Monday, August 3, 2009

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

It is a little shocking to discover that Josef K. is, even considering the circumstances, a jerk. That's not one of the things that gets put on the back cover, or mentioned in arguments about Kafka's "prescience" about totalitarianism, bureaucracy or mixtures of the two.

Which is not to say that this facet of the novel has been ignored; finally reading The Trial put into place a fairly important piece in terms of thinking about the character dynamics of a good many later 20th and 21st century novels dealing with menacing bureaucracy and/or totalitarianism—for instance, Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness. Understanding the narrator/protagonist of that novel in the context of Josef K. gives me a greater appreciation for Moya, even if I still am not fully on board with the necessity of blending narcissism and paranoia so slapdashedly.

I think it's interesting, however, to ask why the arrogant and self-important personality of Josef K. is an unexpected aspect of the book, or why I was anticipating a different kind of character. Thinking about this seemingly minor question opens up a much larger can of worms about how modernism is often very different from what we expect it to be, and what some of the reasons were for what I would argue are strong and purposeful manipulations of the image, themes, and tenor of modernism by later hands.

But I'll try to stick to the main question first: why was I anticipating a different kind of character? Well, who was I expecting? I think I was expecting someone much more like a combination of Gregor Samsa and Winston Smith, from Nineteen Eighty-Four—a little meek, a great deal confused, and not very important. And I think that between these two characters, two influences on the continued reception and understanding of The Trial can be discerned.

First, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that Kafka's stories are overly determinative in characterizing his work as a whole, and this is particularly the case when it comes to The Trial. I don't mean to argue that there is a radical discontinuity between the stories and The Trial but simply that the continuity has been overstated and has obscured the novel, especially given the fact that the stories are far more famous and far more widely read. I think it is very limiting to read The Trial as if it were an elongated story from the same mold as "The Metamorphosis" or "In the Penal Colony," yet I think this understanding of the novel is not uncommon.

Secondly, I think it is fairly common to read The Trial as if its closest literary kin were dystopian and/or anti-Stalin books like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Darkness at Noon, or even One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Kafka may be more parabolic, more mystical, but there is certainly a nebulous sense of affinity floating over this group. Even if he is not counted a direct influence, Kafka is seen as the necessary precursor of any attempt to come to grips with the 20th century's traumas. You might be forgiven for thinking that without Kafka, we would be incapable of responding to the century, and more particularly incapable of responding to Hitler and Stalin.

I certainly don't mean to belittle Kafka; while I would come down rather closer to Edmund Wilson's (in)famous 1947 "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka" than I imagine most people would, I would never go so far as to say, as Wilson did,
with much admiration for Kafka, I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can… "One must not cheat anybody," says Kafka, in an aphorism which has been much applauded, "not even the world of its triumph." But what are writers here for if it is not to cheat the world of its triumph? In Kafka's case, it was he who was cheated and never lived to get his own back. What he has left us is the half-expressed gasp of a self-doubting soul trampled under. I do not see how one can possible take him for either a great artist or a moral guide.
Wilson is striking out more at the High-Churchiness so prevalent in the wake of T. S. Eliot, a type of sentimentality which was beginning to collide with existentialism and was being buttressed back in America by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and others who felt that it was time to justify the ways of God to man (again). I think that impulse is right, even if Kafka becomes collateral damage of protesting the persistent influence of this complex of ideas which Wilson was lashing out against. That complex, I feel, radically changed—simplified, revalued, and evangelized—modernism, and did so in ways that may be particularly noticeable with Kafka.

Let me restate: I think Kafka is the paradigmatic example of a more wholesale reformation of modernism that occurred in the years immediately after the Second World War, where writers were sorted for their possible utility to a reconstruction of the idea of man, his nature, his will, and his likelihood of survival in a terrifying world.

