An Unaffiliate Stands Before the Law
Blogging Joshua Cohen’s ‘Witz’
It’s Kafka rather than Joyce who haunts the final section of Witz, in which the world’s remaining Unaffiliated—that is, those who have not converted to the brand of something-like-Judaism that has come to dominate the post-apocalyptic future, or “not chosen to be chosen” in the Newspeak of this new order—are rounded up and sent to their deaths (by a reconstituted Sanhedrin, naturally) in the reopened concentration camps of Polandland. The new genocide victims are, simultaneously, tourists, and their journeys to Whateverwitz, Whywald, and Nohausen, though mandatory, are also luxury vacations. “Give them the Grand Tour, show them the sites, take it all in, the works, allinclusive: then, terminal transfer to extermination facilities situated at the outer limits of major metropolises throughout the Pale … and then to murder them, every one of them, dead, and so only the pure will be left; that’s the plan.” They are flown first-class to Eastern Europe; “gifted with oodles of ointments to apply to their new tattoos”; taken to barracks with minibars and flat-screen televisions. “They’re not scheduled but punctually leisured to death, that’s how we like to think of it.”
But that’s not the Kafkaesque part. Each Unaffiliate either initially passes through one of several gates that leads directly to death or instead gets to pass through the Tourist Gate, and this is determined by a series of gatekeepers on loan from K’s famous parable “Before the Law” (which, I am personally convinced, is a parable about rabbinic Judaism and which I’m also sure inspired the structure of A Serious Man).
In Kafka’s version, a man stands before the gateway of the Law. It’s guarded by a gatekeeper who tells him he can’t go in at the present time, but that it’s possible he will be allowed to enter later. The gatekeeper allows the man to bribe him with all he has “so that you do not think you have failed to do anything,” but still does not let him in. The man waits his whole life, and on his deathbed, he finally asks the gatekeeper why no one else has ever walked through this particular gate. The keeper says, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”
In Cohen’s version, the guards at the Tourist Gate (one of whom keeps a bird called a Kavka on his shoulder) allow the Unaffiliated not only to bribe them, but to proffer explanations—as though they were applying for a spot on the March of the Living—of why they, personally, they wish to take a tour of Polandland. (Throughout their entire encounter no one exits through this Tourist Gate.) If an Unaffiliate plays his cards right, the guard will eventually give him the documents that will allow him to tour rather than be murdered in the gas chambers.
But once an eager tour group is assembled and stands before the gate, it will turn out the guards have marked their documents in disappearing ink. If only there were some adjective available to describe such a thing …