Brandung einen Wassertropfen ans Land wirft, stört das nicht den ewigen Wellengang des Meeres, es ist vielmehr von ihm bedingt" ["This, naturally, did not cause much of a stir; when the surf flings a drop of water on to the land, that does not interfere with the eternal rolling of the sea, on the contrary, it is caused by it"] (Parables 108-09). Faith and doubt define each other. If one can allow room for both in consciousness, without phobically trying to get rid of the negative, if one can, like Robinson, keep faith in the unknown depths of the mysterious island of self even as fear and doubt rumble in the belly, one invites rescue by the Source of all the pairs. That rescue is neither more nor less than the joyful recognition of that Source as, in the words of ancient Zen master Hui-neng, one's own "True Nature."

  27. In "Die Wahrheit über Sancho Pansa" ["The Truth about Sancho Panza"] the dualism that is transcended in coincidentia is personified in the characters of Sancho and the Don, and their particular relationship casts the issue of self-awareness less in Freudian (cf. "Die Zelle") than in Jungian pan-mystical terms of lower ego versus higher Self, or ignorance versus Wisdom.

    Sancho Pansa, der sich übrigen dessen nie gerühmt hat, gelang es im Laufe der Jahre, durch Beistellung einer Menge Ritter- und Räuberromane in den Abend- und Nachtstunden seinen Teufel, dem er später den Namen Don Quichotte gab, derart von sich abzulenken, dass dieser dann haltlos die verrücktesten Taten aufführte, die aber mangels eines vorbestimmten Gegenstandes, der eben Sancho Pansa hätte sein sollen, niemandem schadeten. Sancho Pansa, ein freier Mann, folgte gleichmütig, vielleicht aus einem gewissen Verantwortlichkeitsgefühl, dem Don Quichotte auf seinen Zügen und hatte davon eine grosse und nützliche Unterhaltung bis an sein Ende.
    [Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. 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.] (Parables 178-79)

    We are told that, over time, Sancho has managed to free himself from his demon, the proud but deluded adventurer Quixote, through the practice of reading romances of chivalry and adventure. In other words, by studying literary projections of his own egoic craving for honor, a kind of meditation, Sancho eventually "catches on" to the conative impulses driving his own consciousness and, in so doing, transcends them, that is, awakens to his true Self or higher nature. In paradoxical terms, that higher nature is a Don who completely sees through his own posturing and is therefore able to enjoy it to the hilt: "Sancho Pansa, ein freier Mann, folgte gleichmütig . . . dem Don Quichotte auf seinen Zügen und hatte davon eine grosse und nützliche Unterhaltung bis an sein Ende" ["A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, . . . and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days"]. So Kafka is intimating that, once this "catching on to" oneself occurs, wisdom/Self/Sancho can finally relax into its own identity with ignorance/ego/the Don. Since both terms are essentially empty, mere "signifiers" in current critical parlance, not a hair's breadth separates them. Zen describes this emancipated condition as moving freely within one's own karma and likens it to a dreamer's sudden realization that he is dreaming. Since he's making it all up anyway, he may as well enjoy himself (McCort, "Kafka Koans" 66-67). (In "Die Quelle," ["The Spring"] by contrast, we have an allegory of the failure of the persona to awaken to his True Nature: "Da er aber nichts merkt, kann er nicht trinken" ["But as he notices nothing he cannot drink"] [Parables 184-85]. Through his depiction of both rare deliverance and frequent failure in the short fiction, Kafka may be suggesting that spiritual awakening is a gratuitous event that occurs independently of the will of the individual.)

