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Before the Law
Jacques Derrida

”Before the Law” is the title of a story. It's first sentence reads: ”Before the Law stands a doorkeeper”. On either side of the invisible line that separates title from text, the first names the text in its entirety, of which it is in sum the proper name and title, the second designates a situation, the site where the character is localized within the internal geography of the story. The former, the title, is before the text and remains external if not to the fiction then to at least to the content of the fictional narration. And yet, although it is outside the fictional narrative or the story that is being told, the title (Before the Law) remains a fiction that likewise bears the signature of the author or a representative of the author.

In Kafka's story one does not know what kind of law is at issue-moral, judicial, political, natural, etc. What remains concealed and invisible in each law is thus presumably the law itself, that which makes laws of these laws, the being-law of these laws. The question and the quest are ineluctable, rendering irresistible the journey toward the place and the origin of law. The law yields by withholding itself, without imparting its provenance and its site. The silence and discontinuity constitute the phenomenon of the law. To enter into relations with the law is to act as if it had no history or at any rate as if it no longer depended on its historical presentation. At the same time, it is to let oneself be enticed, provoked, and hailed by the history of this non-history. It is to let oneself be tempted by the impossible.

If you know place yourself before ”Before the Law,” and before the doorkeeper, and if, settling before him, like the man from the country, you observe him, what do you see? Given his situation, the man from the country does not know the law which is always the city's law, the law of cities and edifices protected by gates and boundaries, of spaces shut by doors. He is therefor astonished by the doorkeeper of the law, a man of the town, and he stares at him. ”These are difficulties the countryman had not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.”
Does he decide to renounce entry after appearing determined to enter? Not in the least: he decides to put off deciding, he decides not to decide, he delays and adjourns while he waits. But waits for what? For ”permission to enter” as it is written? But you will have noticed that such permission was refused him only in the form of an adjournment: ”It's possible, but not now”

Let us be patient to. Is not what holds us in check before the law, like the man from the country, also what paralyses and detains us when confronted with a story: is it not its possibility and impossibility, its readability and unreadability, its necessity and prohibition?
This seems at first sight to be due to the essentially inaccessible character of the law, to the fact that a ”fist sight” of it is always refused. In a certain way Before the Law is the story of this inaccessibility, of this inaccessibility to the story, the history of the this impossible history, the map of this forbidden path: no itinerary, no method, no path to accede to the law, to what would happen there. Such inaccessibility puzzles the man from the country, beginning with the moment he looks carefully at the doorkeeper, who is himself the observer, overseer, and sentry, the very figure of vigilance, or we might say conscience. What the man from the country asks for is the way in: is not the law defined precisely in terms of its accessibility; is it not or must it not be so ” at all times and to everyone”?
The law, thinks the man from the country, should be universal. He wants to see or touch the law, he wants to see or touch the law, he wants to approach and ”enter” it, because perhaps he does not know that the law is not to be seen or touched but deciphered. This is perhaps the first sign of the law's inaccessibility, or of the delay it imposes upon the man from the country. The gate is not shut, it is ”open as usual”, but the law remains inaccessible.

Did the man from the country wish to enter the law or merely the place where law is safeguarded?
The two characters in the story, the doorkeeper and the man from the country, are both before the law, but since in order to speak they face each other, their position ”before the law” is an opposition. The two protagonists are both attendant before the law but in opposition to one another, being on either side of a line of inversion whose mark in the text is precisely the separation of the title from the narrative body. The double inscription of ”Vor dem Gesetz” flanks an invisible line that divides, separates and of itself renders divisible a unique expression. It splits the line.

We must not forget that the doorkeeper too is separated from the law by other doorkeepers ”each more powerful than the last” ”But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him”. The lowest of doorkeepers is the first to see the man from the country. The first in the order of the narration is the last in the order of the law and in the hierarchy of its representatives. And the first-last doorkeeper never sees the law: he cannot even bear the sight of the doorkeepers who are before him, prior to and above him. The man from the country, Man, the anonymous subject of the law, decides that he would ”rather wait”. His resolution and non resolution brings the story into being and sustains it. Yet permission had never been denied him: it had merely been delayed, adjourned, deferred. It is all a question of time, and it is the time of the story; however, time itself does not appear until this adjournment of the presentation.

Here, we know neither who nor what is the law, das Gesetz. This, perhaps, is where literature begins. A text of philosophy, science, or history, a text of knowledge or information, would not abandon a name to a state of not-knowing. Here one does not know the law, one has no cognitive rapport with it; it is neither a subject nor an object. It lets the man freely determine himself, it lets him wait, it abandons him. The law is produced (without showing itself, thus without producing itself) in the space of this non-knowledge. The doorkeeper watches over this theatre of the invisible, and the man wishes to look in by stooping. Is the law then low, lower than he? The law does not stand up, which is perhaps again why it would be difficult to place oneself before it. In fact, the whole scenography of the story would be a drama of standing and sitting. At the beginning, at the origin of the story, the doorkeeper and the man are up, standing, face to face. At the end of the text, at the interminable but interrupted end of the story and of history, at the end of man, the end of this man's life, the doorkeeper is much taller than his interlocutor. In the interval, in mid-text, which is also the middle of the man's life after he decides to wait, the doorkeeper gives him a footstool and makes him sit down. The man stays there, ”sitting for days and years,” all his life. In the end, he sinks back into childhood. The child dies old like a small child before a doorkeeper who grows, standing and over-seeing.
The elderly child finally becomes almost blind but hardly knows it: ”He does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law” This is the most religious moment of the writing.

I conclude. These are the doorkeeper's last words: ”I am now going to shut it,” I close the door, I conclude.

The man comes to his end without reaching his end. The entrance is destined for and awaits him alone; he arrives there but cannot arrive at entering; he cannot arrive at arriving. Thus runs the account of an event which arrives at not arriving, which manages not to happen. The doorkeeper, recognizing that the man is near the end, shouts out to reach his failing ear: ”No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

And this is the final word, the conclusion, or the closure of the story.

The text would be the door, the entrance (Eingang), what the doorkeeper has just closed.As he closes the object, he closes the text. Which, however, closes on nothing. The story Before the Law does not tell or describe anything but itself as text. Not within a specular reflection of some self-referential transparency, but in the unreadability of the text. The text guards itself, that is to say, of its non-identity with itself. It neither arrives nor lets anyone arrive. It is the law, makes the law and leaves the reader before the law.

To be precise. We are before this text that, saying nothing definite and presenting no identifiable content beyond the story itself. Intangible: by this I understand inaccessible to contact, impregnable, and ultimately ungraspable, incomprehensible-but also that we which we have no right to touch. Despite the non-identity in itself of its sense or destination, despite its essential unreadability, its ”form” presents and performs itself as a kind of personal identity entitled to absolute respect. Anyone impairing the original identity of this text may have to appear before the law. This may happen to any reader in the presence of the text, to critic, publisher, translator, heirs, or professors. All these are then at the same time doorkeepers and men from the country. On both sides of the frontier.