This is Kafka’s The Burrow as it approaches my work. This month I’m working on a set of a dozen texts like this one, each of which presents a text or idea as a tool which operates, or is operated by, the central argument of my commentary (which I can’t post here yet, it isn’t finished). I’m thinking of calling my central commentary the verb and all these texts objects.

(Page numbers are from Kafka’s Selected Stories (Norton Critical Editions, trans & ed. Stanley Corngold 2007.)

The animal periodically exits its burrow only to find it feels more protected from the outside, watching potential predators fail to notice its entrance and imagining the safety of its private underground world, and “the lovely hours [spent] half peacefully sleeping, half happily wakeful […] in passages that are designed precisely for me, for comfortable stretching, childish tumbling, dreamy sprawling, blissful falling asleep” (p. 175)

Such hunger for surveillance reflects the reality of a life underground blighted by such fear of mortal threat that the animal “hardly knows an hour of complete peace”, even in sleep dreaming of a “lascivious snout sniff[ing] incessantly around” (p. 162). Yet during its excursions the animal appears oblivious to any danger as it lingers unguarded on the forest floor. On watch outside the burrow, the animal seems unreal, like an impalpable projection of itself cast by its burrow-dwelling self out into the world to survey its own safety:

“Yet I am not really out in the open […] I am too deeply occupied within my burrow. […] It feels to me, then, not as if I were standing outside my house but outside myself while I am asleep and know the joy of sleeping deeply and at the same time of being able to keep a close watch on myself.” (p. 169)

Thus the animal projects a division of itself into the twinned roles of underground sleeper and overground watcher, and only through this utopia of simultaneous co-existence might it find peace in its burrow.

Since the sleeper’s security depends entirely upon its trust of the watcher, and no watcher can be trusted “when he is out of sight, when the moss cover separates us” (p. 173), the animal must, impossibly, dwell simultaneously within and outside of the burrow. Only in such a state might it hope “not only to see the ghosts of the night in the helplessness and blissful trust of sleep, but also to encounter them in reality with the full strength of wakefulness and the calm capacity to form judgements.” (pp. 169-170)

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