  28. Deliverance, it seems to me, is precisely what comes to Gregor Samsa at the moment of death, not biological death but that mystical "death before death" or ego death of which Angelus Silesius speaks in his renowned epigram (164).[10] In keeping with our casual allusions to Zen as a frame of mystical reference, one could describe "Die Verwandlung" as the narration of the archetypal struggle with a koan, the koan of identity: "What am I?" is the question. As with any good koan, the issue is anything but airy philosophical speculation. For Gregor it becomes, in the course of his season in hell, quite literally a matter of life and death. Dreading the insect and longing for the human, he eventually finds himself stuck between the two, paralyzed, or in Kafka's term, "festgenagelt" ["nailed fast" or "crucified"] (Sämtliche Erzählungen 84) between positive and negative energies, not unlike the mighty Alexander der Grosse riveted by his own "Erdenschwere" (Parables 94; Kafka's intranslatable neologism meaning literally "earth heaviness"): "Er [Gregor] machte bald die Entdeckung, daß er sich nun überhaupt nicht mehr rühren konnte" ["He (Gregor) soon made the discovery that he could no longer move at all"] (Sämtliche Erzählungen 96). When Gregor, in his pathetic apology to the chief clerk in part one, squeaks, "Ich bin in der Klemme" ["I'm in a fix"] (SE 66), he is of course saying far more than he knows at that point in the narrative and might well have substituted the Japanese koan for the German Klemme.

  29. This psychospiritual impasse between opposites is precisely where a good koan grips one, for only when it becomes crystal clear that all further struggle to resolve the koanic issue of what one "is" is absurd, does the issue suddenly resolve itself: Gregor isn't really anything in particular (or more precisely, anything more than an arena of struggle between delusive self-images) because he's everything in general. He's the whole story! This sudden leap from part (character in struggle) to whole (narrator/narration), which is a leap to their identity resolving the koan of "identity," seems in retrospect almost predictable from the intimate proximity to Gregor of the only nominally omniscient narrator from the beginning.[11] Once Gregor sees He's behind it all—indeed, that He is it all—then the compassion for others heretofore blocked by frantic self-concern can flow out in unalloyed profusion: "An seine Familie dachte er mit Rührung und Liebe zurück" ["He thought back on his family with affection and love"] (SE 96).

  30. Gregor succeeds in awakening to his True Nature, the coincidentia oppositorum of character and narrator, or part and whole. He learns that each of us is both the author and the protagonist of his own life-drama, each of us both contending with and identical to the universe of his own experience. This amounts to a paradoxical identity of bondage and freedom, implying a higher Freedom that is not in any way opposed to bondage, indeed that flourishes right in the midst of bondage. One's True Nature is this Freedom itself. Gregor's realization of the Freedom that he is (not "has," a dualistic notion) uncorks the heretofore bottled-up love of family. (The phrase "Rührung und Liebe" ["affection and love"] marks the only occurrence of the word Liebe in the tale.) He has cracked wide open the very koan whose solution eludes the parched persona in "Die Quelle." This wretched Every "Er" ["He"] fails to make Gregor's leap from part ("ein zweiter Teil aber merkt nichts" ["another part notices nothing"]) to whole ("ein Teil übersieht das Ganze" ["one part overlooks the whole"]), unable to crystallize a vague intuition of their identity: "Ein zweiter Teil . . . hat höchstens eine Ahnung dessen, daß der erste Teil alles sieht" ["another part . . . has at most a divination that the first part sees all"] (Parables 184-85). As long as he is limited to the "tunnel vision" of an involved character, he must remain oblivious to the proximity of the flowing water: "Er hat Durst und ist von der Quelle nur durch ein Gebüsch getrennt" ["He is thirsty, and is cut off from a spring by a mere clump of bushes"] (Parables 184-85). Only a higher perspective, revealing to him that he is fundamentally a "One" that has somehow become two ("zweigeteilt" ["divided against himself"] [Parables 184-85]), a perspective enjoyed by Gregor through his "death before death," can restore him to the integrity that alone would slake his thirst. The waters of the "Quelle" are, needless to say, those of spirit, or, in modern parlance, self-realization.

  31. Conclusion

  32. Kafka's sure mystical instincts taught him that nothing is overcome by resistance and, conversely, that anything, even contradiction, is overcome by assimilation. He also knew that this assimilation was subtle, for it meant dying to one's own sense of separate selfhood. Even waiting for fulfillment was merely a form of passive aggression that reinforced the ego. That's why, in "Vor dem Gesetz," a hundred, or a thousand, or a million gatekeepers seem to stand between the man from the country and the Law whose majesty he seeks. As long as (the) man continues to see the ultimate authority dualistically as the Other to which he is subject rather than monistically as something he is, there will always be the next gatekeeper.

