To understand the bureaucratic state, read Franz Kafka. Few writers have his knack to convey the peculiar, perverse effects the modern leviathan exerts on the soul as forcefully as this quiet Prague insurance agent who left instructions (unfollowed, thankfully) to destroy all his works upon his death.

Though perennially popular, Kafka suffers the same fate as another keen political observer, George Orwell: he is well-known, but read only narrowly. Much like “Orwellian” can only refer to 1984, “Kafkaesque” points back, in the popular imagination, to The Trial or “The Metamorphosis.” Here, I want to make the case that “The Great Wall of China,” a short story with a more synoptic presentation of the modern statist nightmare than the two aforementioned texts, should be added to the list of Kafka must-reads.

The “Great Wall” feels a like a journal entry from an anonymous narrator who, perhaps nearing the end of his life as a stonemason working on China’s Great Wall, is trying to make sense of an existence devoted toward a single, monotonous enterprise. As with many Kafka protagonists, for this nameless mason, modern life remains unintelligible, beyond vague apprehensions about man and his place in the state. The story fittingly breaks off when the narrator senses his ruminations are destabilizing his psychic equilibrium.

At the tale’s outset, the narrator does seem sure of one thing: namely, that the wall’s construction is necessary to keep out northern invaders. As the story progresses, we learn it is being constructed in piecemeal fashion. Teams of workers (and middle-management) toil, year in and year out, on 500-yard increments, only to be transferred to another far-away section of the project before finishing the original task. The structure is thus fraught with extensive gaps, a problem that could have been avoided if construction had taken place contiguously.

This strange process is no mere oversight on the part of the ruling authority. We learn that, 50 years before the first stone was laid, school curricula and instruction across the kingdom was mobilized toward creating workers and managers exclusively for the state project. It slowly dawns on the narrator that this never-ending task of building the wall, which consumes both soul and body, is by design.

The men behind this design—the “high command” who control even the emperor—and their puzzling reasons for this project lie at the heart of the story. Indeed, Kafka teases the reader into wondering more and more about what is gained by the high command contriving the whole of society to occupy themselves with what appears to be a pointless, eternal task, especially since these overlords don’t seem intent on harm. Here they are described, in the common view:

In the office of the command—where it was and who sat there no one whom I have asked knew then or knows now—in that office one may be certain that all human thoughts and desires revolved in a circle, and all human aims and fulfillments in a countercircle. And through the window the reflected splendors of divine worlds fell on the hands of the leaders as they traced their plans.

What’s frightening about the “Great Wall,” aside from the total absence of individual human flourishing, is just how normal and mundane life for the narrator appears. He does not starve, is not persecuted; he receives an education, finds employment that fills his days and nights. One is almost tempted to say, with his cares taken care of, he is content with this low but solid life. We, each of us, have similar longings for safety and security. And now, even now, there are governments and those in the private sector who wish to provide comfort. Reading Kafka will help you understand why.

Of course, you may follow a different, more pleasant course of action. As the narrator notes:

In those days many people, and among them the best, had a secret maxim which ran: Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.

Image by catwalker

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