Kafka’s The Bridge
Humanities 33, 2002, pp. 77-87 [German text added]
Die Brücke (1916)
Ich war steif und kalt, ich war eine Brücke, über einem Abgrund lag ich, diesseits waren die Fußspitzen, jenseits die Hände eingebohrt, in bröckelndem Lehm hatte ich mich festgebissen. Die Schöße meines Rockes wehten zu meinen Seiten. In der Tiefe lärmte der eisige Forellenbach. Kein Tourist verirrte sich zu dieser unwegsamen Höhe, die Brücke war in den Karten noch nicht eingezeichnet. So lag ich und wartete; ich mußte warten; ohne abzustürzen kann keine einmal errichtete Brücke aufhören Brücke zu sein. Einmal gegen Abend, war es der erste war es der tausendste, ich weiß nicht, meine Gedanken giengen immer in einem Wirrwarr, und immer immer in der Runde — gegen Abend im Sommer, dunkler rauschte der Bach, hörte ich einen Mannesschritt. Zu mir, zu mir. Strecke Dich Brücke, setze Dich in Stand, geländerloser Balken, halte den Dir Anvertrauten, die Unsicherheiten seines Schrittes gleiche unmerklich aus, schwankt er aber, dann gib Dich zu erkennen und wie ein Berggott schleudere ihn ans Land. Er kam, mit der Eisenspitze seines Stockes beklopfte er mich, dann hob er mit ihr meine Rockschöße und ordnete sie auf mir, in mein buschiges Haar fuhr er mit der Spitze und ließ sie, wahrscheinlich weit umherblickend, lange drin liegen. Dann aber — gerade träumte ich ihm nach über Berg und Tal — sprang er mit beiden Füßen mir mitten auf den Leib. Ich erschauerte in wildem Schmerz, gänzlich unwissend. Wer war es? Ein Kind? Ein Turner? Ein Waghalsiger? Ein Selbstmörder? Ein Versucher? Ein Vernichter? Und ich drehte mich um, ihn zu sehn. Brücke dreht sich um! Ich war noch nicht umgedreht, da stürzte ich schon, ich stürzte und schon war ich zerrissen und aufgespießt von den zugespitzten Kieseln, die mich so friedlich immer angestarrt hatten aus dem rasenden Wasser.
(Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente I:  ["Oktavheft B"], pp. 304f)
The winter of 1916-1917 was one of the most creative periods in Kafka’s life. After an unproductive period of almost two years, within a few months he wrote eighteen pieces of prose, varying in length between about one and ten pages. Twelve of these were published later (1919) in the collection A Country Doctor. Kafka’s personal situation at that time was characterized by his attempt to finally live independently of his family, by the breaking-off of his relations with his former fiancé Felice Bauer, by the war and the death of the Emperor Franz-Josef on 21 November 1916, and by a new literary endeavour to create shorter, self-contained texts, after two novels (The Missing Person [America], The Trial) had remained unfinished. Also, since the end of November, Kafka had acquired a tiny house of his own in the medieval Alchemistengäßchen, which his sister Ottla had rented for him. There he could spend the evening and the night writing completely undisturbed (even his family did not know of this) before returning to his apartment.
The short text of The Bridge (Die Brücke) deserves attention because it probably is the first of those created in the Alchemistengäßchen, written around the middle of December. One should, however, not go as far as Blake L. Spahr who sees the essence of Kafka’s works, his “message” expressed in The Bridge. As often in Kafka, although short, this work is quite complex and does not lend itself easily to an interpretation. This may also be the reason why comparatively few attempts have been made to expound its meaning.
1. The title
Before looking at the text itself it should be noted that it was left unpublished by Kafka, and that the title “The Bridge” was added by Max Brod and Hans Joachim Schoeps when it was included in their edition of Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (1931). Kafka’s titles often add a new dimension to the text that may be decisive for the interpretation, as in the case of Up in the Gallery where the title indicates that the two paragraphs comprising the text describe two different perspectives of the visitor “up in the gallery.” The titles that Brod has added are sometimes misleading. In Home-Coming (Heimkehr), for instance, the first words “I have returned (Ich bin zurückgekehrt)” clearly show that what follows is not the description of an emotional “home-coming” since the protagonist deliberatedly avoids expressions like “I have come home” or “I am back home.” In the case of The Bridge, the choice of the title would seem to be more appropriate since the words appear at the beginning of the text. However, even in that case the title may add a meaning to the text that Kafka did not intend.
