Monday, July 21, 2008

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Kafka's fable, published in 1925 (a year after he died), is work of purely imaginative art. It has no basis in fact, serves no political interest, earned Kafka no money. It's object is truth, not literal, of course, but poetic or metaphorical: here is what the rule of law is really like, a sort of spider-web into which a human insect, Joseph K., happens through no mistake of his own to fall. He struggles, feebly, to free himself only to become more hopelessly entangled, observed from afar by some higher power whose existence is only hinted at. He never knows, or even thinks to ask, what he has been accused of; he is never detained; the only court he ever sees or enters is a spooky farce which could have no parallel in anything but your worst nightmare; the lawyers are all part of the 'system'(if any: if there is a 'system' of justice here, we never learn what it is or how it works); and when the higher power has toyed with him for long enough--this all takes about a year--it kills him. Not directly, for nothing is ever done directly in this tale, or rather parable: a pair of fat, pale, simple-minded goons in top-hats lead him--or rather he leads them, for by this time he only wants to die--into an old quarry where, after passing the knife back and forth between them (ceremonially or indecisively?) one of them stabs him in the heart, giving the knife--as if to make a point--one last twist.

All of this is described or presented in great detail, with busy, ant-like industry, without the slightest affect, in prose of dead-pan banality.

Toward the end, K. is granted a hearing of sorts by the prison chaplain. This hearing, like everything else is arranged, duplicitously, by the powers that be. K. is lured into the cathedral, ostensibly to meet a visitor for whom he is to act as guide. The visitor never appears and K. wanders aimlessly about the cathedral as the light rapidly fades until he is led by the ambiguous signals of the sexton toward a small, cramped, pulpit where a young priest seems about to deliver a sermon even though it is late in the day and it is in the middle of the week. As K. is about to leave, the priest calls his name, not because he has something of material importance to say about K.'s trial but because he wants to tell him something about The Law. But The Law is so strange and mysterious that, like God, it can only be understood as parable. So, at the heart of this parable about the rule of law, we encounter another parable. Be patient, it's worth reading. Here is how it goes:

"Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can't grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he'll be allowed to enter later. 'It's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but not now.' Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior. When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: 'If you're so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I've forbidden it. But bear this in mind: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before. The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.' The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar's beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him that he can't admit him. The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. And the doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: 'I'm taking this just you won't think you've neglected something.' Over the many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law. He curses his unhappy fate, loudly during the first years, later, as he grows older, merely grumbling himself. He turns childish, and since he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's collar over his years of study, he asks the fleas too to help him change the doorkeeper's mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he no longer knows whether it's really getting darker around him or if his eyes are merely deceiving him. And yet in the darkness he now sees a radiance that streams forth inextinguishably from the door of the Law. He doesn't have much longer to live now. Before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into single question he has never asked the doorkeeper. He motions to him, since he can no longer straighten his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down to him, for the difference in size between them has altered greatly to the man's disadvantage. 'What do you want to know now,' asks the doorkeeper, 'you're insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man, 'how does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance.' The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars at him: 'No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I'm going to shut it now.'
"So the doorkeeper deceived the man," K. said at once, strongly attracted by the story. "Don't be too hasty," said the priest, "don't accept another person's opinion unthinkingly. I've told you the story word for word according to the text. It says nothing about deception." "But it's clear," said K., and your initial interpretation was quite correct. The doorkeeper conveyed the crucial information only when it could no longer be of use to the man." He wasn't asked earlier," said the priest, and remember he was only a doorkeeper and as such fulfilled his duty." "What makes you think he fulfilled his duty?" asked K.; "he didn't fulfill it. It may have his duty to turn away anyone else, but he should have admitted this man for whom the entrance was meant." "You don't have sufficient respect for the text and are changing the story," said the priest. "The story contains two important statements by the doorkeeper concerning admittance to the Law, one at the beginning and one at the end. The one passage says: 'that he can't grant him admittance now'; and the other: 'this entrance was meant solely for you you.' If a contradiction existed between these two statements you would be right, and the doorkeeper would have deceived the man. But there is no contradiction. On the contrary, the first statement even implies the second. One could almost argue the doorkeeper exceeded his duty by holding out to the man the prospect of a possible future entry. At that time his sole duty appears to have been to turn the man away. And indeed, many commentators on the text are surprised that the doorkeeper intimated it at all, for he appears to love precision and the strict fulfillment of his duty. He never leaves his post in all those years, and he waits till the very end to close the gate; he's well aware of the importance of his office, for he says 'I'm powerful'; he respects his superiors, for he says 'I'm only the lowest doorkeeper'; when it comes to fulfilling his duty he can neither be moved nor prevailed upon, for it says of the man 'he wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties'; he is not garrulous, for in all those years he only asks questions 'indifferently'; he can't be bribed, for he says of a gift 'I'm taking this just so you won't think you've neglected something'.... Can there be a more conscientious doorkeeper? But certain other elements enter into the basic character of the doorkeeper which are quite favorable to the person seeking to enter, and which in spite of everything, help us understand how and why the doorkeeper might exceed his duty somewhat by the intimation of the future possibility. For it can't be denied that he's somewhat simpleminded, and consequently somewhat conceited as well. Even if his remarks about his own power and that of the other doorkeepers, and about how unbearable their sight is even for hims--I say even if all these remarks are correct in themselves, the manner in which he brings them forth shows that his understanding is clouded by simplemindedness and presumption. The commentators tell us: the correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are not mutually exclusive. At any rate one must assume that this simplemindedness and presumption, trivial as their manifestations might be, could still weaken his defense of the entrance; they are breaches in the doorkeeper's character. To this may added the fact that the doorkeeper seems friendly by nature; he's by no means always the official. Within the first few minutes he allows himself the jest of inviting the man to enter, in spite of the fact that he has strictly forbidden it; and he doesn't send him away, but instead, we are told, gives him a stool and lets sit at the side of the door. The patience with which he endures the man's entreaties over the years, the brief interrogations, the acceptance of the gifts, the polite sensitivity with which he permits the man beside him to curse aloud the unhappy fate which has placed the doorkeeper in his way--all this points toward feelings of compassion. Not every doorkeeper would have acted thus. And finally he bends down low when the man motions to him, to give him the opportunity to ask a final question. Only a slight impatience--after all the doorkeeper knows the end is at hand--is expressed in the words 'you're insatiable.' Some go so far in such commentaries as to maintain that the words 'you're insatiable' express a sort of friendly admiration, which of course is not entirely free of condescension. At any rate the figure of the doorkeeper that emerges is quite different from your perception of him." "You know the story much better than I do, and have known it for a longer time," said K. Then K. said: "So you think the man wasn't deceived?" "Don't misunderstand me," said the priest, "I'm just pointing out the various opinions that exist on the matter. You mustn't pay too much attentions to opinions. The text is immutable, and the opinions are often only an expression of despair over it. In this case there is even an opinion according to which the doorkeeper is the one deceived." "That's an extreme