Bureaucracy is Sisyphus.

from The Castle by Franz Kafka page 228 fiction ~15 min read

But then Bürgel said: ‘You seem to have had several disappointments already,’ thus showing a certain understanding of human nature again, and ever since K. entered this room he had told himself from time to time not to underestimate Bürgel. However, in his present condition it was difficult to judge anything properly except his own weariness. ‘No, no,’ said Bürgel, as if replying to some thought in K.’s mind and kindly sparing him the trouble of saying it out loud. ‘You mustn’t let disappointments deter you. A good deal here seems designed for deterrence, and when you’re new to the place you feel it’s impossible to get past the obstacles. I don’t mean to try finding out how things really are, perhaps the appearance really corresponds to the reality, in my position I don’t stand at the right distance from it to establish that, but note this: opportunities sometimes arise that have hardly anything to do with the situation as a whole, opportunities when a word, a glance, a sign of trust can achieve more than tedious, life- long efforts. Yes, that’s the way of it. Of course these opportunities do agree with the situation as a whole in so far as they are never exploited. But why are they not exploited, that’s what I always wonder.’ K. didn’t know. He did indeed realize that what Bürgel was talking about probably concerned him closely, but just now he had a great dislike for everything that concerned him closely. He moved his head a little way aside, as if he could thus leave the way clear for Bürgel’s questions to pass him by and not touch him any more. ‘It is,’ Bürgel went on, stretching his arms and yawning, in confusing contrast to the gravity of his words, ‘it is the secretaries’ constant complaint that they are obliged to hold most hearings in the village by night. And why do they complain of it? Because it puts too much strain on them? Because they’d rather use the night for sleeping? No, they definitely don’t complain of that. Of course there are both industrious and less industrious men among the secretaries, as everywhere, but none of them complains of being under excessive strain, certainly not in public. That is simply not our way. So far as that’s concerned, we see no difference between ordinary time and time spent working. We are strangers to such distinctions. So what do the secretaries have against hearings conducted by night? Is it perhaps consideration for the members of the public involved? No, that’s not it either. The secretaries are not at all considerate of those members of the public, although they are no more inconsiderate of the members of the public than they are of themselves, they are equally inconsiderate to both. And in fact this inconsiderate attitude, that is to say, the iron observance and performance of their duty, shows the greatest consideration that members of the public could wish for. Fundamentally—although a casual observer will not of course notice it—that is fully appreciated, and as in this case nocturnal hearings are particularly welcome to members of the public, there is no objection to nocturnal hearings in principle. So why don’t the secretaries like them?’ K. did not know the answer to that either; he knew so little about the subject that he couldn’t even tell whether Bürgel was asking a question seriously or only rhetorically. If you’d let me lie down in your bed, he thought, I’ll answer any questions you like at midday tomorrow, or even better in the evening. But Bürgel did not seem to be taking any notice of K., he was too interested in the question that he himself had just raised. ‘As far as I know, and from my own experience, the reservations entertained by the secretaries about nocturnal hearings are more or less as follows. Night is less suitable for negotiation with members of the public because it is difficult or actually impossible to maintain the official character of negotiations at night. That is not because of out- ward details; of course the formalities can be as strictly observed by night as by day, just as one likes. So that’s not it, but on the other hand official judgement suffers by night. One is instinctively inclined to judge things from a more private point of view then, the points advanced by members of the public seem to carry more weight than they should, consideration of the further situation of those members of the public, of their sufferings and sorrows, mingles with our assessment, where it does not belong. The requisite barrier between members of the public and officials, however flawlessly it may be present to outward appearance, is relaxed, and where usually only questions and answers are exchanged, which is just as it should be, a strange and entirely unsuitable exchange between the persons some- times seems to occur. So at least the secretaries say, and they are people whose profession means that they have the gift of an extraor- dinarily sensitive feeling for such things. But even they—and this is often discussed in our circles—even they notice little of those unfor- tunate influences during nocturnal hearings; on the contrary, they make great efforts from the first to counter them, and in the end they consider that they have done particularly good work. However, if you read the records later, you are often amazed by the weaknesses so clearly exposed. And it is these errors, made to the only partly justified advantage of the members of the public, which cannot be dealt with summarily in the usual way, at least not according to our regulations. Of course they may be corrected by a supervisory office, but that will be useful only to the law and cannot affect the person concerned for the worse. Wouldn’t you say that in such circumstances the complaints of the secretaries are highly justifiable?’ ... ‘However,’ said Bürgel, raising his face thoughtfully to the ceiling as if seeking in his memory for examples but failing to find any, ‘all the same, in spite of all the precautionary measures, there is an opportunity for members of the public to exploit this nocturnal weakness of the secretaries, always supposing that it is a weakness, for their own ends. To be sure it is a very rare opportunity, or more accurately I should say one that almost never comes. It consists in the arrival of the person concerned in the middle of the night, unannounced. You may be surprised that this happens so seldom, when it seems such an obvious thing to do. Well, you are not familiar with the way we go about things here. But you will have noticed the impenetrability of the official organization. However, that impenetrability in itself means that everyone who has any kind of request to make, or must be examined on some subject for other reasons, receives a summons at once, immediately, usually even before he has thought out his case, why, even before he knows about it. He will not be examined this time, usually he won’t be examined yet, generally the case has not reached that point, but he has the summons, which means that he can’t turn up announced and thus entirely by surprise. At most, he can come at the wrong time, when the date and hour of his summons will be pointed out to him, and then, if he comes back at the right time, as a rule he will be sent away, and there is no more difficulty; the summons in the member of the public’s hand and the note in the files are weapons used by the secretaries, and if not always quite adequate they are still strong. That applies, however, only to the secretary responsible for the case; anyone would still be at liberty to take the other secretaries by surprise at night. But hardly anyone ever will; there’s almost no point in it. First, anyone who did so would arouse the ire of the secretary responsible for the case. We secretaries may certainly not be jealous of each other where our work is concerned, each has only too great a workload to carry, we get more than enough of that, but in dealing with members of the public we cannot tolerate any interference with our responsibility. Many have lost a case because, when they thought they weren’t getting anywhere with the secretary responsible, they tried to slip past the network in the wrong way. Such attempts are in fact bound to fail because a secretary who is not responsible for a case, even if he is taken by surprise at night and feels inclined to help, can hardly intervene in it because he is not responsible, any more than any random attorney can, indeed much less so, for even if he might otherwise do something or other, since he knows the secret ways of the law far better than all those legal gentlemen, he simply doesn’t have any time for matters for which he is not responsible, he can’t spare a minute for them. So who, with these prospects in view, would spend his nights on the trail of secretaries not responsible for his case? And the members of the public are fully occupied in trying to comply with the summonses from and signals given by those who are responsible for their cases, as well as pursuing their usual professions. I mean fully occupied of course as members of the public would understand it, which of course is far from being the same as fully occupied in the sense in which the secretaries would do so.’ K. nodded with a smile. He thought he understood all about it, not because it troubled him but because he was now convinced that he would fall properly asleep in the next few minutes, and this time without any dream or other disturbance; between the secretaries responsible on one side and those not responsible on the other, and in view of the whole crowd of fully occupied members of the public, he would fall into a deep sleep and thus escape it all. By now he was so used to Bürgel’s quiet, self-satisfied voice, as he obviously endeavoured in vain to fall asleep himself, that it was more likely to send him to sleep than disturb his slumbers. Clatter, mill-wheel, clatter, he thought, clatter on for me. ‘So where,’ said Bürgel, two fingers toying with his lower lip, his eyes wide, craning his neck, as if he were approaching a delightful viewing-point after an arduous walk, ‘so where is that elusive opportunity I mentioned, the one that almost never comes? The secret lies in the way responsibility is regulated. For it is not possible, nor in a large and living organization can it be, for only a certain secretary to be responsible for every case. It is simply that one secretary has the main responsibility, but many others have responsibility, even if less responsibility, for certain parts of it. Who, however hard a worker, could accommodate all the papers relating to even the smallest incident on his desk? Even what I have said about the main responsibility is going too far. Is not the whole thing also contained in the smallest responsibility? Is not the ardour with which one approaches the case a crucial point? And is not that always the same, always present at full strength? There may be differences between the secretaries in everything, and there are countless such differences, but not in the matter of ardour, none of them will be able to hold back if he receives an invitation to take part in a case for which he has only the slightest responsibility. Outwardly, however, an ordered opportunity for negotiation must be created, and so a certain secretary comes to the fore where the members of the public are concerned, and it is to him that they must officially turn. However, he does not have to be the one who bears the greatest responsibility for the case; the organization and its particular needs at the time influence the decision here. Such is the state of affairs. And now, Mr Land Surveyor, judge what chance there is for a member of the public, through circumstances of some kind and despite the obstacles already described to you (which in general are perfectly adequate), to take a secretary with a certain responsibility for the case by surprise in the middle of the night after all. I suppose you haven’t thought of such a thing yet? I’m happy to believe you. But it isn’t necessary to think of it, because it almost never happens. What a strange little grain of matter, formed in a certain special way, how very small and clever such a member of the public must be if it’s to slip through such a perfect sieve. You think it can’t happen? You are right, it can’t. But then—and who can guarantee everything?