‘It Is Possible… But Not Now’: The Absurdism Of Life During Lockdown
We had a great first class, after the eternal first lockdown’s end, with a discussion on Borges’s text and the study of parallel or double lives. For my second class, I was all set to introduce my first-year students to absurdism. This was to be in the form of Franz Kafka’s short parable that occurs in his novel, The Trial. But alas, before the second class of the semester could take place, we found ourselves in the midst of a second lockdown. Our class on absurdism was transferred to the computer screens.
Kafka’s parable is called “Before the Law.” It tells the story of an unnamed man who approaches a door and asks its gatekeeper to be allowed entry. The gatekeeper’s reply is ambiguous and tempting: “It is possible…but not now.” The man is curious and tries to look at what’s behind the open door, but at this, the gatekeeper laughs and tells him off. The man’s wait to be allowed entry has just begun and it is to follow a lifetime.
The parable introduces us to absurdist woes of trying to locate meaning in a meaningless, chaotic world; even as our quest to find meaning is already doomed.
I was going to teach this parable among a few others I had selected. “Parables”, as you know, are stories with a moral or spiritual lesson embedded in them. Kafka’s take, of course, is to negate the very possibility of meaning. His is a parable of no meaning, of pointlessness. It is sort of like beginning a university semester, after months of lockdown, only to find that the university has closed down again. It’s an unwelcome recollection of all those ‘meaningless’ hours, all that endless solitude.
This state of remaining in a lockdown seems like an infinite Beckettian wait. We are now Vladimir and Estragon who plan at length on going somewhere only to be wrapped up in an immortal “Nobody moves.” We cannot predict how long this state of affairs will last. I hear WHO has declared that it won’t be until 2022 that we will return to our normal lives. In the meantime, students will have online graduation ceremonies. They are experiencing their first year of university life in the kingdom of imposed lockdown. I can’t help but think about the impact this will have on their lives. After all, in these years you make memories that last a lifetime. The charm of campus life, meeting in the cafeteria between classes, having intellectual discussions with friends in classrooms…it will all be converted to being in your room alone with your computer to keep you literal company.
The mood of this article is dark, and suddenly the parable I wanted to discuss in class seems to have alternate real-life meanings. I was thinking along these lines, when I stumbled across the following poem randomly:
The Red Wheelbarrow
By William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I read it in an unstirred heart-beat, sort of gulped it down. I didn’t think anything of it, and yet it remained with me, reaching me till I kept repeating the words written in the poem. Isn’t this true then? It is how we see the world, how we choose to see it, upon which everything depends. I found myself thinking how even in these “absurd” circumstances, this poem had managed to make its way to me. The deep delicacy of the simple thought buried in it, and the poet takes it further with each line. He first paints the “red” wheelbarrow, but doesn’t stop there – it is “glazed” with rainwater. Even this has not captured the intense beauty that the poet has seen and desires to show us. It is “beside the white chickens”. The imagery in the poem defies complexity and shows us in the sheer glistening of glazed red, that all we have to do is find the details, the beauty. As Ethan Hawke remarks in Reality Bites, “I take pleasure in the details.”
Coming out of the reverie that I was caught in whilst reading this bare beauty, I realized that something had shifted inside of me. It was really one of those days when the raw power of literature hits you. Now I was thinking of online classes in new and fascinating ways. I was thinking what I could do with this medium of teaching that could contribute to the current times.
Thinking of Kafka’s parable again, I mold the words of the gatekeeper into a new form: “It is possible…but not now.” It is no longer possible for me to feel the dejected air of doom. I still do not have the answers, and I don’t think any of us do, but I do know something for certain. It is in the beauty, in the details, in the glimpse of the sun in a room full of books that will light the way forward.