Mark Greif, in a recent article in boundary 2 (from the same issue I pulled the Franzen quotes) carries out an excellent examination of how William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were re-tooled in the wake of WWII, re-cut to fit a new pattern of affirmation of the spirit of mankind and the indomitability of his will. Particularly interesting is Greif's account of Hemingway's reaction to Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech (the one about "the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"):
There is biographical evidence to suggest that Faulkner’s Nobel speech was at the origin of The Old Man and the Sea. “It may have been only coincidence, but [Hemingway] started to write The Old Man and the Sea hard on the heels of Faulkner’s much publicized Nobel Prize acceptance speech,” a prize of which Hemingway was deeply covetous (Reynolds, Hemingway, 252). Later, when The Old Man and the Sea was complete, the New York Times journalist Harvey Breit solicited an innocuous comment on the book from Faulkner, and showed this comment to Hemingway. Hemingway sent Breit this response: “He [Faulkner] made a speech, very good. I knew he could never, now, or ever again write up to his speech. I also knew I could write a book better and straighter than his speech and without tricks or rhetoric.” The exchange with Breit is in Reynolds, Hemingway, 252–53.
I have a good deal more to say about Greif's very interesting paper, but it belongs in another post. What is important to this post is that there was a very conscious effort on the part of many writers and critics to find or create texts to fulfill the needs of a project that Lionel Trilling described as "the restoration and reconstitution of the will."

And while The Trial has never, I think, been read in these terms of indomitable human wills, etc., what I do think is the case is that Kafka's writings have been homogenized (so that the tone of some of the stories is taken to be Kafka's only tone) and that the product of that homogenization was employed as the necessary complement of the project to restore the human will: reading Kafka supplied the gaze into the abyss which allows the will to know what it's up against. Kafka, I feel, was drafted into the "crisis of man" discourse just as much as Hemingway or Faulkner, only he wasn't around to help with his re-interpretation and reformation.

What I'd like to argue is that passage through this reconstruction project has made certain readings of modernist works much more difficult or much less likely and has in fact flattened a great deal of the variety and, I would say, personality out of many modernist writers. Josef K.'s unpleasantness is significant because I feel it greatly resists the "crisis of man" project, and allows The Trial to be something better (fuller, richer) than an allegory. The Trial does not actually read (I would argue) as a sort of Everyman morality play for our benighted 20th century; it frustrates the conditions of universality as much as it invokes them; identification with Josef K. is not always desired by the reader and certainly not always requested by the author—these are aspects of the book that are well hidden behind an interpretation of Kafka that emphasizes universality, political relevance, and angst to the exclusion of all other concerns or elements of his work.

Richard and I have batted the idea of imperialist modernism around in comments before, and I think I am much more comfortable with re-locating any imperialist impulses here, in the immediate post-war period, when some twentieth-century writers were grabbed hold of as standard-bearers for the human will or for "man." And I think it is important to sharpen this point further: this project was not a non-political one, but rather, as the presence of Trilling should indicate, intimately tied to the goals and philosophies of the anti-Stalinist/anti-Marxist Left.

This is just a preliminary conjecture, but I think it might be worth considering the "crisis of man"/"reconstitution of the will" project as an effort to de-Marxify even non-Marxist texts, or, rather, to make all "important" texts permanently unusable to Marxists or to historical (or later cultural) materialist analysis and critique. That is, I'm not arguing that Kafka (or Hemingway or Fitzgerald) are or should be read as Marxist texts, but rather that the efforts of people like Trilling were aimed at least in part at blocking these texts from ever being appropriated by Marxist critics. (This is my embroidery on Greif's ideas, and not something which I'm drawing from his article, but I think it is an interesting hypothesis and one I hope to explore more.)

At the very least, however, the idea that The Trial belongs unreservedly within this discourse of the "crisis of man," that it in fact says similar things about human authority and the abuses of authority as the other participants in this discourse (as, say, The Origins of Totalitarianism or Orwell) needs to be challenged. Edmund Wilson may have been wrong to dissent that Kafka was not a great artist, but he was right to protest the way Kafka was turned into a saint of the post-war years.


