Franz Kafka

Scott Fuller reporting…

Franz Kafka is the champion of the Humanities. He is the reason
why the Humanities must be preserved, for both the sheer delight in his
deceptively shallow prose and for his demonstration of the ability of
fiction to impart truths and ask questions which may be impossible to
articulate in any straightforward or ‘serious’ manner. The very thing
which is continually under question for any reader of Kafka is the
nagging belief that there is something at work in his writing,
operating behind the scenes, which is never announced nor proclaimed by
Kafka himself. Is it possible that he is just ‘telling us a story’,
giving us some simple prose to waste away a few boring hours, and not
demanding anything of us other than the most basic ability to read? My
belief is that only a moron could arrive at such a conclusion, but if
pressed for definitive proof, I confess that I may indeed stumble and
begin talking out of my anus.

The only reason that I can come up with as to why Kafka is so
mysterious a writer is by way of contrast with another writer whose
name is not uncommonly associated with Kafka’s — Albert Camus (and the
existentialist movement in general). In Camus, be it The Outsider, The Plague, or The Fall,
there is no doubt that he is addressing The Big Themes. He practically
yells out to the reader that he is dealing with questions of the most
utmost importance: The death of God, Man’s response to an Absurd
universe, the grounds of political action in a valueless world, etc,
etc. There can be no mistaking the ‘themes’ of Camus. In contrast,
Kafka, and whatever ‘themes’ he is trying to present, only emerge in
the mind of the reader gradually, sometimes even hesitantly. The
experience of reading his work can make one suspicious of one’s own
schizophrenia — always trying to read between the lines, placing
perhaps undue importance upon certain apparently insignificant events,
seeing continuities and connections between seemingly disparate and
unrelated situations. Another major contrast that can be drawn with
Camus is that it is possible to interpret some of Kafka’s works as
addressing the very same themes that Camus is dealing with, but without
any of Camus’ certitude – the incredulity of belief in the
transcendent, the abstract awareness that there is nothing which lies
beyond the veil of appearance, and the ridiculous pursuit of such
fantasies when the possibility of success has been curtailed at the
very outset. It is indeed possible to understand Kafka through the
filters of such themes, but there is at least the space for lingering
doubt in the mind of the reader that perhaps Kafka, unlike Camus, is
doing none of these things.

Turning to The Trial, we have what is perhaps the only
really ‘complete’ novel that Kafka ever wrote. As some of you may know,
the notorious ‘ending’ of The Castle was the beginning of another
sentence. The fact that that book did not ‘end’ in a conventional
sense, at least for me, does not even register as a negative. I mention
the relative ‘completeness’ of The Trial because it seems that if one were recommend a novel by Kafka to the uninitiated, The Trial
would be the best one to begin with; only after this novel, I think,
would my remarks about the fact of the ‘incomplete’ nature of The Castle be understandable. Now although there are significant overlaps in both the structure and the mood of the two books, The Trial
is perhaps the less abstract of the two. This is partly due to its
‘completeness’, but it is also due to the setting of the narrative
within the political-legal system of the world of the novel. At least
on the surface, the characters inhabit a world of domesticity, habits,
streets and buildings, familiar structures and the reliable
predictability of everyday life. Despite the fact that the novel begins
with the protagonist, Joseph K., being arrested by agents of the Law
and subjected to an unusual interrogation, these activities are still
taking place in a familiar environment. In The Castle, however,
the protagonist (just called ‘K’) is a foreigner to the snowbound
village and cannot rely upon any of his usual devices to help himself.
This becomes true of The Trial once the novel progresses, where
K. is forced to enter into strange and claustrophobic hideaways,
apartments and offices, but these new and unfamiliar locales are only
arrived at as a result of K’s investigations. Once he had been shocked
out of his previous life of complacency and narrow-minded
industriousness by the event of his arrest, the mission to uncover and
reveal the truth of his case and the nature of the accusation that has
been leveled against him requires him to enter into the world beneath
the surface of his previous life.

In the tradition of mystery novels, The Trial is
structured around the discovery or revelation of something and the
resultant process of unraveling the multiple layers that have been
erected around the truth behind the initial revelation. In standard
murder-mystery novels, the discovery of a murder leads the protagonist
to the gradual discovery of the truth of the case through the
successive uncovering and sorting together of the partial clues that
are accumulated along the way. The endings of such novels are almost
invariably centred upon the total, unifying vision of the protagonist
— through their eyes and with the sophistication of their intellect
they are able to link all of the preceding clues into a grand schema
representing the truth of the crime. No loose ends, not a single thread
remains left over. The Trial, however, does not begin with the
discovery of a crime or even with an implicit claim that a crime has
been committed. No, the event that triggers this mystery novel is the
event of the arrest itself. K is unable to determine what he is being arrested for, only that he is
being arrested and presumably accused as well. This reversal of the
standard model of the mystery genre becomes the one unifying theme of
the narrative, for K’s subsequent attempts to learn more about his case
lead him into even deeper and darker regions of his world. K’s
steadfast refusal to accept the accusation leveled against him by the
agents of the Law is the motivating factor behind his quest to discover
the truth.

