Mastery and Mystery in Kafka and Borges

Kafka’s The Great Wall of China and Borges’ The Library of Babel define infinity through the imagery of an infinite and absolute universe. Both works investigate into the polar relationship between the eternal and omnipotent cosmos (i.e. the Library in Borges and the Great Wall in Kafka) and the finite and imperfect individual (that is, the librarian in Borges and the wall builder in Kafka). Both authors see the universe as an “infinitely expanding turbulent stream” (Emrich, 38); a domain which is anything but calculable, let alone intelligible.

The infinite universe is a glaring paradox as well. It creates and destroys, liberate and restraint. In the words of David Krenz, infinity as manifested in the eternal cosmos “acts as both a fault which ‘confounds’ all metaphors which seek mastery—one source of those indeterminacies which prove so problematic—as well as a force which is potentially salvific.” Indeed, the universe’s duplicitous orientation is both boon and bane. It houses all-meanings and no-meanings; all-truths and no-truths. It functions as an all-god and no-god. It is totalitarian (considering the extinction of the individual); and yet in that it seeks to provide a room and definition for all codes, it is a democratic entity.

The labyrinthine universe (or the universal labyrinth) is aptly illustrated in Borges essay, The Total Library. Using principles akin to that in the Library of Babel, he writes of how the universe signifies the totality of beings— the absolute and consummate, one can even say the logos which fortunately or unfortunately, is entirely inaccessible: “… but for every sensible line and or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes and babblings. ” (216). The elusiveness of the Word manifests “the semiotic slippage which occurs between the sign and that which it represents” (Krenz). The result is a fluidity of values and the dissolution of linguistic and ontological boundaries and binaries.

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” Borges reiterates the point when he writes of the librarians’ futile search for the “Vindication”, a source of “apology and prophecy”, in other words, justification, what could have been an antidote to their disembodiment: “… the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.” “The absence of a “catalogue of catalogues”, a “general theory of the Library” makes the Library a virtual Babel, the site of linguistic and intellectual contestation and creation, of pandemonium.

Codes are never deciphered for to begin with, they do not exist. Seeming unique configurations of meanings are nothing but imitations, while imitations turn out to be diverse and entirely different versions of the originals (or more appropriately, pseudo and quasi-originals, that is,  if such exist). “The thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet” and yet, Borges is quick to remind, “there are no two identical books”.

But Babel equals power, immensity and inexhaustibility. It is a “delirious god” with a schizophrenic nature: it “not only denounces the disorder but exemplify it as well.” Babel allows for the free play of codes or “catalogues”. It spells the perpetual arrangement, re-arrangement, disarrangement; interpretation, re-interpretation, misinterpretation; delineation and obliteration of meanings—what to the tragically curious and insatiable librarian is no less than a vicious cycle of symbols’ birth, death, resurrection and reincarnation: “thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogues…”. Ad infinitum.

The effect is a prevailing atmosphere of incompleteness: “The light (the lamps) emit is insufficient, incessant” another manifestation of the Library’s inaccessibility and inconceivability. Thus, the individual, perpetually searching but never finding, is a premature organism. The yawning gap between the “delirious divinity” and the mortal pawn (who is delirious just the same) is highlighted: “Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance and malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and the latrine for the seated librarian can only be the work of a god.” Borges could have said “gods”.

Critic Wilhelm Emrich writes: “…when life opens up all of its sluices… and the whole of existence comes into view undisguised, no protective order whatever, no determining ‘law’ can be recognized any longer. Hence man can no longer ‘live’…” (38). The librarian’s inability to exist consummately in the face of infinity reduces him to a fluid, nearly imaginary entity. His individuality, his last resort for a unique and concrete configuration of meanings (that is, the meaning of his existence) is gobbled up by the universal black hole of memory, mind and being.

Apparently the death (physical and intellectual) of a librarian hardly makes a dent in the invincible mystery, which remains and will remain, unknown and unknowable, everything and nothing: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms….  but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.”