  33. But perhaps we can take his death as merely allegorical, that is, as the death of a limited, hence essentially deluded, point of view (like Gregor's "death before death"), which, by virtue of the coincidentia oppositorum, marks it as the commencement of his life in freedom. That would make the gatekeeper's shutting of the gate both an end and a beginning, itself a coincidence. From the expansive vision gained by dying to his sense of separate selfhood, the man from the country suddenly beholds the blocked gate to the Law as what in truth it has always been, a non-barrier, or what Zen calls a mu-mon-kan or gateless gate. (The Mumonkan [literally "no-gate barrier"] is a renowned collection of Chinese koans dating from the thirteenth century. Even today it remains the "Bible" of Rinzai Zen spiritual practice. Its koans, like all effective koans, are designed to bring the student to the profound realization that all imagined barriers to Oneness [coincidentia] are just that: imagined, "gateless gates," projections of the intrinsically dualistic, and hence delusive, structure of human consciousness.)[12]

  34. Kafka knew the coincidentia oppositorum as that ineffable, exquisite moment in which what has long been felt as the confining bane of one's existence—insect, gatekeeper, cell—is suddenly known, through the experience of identity with it, to be freedom itself.[13] When the man becomes the cell, there is no cell. When he becomes the Law's guardian, which amounts ironically to becoming (realizing) the projected discriminating function of his own mind, he becomes the Law itself, for, in the looking-glass logic of mysticism, to become a single thing experienced as other is to overcome all otherness.

  35. Perhaps the ultimate paradox of this freedom to which Kafka points is that it bridges even that most unbridgeable of gaps, that between opposed interpretations of his works. In light of the coincidentia, even the cultural constructivism of, say, a Rolf Goebel and my own mystical or "transcendent" approach to Kafka become seamlessly compatible. The coincidentia, as Kafka knew and expressed it, supersedes all boundaries, not excluding that between transcendence and immanence, or Geist and Kultur. Kafka was well aware (even if some of his current constructivist critics are not) that spiritual transcendence had nothing to do with any remote ideal sphere of pure being, or what Goebel, with reference to "Vor dem Gesetz," erroneously calls a "künstlerischen Autonomie- und Reinheitsideal" ["ideal of artistic autonomy and purity"] ("Verborgener" 42). Rather, it was to be realized right within the miasma of cultural constraint, indeed there or nowhere, like the Zen lotus sprouting up unblemished from the mud. The death of the man from the country is, mirabile dictu, the allegorical death of the mind of ignorance, the gate-erecting mind, which would keep the cultural and the spiritual, the human and the Divine, apart.

  36. It dawns on the man, in allegorical death, that it is neither possible nor necessary to cast off the trappings of culture that comprise his conditioned life, nor need he cross any putative hallowed threshold to gain the freedom embodied by the Law (a law being the one thing that is not subject to itself), because he realizes that freedom is always already the case on either side of the gate. It is then that gate and gatekeeper [14] go "poof!", exposed as the empty phantasms they have always been.[15] They are demons of merely apparent separation, one might say, conjured by the binarizing human mind (operating at times, such as here and now, in its literary-critical mode), demons forever subject to exorcism by the coincidentia oppositorum.


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---. "Kafka and the Taoist Sages." Journal of the Kafka Society of America 8 (1984): 28-34.


1 "Das Auge darin ich Gott sehe, ist dasselbe Auge, darin Gott mich sieht. Mein Auge und Gottes Auge ist ein Auge und ein Gesicht und ein Erkennen und eine Liebe" (qtd. in Suzuki 126). Except for Brod and Grözinger, German sources are quoted here in the notes in the original. In the text, however, they are quoted both in the original and in English translations made by me, the only exceptions to the latter being Grözinger and Kafka's parables. Translations of the parables are taken from the dual-language edition, Parables and Paradoxes.