This can be demonstrated by one of Kafka’s best known texts, Before the Law, which was first written as part of The Trial but then taken out of its context and published separately. At that point, Kafka added a title by “simply” taking the first words of the text. But in doing so he adds, in my view, a completely new dimension to the text. In the original context, the words “before the law” introduce a specific situation. The law is presupposed to be something physically present, and the attention of the reader is immediately drawn to the doorkeeper who stands before it, the man from the country who wants to enter it, and to how the relationship between the two develops. Also, in the discussion that follows between the priest and K., the rôles of the doorkeeper and the man are in the center. However, the title that Kafka has added indicates now that it is not the relationship between these two but the situation of being “before the law” that is central to the story. (Similarly, in Up in the Gallery, it is not the relationship between the director and the equestrienne but the situation “up in the gallery” that matters most.) Also, the three words “before the law”, as the title, are now separated from their context at the beginning of the text. They stand alone and have to be considered separately. What could they mean then? There is actually only one phrase in which this expression is normally used, namely the sentence: “Before the law all are equal.” Given the fact that Kafka often understands words very literally, almost physically, he must have been aware of the fact that, in sharp contrast to the statement that all are equal, the image implies the hierarchical structure of a feudal society where people stand before the throne of a king or before the judge sitting above them in the court (the latter word also indicating the link to the feudal tradition). Thus, the title indicates that the real problem is not whether the doorkeeper or the man is deluded or what the man could have done to be able to enter the law. The problem, rather, is that both accept that they are standing before the law when they should be within the law and protected by it, if the law were based on equality and justice.
In view of these problems it will be necessary to use the title The Bridge only as a convenient reference to the text but to ignore it with regard to the interpretation.
2. Kafka and Nietzsche
In spite of what has just been discussed, there can be no doubt that the bridge is the central image of the text. The first words: “I was stiff and cold, I was a bridge, I lay over a ravine.” immediately remind us of a well-known passage in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarasthustra:
”Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman - a rope over an abyss. [...] What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going. [...] I love him who lives for knowledge and who wants knowledge that one day the Superman may live. And thus he wills his own downfall."
We know that Kafka owned a copy of Zarathustra and that he read it as early as 1900 when he was 17. It is, therefore, difficult to assume that Kafka was not aware of the above passage when he wrote The Bridge. The word “bridge” is a central image in both texts and the later reference to the bridge as actually a “beam” could echoe Nietzsche’s “rope.” Most of all, in both texts, a close connection is established between “knowledge” and the “downfall.” But, as for the rest, Kafka’s text can be seen as almost a parody of Nietzsche. Kafka does not say anything about the two sides of the abyss which are connected by the bridge, so the contrast between animal and Superman and the “going-across” towards the latter, which is decisive for Nietzsche’s metaphor of the bridge, completely disappears. Whereas Zarathustra goes into the mountains where he has “the enjoyment of his spirit and his solitude and he did not weary of it for ten years,” and while his world is full of atavisms, Kafka, perhaps deliberately and ironically, points to the realities of modern life where bridges are useless unless traced on maps and serving the interests of tourism: “No tourist strayed to this impassable height, the bridge was not yet traced on any map So I lay and waited; I could only wait.” While the bridge waits for someone to come, it is easy to imagine what Zarathustra/Nietzsche would have thought of swarms of tourists breaking into his solitude.
The sharpest contrast to Zarathustra can be found at the end of Kafka’s text. For Zarathustra, “knowledge” is a step on the way to the Superman, and so is the “downfall” (The German word “Untergang,” which Nietzsche uses here, can also be translated as “[sun]set” or “down-going.”) For Kafka, however, the wish to see and know is destructive: “And I turned around so as to see him. A bridge to turn around! I had not yet turned quite around when I already began to fall, I fell and in a moment I was torn and transpierced by the sharp rocks...”
