Naked Singularity Big Read: Before the Law

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

I’d like to suggest that this weekend, as an adjunct to the Naked Singularity Big Read, you have a look at Kafka’s very short story, “Before the Law,” (which is actually taken from The Trial) and, if possible, Jacques Derrida’s essay thereof, also titled “Before the Law.” (The Kafka should be easy to locate on the Web; for the Derrida, you might want to visit your local library. It’s collected in Acts of Literature.)

What made me think of this essay was a quote from Garth Risk Hallberg’s profile of De La Pava:

In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”

Compare this to what Derrida writes in “Before the Law”:

There is a singularity about relationship to the law, a law of singularity which must come into contact with the general or universal essence of the law without ever being able to do so.

Aside from the obvious use of singularity (is De La Pava a fan of Derrida?), what strikes me about this quote is how both De La Pava and Derrida are positing the law as this ideal system, more of an aspiration toward perfection than anything humans might actually achieve. When Derrida discusses the law in the essay, there are overtones of the metaphor’s relationship to language: that is, language bears a similar relationship to reality as does our law to the “universal essence of the law.” Both are systems created by humans to mimic the perfection that we find in the “real” world.

So, in other words, again we’re being pushed toward notions of perfection and singularity, as well as being warned off with the idea that such perfection sits in a dangerous and obscure place that we do not have access to. I think, as A Naked Singularity continues to expand, we will see these themes played out.

Readers might also have a look at the last chapter of Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee, which is a reworking of Kafka’s “Before the Law.”

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

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My problem with the “law”–and I suppose I mean this not simply in the “local” sense of NYS and NYC legalities and illegalities, but rather in the (slightly) larger sense of “law” in terms of US civil and criminal law–is that it is, like so much else we have to deal with, man-made, and man-altered. The “law” is inherently political to me, period. While I’m not here to advocate for “lawlessness” (whatever that might mean), I find it hard to conceive of someone seeing the “law” as beautiful, or perfect, or even nearing perfection. I happen to know (from hanging out at my local pub) a Manhattan public defender. He is one of the most admirable human beings I know. I asked him some time ago (before this read) what he thought of the “law.” His answer (and I am of course paraphrasing a long, slightly drunken discourse we had late one night) was that he admires the structure of the law–to expand: he thinks the structure is not just flawed, but basically f**cked, but it is still an intricate structure. He talked about viewing, seeing it, speaking it, reading it, hearing it, feeling it…as a living, breathing, amorphous but sometimes tangible thing that still somehow remains just out of reach. Of course I know the interviews I’ve read with de la Pava are not necessarily unedited, freewheeling drunken discourses (now THAT is an interview I would LOVE to read), and while I admire him and (so far) this book tremendously–I admire him as a writer and as someone who has obviously committed his life to being a public defendant, and loves it–I suppose I’m finding some of the quotations above (including Derrida), some of the ideas I’m feeling seep through in A Naked Singularity, and the idea of the “law” itself, a bit much to take too seriously. Let’s face it: there is no one “law”– even “the law” itself, as a concept, is sort of like the concept of “time.” There is no external (or eternal) evidence of its actual existence, rather they are both man-made attempts to try to harness its own fear of the unknown and the (perhaps) unknowable.

I’m realizing this is probably reading like an unhinged rant…I am enjoying this book a lot, though I can’t yet put my finger on why. I think it has to do with Casi’s narrative voice, which I’m finding purely delightful. I’m also curious at certain gaps, which probaly no one else is even caring about: for instance, we have no sense AT ALL of the apartment Casi lives in. We know his keys, basically, but that’s about it. And yet…and yet, and yet: I feel like I can see the apartment building he lives in. The secondary characters, so far, are a total gas. I love the dialogue, and the long, unhinged, brilliantly paced monologues. The drug story is fantastic. It’s totally “unrealistic” as a monologue, and yet, like Pinter, for instance, or DeLillo, in terms of “speech,” it feels completely true.

I guess what I might trying to communicate here is that I don’t exactly see “the law” as a metaphysical construct we have to overcome, or try to understand, or aspire to integrate into our…gulp…souls…Whereas, in Kafka, “the law” never feels like statutes to me, created by men/women, transgressed by men/women, policed by men/women…rather, in K, “the law” feels like one more metaphysical uncertainty, like life, death, “meaning,”–I feel the terrible grip of the great uncertainties/unknowables when I read Kafka on “the law”…in ANS so far, I don’t feel those terrible uncertainties/unknowables–at least not with regard to the obvious fetish Casi and de la Pava have with “the law”–which is totally local, arbitrary, and inherently unfair.

I’m sensing someone wanting to protest with a comparison of the law to, say, mathematics, but I hope that if the urge is there, you will see how untenable that metaphorical relationship is…or maybe it’s not untenable…maybe math, too, is just another instance of mankind “making” (up) something to try and deal with uncertainty, the Great Uncertainty.

Anyway, I AM ENJOYING THIS BOOK! I’ll be curious to see if I can articulate better when I’m through why exactly that is.

And I want to disclaimer this again by reiterating: I have great admiration, based on what (little) I know about him/it so far, of de la Pava, of Casi, of this book…

Once this post got me thinking of Kafka, this bit on page 385 seems it could have been lifted in full from “The Trial”:

“When I went back into the courtroom to get my bag all the court officers were gone and the door was locked. I went out through the sneaky door judges use to enter the courtroom. Beyond that door was a maze of hallways leading to a slew of doors but no magic EXIT sign in sight.
I moved briskly with a determined gait as if I knew perfectly well where I was going. After making a couple of ill-advised turns, I was now irredeemably lost and couldn’t have retraced my steps had I fervently desired. I started opening doors at random without succor. Twice I opened the door to courtrooms where jurors were hearing evidence. The doors were supposed to have goddamn plaques detailing what was inside but they didn’t. When I came across the plaques they were bunched up on the ground, in a corner, next to a dropcloth and a can of paint. What evil genius had created these catacombs? And for what nefarious purpose?”

[…] This is also where Casi’s narrative begins to seriously break down: for instance, the strange, short chapter covering pages 406-408, where it’s not entirely clear that Casi is talking to Conley till a few paragraphs in. And then Casi’s still-stranger attempt at a confession, which ends in a surreal pitch for a fictitious HBO show called Clerical Confessions, loosely playing off of Cab Confessions. (Again resonances with “Before the Law.”) […]


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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