Trapped in an anonymous judicial machine

Franz Kafka: Der Proceß (English title: The Trial) ISBN 978-3-596-90356-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Imagine being arrested without being given a reason. Imagine being arrested and being free to go to work, to the movies or to stay at home. Imagine being judged without being informed whether you have been charged or why. The judges remain invisible, lawyers are merely tolerated, and the more you try to defend your obvious innocence, the worse your case gets. Arbitrariness seeps into your normality and usurps the place of the rule of law and logic in a form of bureaucratic brain-washing.

This is the frightening world Franz Kafka describes in his inimitable, dry, matter-of-fact language. “The Trial” is Kafka’s best known novel and without any doubt a masterpiece. He wrote it in 1914/15, but it was published only posthumously in 1925 by Kafka’s friend Max Brod. It is an unfinished work, with several fragments written but not inserted into the actual draft of the novel. Kafka’s inspiration driven story reflects the author’s complex personality, his relations to his family, his fiancée and his fiancée’s family. It takes up his experience as an office clerk as well as characteristic elements of the society in Prague, e.g. a voluntary deference to authority, and the Jewish community Kafka was part of.

Kafka’s narration of the fate of Josef K., arrested and judged for reasons unknown, is an allegory of his own psychic turmoil, and at the same time a description of man’s growing isolation in modern society. It also shows how men, by tolerating an initial restriction of his individual freedom, get trapped in a vicious cycle where the surrender of parts of his rights leads to the abolition of all of its rights. But while every man has to fight for himself, the ruling authority, that is the top-tiers judges, has to uphold at least the fiction of legitimacy. One of the surprising vulnerabilities of the anonymous tribunal is the concern it has for human relationships, necessary to maintain what Kafka calls “the cohesion of society”.

The risk of open revolt against the judges can be banned by creating the illusion that the final judgment can be influenced. Herein lies the only weapon an accused has: open and immediate revolt against a limitation of his basic rights, civil disobedience, the refusal to play by the (illegal or amoral) rules set by the judges. Josef K. fails in the novel where Kafka failed in his own life. It is remarkable that Kafka recognizes this lesson and still fails to live up to it. It is very well summed up in the scene in the dome. After a debate with a preacher about the nature of the law and the role of the gatekeeper, confering knowledge of the law to some but not all. At some point, Josef K. says with utter resignation: “The lie becomes the principle of the world order.” The law can and must be challenged, for laws are not immutable, they have been created by men for men.

During most of his life, Kafka felt he had to justify himself: for the job he chose, for the fiancée he picked, for his writing, for his inability to write, for his cold attitude towards his family, his lack of interest in the family business, in short, Franz Kafka felt he had to justify being Franz Kafka. Social exclusion, real or imagined, voluntary or imposed, was a constant issue, resulting in periods of depression, in self-depreciation as a human and as a writer and in self-inflicted psychic wounds. And fear of exclusion corrupted his mind. It seems that he never considered stepping outside the sphere governed by rules alien to him. He accepted the rules, suffered and succumbed. By doing so, he gave us some of the greatest pieces of prose ever.

Kafka was aware that writing was the reason for his existence, the essence of being Franz Kafka, and the search for his “inner truth” – looking into an psychologic abyss – produced novels like “The Trial”. A cruel creative process. The brutality of an anonymous, judicial machine that Josef K. does not understand, the inevitability of his tragic fate, his gradual transformation from a combative innocent to a cooperating witness against himself, expressed in Kafka’s detached style, inspired me horror and fascination at the same time. And a deep respect for the author. Writing such a novel was a superhuman act, and only Kafka could have conceived and produced such a book, coherent in its laconic style and grotesque logic from the first to the last line. He paid a high price: constant misery, a poor health and occasionally the fear to become insane.

Kafka’s novel about an arbitrary judicial system reminded me of the trials organized by the Stalin regime in the 1930s and the feeling of insecurity it created in the Soviet Union. A composer with first-hand experience of Stalin’s arbitrariness was Dmitry Shostakovich. Here is his Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (Op. 40):

Whistling in the dark to keep monsters away