Richard said...

Interesting post. For me, more so because of the basic idea of expectations getting in the way of actual reading than in the narrative about the "crisis of man". Though of course I'm also interested in the modernism narrative as well, as we've discussed. I have little interest in Wilson or Trilling. I may have more to say later.

zunguzungu said...

For me, the moment when Kafka started to makes sense was when a professor told me to read every word of Kafka with the knowledge that it's all tremendously funny. Which marks an especially sharp contrast with the Hemingway ethos of that quote; the heroic quest narrative of literature that Hemingway puts forward (and the narcissism of himself as the only possible questor) are exactly what Kafka's devastating mankind as dark comedy ethos makes impossible (and his loathsome protagonists are one of the best ways he does it).

In this vein, you really need to read the Castle; while the Trial is easily interpellated into the "innocent man swept up by gears of a facelessly evil modernity" narrative, the Castle foregrounds the protagonist's stupid quest for God, or whatever. It is also, by the way, the blueprint for one of the great African novels, Camara Laye's The Radiance of the King, which transforms K's search for the King into the quest of a white man in an unnamed African country for a colonial sinecure that he neither deserves nor understands but ultimately (in ways he didn't anticipate) gets. That doesn't do it justice, but it's an amazing novel and one which is especially apropos for this discussion, since it almost literally translates Kafka into an narrative about spiritual identity and colonial power. Or something. Which is really just to say this: you should read both books and blog them, because I want to read what you'd have to say!

Richard said...

Aaron makes some good points--the one about Kafka being funny is important. I remember a DFW piece in which he expressed his exasperation that his students couldn't see Kafka's humor.

Andrew Seal said...


Trilling and Wilson have always interested me, although I have a much greater degree of admiration for Wilson. I think he really is quite valuable reading still; his work ethic is also both intimidating and inspiring.

I was thinking about reading The Dark Child; you'd recommend The Radiance of the King first? It does sound really good--and it's got Toni Morrison's imprimatur (and the NYRB Classics')!

zunguzungu said...


That's right, I forgot about that DFW piece (though Prof. Pike dropped those nuggets of knowledge on my callow mind before I'd heard of DFW), but it's dead on. Such a good essayist.

The Dark Child is excellent for what it is -- a mildly fictionalized nostalgic memoir written from a kind of "can't go home again" equally proud of lost authenticity and acquired modernity. But The Radiance of the King is something else altogether; one of the strangest and most interesting novels from that period, a devil's brew of Dante and Kafka that more or less re-writes the Castle from the perspective (I'm going to say) of a believer whose Sufi-ism allows him to critique some modes of spiritual knowledge using Kafka but re-engage others using Dante, and to wrap it all up in an extremely humane story about a white guy with good intentions on the road to hell (but who finds his way to heaven).

zunguzungu said...

Also, part of what made me think of The Radiance of the King is what it has that the The Dark Child doesn't: an interest in thinking about the value of humanity even though humans tend to be jerks. The narrative of The Dark Child is very much one of the reconstructed modernity you cite -- "can African authenticity merge with Western modernity to create a more perfect human?" or something -- but The Radiance of the King is like a Kafka-esque farce with a heart, The Castle with an ending, and definitely a book about what an asshat its protagonist is. But as an allegory of colonialism, it does what few of the books from that period do well: it shows what a bunch of assholes colonialists were without letting that foreclose a discussion of their (and our) humanity or letting them off the hook for it.

There are some disputes about the authorship of both books, but I'm pretty skeptical of those claims; there are no smoking guns, and an awful lot of petty personal and political grudges seem to have driven that entire debate, to the extent that I've more or less ignored it all.

Richard said...

I was looking at this again, and I think there's a disconnect between your "two influences on the continued reception". They strike me as mutually exclusive--did you mean for them to?

Regarding the second, is The Trial really seen as belonging with that group? Is it really totalitarianism that Kafka is supposed to be prescient about? I'm not in academia, and I didn't study literature in college, nor am I independently up on much of the mid-century critical literature. Even so, I did come to Kafka with preconceptions, but they had more to do with bureaucracy and alienation, hardly unique to totalitarianism.

