Kafka's Pillar of Salt


“Can you know anything but illusion? If once illusion were destroyed you would never dare to look back; you would be turned into a pillar of salt.” Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

I recall picking up a collection of Kafka's stories entitled The Great Wall of China from a library in Maine some six years ago. The back of the book contained a collection of aphorisms which seemed, more than anything else he had written (apart from maybe the odd diary entry), to convey his complicated inner life in a very potent way. The one quoted above was particularly jarring to me, and a distillation of several threads of thought which I instantly recognized, and which I've been turning over ever since.

The aphorism makes clear reference to the unhappy climax of the life of Lot's wife, a story widely remembered but only very briefly mentioned in the Book of Genesis. From the King James:

“Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”

I do recall hearing this story and feeling the familiar nagging suspicion that the God of the Old Testament was once again resorting needlessly to violence, death, and bizarre punishments for obscure offenses. What kind of omnipotent god worthy of worship does these kinds of things?

But I have come to see how, while not untrue, this is an almost comically modern reaction to the stories of the Bible, and to old parables in general. In these brutal tales, there is not much of an implicit expectation of fairness. The modern reader imposes his or her own moral outrage on the stories themselves, which is natural enough, but this can tend to warp and degrade their value. In the story of Lot's wife, we need not worry so much about whether God was right or wrong to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, or whether Lot's wife deserved her fate. It now seems to me that the point being made is that this destruction was going to happen, and given that inevitability, what preparations or negotiations did humans have in their meager arsenal to avoid the worst outcome? There are inverse echoes here also of the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus manages to save Eurydice from the depths of the Underworld, but breaks Hades's command that he not look back at her before ascending to Earth. Well, it made no difference that it was his reasonable fear of her not being behind him that caused him to look. That his lack of faith was understandable did not matter. His failure was not a moral one, but a simple failure to follow the rules of some higher order of law. The underlying message of the relative powerlessness even of our heroes is a very uncomfortable one for modern audiences. But it may be that this discomfort is not one of incomprehension but of recognition.

The Old Testament God was known by his admirers as well as detractors to be capricious and volatile. There was not much difference between the old God – indeed gods – and something like a weather event. In fact in many cases that's at least partly what God was. In this ancient age, so full of explicit religious beliefs, people nevertheless were about as surprised by the cruelty of the gods as we are today surprised by the cruelty of a storm. We might prepare for it, try to avoid it, feel the agony of its effects, but no one thinks to be morally outraged by a hurricane. Along with his clearly anthropomorphic mask, the nature of God was also wedded to this undeniable fact of periodic destruction. It was simply a given that human beings lived under an unsteady mysterious ruler, here handing out favor, there handing out wrath. The fairness of this kind of situation was sometimes challenged; in all of literature, perhaps the most notable and beautiful record of mankind's frustration with its creator is the Book of Job. But even in this case there is no resolution; the happy ending – quite possibly tacked on later by another writer - only magnifies the original outrage. Job and God wind up "talking past each other" as we might say it today. I know of no serious effort being made on the part of God to understand his creation until the - admittedly incredible and genius - story of Christ.

Kafka's aphorism was the first serious invitation I had been given by literature to look upon the Old Testament as something other than just the open playground of a cruel deity. What is he saying here about illusion? It seems to me that Kafka is meditating on an observation that dives even further down into the nature of identity and being. “Can we know anything but illusion?” It is very hard to say that we can. Everything that we take in through our senses, the raw data of the outside world is filtered through the human mind. We necessarily miss most of the eternal buzzing and waving and jostling that is going on outside our sphere of consciousness, from the subatomic world all the way into the celestial. Some of our more brilliant brothers and sisters have come up with reliable ways to test 'laws' like gravity or measure time, but the search for an intuitive mechanistic understanding of these concepts were abandoned early on in the Enlightenment period. No one understands gravity on an intuitive level. No one can say what an electron is or even say it positively exists. Everywhere we look, we are severely limited in our understanding of things which, through measurement and experiment, we infer must exist in some sense out in the world.

