I have a strange psychic relationship with Franz Kafka, the great modernist writer—in particular his two most famous characters: Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis and Joseph K. from The Trial. In effect, sometimes I wake up feeling like a bug, as poor Gregor did, and sometimes I feel slapped around by the system, as was the fate of doomed Joseph K. The other day, I felt like both.
I am beset on all sides of my property by very loud dogs. They are friendly fellows, gregarious tail-waggers, constantly announcing their admiration for me each time I step out into the backyard. They announce and announce and announce, at delirious volumes, spurred on by each other and, in an effort to see who can love me the most, will keep at it for interminable lengths of time. While I appreciate the adoration, sometimes I prefer the languid silence that doesn’t cause the blood vessels in my head to burst apart.
The answer was quite simple: get a stockade fence around the perimeter of the backyard. In the words of the empirical philosophers: If the dogs don’t see me then I don’t be me, and perhaps without the super-stimulation of my very presence the dogs next door will drift off into slumber, to dream of fire hydrants and dead squirrels.
The fence company warned me that I may need to get a permit to have the fence installed. Maybe, maybe not, they said. I frowned, knowing that local governments are not very good at clarifying these types of situations. I decided I wouldn’t get one and also decided to try and find out if I actually needed one. After all, if I was going to break the rules, I should know, at least, what the rules are. I did a quick search with my zip code and was directed to the Town’s Department of Red Tape. I called them up.
“Yes,” a woman told me, “you need a permit.” She gave me instructions on how to proceed. In a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity on my part, I decided to follow the rules. I dropped off the application and the specs. When I returned home there was already an e-mail waiting for me.
“Dear Sir, your application cannot be accepted because you don’t live here. Thank you.”
Vexed, I called back to get a clearer explanation, a hilarious expectation on my part.
“We cannot grant you a permit because you don’t live here,” reiterated the woman.
“Out of curiosity where do I live?” I asked. “And don’t tell me something like, ‘In the hearts and minds of those yearning to be free,’ or some such drivel.”
“Sir, we only know where you don’t live.”
“Do I need a permit where I live, wherever that is?”
“That I can’t answer because it’s in the category of the known unknown. In short: we know we don’t know where you live.”
“What if I told you the fence I applied for is set to be 40-feet high, with spikes emerging from all sides on which I shall impale children and animals, as a kind of aggressive deterrent?”
“Well, that would be against code where we live, but I wouldn’t want to speak for where you live.”
“What if I told you I was building a moat?”
“You’d need a letter from the board of health, but not our board of health.”
“What if I was going to put a dragon in the moat?”
“Your dragon would have to be on a leash, most likely, but that would be an entirely different department that deals with pet licensing, here or anywhere else.”
“I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions,” I said.
“Luckily I’m on my lunch break, which is three hours long, and the wifi is down, so what the hell.”
“How about a general inquiry: what exactly does the permit permit?” I asked.
“Most importantly, it permits us to receive a payment from you,” she stated, her voice as neutral as a robot. “It permits us to keep an eye on you. It permits us a broad control. It permits conformity. It permits the request for permission, which is the most basic form of subjugation. It permits the perpetuation of the hierarchy. It permits the power of our Napoleonic little government, tiny and ambitious as it is. It permits the justification of our own bureaucratic existence. It permits us to kill your spirit with a million little complexities. It permits confusion, which is the easiest and most effective form of manipulation. It permits you to feel like Gregor Samsa, the trapped bug. It permits that vague sense of impotent dread that foreshadows the great and vast nothingness of your own abilities in a cold and unforgiving universe.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You majored in philosophy. Do you like Kafka?”
“My phone is about to die on you. There will be nothing afterwards. Only silence.”