Reading about the Chinese toddler who was essentially left to die a couple weeks back on a busy road and the story that’s all over Internet lately about the Penn State child-rape scandal got me thinking about one of my hauntingly favorite Kafka short stories.
I used to think that this story described all-too-well something inherent in the Czech mindset that stunted their sense of social responsibility. Some friends and I used to joke about how different the act of opening up a map was in NYC than in Prague. Whereas in NYC you could always count on some dude walking up to you and not only helping you find your way but also telling you about some sweet, like, bagel place not too far from there, in Prague you might as well have stepped into Morris’ disappearing bag.
And then we would try to explain away this Czech behavior with nods to their history, the brutality of former political regimes and their pervasive and justifiable fear of involving themselves in the wrong sorts of things. Why try to break up a fight if one of the combatants is an informant or a member of the secret police?
But, as great writers do, Kafka merely uses a particular event, however abstract or allegorical, to shed light on the universal. It’s not a Czech thing, wanting not to get involved in business that appears not to involve you, it’s a universal tendency. And as these two recent events have shown all too terribly, it’s a tendency that often carries horrifying consequences.
Of course, it should be noted that while Kafka’s story presents the idea of involvement in the abstract, the two events referred to above represent quite clear examples of when involvement should have been immediate, i.e., unconscious second-nature. I just like this story so much because it describes so eerily that moment when second-nature reaction slides into extreme, self-conscious deliberation. Which is unfortunately, and disgustingly, what seems to have happened to Penn State’s “graduate assistant.”
I quote Kafka’s story Passers-by, here translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, in full:
When you go walking by night up a street and a man, visible a long way off – for the street mounts uphill and there is a full moon – comes running toward you, well, you don’t catch hold of him, not even if he is a feeble and ragged creature, not even if someone chases yelling at his heels, but you let him run on.
For it is night, and you can’t help it if the street goes uphill before you in the moonlight, and besides, these two have maybe started that chase to amuse themselves, or perhaps they are both chasing a third, perhaps the first is an innocent man and the second wants to murder him and you would become an accessory, perhaps they don’t know anything about each other and are merely running separately home to bed, perhaps they are night birds, perhaps the first man is armed.
And anyhow, haven’t you a right to be tired, haven’t you been drinking a lot of wine? You’re thankful that the second man is now long out of sight.