The other most obvious reversal of the standard formula of the
mystery genre lies in the progress that K. makes through the novel.
Adopting the role of the investigator and the seeker of the truth of
his case, the progression through the different layers and facades of
the legal system does not lead towards any satisfying grand vision;
there are no epiphanies, no moments of great insight, and no sense of
even the possibility of such ‘closure’. The various people that he
encounters in the hidden recesses of this underworld of the Law —
ranging from legal advocates, experienced assistants, knowledgeable
women, portrait artists, and other accused individuals — all seem to
be able to offer K. some small nugget of information, some piece of
purportedly valuable and hard-worn advice, and through the application
of this acquired information, we readers are led into thinking that
this will make a difference for K’s case. But lest you think Kafka is
going to let us have anything of the sort, rest assured that the clues
don’t fit together, the advice does not hold any hope of acquittal, and
the disparate mass of partial observations, slanted perspectives and
inconclusive testimonies do not in any way provide a solid foundation
upon which K. can make any decisions.

One of the interpretations which are offered of this
anti-mystery mystery novel is that Kafka was offering us a glimpse of
the nature of the as-yet dormant totalitarianism that was to sweep
across Europe in the years after his death in 1924. There is a case to
be made for this view, but it rests upon an overly literal analysis of
the novel. Such an interpretation is the most obvious one to draw from
the novel. The first thing that could be pointed to in response to this
interpretation is that there is no evidence to suggest that the path of
K. was disrupted by any specific malevolent agency which was
intentionally thwarting K’s attempts to the learn the truth of his
case. What I mean here is that during the course of the novel the
impression develops that no one knows the truth in its totality. Yes,
there are those who are on the ‘inside’ of the Law who could be said to
know more about the operations of things than K. does, but like K.,
they are only privy to what they themselves experience from their own
narrow, specialized and inevitably partial perspectives.

The first evidence of this comes from the first agents that K.
encounters on the first morning: when pressed to answer questions
regarding K’s case and the nature of the accusation for which he has
been arrested, the invariable response is a confession of ignorance,
dutiful ignorance (‘These gentlemen and I are of minor importance to
your case, indeed we know almost nothing about it…You are under arrest,
that’s true, I don’t know more than that.’). If this ignorance, or more
precisely, if this partial understanding was merely a version of these
agents being lackeys of the State (‘We are on a need-to-know basis’,
etc.), then there may in fact be some substance to the totalitarian
interpretation. However, with each new encounter that K. has further
within the workings of the Law, the partial understanding and
comprehension of the operations of the Law by these other agents and
witnesses becomes the defining feature of all involved. No one is in a
position to provide a grand summary of all that is involved in K’s
case. If it were a vision of the madness of totalitarianism and
unchecked bureaucracy, then this would at least be some sort of
explanation and would hold out hope for an almost Oprah-like sentiment
of ‘closure’ (but some ground could possibly be gained by a comparison
between this novel and the madness documented in The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn). It is probably unnecessary to point out that there are other aspects of The Trial which do not fit so easily within this interpretation.

Another common perception of Kafka’s writings was expressed in Orson Welles’ 1962 screen adaptation of The Trial,
where at the beginning Welles’ voiceover tells us something to effect
that ‘Kafka has given us a vision of a nightmare’ or something like
that (I don’t remember exactly, so don’t shoot me). The idea that Kafka
writes surreal, nightmare visions of a horrifying world is another
general response to his work, and in short stories such as Metamorphosis,
there is an undeniable surrealism. However, like with the political
interpretation of his work, it seems to me that once again Kafka is
being pigeon-holed in a way that leaves many other residual themes
unresolved, in particular, the shared themes of both The Trial and The Castle
— the absence of any finality, the sense of the ominous presence of
inhuman forces lurking behind every corner, the ultimate futility of
human plans and the recurrent search for the perpetually absent
Transcendent. These themes can be dug out of the two novels, and this
links him up with the existentialists, but the lack of explicit
meditation upon these ideas, only the faintest allusion to them,
prevents him from being completely identified with the existentialists.
Also, by thinking of the novel as either a surrealist nightmare or as
an examination of totalitarianism, this can serve to undermine the
reader’s direct involvement in the novel. If Kafka were dealing with
political questions of the kind just outlined, for example, then the
possibility that he is telling us something about all of our situations is foreclosed. Indeed, the notorious French philosopher Jacques Derrida has made use of The Trial
as a model of the operation of authority and the law, and presumably
this implies that in some sense, we are all in K’s position.

So there we have it: Kafka is a poet of political terror,
Kafka is a surrealist who offers us glimpses of nightmares, Kafka
telling us the truth of our relation to law and authority, and Kafka as
an existentialist warning us of the futility of human hopes and
admonishing us for chasing illusions. There is something to all of
these charges, though none can claim to fully own Kafka. When I began
this little survey of one of the works of Herr Franz I claimed that
Kafka was the champion of the Humanities. I reaffirm my claim because
only in the world of the Humanities are such ambiguities not symptoms
of failure or of sloppy work, but of the ever-present duty to
continually re-attend those things that we slide over without ever
pausing to consider. In the case of The Trial, if questions
about the nature of justice, the nature of authority, of living without
the hope of eventual redemption, and the futility of pursuing the
Transcendent at a cost to the present are left lingering in your mind
long after reading Herr Franz, then his work here is done. As any
thinking person knows (or should know), disagreement over any
proposed answers to such questions are the signs of the health of a
culture, not its ‘decline’, and it is in this space that the Humanities
exists and prospers. When this space is sold off piece by piece and
there is no public space left for ambiguities, we are all fucked. Read The Trial and learn to love the lack of ‘closure’.

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