3. The structure of the text
Before discussing further details, a brief look at the structure of the text will be necessary. The manuscript has no paragraphs but the later editors have divided it into three. A triadic structure is also assumed by a number of scholars. The question, however, is where exactly the new sections begin and how they can be characterized. The beginning of the second section clearly starts with the words “It was toward evening one day.” In the section that precedes it, the situation of the bridge is described and the conditions are set (“Without falling, no bridge, once spanned, can cease to be a bridge.”) Interestingly, the whole story is told in the past tense. This cannot be understood as meaning that the narrator tells about a past experience, since he is destroyed at the end. It should be seen as the beginning of an imagined situation, a phantasy or dream, in which the narrator imagines what it would mean to be in the situation of a bridge high up in the mountains. Clayton Koelb claims that the person and the bridge remain separated and that the story “insists on the object-quality of the bridge, to the degree that the first-person narrator (that is the bridge) refers to him/herself in the third person when adverting to his/her bridge-function: ‘Die Brücke war in den Karten noch nicht eingezeichnet.’” However, it seems to me that, in this first section, the narrator still sets the conditions for his specific situation as a bridge - and so can still refer to it from an authorial perspective - before he fully identifies himself with the bridge until its final destruction.
The part that follows describes what happened “one day.” Most scholars seem to assume that there are two further stages or sections in this part. My suggestion is that there are actually two stages which should be distinguished but that no clear dividing line can be drawn between them. The first and central stage in the middle of the text is characterized by expressions like: “I cannot tell--my thoughts were always in confusion and perpetually moving in a circle. (ich weiß nicht, meine Gedanken giengen immer in einem Wirrwarr, und immer immer in der Runde) ” or: “I was just following him in thought [literally: “in my dreams”] over mountain and valley (gerade träumte ich ihm nach über Berg und Tal).” At the second and last stage, however, the protagonist directly collides with reality and suffers destruction. The encounter with reality could begin with the words: “He came, he tapped me with the iron point of his stick... (Er kam, mit der Eisenspitze seines Stockes beklopfte er mich...)” and it definitely takes place when “he jumped with both feet on the middle of my body. I shuddered with wild pain, not knowing what was happening. (sprang er mit beiden Füßen mir mitten auf den Leib. Ich erschauerte in wildem Schmerz, gänzlich unwissend.)” But the last phrase of this sentence (“not knowing what was happening”) should belong to the previous stage and so does the: “I was just following him in thought [in my dreams] over mountain and valley” that is inserted at the beginning of the sentence. We thus have a gradual transition between these two stages, indicating that the person/bridge only reluctantly leaves the world of dreams and phantasy and finally confronts reality.
4. “But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.”
The first section describes an imagined situation and its strict limitations. Still it can hardly be called a “self-estrangement” and the “painful experience of a transformation into an object”, as Gerhard Neumann does, or a “desperate situation,” as Reinhard Meurer claims. The situation: “My toes on one side, my fingers clutching the other, I had clamped myself fast into the crumbling clay. ("diesseits waren die Fußspitzen, jenseits die Hände eingebohrt, in bröckelndem Lehm hatte ich mich festgebissen.”) is surely not a comfortable one from a human perspective, but we should not forget that the person is thought to be a bridge. The sentence can be seen as an expression of his determination to hold fast to the task he has chosen and to firmly commit himself to it in spite of adversities and possible dangers, like an employee wholly dedicating himself to serving his company (“The tails of my coat fluttered at my sides. [Die Schöße meines Rockes wehten zu meinen Seiten.]”) His task is frustrating, though, and requires a high degree of patience.
With the words “It was toward evening one day (Einmal gegen Abend)” something new sets in. “Einmal” reminds us of the typical beginning of fairy tales: “Es war einmal (Once upon a time)” and “am Abend” conjures up a romantic mood, as in the last sentence of An Imperial Message quoted above as the title of this section. Originally and logically, “once” refers to a singular event and this actually is the case at the end of the story when the realm of phantasy in the middle section is left (although there, too, we are, of course, still on the level of fiction or imagination) and the first encounter of the bridge with a man leads to its destruction once and for all. In the fairy tale-like world of dreams and phantasy, however, the event can be imagined again and again (“my thoughts were [...] perpetually moving in a circle”). The loss of the sense of time is also indicated by the question concerning this specific evening: “was it the first, was it the thousandth? (war es der erste war es der tausendste)” and the romantic mood is underlined by the further specification “toward evening in summer (gegen Abend im Sommer)” and “the roar of the stream had grown deeper (dunkler rauschte der Bach),” sultry summer nights, darkness (“dunkler”,) and “Rauschen” being typical elements of romantic poetry. That the bridge “heard the sound of a human step [better: “the step of a man”] (hörte ich einen Mannesschritt)” while listening to the “roar of the stream” could, at this point, be easily explained as a hallucination. Even at the very end of this stage, when a direct encounter with reality occurs, the bridge tries to flee into a romantic dream that would deny the presence of the man who is entering upon the bridge: “I was just following him in thought [in my dreams] over mountain and valley (gerade träumte ich ihm nach über Berg und Tal).”
