I’m conducting an experiment. Every month, I’ll post something of note that we can all discuss together in the comments. Think of it as a digital roundtable seminar.
First, you’ll want to read this short parable.
As the text is very short, I recommend reading the parable itself, but here is an abridged version of the same story narrated by Orson Welles (2 mins 56 secs):
And finally, here’s the opening question:
What is the gatekeeper’s purpose?
Since the man simply persists, we cannot know what the result of different actions may have been. We can learn, however, from the regret he feels at the end. He becomes stuck by — and then obsessed with — the gatekeeper and his single gate and loses sight of his original goal. He mis-values the gatekeeper’s words. On the one hand, he takes too seriously the gatekeeper’s warnings and lets them stop him. On the other, he does not attempt to learn from the gatekeeper something like “what do I need to be granted access?” From our perspective, it may be easy to say “what a foolish man” — but how often do we simply accept the gatekeepers in our own lives or rail against them, becoming obsessed with the gatekeeper and our fight against him and lose sight of our actual goal?
The gatekeeper is that thing that we let stop us from achieving our goal — or even accessing our rights. So what is its purpose? I think it probably depends on what the goal is. In many cases, including the particular of the law, the gatekeeper exists to protect the status quo and those who benefit from it. But even if the gatekeeper is outside of ourselves, it requires our complicity to stop us. Even if this is wrong, if we let ourselves be stopped by the gatekeeper, then we will be stuck there and never have the chance to find out what is on the other side or if we could have made it.
My question coming out of this is: why does the man get his own gate?
I’m a little thrown off by the question because there doesn’t seem to be enough information to answer it, or even speculate much. I mean, there’s the ostensible purpose to deny the man entry, but that can’t be what you mean. Maybe I’m being dense.
This reminds me of that moment in Huckleberry Finn, when the two con men convince Huck that their royalty, just by lying to them. It seems the gatekeeper represents the beliefs we individually hold that prevent us from even really trying to overcome obstacles. The man didn’t doubt the gatekeeper, and he didn’t press him at all. He just took his authority and validity as given. Perhaps that is why he had his own door. The limiting beliefs we hold are all individual and need to be dealt with as such.
As I was thinking about the gate & the gatekeeper, I was reminded of the “glass ceiling” — the way that the man is able to look through the gate, but is unable to pass it.
One take on this would be the “Lean In” one — where what is stopping women from reaching the top is not the gate, but the belief in the power of the gatekeeper.
But it does make me wonder if all gates and gatekeepers are created equally? Why, again, does the man have his own gate?
I also figured that the man was having a highly personal experience, that the gatekeeper was an entity of his own creation. We all do that sometimes, create artificial borders for ourselves in our own minds. That’s why I’d say the protagonist gets his own gate. We all do.
I agree with what has been said before on this conversation thread that the purpose of the gatekeeper is to serve as or illustrate an obstacle. Interesting enough to me he serves as both a real and an imagined obstacle. He can be real because often there are subject matter experts or self-proclaimed authorities on certain topics who can tell us that we can do or achieve what we aim for. The gatekeeper can also be imaginary because by accepting the words of the subject matter experts or authorities we validate their views and go no where. The man does not even doubt the words of the gatekeeper. What if there are no other guards and doors beyond him? I wonder why the man did not just force his way through to see for himself.
I just want to say that this conversation is the closest I’ve seen to a seminar quality discussion. So tip of my hat to all involved.
To attempt to answer the question asked in the above post, it seems to me that the man may not have tried to force himself through because he perceived it to be futile. I think it speaks to how much power we, perhaps unknowingly, concede to institutions. Power is often more about perceived strength than actual strength. How much weight do we grant institutions such as nationality and currency whose only power is conceptual?
Be persistent, focus on the goal, and do not be derailed by setbacks. We all have our own journey. The ultimate result is reaching the destination. Nothing should stop us from reaching the destination.
