Franz Kafka “The Trial” – Heraclitus “Fragments” – Du Fu “A Life in Poetry” – Charles Baudelaire “Paris Spleen”

Franz Kafka "The Trial" Heraclitus "Fragments" Du Fu "A Life in Poetry" Charles Baudelaire "Paris Spleen"
Franz Kafka “The Trial” Heraclitus “Fragments” Du Fu “A Life in Poetry” Charles Baudelaire “Paris Spleen”

Heraclitus on Kafka: “The oneness of all wisdom may be found, or not, under the name of God.”

In this fragment, Heraclitus comments on K’s belief that inside the castle, there is an authority that he will answer to, an authority that he can hold to account. K. endlessly strives to make contact with this authority, which proves he must at least want it to exist.

But, according to Heraclitus, there’s a catch: the way the authority reveals itself is through contradiction and paradox, in instructions that can’t be followed and rules that have already been broken. The authority K. experiences makes K. suspect that authority might not exist.

Heraclitus’ point is that, because K’s fate is controlled by belief in the castle’s authority, its existence and non-existence become oneness – it’s there even if it’s not.

Du Fu on Heraclitus: “Drifting, drifting here, what am I really like? A lone sand gull somewhere between earth and sky.”

Here, Du Fu gently critiques Heraclitus’ hypocrisy. Du Fu is interested in the way that Heraclitus thinks in opposites (for example, the existence and non-existence of the castle’s authority) and always finds a way to make those opposites collapse into oneness (for K. and the village, authority’s existence and non-existence are ultimately no different from each other.)

Du Fu uses the opposing images of earth and sky to show that this mode of thought is complementary to ideas he explores in his own poetry.

But Du Fu also pokes fun at Heraclitus, who sees duality becoming oneness in everything (existence and non-existence, mortals and immortals, justice and injustice) except for Heraclitus’ own knowledge and others’ ignorance. Heraclitus is eager to draw an unbreakable line between himself and the drunken Dionysian revelers he disdains.

Du Fu, who used his poetry to erase the difference between himself and the peasants he lived beside, uses the image of the lone sand gull to undermine Heraclitus’ confidence in the oneness of his wisdom. Between the duality of earth and sky, the gull exists. Even if that existence only lasts for the length of a single lifetime, it’s there, neither sky nor water, but something separate, fully itself.

Baudelaire on Du Fu: “And the two children, each to the other, laughed fraternally, with teeth of equal whiteness.”

Baudelaire is suspicious of Du Fu’s egalitarianism in the same way that K. is suspicious of the castle’s authority. Baudelaire is both a believer and a skeptic.

In “A Toy for the Poor,” Baudelaire pays homage to Du Fu’s techniques of collapsing the distance between the rich and poor. He describes a wealthy boy beside “a splendid toy, a figure as neat as its master.” But the young heir ignores his splendid toy. He’s distracted, staring through his garden gate at a “dirty, sickly, soot-covered” urchin who plays with his own toy – a rat. Both of the children, laughing at the rat, reveal “teeth of equal whiteness.”

Their laughter erases their class difference – in this sense, Baudelaire’s tribute to Du Fu is sincere. But what are they laughing at? An abused rat trapped in a cage. A rat the urchin pokes and shakes. Baudelaire’s homage becomes ironic – what unites the boys is the suffering of another.

Like K, trapped between the unity of authority’s existence and non-existence, never allowed into the castle or even accepted into the village, the rat remains outside the boys’ laughter. In order for the castles’ contradictions to become authority, in order for the boys’ class difference to dissolve in laughter, a rejected other must remain outside of both, forced to stay separate, fully itself.

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