5. Male or Female?
Ruth V. Gross and Clayton Koelb have rightly pointed to the male/female and sexual imagery in The Bridge. What is most conspicuous and remarkable about it is the fact that the identity of the bridge (and of the man who comes to the bridge) can no longer be described in terms of the traditional stereotypes as being either masculine or feminine. The word “Brücke” is feminine grammatically and when referring to it by a pronoun “sie (she)” should be used which Kafka avoids, however. On the other hand, the image of a bridge usually is one of 'masculine' strength. But when Kafka refers to it as a flexible “beam,” a 'feminine' quality seems to be indicated. Koelb, however, interprets the same “beam” as a phallic image. But he also rightly points out that the “man” with his (phallic) stick makes the bridge 'feminine' again, especially when their first encounter is described: “He plunged the point of his stick into my bushy hair and let it lie there for a long time (in mein buschiges Haar fuhr er mit der Spitze und ließ sie [...] lange drin liegen.“ Twice the narrator’s “coattails (Rockschöße)” are mentioned, clearly indicating the garment of a man. Interestingly, however, the two words of which the German compound consists, both refer to a female: “Rock (skirt),” which, ambiguously, can also mean the garment of a man as in our text and “Schoß (womb, lap).” As Koelb puts it: “The story does not allow the reader to decide positively whether a male bridge is having metaphoric intercourse with a female landscape (“über einem Abgrund lag ich”) or a female bridge is having metaphoric intercourse with a male traveller. One is forced to assume that the text wants it both ways and that this bridge links not just two sides of a geographical gap but the two genders as well.”
Also the various attitudes of the bridge described in the text show the same ambiguity. On the one hand, they can be associated with stereotypes of the male or masculine (“I was stiff and cold [Ich war steif und kalt];” “Straighten yourself [Strecke Dich];”) or with - 'masculine' - activity (“like a mountain god hurl him across to land [wie ein Berggott schleudere in ans Land]”). On the other hand, 'feminine' elements are equally present: “So I lay and waited; I could only wait. (So lag ich und wartete; ich mußte warten;)” “hold up the passenger entrusted to you. If his steps are uncertain, steady them unobtrusively (halte den Dir Anvertrauten, die Unsicherheiten seines Schrittes gleiche unmerklich aus).” Even the man who comes to the bridge shows traditional feminine qualities when “he lifted my coattails [...] and put them in order upon me (dann hob er mit ihr meine Rockschöße und ordnete sie auf mir.)”
6. The destructiveness of knowledge
What brings about the sudden change at the end of the story is not easy to determine. Is it caused by a sudden intrusion of reality into the world of his dreams? Is he so much carried away by his emotions that the simple, though first, passing of a person over the bridge appears to him as a violent act (“I shuddered with wild pain [Ich erschauerte in wildem Schmerz]”)? Has his phantasy carried him so far that he imagines the wildest possibilities: “Who was it? A child? A gymnast? A daredevil? A suicide? A tempter? A destroyer? (Wer war es? Ein Kind? Ein Turner? Ein Waghalsiger? Ein Selbstmörder? Ein Versucher? Ein Vernichter?)”? In any case, what finally leads to the destruction of the bridge is the wish to know, a reference both to the Biblical Fall, caused by eating from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9,) and to the destructiveness inherent in knowledge that Kafka, in my view, points out here. Similarly, in The Silence of the Sirens, the Sirens would have been annihilated if they “had possessed consciousness” and Ulysses is only saved because “when they were nearest to him he knew of them no longer.” The positive possibilities emphasized in The Silence of the Sirens may also be indicated in The Bridge: That the man coming to the bridge seems to be “looking far around” [my translation] resembles Ulysses’ attitude “who fixed his gaze on the distance” and that the Sirens wanted “to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses’ great eyes” corresponds to the bridge’s “following him in thought [in dreams] over mountain and valley.”