Last night, as I was about to go to sleep, I wasn’t consciously thinking about it at all, but it just dawned on me: The gatekeeper is part of the man. The gatekeeper is the part of him that is scared, is procrastinating, and would rather lay there than take a leap into the unknown. I just re-read it again with that theory in mind, and that theory makes this line make sense: “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” The gatekeeper, who is part of the man, does have a purpose, and that is to function as a self imposed excuse to ease the mind of the man who wants to move past the excuse but isn’t actually doing so. The man created and perpetuates an illusory obstacle, which severs at least two functions. First, the gatekeeper functions as an excuse for not taking a potentially risky leap. Secondly, the man stays close to the gatekeeper (the excuse), knows it/him very well (“since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar) and gives his time and energy (valuables) *to perpetuating the deceptive/illusory excuse/gatekeeper* rather than to what he should be giving his valuables to so that he can further deceive himself into believing that, well, he tried, but there was just now way around it! (“I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”)
Clarinda, first, thanks for posting this. Others, thanks for engaging! This parable has been in the back of my mind now since I read it, and that in and of itself, has been a joy. I won’t forget it, ever, and now think I should read more Kafka. Any suggestions, anyone?
This may take things in a different direction, but I’m curious about returning to the opening question: what is the gatekeeper’s purpose? This isn’t well-organized, but here are some thoughts wandering around how we see our stalwart custodian of the law.
This probably sounds ridiculous since we can’t know the gatekeeper’s role, but I think he performs the unclear roll well. His job seems to be to manage the man and protect the gate…presumably there are some conditions required for the man to be allowed entry, and the gatekeeper does a good job of telling the man that he cannot, though perhaps at another time. I’m not sure how much more can be said about his role; one reading of his character, however, is what I’ve been playing with.
We can choose to see the gatekeeper as an irritating tease, leading us down a path of distraction or inaction or however we characterize the man’s wasting away. Or we can see the gatekeeper as one acting in good faith: giving the man a stool, answering the man’s questions and asking some (however indifferent) of his own, and, most importantly, suggesting the man may be able to enter. Even the bit about the guard’s accepting the man’s gifts “so that you do not think you have failed to do anything” can be seen as a gracious gesture. While I still see this sentiment as delusional on the man’s part (in that there was more the man may’ve been able to do, so I fault the man if he thinks he did everything possible), I feel the gatekeeper attempting to play the comforter. While we could see the guard as the greedy tax collector, we don’t see the guard benefit from the gifts—it’s not clear the guard even has his own life to live, outside of his duty to the law. Lastly, if the man had any chance of entering the law, it presumably would’ve been via the gatekeeper since the gatekeeper is the sole source of knowledge and aid. It’s only the man, who judges it’s “better to wait until he gets permission,” making the choice that takes us to the end.
I’ll always be curious about the conditions for admittance—maybe the man needed to overcome the guard forcibly, maybe he needed to tell a joke, maybe just running inside he would’ve then been allowed. Perhaps at the end of the day it doesn’t matter; however we see the guard, I think we’ve mostly put the onus for entry on the man, faulting his choice to wait and leave his entrance to others. Somehow, though, I find a strange, tragic pleasure in reading the gatekeeper as the one ally the man could’ve had—or even, did have—without seeming to know. Maybe the man did know, and he decided to wait because he trusted the gatekeeper or the law. It’s all so tangled…I go back and forth on a dime.
What I’ve been most curious about since yesterday is, what law? “Before the law sits a gatekeeper.” What law? I have some hazy-almost-maybe-thoughts, but nothing I can articulate yet. (other than to say, maybe, law of creativity or something?)
The immense determination of this man, combined with his single mindedness and lack of resourcefulness or creativity, is a little frustrating. It took him a lifetime to drop his obsessive focus for a moment and have the circumspection to realize that another person had never tried to get in, nor even look in, the gate. The guard was eager enough to answer and end the charade, but it took the man a wasted life to even take a step back to reflect on his pursuit. Since it’s a parable, I won’t take issue with him for not trying to find another way in or trying to create a distraction or some other practical attempt.
Given that this parable shows up in The Trial (though in what capacity or context, I forget), it may well be a metaphor dealing with institutions and power or bureaucracy. But it most immediately seems to me a warning about mindless desire and the dogged pursuit of unexamined goals. We know he has the idea in his head that “everyone strives after the law,” though he gives no inclination that he understands why they would or he should. He may as well have said money, or power. He said something seemingly more high minded, but he led a wasted life in its pursuit also. In that vein, a story, similar (but longer and more contextualized in modern culture), is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.