opinion," said K. "What's it based on?" "It's based," answered the priest, on the simplemindedness of the doorkeeper. It's said that he doesn't know the interior of the Law, but only the path he constantly patrols back and forth before it. His ideas about the interior are considered childish, and it's assumed that he himself fears the very thing with which he tries to frighten the man. Indeed he fears it more than the man, for the latter wants nothing more than to enter, even after he's been told of the terrifying doorkeepers within, while the doorkeeper has no wish to enter, or at any rate we hear nothing about it. Others say he must have already been inside, for after all he has been taken into the service of the Law, and that could only have happened within. To this it may be replied that he might well have been named a doorkeeper by a shout from within, and at any rate could not have progressed far into the interior, since he is unable to bear the sight of even the third doorkeeper. Moreover there is no report of his saying anything over the years about the interior, other than the remark about the doorkeepers. Perhaps he was forbidden to do so, but he never mentions such a prohibition either. From all this it is concluded that he knows nothing about the appearance and significance of the interior, and is himself deceived about it. But he is also in a state of deception about the man from the country, for he is subordinate to him and doesn't know it. It is evident in several places that he treats the man as a subordinate, as I'm sure you will recall. But it is equally clear, according to this opinion, that he is in fact subordinate to him. First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the Law alone is denied to him, and this only by one person, the doorkeeper. If he sits on the stool at the side of the door and spends the rest of his life there, he does so of his own free will; the story mentions no element of force. The doorkeeper, on the other hand, is bound to his post by his office; he is not permitted to go elsewhere outside, but to all appearances he is not permitted to go inside either, even if he wishes to. Moreover he is in the service of the Law but serves only at this entrance, and thus serves only this man, for whom the entrance is solely meant. For this reason as well he is subordinate to him. It can be assumed that for many years, as long as it takes a man to mature, his service has been an empty formality, for it said that a man comes, that is, a mature man, so that the doorkeeper had to wait a long time to fulfill his duty, and in fact had to wait as long as the man wished, who after all came of his own free will. But the end of his service is also determined by the end of the man's life, and he therefore remains subordinate to him until the very end. And it is constantly emphasized that the doorkeeper realizes none of this. But nothing striking is seen in this, for according to this opinion, the doorkeeper in an even greater state of deception with regard to his office. For at the very end he speaks of the entrance and says 'I'm going to go now and shut it,' but at the beginning it's said that the gate to the Law always stand open; if it always stand open, however, that is, independent of how long the man lives for whom it is meant, then even the doorkeeper can't shut it. Opinions vary as to whether the doorkeeper intends the announcement that he is going to shut the gate merely as an answer, or to emphasize his devotion to duty, or because he wants to arouse remorse and sorrow in the man at the last moment. Many agree, however, that he will not be able to shut the gate. They even think that, at least at the end, he's subordinate to the man in knowledge as well, for the former sees the radiance which streams forth from the entrance to the Law, while the doorkeeper, by profession, is probably standing with his back to the entrance, nor does he show by anything he says that he might have noticed a change." "That's well reasoned," said K., who had repeated various parts of the priest's explanation to himself under his breath. It's well reasoned, and now I too believe that the doorkeeper is deceived. But that doesn't change my earlier opinion, for in part they coincide. It makes no difference if the doorkeeper sees clearly or is deceived. I said the man was deceived. If the doorkeeper sees clearly, one might have doubts about that, but if the doorkeeper is deceived, the deception must necessarily carry over to the man. In that case the doorkeeper is indeed no deceiver, but is so simpleminded that he should be dismissed immediately from service. You have to realize that the deception in which the doorkeeper finds himself doesn't harm him but harms the man a thousandfold." "You run up against a contrary opinion there," said the priest. "Namely, there are those who say that the story give no one the right to pass judgment on the doorkeeper. No matter how he appears to us, he's still a servant of the Law; he belongs to the Law, and is thus beyond human judgment. In that case one can't see the doorkeeper as subordinate to the man. To be bound by his office, even if only at the entrance to the Law, is incomparably better than to live freely in the world. The man has only just arrived at the Law, the doorkeeper is already there. He has been appointed to his post by the Law, to doubt his dignity is to doubt the Law itself." "I don't agree with that opinion," said K. shaking his head, "for if you accept it, you have to consider everything the doorkeeper says as true. But you've proved conclusively that that's not possible." "No," said the priest, "you don't have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary." "A depressing opinion," said K. "Lies are made into a universal system."

And with this remark, which exposes the whole system of lies that the priest has been defending, in this parody of Talmudic analysis, K.'s fate is sealed.

1 comment:

  1. Kafka's story is a retelling of the question that God asked Job when Job requested a reason for all the suffering he had undergone. God, speaking as a voice in a whirlwind, answers the question with another question: "Where wast thou when I created the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou has understanding."

    If we have read the Book of Job, we know that God had agreed to inflict suffering and tragedy upon Job in order to prove to Satan that Job would retain his faith. Satan was leading God into temptation. God sinned by bringing Job painful physical ailments, destroying his wealth, and killing his children in order to win His bet with Satan. By asking "Where wast thou...," God is evading Job's question.

    Part of the Lord's answer to Job out of the whirlwind included the question "Knowest thou the time when wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?" (Job 39.1). I googled "mountain goat gestation" and learned that kids are born in May through June and that the gestation period of the mountain goat is 180 days. Once again, the Lord is evading Job's question, knowing that Google, not yet having been invented, was not available to Job. The Lord was prevented by His vanity from simply admitting that Job had helped Him win His bet with Satan. He could not bring Himself to praise Job for his faith, loyalty, and patience.