2 Among the "not so mystical" thinkers would be Herder, who, according to Michael Morton, is grounded in the tradition of the coincidentia oppositorum, a tradition stretching back to Cusanus and, so the author argues, long before him to the pre-Socratic Ionian philosopher Heraclitus. Morton calls Herder "the direct ancestor of such thinkers as Hegel and Nietzsche" (51), this by reason of his 1764 essay, "On Diligence in Several Learned Languages," the exposition of which occurs in three stages, "corresponding broadly to the pattern of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that, a generation later, becomes the characteristic framework, not merely of the Hegelian system, nor even solely of German Idealism, but of Romantic thought and sensibility generally" (28). In the third chapter of his book, Morton offers a reading of Herder's essay that shows how its subtle and paradoxical method of composition clearly prefigures the Romantic poets' playful deconstruction of the presumably irreducible identity/difference antinomy. As Beate Allert puts it, summarizing Morton on Herder: "Unity seems to restore itself by means of its own disruption. The return to unity, lost in the process of historically necessary differentiation, can be achieved only by sustaining differentiation" (248).

3 According to Margarita Pazi, Brod was himself committed to the pursuit of a "schöpferische Mitte" in his thought and imaginative writing so that it may be appropriate to speak of the "Prager Kreis" as a "triumvirate of the coincidentia": "Bei Kafka ist es die detaillierte, realistische Wiedergabe irrealer Vorgänge; die Realität eines Traumes. Bei Brod läßt es sich als die Suche nach dem Weg bezeichnen, der eine Vermengung dieser Gegensätze ermöglicht. . . . Das wahre Ziel kann stets nur in der Verbindung der Polaritäten erreicht werden, durch das 'und', wie er es mit sprachlicher Emphasis in 'Stefan Rott' darstellte" (51-52).

4 The koan is the principal form of meditation practiced by the Rinzai sect. Kapleau defines it as "a formulation, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate truth. Koans cannot be solved by recourse to logical reasoning but only by awakening a deeper level of the mind beyond the discursive intellect" (369). The mu koan recalls an exchange between Master Joshu (ninth century) and a monk wherein the monk asks Joshu, "Does a dog have the Buddha nature," and the latter answers "Mu!" (no) (Kapleau 76). The novice meditates upon this "Mu" until the Zen master is satisfied that he has sufficiently discerned its spiritual significance.

5 The letter was written in October of 1917. See Briefe 186-88. It will have become apparent by now that my approach to Kafka, like my approach to mystical experience in general, is one that allows for the possibility of a "pure" event, i.e., a moment of awareness that transcends cultural constraint or conditioning of any kind. Thus my position amounts, tentatively at least, to a kind of rear-guard action against what might be termed the neo-Kantian "constructivist" view of consciousness, currently predominant in religious philosophy and the social sciences, which views our experience, religious or otherwise, as invariably shaped by a psychologically and socially predetermined "set" (nexus of beliefs, values, attitudes, etc.). In other words, we rather "construct" than encounter internal and external events. My position, then, again tentatively, would be opposite that of Rolf Goebel's in Constructing China or in "Kafka and the East: The Case for Cultural Construction," or in "Verborgener Orientalismus," each of which argues for a Kafka who viewed Eastern spirituality primarily as a foil for satire of Western orientalism. On this view, Kafka became disillusioned, some time in the Fall of 1914 after writing "Vor dem Gesetz" (presumably his "swan song" to transcendence), with the quest for a "künstlerische Autonomie- und Reinheitsideal" ("Verborgener" 42), once he understood that ideal to be no more than an empty metaphysical construct (Kafka as reluctant constructivist). This essay reads Kafka as far too spiritually savvy to confuse the spiritual with such phantasms as lofty ideals, universal essences, or remote pristine spheres. What Kafka actually knew the spiritual to "be" (for lack of a better term)—i.e., the experience (not idea) of the coincidentia oppositorum—is what I am attempting to demonstrate here. The reason I hedge in declaring my opposition to Goebel, and cultural constructivism generally, is that the coincidentia paradoxically allows, indeed requires, a compatibility between the spiritual and any other view of interpersonal or cultural relations. This is because they are, from the mystical perspective, advaita or not-two. For further elaboration, see the "Conclusion" at the end of the essay. For able representatives of both sides of the current philosophical debate over mystical experience as pure versus constructed, the reader is referred to Katz and Faure (constructivists, though the latter hedges a bit) and to Forman (purist).

