Taking the measure of the incommensurable

Architectural representation of the improbable

Authored by: Louise Pelletier

The Routledge Companion on Architecture, Literature and The City

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472482730
eBook ISBN: 9781315613154
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315613154-2

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Abstract

In The Great Wall of China, a short story published posthumously in 1931, Franz Kafka explains that when the wall was being built, some speculations arose about the purpose of such a gigantic construction. According to the narrator, an old man from a southern province who claims to have worked on the colossal structure, various hypotheses were put forward, from political reasons to spiritual quests, evoking even the biblical story of a failed attempt to reach heaven. If the Babylonian tower had failed to reach its goal, a scholar explained, it was due to the weakness of the foundations and he suggested, “the Great Wall alone would provide for the first time in the history of mankind a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel.” 1 Before its construction began, China was a boundless country where time was extended in such a way that the present of Peking was “the historical past of the south.” Thus, the king endeavoured to establish a unifying link throughout the territory that would enable him to traverse “the souls of almost all the provinces,” 2 – a boundary that would unite the country under a common name – making the half-circle of the wall a spiritual foundation for the new tower. Hence for Kafka, the building of this gigantic infrastructure and the unification of a territory symbolized the dream of a universal language that would ultimately be attained by the technological achievement of its construction (Figure 1.1).

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