Musings on Kafka’s Trial

Kafka has probably presented in fiction the best description of the predicament of man living under conditions made possible after the advent of modernity and his experience of the processes of bureaucratization and rationalization of societies. Foucault on the other hand has presented an analysis of this predicament using his archeological and genealogical methods to unravel the same conditions, but arriving at different results, which Kafka had worked out fictionally.

In the Trial, as in all other stories and novels, Kafka presents us with a nightmarish world and a traumatic reality confronted by an ordinary person named Joseph K. Through K. Kafka has taken us into an absurd, alienated world of bureaucracy where things happen for no apparent reason, they just happen. The gigantic system of bureaucracy outlines the graphics of K.’s life without explaining to him, or us, the reasons of his arrests, the way it treats him and finally executes him. Despite the continuous efforts of K. to get to the bottom of the inexplicable, irrational arrest and the case handling in the labyrinthine of the court attic rooms, K. finds himself incapable of solving the court mysteries. Joseph K.’s relation to the court is enveloped in absurdity where the being, its surroundings, its logic, its very existence and everything related to it become inexplicable and terrifying in its consequences.

“There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points”. Walter Benjamin’s advice on how (not) to read Kafka seems appropriate but then the question is how to approach Kafka? One can read Kafka but one cannot interpret Kafka according to some preconceived notions of interpretation. Kafka’s stories defy all categorizations, schematizations and the search for some answers to his nightmarish world. Zizek has suggested that reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction, and the reader must unlearn the standard interpretive references (Zizek mentions three types of interpretations: theological, socio-critical, and psychoanalytic) so that she can remain open to the force of Kafka’s writing. ‘All this has to be erased; a kind of childish naivety has to be regained in order for a reader to be able to feel the raw force of Kafka’s universe’.

Kafka lived in a universe without God, though his traces were still around, a universe where the faith could only show itself in the guise of doubt. Reading Kafka is a perplexing experience and one is never sure, despite the clarity of his prose, what does Kafka want to convey to his readers with his almost otherworldly, impossible stories. The reader, as it is, is included in the Kafkaesque horizon and is made to experience the perplexity, uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity of his characters. His work is ‘awash in disconcerting images. He was not squeamish. But, strangely, an essential ingredient in modernism, the burrowing after deeper emotional realities, seems to be largely absent, in fact unequivocally excluded, from his writings. His leading characters are little more than marionettes in the hands of irresistible forces. They may protest, they may seek to reverse the irreversible, but they may have little if any inner life.’

If this is so then probably Kafka was describing some other reality, a predicament that can probably be described in terms of the transcendence of the law. It is significant that in Kafka’s universe the law, and its accompanying bureaucratic efficiency is characterized as an organic and dynamic process of adaptation that cannot be fully understood; it is somehow always beyond the reach and the grasp of its subjects, they do not understand its workings, it eludes their grasp, it remains an ever-receding secret. One is always before the law, unable to escape its penetrating ‘gaze’ and its disturbing intrusion at the most unexpected moments (Joseph K. is arrested without prior notice, for no apparent reason, or for no reason at all). The place where one thought was at the safest, at the most secure, is shown to be just a mirage, an illusion. In Kafka’s universe one is not secure, safe even from the Law, which is painted as ‘an unfathomable, ungraspable deity, a dark god emitting obscure oracular sign’, without being able to comprehend its location, purpose, logic or meaning. In fact the Law is what bring the insecurity. In Kafka’s universe everything is problematic. The Law’s function is presented not as prohibiting anything, but as the prohibition itself. ‘The Law that somehow insist without properly existing, making us guilty without knowing what we are guilty of; the wound that won’t heal and does not let us die; bureaucracy at its most “irrational” aspect’. Is this guilt then an existential guilt? Is Kafka using the court to represent the human predicament, which he felt in himself and then made it into a permanent condition, an ontological guilt, a nihilistic despair of having murdered God and now having to live without him? Is ubehaget according to Kafka, then, the existential guilt and insecurity that we feel when confronted and faced by an obscure and elusive Law?

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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