Helene Cixous on Kafka’s Parable of the Law: The Taste of Knowledge

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In “Reaching the Point of Wheat, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Maturing Woman,” Helene Cixous discusses Kafka’s famous parable in relation to the artist, namely the artist as represented in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. First, she examines Percival the Welshman, a medieval quest narrative in the form of a typical Bildungsroman.  Specifically, Cixous points to young Percival’s role in the narrative, such that at a certain juncture readers have every reason to rebuke him:

You know, Percival, you are doing wrong.  You should ask questions.  Something horrible is going to happen if you don’t ask questions.  Ask questions!

The moral of the story, according to Cixous, is that we’ve learned something about the mechanism of the law–“that we are guilty.”  We need to be completely innocent to learn about guilt.  Also, Cixous says:

The first stage in education is to come to know the law as it is, that is, as pure law, pure interdiction, pure “you mustn’t,” which makes for its power.  The law is completely negative, it is absolute, and it gives no signs, expect that kind of strange order.

The above passage relates to Kafka’s Before the Law, which, starts this way:

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.

We begin reading the text, a text-as-law, and go on reading the parable.  As Cixous says, “We go on reading and staying in front of the door of the text, and go on and die.”  And we wonder: What is the law?  We proceed from one sentence to another and we don’t move–our eyes move but our body stays firmly anchored in front of the door of the text. We don’t even think about it.  We merely comply and never read against the grain.

Interestly enough, Cixous relates Kafka’s parable of the law to Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait.  Stephen’s first gesture of becoming an artist deals with him overcoming the Law-of-the-Father (per Freud’s Oedipus Complex).  Like readers of Kafka’s parable, Stephen accepts the law in order to transgress it.  Then, Cixous says:

And he [Stephen the budding artist] transgresses by being attentive to what is inside the words.  He enjoys it, so what he will take care of is the sound of the law, not the message of the law.  This is how he becomes the artist.

And so the law is relevant to writing.  We comply with the tenor of conventions, whilst resisting them by pursuing our own lines of inquiry, and in going forth we defy the here and now to fashion new worlds, and new laws.


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