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

A Nuanced View of Mozart’s Personality

Cliff Eisen (ed.): Mozart – A Life in Letters. ISBN 978-0-141-44146-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s correspondence with his father Leopold, his sister Nannerl, his wife Constanze and his friends and patrons – that seemed to me to be the key to better understand Mozart’s personality. His double-sided face – gentle, loving, helpful on the one hand, arrogant, vulgar and deceitful on the other hand – was a recurrent theme in my posts on my music blog and it kept irritating me.

The letters selected by Cliff Eisen fulfilled my expectation in so far as they nuanced certain aspects of the composer’s character that the biographies I had read up to that point had empasized e.g. his at times strained relationship with his father and his tendancy to speak with much despise of some of his benefactors. The tension between the young and old Mozart triggered by some of Wolfgang’s decisions in professional matters reminds me of many other father-son conflicts such as the dispute between Franz Schubert and his father or the one between my dad and myself! Such conflicts are part of man’s personal development, and in Mozart’s case, his success in Vienna quickly reconciled the father with his maverick son.

Mozart’s inability to keep his expences under control and and thus to reduce his dependance on borrowing money from friends who quite often were not reimbursed also appears in a new light. In his letters Mozart regularly complains that the nobility – people who liked to have him around as a mark of their cultural taste – mostly expected him to perform for free without giving a thought to how the composer would feed his family and cover the expenses he had to make to be able to compose and perform. If Mozart’s morality in financial issues may appear questionable today, it must be said in his defence that his noble “friends” did not exactly set a good example.

Mozart’s letters are a lovely piece of prose, reflecting well life at the end of the 18th century in general and Mozart’s world more specifically, from mundane issues like how to get a good housemaid or find decent transport for long-distance trips to political issues and the questions of musical taste, court appointments and his apprecuation of fellow composers.

While reading Mozart’s letters I discovered a wonderful early composition, the oratorio “La Betulia Liberata”, inspired by the Book of Judith:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

Sarcasm used as a pedagogical tool

Franz Kafka: Brief an den Vater (English title: Letter to his father) ISBN 9-783596-14674-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ With this book, Kafka wrote a many, many pages long indictment of his abusive father. He details how much power his father had over him, how this power damaged his soul, perverted his emotions and prevented him from being a happy child and becoming a socially integrated young adult. A powerful book about the destructive power of words thrown at a sensitive child, a brilliant development of the theme Kafka sketched in his short story “The Judgment” and a fine example of Kafka’s very personal, very concise and molto cantabile style – lyrical prose!

While I read this book on a lonely evening I enjoyed Dmitry Shostakovich’s violin concertos and his second concerto in C sharp minor fits well with the overall mood of Kafka:

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

A power struggle between father and son

Franz Kafka: Das Urteil (English title: The Judgment) ISBN 978-3-596-20019-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Another short story with a subject dear to German Romanticists: the longing for death! I truly enjoyed this text about a power struggle between father and son where the balance of forces is quickly  reversed and initial emotions turn into their opposite.

It didn’t take long to come up with an appropriate piece of music, a piece flirting with death, Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor, D.784:

Sadness transfigured with sublime delicacy