6 This particular form of the coincidentia oppositorum is also what Friedrich Schlegel is alluding to, in terms of irony, in his famous Athenäum fragment 116 where he describes romantic poetry as a hovering ("schweben") "zwischen dem Dargestellten und dem Darstellenden" (93). It also seems to be what poststructuralists are getting at when they rant about the death of the author: what they mean is the total absorption of the writer's ego into the act of writing from which vantage point the whole sense of individual identity can be seen to be an illusion (of language).

7 Werner Hoffmann (102) paraphrases Kafka's own words in the Hochzeitsvorbereitungen to the effect that "Schreiben blieb für ihn eine Form, seine Form des Gebetes." Grözinger stresses Kafka's Kabbalistic sense of language as a creative power, available to God and man alike, that expresses the mystery of the essential continuity, in being, of signifier and signified, word and thing: "This may explain why life and language are identical for Kafka and why he attributes a religious weight to writing as a form of prayer" (140). We might also mention in this context that Kafka was not unfamiliar with either the idea or practice of meditation as a means of achieving a quasi-mystical one-pointed state of consciousness. In a letter of mid November 1917 to Felix Weltsch, there is a curious passage in which he speaks hypothetically of a succession of ever deeper phases of concentrated awareness culminating in a "Denkzipfel" that would amount to a temporary banishing of the ego ("So wärest Du also glücklich ganz beseitigt" [199]).

8 Kafka's intellectual understanding of the unconscious seems to have come from two different, though parallel, trends in turn-of-the-century academic psychology: from psychoanalysis, which both fascinated and repelled him with its "threat" of an "'Eindrängung' des 'Gegenwillens'", i.e., a potential return or breakthrough of the repressed, as he puts it in a letter of October 1917 to Weltsch paraphrasing the latter ("Was Du mit der 'Eindrängung' des 'Gegenwillens' meinst, glaube ich zu verstehen, es gehört zu dem verdammt psychologischen Theorienkreis [i.e., Freud's inner circle in Vienna], den Du nicht liebst, aber von dem Du besessen bist [und ich wohl auch]" [Briefe 187]); and from the cognitive psychology of Fechner with its more mundane but also more experimentally supported measurement of thresholds of perception or awareness (Heidsieck 28).

According to Blank (28 and 49), whose recent catalog of books in Kafka's personal library, In Kafkas Bibliothek, supersedes Jürgen Borns Kafkas Bibliothek of 1990, Kafka had in his possession at least two psychoanalytic studies, Theodor Reik's Flaubert und sein Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius of 1912 and Hans Blüher's Die Rolle der Erotik in der männlichen Gesellschaft, 2 vols., 1917 and 1920. Blank (49) also cites Binder's informative history of Kafka's highly ambivalent attitude towards psychoanalysis presumably dating from at least as early as the Fall of 1911.

9 The notion of an inscrutable threshold between opposed spheres that, by virtue of its very inscrutability, illuminates (and thereby harmonizes) all, is mentioned by Kafka in an off-hand conversation of October 1920 with Gustav Janouch, here too in the context of the "two souls," conscious and unconscious, that dwell in the human heart. As he reflects to his young friend on the paradox of psychological freedom as a value that, à la Faust, must constantly be maintained by vigilant effort, Kafka says: "Der Funke, der unser bewußtes Leben ausmacht, muß die Kluft der Gegensätze überbrücken und von einem Pol zum anderen springen, damit wir die Welt für einen Augenblick im Blitzlicht erblicken" (60). Sparks and lightning are, of course, perennial mystical images of spiritual insight and suggest Kafka's vision of a "sudden cure" for the divided human self that goes qualitatively beyond the plodding effort of, say, psychoanalysis. (It would seem that the coincidentia was especially resonant in Kafka's mind at this time since he also alludes to it in the very conversation preceding this one in Janouch's record. In this instance the context is less individual-psychological and more transpersonally mystical as Kafka instructs his interlocutor on the permeability of the boundary between self and world: "Der Griff nach der Welt ist deshalb immer ein Griff nach innen. Darum ist jede Betonwand nur ein Schein, der früher oder später zerfällt. Denn Innen und Außen gehören zusammen. Voneinander losgelöst sind es zwei verwirrende Ansichten eines Geheimnisses, das wir nur erleiden, aber nicht enträtseln können" [57]. If we consider the span of years between the 1903 letter to Oskar Pollak mentioned earlier ["Ich lese Fechner, Eckehart"] and this conversation with Janouch in 1920, it becomes clear that the coincidentia oppositorum, this deepest of paradoxes, continued to occupy a lofty position in Kafka's mystical consciousness.)

