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Kafka: Give It Up

February 24, 2010

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘from me you want to learn the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give it up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Here Kafka has invented a parable to express his distress at his endless thesis writeup. At first everything is clean, empty, deserted, and ripe with possibility, as the narrator heads to the train station. His journey is unspecified, but it will probably provide excitement, or something unexpected, or perhaps it just leads to his rewarding everyday job. In any case, a future of some attraction awaits the successful completion of his journey to finishing his thesis on whatever of the infinite variety of topics he might choose.

But in contemplating the possibilities, the narrator has inadvertently tarried too long! Well, a little extension is not too hard to get. But worse, doubts have crept in about his research path, and whether it can even be found within the extra time available. Perhaps the journey will be impossible! But no doubt the unsure student can get some guidance from an advisor. However, the seemingly friendly policeman not only doesn’t want to help the narrator find his way, he even rejects the idea of looking for it! This unkind and seemingly mendacious policeman (maybe representing a failed graduate student, or just a more experienced student who knows the true perils that lie ahead) expresses his own frustrations by dooming the hapless narrator to a life with neither qualification nor job.

Am I the narrator, or the policeman? I think both, in some proportion. The policeman had a powerful hold on the situation for some considerable time, but the narrator is still searching for the station, and has no doubt he will soon find it. And then the policeman will see how foolish he was, I will find the station without him, and he will be stuck laughing sadly in the past.


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