Hesitating Before the Beginning (Plass)

By Ulrich Plass
Associate Professor of German Studies, Wesleyan University

1. The opening paragraph of Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle gives us a strangely indeterminate picture of time passing (I am citing Mark Harman’s translation):

“It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness.”

Halting on the wooden bridge, K. stares upward, presumably at a Castle, but one that is nowhere to be seen. K. has arrived, but his destination’s foreboding invisibility does not invite entrance. Yet there is no indication of why he stands motionless, gazing at what might or might not be “emptiness.” The marked absence of motivation for K.’s pausing strips this prolonged moment of inaction of all possible novelistic psychology. Where psychological meaning is as obscure as the landscape before which K. stands, the reader wonders whether anything at all comes to pass in this first paragraph.

Kafka’s novel begins by failing to begin. The novel’s drawn-out initial interval, however, is not devoid of activity: while the Castle and the village remain concealed, K.’s hesitation is a narrative event. By hesitating, K. calls attention to the passage of time, one might say he makes time pass. Yet what follows in the novel’s 300 pages is a series of ditherings and delays that repeatedly derail any reliable trajectory. Instead, hesitation inculcates in the reader as much as in its protagonist a temporally unstable experience that is the paramount force propelling Kafka’s perplexing narrative. Just as K. will fail to enter the Castle, the reader never fully finds her way into the narrative. We cannot overcome the initial moment of hesitation and are thus condemned to a position similar to the one of Kafka’s “man from the country” who, in the famous parable “Before the Law,” wastes a lifetime waiting before the open door of the Law.

2. In contrast to the abiding myth that art is born spontaneously out of inspiration, Kafka emphatically fashions his artistic comportment out of the biographical experience of hesitation. “My life is a hesitation before birth,” he noted in his diary.

Kafka’s use of the birth metaphor is puzzling. Surely, being born is not a matter of choice. How does one hesitate before birth unless one has already been born, unless one already knows what birth is? There are, in Kafka’s world, no pure beginnings, only repeated beginnings, but each repetition happens as if it were the first, and with each repeated beginning, the outcome hangs in the balance. In this sense, the most fraught moment of each action is its beginning: the first moment is fated to be dangerously decisive, and thus must be counterweighed by indecisiveness. In a draft to his novel The Trial, Kafka has Josef K. remark: “The moment of awakening is the riskiest of the day; once it has been withstood without one’s having been pulled from one’s place to somewhere else, one can feel consoled for the whole day.” Running down the clock by hesitating, as if one could delay the dangerous moments of waking up, of being born into the day, is a risk management technique (devised, after all, by a professional insurance expert), but one that is potentially self-defeating, as it runs the risk of allowing time to pass over into an empty temporality of endless repetition.