—one night it does happen. To be sure, I know of no one among my acquaintances to whom it has happened, but that doesn’t prove much. By comparison with the numbers involved here, my own acquaintance is limited, and anyway it isn’t certain that a secretary to whom such a thing has happened will admit it. It is always a very personal matter, and to some extent carries the stigma of official shame. However, my experience may prove that it is such a rare event, really known only by rumour and with nothing else to con- firm it, that it would be going much too far to fear it. Even if it ever really happened you can—or so I should think—render it entirely harmless by proving, which is easily done, that there is no place for it in this world. Anyway, it is morbid to hide under the bedclothes for fear of such a thing, never venturing to look out. And even if that total improbability were suddenly to assume real form, is all lost? Far from it. The fact that all is lost is even more improbable than that most improbable of events. To be sure, if the member of the public is in the room, that is very bad. It inhibits you. How long will you be able to resist? you ask yourself. But you know there will be no resistance. You just have to picture the situation in the right way. There sits the member of the public, whom you have never seen before, whom you have always awaited, positively thirsting to see him, but whom you have always, and reasonably, considered inaccessible. His mere silent presence invites you to enter into his poor life, to move around there as if it were your own property, to feel sympathy for its vain demands. This invitation in the silence of the night is captivating. You accept it, and now you have in fact stopped being an official. It is a situation in which it will soon become impossible to refuse a request. Strictly speaking you are desperate, but even more strictly speaking you are very happy. Desperate because the defencelessness with which you sit there waiting for the member of the public’s request, knowing that once it is made you must grant it, even if, at least so far as you can see, it positively wrecks the official organization—well, I suppose it is the worst thing that can happen to you in practice. One reason above all—and apart from everything else—is that it entails your forcibly claiming a higher rank for your- self at this moment, higher than any you can conceive of. Our positions do not authorize us to grant requests such as those I am talking about, but what with the nocturnal proximity of the member of the public our official powers seem to grow, we pledge ourselves to do things outside our sphere of responsibility, indeed, we will even do them in practice. Like a robber in the forest, a member of the public surprising us by night forces us to make sacrifices of which we would never otherwise be capable—well, that’s how it is if the member of the public is still there, encouraging us and forcing us to do so and spurring us on, and we set it all in train half unconsciously. But how will it be later, when that’s all over, when the member of the public goes away, satisfied and free of care, and we are left alone, defenceless in the face of our abuse of office? It doesn’t bear thinking of. Yet all the same we are happy. How suicidal happiness can be! We could make an effort to keep the true situation secret from the member of the public. The member of the public himself will hardly notice anything of his own accord. As he sees it, he went into a room which wasn’t the one he wanted, probably quite by chance, tired out, disappointed, feeling dull and indifferent from weariness and disillusionment, he is sitting there knowing nothing and deep in thoughts, if he is thinking anything, of his mistake or his weariness. Couldn’t we leave it at that? No, we can’t. With the loquacity of the happy man, we must explain it all. Without sparing ourselves in the slightest, we must show at length what has happened and why, how extraordinarily rare and uniquely great the opportunity is, we must show how the member of the public who, with all the helplessness of which only a member of the public can be capable, has walked by chance into his opportunity, we must show him, Mr Land Surveyor, how the member of the public can now control everything if he wants to, and need do nothing but somehow or other make his request, there is a document for granting it already prepared, we say, ready to be handed to him —we must go into all that. It is a dark hour for an official. But when you have done that, Mr Land Surveyor, what’s most necessary has been done, and you must possess your soul in patience and wait.’

K. heard no more. He was asleep, remote from everything that was going on. His head, which had first been laid on his left arm as it held the bedpost above, had slipped off in his sleep and now hung free, sinking gradually lower, for the prop of his arm above it was no longer enough and K. instinctively created a new one by bracing his right hand on the blanket, by chance taking hold of Bürgel’s foot just under the bedclothes. Bürgel looked that way and let him hold the foot, though it was probably tiresome for him.

—Franz Kafka, The Castle, p. 228