Kafka and Pessimism

This is the fourth day of my “Write 500 Words a Day in November” challenge, and I am already at a loss for ideas. I went to Literary Hub’s home page a few hours ago and discovered that yesterday Emily Temple, the senior editor of Lit Hub, posted a playlist for The Trial by Franz Kafka. How timely! Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of any of the songs on the playlist.

I was surprised that Pink Floyd wasn’t on the list. All of their songs deal with the dark side of humanity, the meaninglessness of life, or the frustrations of bureaucracy. Indeed, “The Trial” is the name of a track from “The Wall”. But the album that most comes to mind when I think of The Trial is Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals”. K. is after all executed “like a dog”.

It seems like The Trial is gaining in popularity for the same reasons 1984 was sold out shortly after the election of Donald Trump. We are increasingly distrustful of our justice system and frustrated with the tyranny of the wealthy 1%. A percentage of the American population is all too familiar with stories about innocent men profiled, arrested, and/or shot for unknown reasons.

I know why so many of us are turning to dystopian and apocalyptic literature today. We see a disturbing parallel between the stories we are consuming and what we experience in our communities. Kafka suggests in The Trial that there is no hope in the world. K. should have accepted his guilt and renounced all hope for justice.

I disagree.

While we should be aware of the injustices in our society, and while there is always a need for literature that gives voice to the powerless, we must avoid losing hope for a better future. There have been many social reforms throughout history because some people had hope that conditions could change. There is a bureaucracy, but it is not omnipotent.

For years, I thought that cynicism was a virtue and optimism a vice. Pessimism often has a reputation for being “realistic” because there is so much injustice in the world. But the cynic risks becoming apathetic to evil. If we are convinced that our society is about as good as it will ever be, we will not fight for reform. We will consent to injustice.

Kafka created a nihilistic, hopeless world for Joseph K. In this outrageously unjust society, K. never had a chance. But no society is as immutable as K.’s. We can work together to make the world better. The hopeful reformer acknowledges the evil in the world, but tries to do something about it.

I am not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t read, but we all need a reminder from time to time that things can get better. Our society is not K.’s deterministic universe. There are actions we can take to make the world a better place for the 99%.

A year ago, I considered getting rid of my copy of the complete short stories of Franz Kafka because I was tempted by cynicism. I ultimately decided to keep the short story collection because I believe that there is a need for dystopian/existential literature in every age, and Kafka felt particularly relevant in 2016.

But I am now ready to read more hopeful fiction.


Note: This reflection took me forever to write. Writing daily is hard!

Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapter 4 – End)

17692The second part of The Trial was much more thought-provoking than the first part. When Joseph K. attempts to dismiss his trial as a minor inconvenience, his uncle comes up with a plan to fight the court. He introduces K. to an attorney who agrees take his case. Unfortunately, the lawyer does absolutely nothing to help K. fight the court. Next, K. visits the court painter Titorelli who also promises to help the defendant. The painter describes in detail the three kinds of acquittals possible. The best K. can hope for is a temporary acquittal by the lower court. The higher court can overturn the rulings of the lower court. Titorelli has never known a case in which a defendant’s case has been permanently dropped.

While The Trial is clearly a commentary on the corrupt nature of the justice system, the discussion about the three types of acquittals increasingly convinced me that the story was also about metaphysical matters. There is something quite Calvinistic about K.’s world. It seems as if he has been predestined for condemnation. He cannot defend himself or do anything to change his sentence. The acquittals discussion reminded me of the scholastic philosophy I studied in a medieval philosophy course last semester.

And then there’s the parable of the doorkeeper. It seems to be addressing in part the free will/determinism question. While the man for whom the door was made can never pass through the door, he is always free to move about. He chooses to remain in front of the door until his death.

First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now the 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 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.

Paradoxically, the doorkeeper is less free than the man because he is required to guard the door at all times. The doorkeeper, as the priest who’s telling the story points out, does not know what is beyond the door. The man chose to renounce his freedom by sitting near the door for the rest of his life. He could have done so many other things, but he chose to fight the prohibition.

