My bike was stolen a few days ago. WHAT THE HECK. It was somewhat comforting to be told by the police that I was part of a theft epidemic: in six days, my bike was the eleventh theft to be reported. RIP, loyal bike. I filled out a report, was given a Crime Reference Number and was told where would be the best place to “park” my bike in the future–i.e., where the security cameras are. It was almost comforting, in a way. I felt like I was being Served and Protected by a Lawful and Organized Society. When my passport was stolen in Colombia three years ago, I only went to the police because I needed an official report to submit with my application for a new one. That being said, I doubt American/English police would have done any better at finding a stolen passport than Colombian ones. THAT being said, it’s also true that if my bicycle had been stolen in Colombia, I could have maybe tried to track it down in the black market (this happened to my brother’s friend and the hubcaps off his car–he basically had to buy his hubcaps back from the person who stole them!). So, I think there is something to be said about living in a society where it feels like the Law Works. Sometimes annoyingly so (I’m mainly referring to those parking tickets I used to get from the VERY overattentive Portland police downtown!!).
It just so happened that we read Kafka’s The Trial for my class this week, which felt like EXTREMELY appropriate timing–not just because of the bike theft, but because of the epic water leak that took place in my house yesterday which led to nightmarish and (yes, I’m gonna say it) Kafkaesque dealings with the house insurance bureaucracy. Thank goodness I had Kafka around to provide some perspective.
There is always something so unsettling about reading Kafka. Those first sentences! Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning. I can never read Kafka from a neutral, detached position–I always feel like I’m being hit by a train. So many classic questions about this book–what is K on trial for? Is it a judicial trial? A political one? Moral? Religious? Is K really innocent as the opening sentence claims? Or does K become guilty over the course of the novel–almost like a Minority Report situation, in which the arrest happens before the crime takes place? Who or what is the Law that is judging K? A state one? Godly? Paternal? Why is judgement something that we are so afraid of, yet something we do so often to ourselves?
Big, big questions. I think the one I found most fascinating is the one connected to judgement. I’m not religious and don’t really believe in any kind of deep moral code apart from hippie-dippiness (or IDK, maybe I do, but I’d probably have to undergo an intense series of questions in order to figure it out). But I find it so, so interesting that Kafka himself felt so guilty and unworthy throughout his life. Guilty of what, and why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Where is this guilt coming from; why do we feel guilty all the time? Who are we apologizing to, what are we begging for, what did we DO WRONG? I guess in Kafka’s case you can point it back to his father, who comes off as a very judgmental, authoritative ruler in classic works such as Kafka’s letter to him (I just read here that Kafka often described his relationship with his father as a Prozess (trial), and used legal terms like Urteil (judgement or sentence) and Schuld (guilt) constantly throughout the letter). But is it really so simple that we all just had messed up childhoods? Is that really all there is to it? Is life all just one big TRIAL and PROCESS as we wait for the ultimate JUDGEMENT of our pitiful selves at the end?
WHO KNOWS. But even if you don’t have a father like Kafka’s, it’s still true that as a kid you’re basically born into a world with a series of rules and conventions that you have to automatically accept, even if they seem extremely irrational to you. Oh, the number of times I had to tell kids in line at the Boys & Girls Club “keep your hands to yourself,” or “no pushing. No cutting in line.” Why? they would sometimes ask, and I would mumble something like We want to be respectful. But why indeed? Why not just have chaos, with everyone pushing and cutting as much they want? I guess I just answered my own question–because it would be chaos. And that it’s better to have a collective situation that we all adhere to (stopping at red lights, keeping our hands to ourselves) as opposed to transgressive individuals that cause problems. As the priest says in The Trial’s next-to-last chapter, “One doesn’t have to accept everything as true, one only has to accept it as necessary.”
But still. I thought it was so interesting that until my bike was stolen, I didn’t really pay any attention to the police’s existence. I guess you’re always somewhat aware of the Law’s presence in the back of your mind–not jaywalking or shoplifting or killing random people, etc. But it’s like the Law just exists, and you only notice it either when you break it or appeal to it. That’s another Big Question we got into during class–DOES the Law actually exist?! Or is it only expressed through a series of concrete processes, like the trial, arrest and paperwork that K goes through in novel? What if there is nothing holding the legal system together other than the fact that everyone agrees that it exists and is necessary for a functioning society? What does it mean if the only thing that keeps a system going is a belief in its own worth?
I find this last question FASCINATING when applied to art and religion respectively. In terms of thinking about art in The Trial, I was especially struck by K’s encounter with the painter Titorelli, who apart from dispensing depressing legal advice also attempts to sell K his paintings. However, all of Titorelli’s paintings turn out to be copies of each other, the same bland depiction of a boring landscape. This is, like, the opposite of what art is supposed to be: the unique, original expression of an individual’s consciousness. It’s why people value art, or paintings–to use a lame example, it’s why the Mona Lisa itself is considered worth gajillions of dollars as opposed to postcards of it, and why no one would actually REALLY want to buy a copy of Pierre Menard’s book–people want the real thing, not a reproduction (at least that’s what I THINK people want!). But with Titorelli in The Trial, Kafka has completely removed the reason why we consider art to be worthy in our society–we all mutually agree to consider art “valuable” because it’s the only one of its kind, and yet that isn’t how the one artist in the book makes his living.
In terms of religion (and I need to make this quick cuz I gotta get back to my “real” work!!), many people have apparently interpreted the infamous parable that takes place near the book’s end as a commentary on religious judgement. It’s narrated to K in a cathedral by the prison chaplain, the door in the story sounds like the gates of heaven, is glowing with radiant light, etc. All very religious sounding. Maybe for Kafka, when it comes to attempting an encounter with the Ultimate Experience–whether it be with God or the Law or Art whatever–none of us ever get through the door. We only ever encounter the equivalent of the doorkeeper, coarse and crude with fleas in his beard.
Oh Kafka!! I think one of the reasons I never get tired of reading him is because there’s something about his style and subject matter that always feels so deeply meaningful. His writing always feels like it’s hinting at these very deep, brutal truths about individuals and society. If only I could understand this, I think, it would change everything. If I could just interpret this right, it would make a really big difference. That’s what’s great about really good books–they make you want to try to discuss and interpret and understand, as opposed to just Dutifully Accept.