There is much that can be said about this parable, I say this after writing four analyses and deleting them. It reminds me of defending a Turner prize win to my grandma in 2001, the piece is an empty room with a light switching on and off. I proposed to her that art can be viewed as a game, where the goal is to allow the most possible meanings to be reasonably associated with your work. I lost the argument. Leaving things this open does seems a bit like cheating though.
The knowledge required to enter could simply be that the gatekeeper could/would not prevent the man from entering. The man is from ‘the country’, implying he lacks privileged knowledge. The possibility that the gatekeeper cannot actually stop the man through force lines up well with it being a gate for him alone, where the man is preventing himself from entering through lack of confidence in the face of the unknown.
The mans inspection of the gatekeeper can be viewed as the man only looking at that which is immediately visible, or obsessing with what he is familiar and comfortable with, out of fear of accepting the gatekeepers challenge. He needs to either take a leap of faith or find knowledge elsewhere, but he cannot know what choice is best, it highlights the anxiety we all feel when we are aware that our actions have unpredictable consequences, and further, that any attempt to predict the results of our actions has diminishing returns over time.
The gatekeeper is happy to maintain the illusion of progress (taking things from the man) or potential progress (maybe later you can enter.) If it weren’t his gate alone then this could be said to be an attempt to appease others with hope, such as promises of social mobility, trickle down economics, or any tournament based reward system. But since it is revealed that it is his own gate, I can’t really see what this could mean, since the gate must be external to his own mind for him to expect to observe others attempting to enter it.
Perhaps the man just means ‘I would have expected someone else to attempt what I am attempting’, but other people’s approaches to the same problem are unrecognisable to him as attempts.
I feel like this parable could be analysed forever so I’m going to stop now!
It is noteworthy that the “guard” does not restrain the man. In the parable, the guard takes two actions: 1) he offers the man a stool, 2) he approaches the man on his deathbed. What is fearsome in the guard is only his speech.
I was also struck by the difference in translations, what Orson Wells refers to as the “guard,” Ian Johnston translates as “gatekeeper.” Kafka uses the word Türhüter, which can also be translated as “doorman” or “usher.” These polite connotations seem more in line with the role this figure plays in this story.
The “usher” serves as a polite prohibition, menacing only in his formality.
I like Casie’s reading of the gatekeeper as the excuse. And in answer to Clarinda’s question, I would say that, as an “usher,” the gatekeeper’s purpose is to guide the man to the law. We find out a the end that this entrance was assigned to the man alone…inclining us to believe that in some way the law (or the path to the law) is within each of us. As an ideal, the law is uncompromising and purposeful. Had the man ignored the “usher’s” polite excuses, adhering instead to his conviction that the law should be accessible to all, the man would have embodied the law. If approaching the law means becoming the law, this “usher” serves as an initial test and guide. ….I am now very curious about the other two gatekeepers.
I love that you called this a parable; I think, like a parable, that so much of its power comes from how vague it is, how suggestive. As Arthur said, it invites our speculation endlessly, and it invites us to project ourselves onto both unnamed men, as many commentators above have done.
I’m coming late to the thread, but I wanted to pick up on Casie’s question from a few weeks ago — what is the law? It’s striking how easily we identify with the man and align the law with our own hazy notions of our goals in life–we equate the law with whatever it is we’re pursuing, and especially if we feel we’re guilty of inventing obstacles to sabotage that pursuit.
If we pause to see ourselves doing that and recognize how vague “the law” is, that might offer another possible answer to the opening question. By delaying the man, the gatekeeper preserves the mystery surrounding the law: it retains its highly suggestive allure. Yet at the same time the gatekeeper adds solidity to the law by providing evidence of its existence and its authority.
So, I’m seeing one possible purpose for the gatekeeper as confirming for the man the value of his vague, shadowy goal while allowing the man to avoid the risk of having to actually encounter that goal and reduce it to specificity. (A possibly disappointing specificity, I want to say, though I fear that’s another case of projection.)
Peter, interesting thoughts! I’m still thinking about what the “law” is or might be. Meanwhile, your comments reminded me of my boyfriends comments to what the guard was guarding (or not guarding). He said something like, “it’s all bullshit. There’s nothing back there.”