How this parable relates to the end of the story is not clear. After leaving the cathedral, K. is arrested and executed. Maybe the parable is about humanity’s search for justice and a meaning to life. Whatever is beyond the door (the meaning of life? Justice?) is inaccessible to the man, so why does he remain by the door?

Before he’s executed, K. realizes that he has always been and always will be identified with guilt.

With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. “Like a dog!” he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.

But what about the executioners? Did they choose to execute K., or did the Law force them to do it? If the executioners are like the priest’s doorkeeper, the executioners are no less determined by outside forces. If K. had accepted his guilt without protest, would he have experienced more freedom in his life? We will never know.

This story was the perfect Halloween read! I am not satisfied with Kafka’s worldview, but there is so much injustice in the world. Why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are like Joseph K., defenseless victims of an unjust world. If there is any meaning to the suffering of the innocent, we certainly can’t know it in this life.

Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapters 1-3)

17692I am reading The Trial by Franz Kafka with Silvia Cachia. Her reflection on the first three chapters is here.

Because I am reading The Trial on Kindle, I am not sure what parts belong to the first three chapters. I am currently in the chapter where K. tells his uncle about the trial, so I will discuss everything before that. A quick glance at Silvia’s post (which I will read thoroughly once I post my own reflection) confirms that I will not be spoiling anything that she hasn’t read yet.

My Thoughts

Having read a few pieces of what we now call “flash fiction” by Franz Kafka, I know that Kafka is an existential writer with a particular obsession with the injustice of the world. K., the protagonist of The Trial, is arrested one morning for an unknown crime. The authorities never tell him why he’s arrested, and they break into K.’s house without a search warrant. In fact, it seems like no one knows his crime. Every one is simply doing the job he or she has been assigned.

Although he is arrested, K. is free to go to work. It looks like nothing has changed in his life, but he has to attend court meetings. When he does go to court, however, he learns that there isn’t a trial. There are spectators, but he isn’t charged with anything. Often, K. meets people in the most random locations.

The book seems perfect for October. The atmosphere of this story reminds me of a haunted house. Different rooms contain different terrors. At the bank where he works, K. finds two of his colleagues in a long-forgotten broom closet. They are facing corporal discipline for their involvement in K.’s arrest. It’s all so weird and dizzying. And that’s the point. K. has entered a maze that he can’t leave. No one chooses to (or perhaps can) help him.

In this first part, I was struck by the way this insanity has already affected K. At first, K. tries to appeal to justice, but he is ignored by everyone he condemns. No one cares. Later, he becomes the one who is deaf to injustice. His colleagues are being flogged in a broom closet, but, instead of helping them, he simply closes the door to drown out the sound of their screaming. K., it seems, has begun to ignore injustice. His uncle is horrified to learn that K. has been arrested, but K. tells him that none of it really matters. After all, he is free to go to work.

Even though I have only read 30% of the book, I feel like I have read hundreds of pages. The story is very repetitive and dizzying. Clearly, Kafka had a real problem with bureaucracy.

I faced my own “trial” last month when I tried to get my car registered in Pennsylvania. One clerk told me one thing, and another clerk told me something different. I got false information from a third clerk, so I ended up spending over $40 to get the documentation I needed. Grrr. Thankfully, the license and tag offices were actual working offices. I eventually got my car registered. It could have been worse :P.



The Trial Read-Along


Silvia Cachia is hosting a read-along of The Trial by Franz Kafka this month (the schedule is linked). I’ve only read some flash fiction by Kafka, so I look forward to reading something more substantial by him. Although I’ve never been a horror person, for some reason I want to read tons of unsettling things this month. I even plan to read a Steven King novel. I don’t know what this shift in reading tastes says about me. Maybe it’s the world climate…

Anyway, I look forward to reading The Trial with Silvia. The first post is next Monday, so I better get reading 🙂