This is not sentimentalizing about the “dignity of labor.” It is saying that a culture is hardly a culture at all when it does not provide for for the most sophisticated training in the fundamental arts of life: farming, cooking, dining, dressing, furnishing, and love-making. Where these arts are not cultivated with devotion and skill, time to spare and money to spend are useless. The shops are empty of all but trash, thrown together by slaves working joylessly for cash with one eye on the clock. Thus there are virtually no jobs to be had for those who delight in expert workmanship in producing the necessities of everyday life. The jet aircraft and scientific instruments are marvelous, but houses, cars, fabrics, bathtubs, carpeting, jewelry, suits, chinaware, beds, and lighting fixtures are simply phenomenal failures of human imagination. (Incidentally, if you want truly elegant glassware for the kitchen - jars, funnels, decanters, bottles - buy from a dealer in laboratory equipment).
Kafka clearly wants us to think about our relationship with the opportunity, with the option of giving up; or to the giving up which turning back, or blocking our own way, can sometimes entail. And about the way the idea of giving up figures in our lives, as a perpetual lure and an insistent fear. The giving up that involves leaving ourselves out of what we had wanted, or thought we had wanted. The giving up that is linked to a sense of impossibility, or of possibilities running out, of coming to the end of something. Of needing to exempt oneself. Excluding oneself – perhaps because one lacks the wherewithal or the know-how or the courage or the luck – from a project one had taken to be one’s own. ‘A courageous person,’ Jonathan Lear has suggested, ‘has a proper orientation towards what is shameful and what is fearful.’ We tend to think of giving up, in the ordinary way, as a lack of courage, as an improper or embarrassing orientation towards what is shameful and fearful. That is to say we tend to value, and even idealise, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them. Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not; giving up doesn’t usually make us proud of ourselves; it is a falling short of our preferred selves; unless, of course, it is the sign of an ultimate and defining realism, of what we call ‘knowing our limitations’. Giving up, in other words, is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else. It is worth wondering to whom we believe we have to justify ourselves when we are giving up, or when we are determinedly not giving up.