One reading of the text might be that Kafka here shows what is essential to the human condition: the need to accept the limitedness of human possibilities, which then, however, allows a person to discover within himself a whole range of possibilities, including all those traditionally associated with the seemingly mutually exclusive stereotypes of the masculine and the feminine.
 See Gerhard Neumann, “Die Arbeit im Alchemistengäßchen (1916-1917,” in: Kafka-Handbuch, ed. by H. Binder (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), pp. 313f.
 See ibid.
 Hartmut Binder, Kafka-Kommentar zu sämtlichen Erzählungen (München: Winkler, 1977), pp. 192f.
 Blake L. Spahr, “Franz Kafka: Die Brücke und der Abgrund,” in: Franz Kafka, ed. by H. Politzer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973), pp. 309-330 (“Franz Kafka: The Bridge and the Abyss,” in: Modern Fiction Studies 8 (1962), pp. 3-15.)
 Cf. Klaus-Peter Philippi, Reflexion und Wirklichkeit. Untersuchungen zu Kafka’s Roman “Das Schloß” (Tübingen, 1965), pp. 52f.
 Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. by N. N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 445. Similarly, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger suppresses his emotions by referring to his home-town as his “point of departure” (Death in Venice, Tristan, Tonio Kröger, trans. by H. T. Lowe-Porter [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973], p. 162.)
 Cf. Gerhard Schepers, “Images of Amae in Kafka - with special reference to Metamorphosis, in: Humanities 15 (1980), pp. 73f.
 If not mentioned otherwise, all translations of the text are quoted from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. by N. N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 411f (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.) The German text is quoted from Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente, ed. by Malcolm Pasley (Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 1993), vol. I:  ["Oktavheft B"], pp. 304f.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarasthustra, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 43f.
 Jürgen Born, Kafkas Bibliothek. Ein beschreibendes Verzeichnis (Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 1990), p. 119.
 Hartmut Binder, “Leben und Persönlichkeit Franz Kafkas,” in: Kafka-Handbuch, ed. by H. Binder (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), vol. I, p. 251.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarasthustra, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 39.
 Cf. Gerhard Neumann, “Die Arbeit im Alchemistengäßchen (1916-1917,” in: Kafka-Handbuch, ed. by H. Binder (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), p. 335. Reinhard Meurer, Franz Kafka. Erzählungen (München: Oldenbourg, 1984), pp. 68-70.
 Meurer, however, understands the story in this way and, therefore, calls the end highly absurd (op. cit., p.68)
 Cf. Christoph Bezzel, Natur bei Kafka. Studien zur Ästhetik des poetischen Zeichens (Nürnberg: Hans Carl, 1964), p. 79; Gerhard Neumann, “Die Arbeit im Alchemistengäßchen (1916-1917,” in: Kafka-Handbuch, ed. by H. Binder (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), p. 335.
 Clayton Koelb, “The Turn of the Trope: Kafka’s ‘Die Brücke,’” in: Modern Austrian Literature 22, No. 1 (1989), p. 58.
 Franz Kafka, “An Imperial Message,” in: Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. by N. N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 5.
 Gerhard Neumann, “Die Arbeit im Alchemistengäßchen (1916-1917,” in: Kafka-Handbuch, ed. by H. Binder (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979), p. 335.
 Reinhard Meurer, Franz Kafka. Erzählungen (München: Oldenbourg, 1984), p. 68.
 Ruth V, Gross, “Fallen Bridge, Fallen Woman, Fallen Text, “ in: Newsletter of the Kafka-Society of America 5, No. 1 (1981), pp. 15-24; Clayton Koelb, “The Turn of the Trope: Kafka’s ‘Die Brücke,’” in: Modern Austrian Literature 22, No. 1 (1989), p. 61-65.
 Op. cit., p. 61.
 Op. cit., pp. 61f.
 My translation.
 The Silence of the Sirens is quoted from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. by N. N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 431f (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.) For a detailed discussion see my “The Dissolution of Myth in Kafka’s Prometheus and The Silence of the Sirens,” in: Humanities 18 (1984), pp. 109-119.