False Alarm

By Jacob Wood

The question of agency (that is, what are we to do?), in its applicability to the plethora of social issues confronting us, cannot find its response in the antinomy of the power to act benevolently or to act malevolently.  These responses are moral responses.  Herein we find no ethical experience whatsoever, simply a directive, “you must do such-and-such.”  But, perhaps, if there is one such example of a truly ethical experience, the question of agency will gain clarity.  In Kafka’s A Country Doctor we find the content of one such example.

Upon being summoned to treat an ailing patient upwards of ten miles away, the country doctor commences his “urgent journey[1]” in the dead of a winter snow storm.  Without a team of horses but in possession of a gig, the doctor obtains a team of horses from another man (the groom) who asks for his servant (Rose) in payment.  This doctor, early in Kafka’s short, is to be seen as a benevolent actor.  He fulfills this category insofar as he treats his patients while being “…badly paid and yet generous and helpful to the poor.[2]  Despite the initial rejection of the grooms offer, the doctor, in his call (his duty) to benevolent action, must leave Rose behind to be the victim of the groom’s devices, his patient takes precedence.

The horses, now a symbol of the power of action, drive him to the house of his ailing patient almost instantaneously.  But, during treatment, all control of the horses is lost as they break free from their reins and poke their heads into the patient’s room through the windows.  Now, the only means to return to Rose is lost.  Duty’s unintended consequences are manifest.  Even in pure benevolence the action cannot yield perfection.  To add insult to injury, it is at this point that the doctor discovers that the patient is past helping.  That is, the entire trip is a false alarm.

It is the false alarm that elicits an action (or more properly, inaction) that defies the categories of benevolence and malevolence.  The doctor’s action cannot be benevolent, for he has not helped anyone, the patient will die.  Additionally, it would be unfair to call such an action malevolent, for the doctor has carried out his duty to the utmost, moving at all costs to save his patient.  It is in the space of impotence that the doctor finds himself; he is incapable of either benevolence or malevolence. 

The passivity of impotence contains the locus of truly ethical experience, wherein the doctor remains in the power to not act.  To close the story, both the patient and his family turn on the doctor, stripping him of his cloths and leaving him to die.  It is in this state that the doctor escapes, incapable of even reacquiring his fur coat.  The doctor, no longer constituted in the categories of moral action, finds ethical experience in the nakedness (quite literally) of the action of inaction.  His team of horses (the symbol of power of action), by now completely out of his control, move but go nowhere.  The doctor will persist in ethical nakedness, never to be benevolent or malevolent again, for he cannot return home with a team of horses that move but do not go anywhere.  Kafka writes, “A false alarm on the night bell once answered – it cannot be made good, not ever.[3]

                Emerson finds in the space of the power to not act the exposure of the truly inadequate nature of the antinomy between benevolence and malevolence.  He writes that, in people like the doctor, “…in their unconcealed dissatisfaction, they expose our poverty…[4]” Some may object that in passive inaction, in remaining in the power to not act we will grow old and useless.  Some may also object that we who persist in the naked ethical experience of impotence are merely persisting in sloth.  Emerson finds sufficient responses for both criticisms.  As in the example of a false alarm, the philanthropist’s action is an action without any aim, a “life without love.[5]  Emerson will wait (this is not sloth); he will persist in truly naked ethical experience that exposes the inadequacy of action without purpose.

                The agency of impotence, in its applicability to so many social issues, is in many regards an aesthetic agency.  People who only act insofar as they remain in inaction are those who love the nakedness of ethical experience, who love the nakedness of a nature devoid of the additional capacity for politics, or as Emerson articulates, lovers of the Beauty of Earth.  They find in this nakedness sufficiency and even the good life.  They refuse to engage in the fulmination of the debates we see televised, the propaganda of political talk and the stigmatization of unrelated words.  In his poem Earth-song Emerson articulates a rejection of moral responses to agency upon learning of the possibility of an ethical experience (the experience of “Earth”):

“When I heard the Earth-song,

I was no longer brave;

My avarice cooled

Like lust in the chill of the grave[6]

[1] Kafka, Franz.  “A Country Doctor.”   Collected Stories.  Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir.  New York, NY: Everyman’s

Library.  P.164.

[2] Ibid., P.167.

[3] Ibid., P.170.

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “The Transcendentalist.”  Essay and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Publishing.  P.106.

[5] Ibid., P.108.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “The Earth-song.”  Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  New York, NY:  Barnes

                and Noble Publishing.  P.448.


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