10 "Stirb ehe du noch stirbst / damit du nicht darffst sterben / Wann du nu sterben solst: sonst möchtestu verderben."

11 Cf. the short parable, "Die Quelle," for another—in this case very pointed and precise—elaboration of the coincidence of part and Whole (or ego and Self). As with Gregor before his Enlightenment, so too here does the "part" (the "er"-persona who is thirsty) have a dim "Ahnung" of its true identity as the Whole.

12 On Kafka's conversance with the nearly universal mystical archetype of the series of gates leading to ever more rarefied levels of spiritual perception, see Grözinger (46-54) for the Kabbalah and Lee (256-72) for Taoism and Buddhism. In "Vor dem Gesetz" Kafka, as usual, gives a traditional image his own Zen-like paradoxical twist: Enlightenment is not a gradual thing, not a matter of getting through so many doors of perception, but a sudden, liberating intuition (grounded though it be in long suffering and frustration) of one's intrinsic identity with everything (Zen's kensho), occurring at the moment of ego-death (the allegorical death of the man from the country). Individual identity surrenders to cosmic: the quest for the Law had been but a quest for one's own True Self.

13 For another reading of "Vor dem Gesetz" as a parable of the coincidence of opposites—the perspective in this case Taoist-mystical—see Lee 9-10, 242-72. Lee likens Kafka's Law to the Tao, viewing both as a matrix for such interdependent opposites as transcendence and immanence, and interior (human) and exterior nature (hence also morality and nature). The identification of the Law with the Tao ("the right and perfect life" [174]) has also been made by Max Brod in his biography of Kafka.

14 The growing disparity in size between man and gatekeeper ("[D]er Grössenunterschied hat sich sehr zuungunsten des Mannes verändert" [Parables 62]) is analogous to the deepest stages of koan meditation in which the meditator may struggle with the anxious sense that he is disappearing and only the koan itself remains, looming like an invincible mountain. The paradox, of course, is that the moment the koan exists by itself, it ceases to exist since, as the German proverb has it, "Einer ist keiner."

15 Zen, in a typical affront to logic, might call this "casting off one's conditioning without casting it off." The paradox I adumbrate in my reading of "Vor dem Gesetz" allows me to insist on a mystical-transcendent perspective on Kafka as a sine qua non for appreciating the subtlety of his art while still endorsing, without fear of contradiction, the richly nuanced materialist approach of cultural constructivism as practiced by Goebel et al (e.g. Sander Gilman's intriguing view of Kafka's life and work as embodying "the world of disease that formed Kafka's [Jewish] experience" [230]; or Mark Anderson's brilliant examination of Kafka's complex relations to the important cultural trends of his own time and place, such as Hapsburg decadence, dandyism and changing social attitudes towards the body; or Karen Piper's convincing reading of the penal colony as an allegory of the beginning of the end of empire). My only caution is that the reader beware of any assertion by a constructivist commentator that these two approaches are mutually exclusive. Anderson [14], by contrast, implies their possible congruence in his subtle discussion of the "richly ambiguous" sense in which Kafka often uses the term Verkehr in his writing: to indicate "the movement of the modern [urban] world" [diesseits] as well as the [mystical?] ecstasy that he occasionally experienced in the throes of "intercourse" with writing [jenseits]. This surprising openness of Anderson to transcendence comes a mere nine pages after his firm assertion that "Kafka's status as a modern depends on the failure of his effort to reach das Allerheiligste" [5].