I'm curious how your read the Kafka chapter in Josipovici's On Trust in light of this. In addition, he has two excellent essays on Kafka in Singer on the Shore.

Kevin said...

I enjoyed your post. This passage caught my attention:

"What I'd like to argue is that passage through this reconstruction project has made certain readings of modernist works much more difficult or much less likely and has in fact flattened a great deal of the variety and, I would say, personality out of many modernist writers. Josef K.'s unpleasantness is significant because I feel it greatly resists the "crisis of man" project, and allows The Trial to be something better (fuller, richer) than an allegory. The Trial does not actually read (I would argue) as a sort of Everyman morality play for our benighted 20th century; it frustrates the conditions of universality as much as it invokes them; identification with Josef K. is not always desired by the reader and certainly not always requested by the author—these are aspects of the book that are well hidden behind an interpretation of Kafka that emphasizes universality, political relevance, and angst to the exclusion of all other concerns or elements of his work."

Can you expand on two points raised above?

One, I don't see how Josef K's unpleasantness prevents readers (whatever their aesthetic, ethical, or political tendencies might be) from identifying with him, anymore than, say, the brooding self-absorbtion of Stephen Dedalus or even, for that matter, the homicidal necrophilia of Lester Ballard prevent readers from identifying with them and their respective journeys. Why must Josef K be "pleasant?"

Lastly, you argue that certain interpretive strategies flatten out The Trial, thereby excluding "other concerns or elements of his work." What are these concerns and elements? What precisely is flattened out? What is missed?

Thank you for your time.

K (Kevin)

schultzie said...

I second the request for a review of The Castle.

Regarding The Trial, as Richard noted, it is more identified with bureacracy and alienation than totalitarianism.

Andrew Seal said...

Richard (and Schultzie),
I agree that The Trial is more often associated with bureaucracy, but I question whether bureaucracy is really so distinct from totalitarianism, particularly in the novels I grouped The Trial with. Bureaucracy is crucial to the absolutism of Airstrip One in 1984, and is part of what makes the menace of absolute power frightening in all three novels. The inability to fully face your accuser is a consistent theme in all of these books--even in 1984, with the climactic scene in Room 101; the mask, or the threat of the mask, intervenes before he can make any confrontation with O'Brien.

I don't think those categories are mutually exclusive, though. Can you expand on what you mean?

I guess by identify with him I meant something like feeling "this is not how I would act," which was a pretty constant reaction I had to K.'s actions. I could sympathize with him sometimes, but I never wanted to see myself in his shoes, and more because of who he was and how he acted than because of what was happening to him. Dedalus, however, well, a few years ago I wanted to be him, essentially, even acknowledging his self-absorption. I would say to myself, "this is how I'd act." Not that I'm proud of that.

I think other elements of the work that get excluded or obscured are, and this will probably be controversial for some people, the class issue. I think it's often forgotten or overlooked that Josef K. isn't a mid-level bureaucrat but the CFO (Breon Mitchell's translation actually uses the term "chief financial officer"). He's pretty important, and he tries to throw his weight around; he treats his class inferiors pretty arrogantly. I think that isn't always remembered about the novel.

Andrew Seal said...

Wait a second, let me back up from this and correct myself: I don't equate bureaucracy with totalitarianism. What I meant to say was that totalitarianism is often linked to bureaucracy. I don't think a bureaucratic arrangement is or will become necessarily totalitarian.

Richard said...

My mutually exclusive point was in reference to this: in your first "influence" you suggest that the reputation of the famous short stories overdetermines how people approach the novels, The Trial specifically. In your second "influence", you talk about the expectations based on its grouping with the other books around the them of totalitarianism. But it seems to me that the stories (other than "Before the Law") do not have this reputation--that it's primarily The Trial, and possibly The Castle that does.