The immortality of the Library and the mortality of the librarian coincides with immensity of the collective (and manifestations of collective effort) and the infinitesimal nature of the individual in Kafka’s Great Wall. Here the collective refers not so much to the mob per se, the individual in no better disguise, the empirical quality of which makes it subject to the natural cycle of demise and change. The collective in Kafka is the summation of essences permanent, the universe, particularly the Chinese cosmos. As with the infinite Library of Borges, the cosmos/ collective in Kafka defies and dictates physical and metaphysical time and space.

The collective/ cosmos is empirically and metaphysically manifested by the empire (“immortal while the individual emperor falls and collapses”) and the Great Wall the immensity of which is a badge of power tantamount to infinity. Observes the narrator-builder: “The land is so huge, it would not permit (the nomads) to reach us. They would lose themselves in empty air.” The protection provided by the Great Wall is also metaphorical. Its function as political and moral center; what even at the beginning is seen as an assured confirmation of the endurance of the race, makes it a stable and unifying code for all-people (that is, the Chinese from time immemorial to the unimaginable and impossible end).

This protective barrier is no different to what Emrich sees as the “customary existence”, the figurative footing outside which lies the “the conflicting powers that are open to countless interpretations… that continuously ‘correct’ each other” (38). Outside the Great Wall lurks the Enemy— chaos and barbarity which in Kafkaesque terms translate to “the lawlessness of the human world… the deterioration of values” (39).

The assertion, though, is not without trapdoors. In qualifying the Great Wall as a symbol of the Chinese master code, a “dis-order” (Emrich, 39), (illusory but a code nonetheless) defeats its immunity, not to mention its infinity. A political and cultural parameter responsible for the delineation of spatial and metaphysical boundaries, to the Chinese, the Great Wall is imperial omnipotence in brick and mortar. Its construction is the beginning of “true” history, the birth of a “real” people. The Wall provides the palette for the re-creation and correcting of past values: “…and everything else was recognized only to the extent that it had some relationship (to masonry).” The narrator-builder adds how knowledge attained before the construction of the wall suddenly becomes anachronistic and useless.

In this sense, what redeems the Wall from deteriorating into a false god is that it paves the way for the creation of a permanent collective, a people whose unity spans time and the absolute. What is infinite in the Wall is perhaps not so much the structure (which will inevitably succumb to decay) but the spirit, the inexhaustible faith infused in it. The builders “had a sense of themselves as part of the wall.” The impatience and hopelessness brought about by the Herculean task is more than enough to dampen the builder’s drive, making lose “faith in themselves, in the building and in the world.”

In all respects the Great Wall looks forward to the future. Its consummation is meant to be witnessed by those to come. Yet as the narrator-builder emphasizes, the continuum of brotherhood is eternal: “Unity! …blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.”

The values enclosed within the (Chinese) universe represented by the Wall is far from stagnant and clear-cut, though. Kafka uses the imagery of the “leadership” to portray the perpetual motion of signs and values. In this reservoir of meanings, the individual as signified by the singular identity of the leaders is obliterated (hence, the pluralistic connotation of the word leadership). Says the narrator-builder:”…where it was or who sat there no one I asked knows or knew— in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfillments in a circle going in opposite direction.” Quite understandably, the leadership defies history and time: it “existed even earlier.”

Divine, the leadership is inaccessible to the finite mind. As the narrator puts it, “Try with all your powers to understand the orders of the leadership, but only up to a certain limit—then stop thinking about them.” So powerful is the “leadership” that even the Emperor is stripped of his regality and reduced to his frail and transient self when compared with it. The builders are masters of their own “truth”: “…the admirable innocent emperor believed he had given orders for (the Wall). We who are builders of the Wall knew otherwise and are silent.”

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Total Library.” Selected non-fiction. Ed. Eliot Weinberger.

Trans. Esther Allen et al. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. 214-216.

The Library of Babel. 8 December 2007.


Emrich, William. Franz Kafka: a critical study of his writings. New York: Frederick Ungar

Publishing, 1968.

Kafka, Franz. The Great Wall of China. Trans. Ian Johnston. 23 March 2006. Johnstonia. 8

December 2007. <>.

Krenz, David Christoph. Metaphors for/in infinity: The parables of Kafka, Borges and Calvino.

 (Abstract). Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

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