Kafka, the Absurd, and The Trial

Kafkas trial is a brilliant classic, but what about it makes such a dark and terrible story so compelling? its because we all feel on trial somehow.
My beat -up 1977 copy of The Trial by F. Kafka

None of us chose to be born. Personally I am extremely happy to have been born, and have no regrets whatever in this regard. This doesn’t take away from the fact none of us chose to be here in this space time on this planet in this universe. Indeed, to go further, one of the most aboriginal questions seems to revolve around the question of why there is something rather than nothing. How did we get here? Why is there something rather than nothing? We seem thrown into existence. We did not choose our parents, our siblings, our families, often our religion, our IQ, our race, or indeed the complexities of the particular or social or financial or political or cultural or ethnic situation we find ourselves in. This is all true, but not unique. We also did not choose the colour of the skies, or the size of our little toe. For some life is unspeakably mayfly brief and truly horrible. For others it’s a joy. This lack of choice and spectrum of experience is basically the same situation for every species on the planet, indeed every sentient species that has ever experienced existence since the nuclear clock started ticking about thirteen billion earth years ago (or however long ago science will tell us in the future), has had that issue. We exist within a context, a labyrinthine network that we have limited control over. Furthermore it’s entirely possible the particular cultural context, this historical and political and religious situation you or I or any other sentient beings on any culture anywhere in the universe were born into has been in existence for well over a thousand or many thousands of years. We are also part of another immense context, one that has been in existence for billions of years. By this I mean the universe. Considering the unimaginable immensity of this universe (there might be more), not to mention the sheer number of UFOs reported by competent witnesses here in Earth – to assume we are alone makes little sense. Disinformation inevitably gets outed. So our origins are ancient, as ancient as the stars or our genes or the atoms that compose us. So it’s fair to say its rather unlikely one person would be able to effect any kind of change to such a system. It has happened, but not often. Some effect change, only to introduce even greater levels of destruction than originally intended. Kafka, a student of law, saw this and it impacted him deeply. Living round the turn of the last century in a Jewish ghetto in Prague depicted this existential dilemma often in legal terms, a kind of spider’s web of societal expectations that are as ultimately unknowable as they are impossible to meet. Jews were subjected to racism and prejudice. More to the point, Kafka grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family, with a strained relationship with his family, especially his father. I cannot, for instance, locate a picture of Franz with his father. This personal and existential angst led Kafka to write, and he produced some of the greatest prose ever. A classic of this sense of utter entrapment, of a loss of personal power is the whole dilemma of his novel The Trial. Someone is arrested for a crime they didn’t commit, a crime that the arresting officers don’t specify, leading to an endless series of court cases, paperwork, lawyers’ fees, and sleepless nights. Life becomes like a bad divorce with no resolution in sight. Rational questions about the absurdity of the situation the protagonist finds himself in are answered with requests for further information, with meetings with officers and inspectors, with waiting in long queues to find we have to go to another queue or meet someone else next week or month, with filling out lengthy questionnaires. Or its all waiting, just waiting. Waiting for doors to open, waiting for letters to be answered, waiting for some kind of resolution when there seems to be none and the horizon is bleak with anxiety and fear. Moreover, clear and distinct ideas about the world or what actually is happening in Joseph K’s case seem to be in the endangered list of viable species. All the protagonist gets in The Trial are half answers and fake news. The sheer craziness of having systems in place that in reality serve no purpose save to perpetuate themselves and harvest endless data on people, or to keep people, the general population, in control, makes life a kind of nightmare or at best an absurd joke. It’s interesting to note that when Kafka read out drafts of the Trial to his literary friends, they thought it was just hilarious. And it is, in a weird way. If it weren’t so brutal and mindless and soul deadening, it would be hilarious. It’s the kind of humour you find in either Joe Heller’s Catch 22 where Yossarian goes naked on all his bombing runs as a protest of the horrors of war or Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the future of the human race is left in the capable hands of hairdressers and salon owners. By the way there’s no evidence to support the idea that Kafka was espousing some kind of rationalist atheism, communism, existentialism, or any other kind of ism- even though as Sander Gilman points out that “Kafka turns out to be as much an Expressionist as a Zionist as a mystic as a pre- and post-Communist Czech as an Existentialist as a post-modernist as a post-colonialist as a (whatever he will be next month). Kafka’s work and his life seem to lend themselves to infinite readings and finite exploitations.”(Page 8 Kafka). Kafka work only described the human condition as he saw it and experienced it, without judgment and with a high degree of sensitivity and compassion. Each age, like with any writer worth their salt, interprets the work in the light of latest insights and research and philosophy. Rather than attempting solutions, their work excavates the experience rather than indulging in ideological reflections on the work. What matters is the story. In the end death seems like a relief. The German translation of The Trial is I think for more apt and visceral. Der Prozess. The system. (Personally I would have gone with The Machine). This is the kind of psychological and personal disintegration that results as the machinery of law and the state slowly grinds away until there is nothing left of the individual except a willing servant of an absolutist unknowable vast state architecture of control. Kafka’s work stands as one of the great rebellions against all forms of totalitarian control. By naming the thing and describing in perfect terms the process and its inevitable end, his work is the great rebuke of state sponsored terror everywhere. His pen blunted all of their technological swords, which is why The Trial, as well as so many of his works (who were almost consigned to oblivion if it were not for the timely intercession of his good friend, Max Brod), has remained a timeless and much re-read classic. The opening lines are irresistibly intriguing:

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without him having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. (P1 The Trial)     

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