Though I’ve read it dozens of times I still go back to those three paragraphs and that single page of Kafka’s short story The New Advocate. I revere those beguiling sentences and consider endless hermeneutic possibilities, but always find myself asking: Why should a warhorse become a lawyer?
The horse was once Alexander the Great’s favourite battle-steed, Bucephalus. Yet Kafka reimagines the creature as an advocate in the courts of justice. “We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus,” says the narrator, who is someone working within the profession and witness to the new appointment. There’s an oratorial aspect to the story, too, as if the narrator or speaker is standing to make a speech with a tone of approval. “Given the present order of society,” he says, Bucephalus is in a difficult position,
and that he deserves for that reason, as well as on account of his historical importance, at least a sympathetic reception … [I]t really is best to do what Bucephalus has done, and immerse oneself in the books of the law.
The story lends itself easily to allegorical interpretation. Some critics have argued that Bucephalus might be a metaphor for writing, that for Kafka writing was always at risk of losing its vitality and ferocity. Others have stated that, because Bucephalus is dramatically out-of-place, seemingly at odds with his setting, he stands for Jewishness.
But there’s always this question of “might” (or “could”) with Kafka, for he is the poet of modality, of verbs of possibility. As in modal logic, truth value depends on accessible worlds, but in Kafka, those worlds need only be accessible in our imagination to be true. Thus, Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find himself turned into a giant bug while still in bed, and Josef K, also still in bed “with his head on the pillow,” discovering he’s under arrest. Both openings are notably threshold experiences. They occur after sleep but before being fully awake and out in the world. No wonder it’s important for Josef K to get a clear picture of his position, which repeatedly eludes him.
But Bucephalus is not suffering from metamorphosis, and unlike Josef K, he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak. Nor is The New Advocate a literary act of magical realism. It’s more a case of historical transposition, where the out-of-placeness of Bucephalus comes to represent the rise and fall of empires, or more elusively, the epochal shifts of history.
Writing of Napoleon – a megalomaniac like Alexander of Macedon who, in exaggerations and frenzies of power, sought to be feared – Hegel famously said:
I saw the Emperor – this world soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.
The horse is given its role in the mega-machismo of the military leader. Homer said of Achilles that he had “immortal steeds,” but it’s the charioteer who confers this supernaturalism on them, for without their master they stand mournful and heart-stricken, “their manes sweeping the ground.” Here’s the thrust of The New Advocate. Bucephalus is now without rider. He has been transposed. The natural order of things has been disrupted. As Ulrich Raulff observes of Kafka’s story in Farewell to the Horse, “the time for heroes is over and with it that of warhorses.” Perhaps battles are now to be fought in the courts, as Dickens also articulated satirically in Bleak House with the interminable court proceedings of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
It’s astonishing that Kafka wrote The New Advocate during World War One (between November 1916 and June 1917, according to Malcolm Pasley). Biographer Reiner Stach writes that “Kafka’s notes reveal little about the visible aspects of the war … [H]e saw no need to chronicle what he witnessed.” And in a diary entry for August 2, 1914, Kafka noted: “Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon.” In his cynicism, Kafka is perhaps closer to us. But our age has no time for allegory.
Kafka was a clerk at a workers’ accident insurance institute, and once said to his friend Max Brod of the injured workers seeking compensation: “How modest these men are; instead of storming the Institute and smashing it to pieces, they come and beg” (this appears in Brod’s biography of Kafka). I cannot escape the idea that the absurdity of a war horse becoming a lawyer is also a demotion of masculinity, a demystifying of the megalomania of the male ego. And yet Bucephalus receives a sympathetic reception. Such is a male-dominated profession, or indeed world.
But the absurdity of the situation remains, which I take to be the persistence of something obsolete. Hasn’t it had its day already? Why still here? In our “present order of society” we rightly describe certain outdated expressions of maleness as “toxic,” in the hope of categorically banishing them once and for all. And yet Kafka’s story seems to suggest that there’s no clean break between generations or between eras, that all reality cannot be done away with so as to create another one. As Samir Puri argues in The Great Imperial Hangover, “there are no full stops in history. One epoch does not stop before another one starts.” It would be hasty to think otherwise.