Before the Parable

Kafka’s short parable ‘Before the Law’ has spawned numerous interpretations, all of which are unsatisfactory. It’s true meaning is crystal clear but can only be conveyed through a parable. Let’s call it ‘Before the Parable’.

Before the Parable
A man, puzzled about the meaning of a short parable, visits a university where, he has been reliably informed, a renowned Professor will meet him to explain its significance. When he arrives he is led into a drab office in which a secretary with scoops of dark brown hair and a garishly painted face explains that the Professor is running late. “Oh do come in and take a seat. Unfortunately, the Professor has been delayed due unforeseen complications at Durham.” The man sits down and, to pass the time, reads through the parable once more, his thoughts distracted by the tip-tapping of the secretary. At that moment from where he is sitting he sees the Professor, a burly man with a pince-nez, clutching a battered leather satchel, burst in and with a casual cupped hand beckon him into his room. “Sit down, sit down, please,” welcomes the Professor, indicating a dusty canvass chair in front of his desk. The man, grateful that his wait is over sits down and leans eagerly towards the desk: “Thank you for agreeing to see me Professor.” “That’s quite alright” he says, idly batting away a stray bluebottle. “Now can I ask the purpose of your visit?” “Well yes I wanted you to explain to me the meaning of this parable, it’s been bothering me for weeks. Mr H____ kindly informed me that you are an expert in this area and would be able to dissolve my confusion.” Pressing his hands together into a steeple the Professor said “Now it’s certainly possible that I may be able to help you with this. I could offer you my interpretation, I have a copy of my latest article on the matter right here for you to read.” The man’s hand scurried across the table to take it, but the Professor pulled it away. “But, I’m not at all sure you will be able to understand it.” “Oh!” says the man, slumping back into his chair. “I must inform you that I am a well-read man, I went to a respectable university. I’m sure I can make sense of it.” “That’s all very well but I have to inform you that my interpretation of the parable although written in extremely clear language and without the use of any specific technical terms and which I can assure you is the absolute truth of the matter, is nonetheless very difficult, perhaps impossible for you to grasp. If you imagine the current confusion that besets you then the difficulties of my interpretation are magnitudes greater. No, it certainly won’t do for me to simply allow you to read my article without any proper preparation.” The man looks forlornly out of the window to see an old man crossing the street opposite who at this acute angle gives off the curious impression of a large, scuttling spider. “Perhaps there are other professors I might consult?” said the man, blushing slightly. “There are many of them. However, I must warn you that their works are much more formidable and perplexing than mine. There is another Professor in this very building, just along this corridor, whose work in this area is so forbidding, I shudder to think of it.” “So what should I do?” “I think at the very least you should read this book before I offer you my interpretation.” The Professor handed the man a heavy book with a faded cover and broken spine. The man reads the contents of the book and, on passing a short oral examination from the Professor is given another dark-coloured book to study. The man continues to study the books offered by the Professor and being an excellent student is always able to satisfy his probing questions. Many weeks and years pass in this way. Numerous times the man asks the Professor if he now has enough knowledge to grasp the contents of the article, but time and time again the Professor shakes his head in sombre fashion. Decades later, the man, exhausted from his lifelong studies, and with his end in sight, summons up all his remaining energy to ask the remarkably sprightly Professor “In all the years I have been studying here, working assiduously on interpretations of the parable, how is it that no one else has once come to your office to ask about it?” And, as the man’s brain gives way and he drifts into unconsciousness the Professor, raising his voice to a deafening roar shouts: “The parable was written by me for you. Only one copy was ever produced — the one you are still clutching in your hand.”

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