What we have closest at hand are the immediate experiences of the mind, the visual and sensory models that the brain filters from raw external data, the peculiar and creative tools of language, and some strange mental substructure of symbology that seems to be relatively constant across recorded human history. These things outline a kind of frontier, or limit, of our understanding of what is in the world and how it works. This emergent experience, though undeniably real, is a kind of illusion in that it seems a private world of the conscious mind. Kafka asks if we can know anything other than illusion. Can an individual open up the field of experience to invite most or all of the workings of the world into his or herself? Can we know, in the realest sense, the Truth about what is going on in the universe?

Kafka's second line gives an indication at least of his understanding of this question. Even if these 'doors of perception,' were to be flung wide open, a person “would never dare to look back.” This is an observation of the inherent limits of not only what an individual does understand, but even in principle what an individual could understand, Kafka ties rather beautifully into the familiar biblical story. What happens when a person invites too much of the unfiltered reality of the world into his or her self? “You would be turned into a pillar of salt.” The broadest conception of God is perhaps that God is everything that we do not understand, everything that passes over around and below our consciousness; God is unfiltered Truth. “It got too real,” a person might say of a harrowing experience. Everyone instantly understands. There are times we are thrust up into the very frontiers of what a person can experience while still maintaining their sanity and their life. Beyond this is the realm of something quite real, and yet quite unendurable as a person. You would not survive an encounter with God, because it would obliterate the limiting parameters which create individual qualities. You would be a pillar of salt: you would become part of the landscape.

I think this ingenious variation on a few verses of scripture gives new life to many other biblical stories and to ancient mythological narratives in general. From the Old Testament alone, there are countless examples. Moses seeing God through the mediating form of the burning bush implies – as do similar stories like the Welsh Mabinogion – a moment of contact between the individual and eternal. Or take the mysterious passage in Exodus when the people of Israel arrange themselves at various distances as God descends to Mount Sinai, thereby seeing only as much 'glory' (or truth) as they can live with. The 70 elders of the wandering nation, as Harold Bloom notes, are even permitted to dine with the Lord. “They stare at him and he stares at them and that's it. He doesn't say a word and they don't say a word, but there he is.”

Throughout world literature there is an obsession with the overlapping of our known world with the world of fantasy, religion, and magic. And again, one can view this obsession as an unfortunate human trait built on superstition and wish-thinking, a tendency that distracts us from progress and continuously drags us back down into the muck. But even this literal-minded reaction to fantasy and religion begs the question of why this tendency exists, and what we are actually doing when we fantasize. From the perspective I have tried to convey above, we are perhaps contending with the apparently supreme fact of our limited identities seated in the midst of something that looks and feels very like eternity. In our desire to maintain our shape and character, we hold fast to the finite and known. In our curiosity of what is beyond us, and in hopes of something better, we glance here and there into the abyss of chaos, or the eternal.

Very formidable Eastern traditions have attempted to turn the latter into some kind of ultimate goal: the shedding of the ego or the self in favor of the alleged bliss of the no-self is apparently the road to Enlightenment. The Judaic and ultimately Christian tradition – though there are quasi-Buddhist contemplative traditions under this tent as well – ultimately tends the other way. It tries to make the world out to be something worth salvaging. This is mostly plainly illustrated by the differences in Eastern vs Western symbols: the unending, essentially indivisible oneness of the circle or sphere versus the place of intersection between temporal or eternal, namely the cross. There is nothing more emblematic of individuality than the latter symbol. The place where 'eternity' and 'temporary' intersect is the human being, or human consciousness, the thing we most fundamentally are, and the thing we understand virtually nothing of.

There is no way for a daydreaming peasant like myself to scribble about these things without wandering in circles which after a while finally leads to dizziness and sleep. But these meditations, stories, and images keep coming back, every day, in both familiar and novel forms. Life being as long as it is, one can forget how truly strange and improbable it is to be alive in the midst of the real mystery and real chaos of the world. I am often reminded of the Christian writer GK Chesterton on the practical use of fairy tales: “Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” There is a wonderful aspect of the Buddhist tradition which seems to show a way towards finding continuous wonder in the mundane, the likes of which we once maybe had as children, and all this without the baggage of drugs or religious dogma.

But that is a meditation for another time. I come back finally to the strange aphorism of Kafka, which renews my fascination with the frontiers of thought and individual identity. Certainly it is a warning to the mortals among us. And thinking now of Chesterton, I'm reminded of perhaps his finest paradox that pairs rather well with Kafka's pillar of salt: “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

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