Thursday, 25 June 2015

Franz Kafka's Pencil in a Dream

Franz Kafka's tombstone in Prague
Source: Wikimedia Commons
No sooner has Josef K. in Kafka's A Dream lived than he is confronted by his impending death. In his dream he walks in the winding path of a cemetery until he comes up to two mysterious figures ramming a heavy tombstone into the ground. K. is mesmerized by the possibility of death; the cessation of existence appears as a mysterious even a romantic prospect. The artist (who is none other than Joseph K's other self) who suddenly appears waving a pencil proceeds to skilfully carve gold letters in the tombstone and Joseph K. finds himself eagerly anticipating their formation. He has contemplated death, he has thought of death in the abstract, perhaps as eternal repose, as the final flourish to a life-line, a pure glittering end of his time above earth but now he thinks again. 
Instantly, a third man emerged from the bushes, and K., promptly identified him as an artist. He was wearing only trousers and a misbuttoned shirt; a velvet cap was on his head; in his hand, he clutched an ordinary pencil, drawing figures in the air even as he approached.
He now applied this pencil to the top end of the stone; (...) Through some extremely skilful manipulation, he succeeded in producing gold letters with that ordinary pencil; he wrote: "Here LIES---" Each letter came out clean and beautiful, deeply incised and in purest gold. After writing those two words, he looked back at K.; K., who was very eager to see what would come next in the inscription, gazed at the stone, paying little heed to the man. And in fact, the man was about to continue writing, but he could not, something was hindering him, he lowered the pencil and turned to K. again. (...)
Writing stops, the pencil is dropped. As the realization of the finality of death dawns upon him panic and a feeling of helplessness engulfs K. He cries inconsolably covering his face with his hands. How can he embrace his mortality? How can he accept death? But then he realizes that he can do nothing but to accept that his existence must end. His refusal to die wavers and as it does the the pencil starts writing again, scrawling at first but unmistakeably forming his name on the tombstone.

The artist waited for K. to calm down, and then, finding no other solution, he decided to keep writing all the same. His first small stroke was a deliverance for K., but the artist obviously managed to execute it only with utmost reluctance; moreover, the penmanship was not as lovely -- above all, it seemed to lack gold, the stroke moved along pale and unsteady, only the letter became very large. It was a J, it was almost completed (...). 

K. gives in to the inevitable. The end is near. The earth gives in readily. Everything seems prepared. The large hole already dug and gaping beneath to accept him receives him in its embrace. 

While he lay there, his head still craning upwards accepted by the impenetrable depths, up above, his name went racing across the stone with immense flourishes.


Franz Kafka's A Dream in Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Classics 2007.

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