Kafka’s The Trial: This Sisyphean Life by Emily Hass

If you’ve read Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis”, or used the word “Kafkaesque” correctly in a sentence before, you may not be surprised to learn The Trial is about a thirty-something mid-level bank employee, Joseph K., who finds himself arrested for an undefined crime by a mysterious, senselessly complex court. K. initially laughs, clinging to the notion that power and authority depend on reasoned legitimacy as opposed to belief or brute force. But then he becomes obsessed, his encroaching doubt and sinking confidence twisting up his erect self-righteousness. Theoretically, being arrested and on trial barely has an impact on Joseph’ K.’s day to day life, yet he can’t let it go, presumably because he is on some level guilty. He then sets out on a journey to prove his innocence that is one part Alice in Wonderland (if Alice was a judgmental banker), one part punishing parable, and one part paranoid thriller.

Frankly, The Trial is equal parts entertaining and frustrating. Characters seem to wear many masks, the atmosphere is unbearably stuffy, the setting is dreary, sex consists of odd groping and weird head and hand caresses, powerful people and simpering direct reports are both irritating. It took me forever to finish. But the book is also funny: there are carnivalesque upsets and toying qualities to every frustrating episode. Plus, the final scene is probably one of my favourite conclusions. I’ve been half-carrying it around with me for a couple of days now, whether I want to or not, and I still can’t believe it was written almost a century ago.

The Trial is often interpreted as an allegory for religion. The court has “sacred” texts people refer to, interpretations of the system easily contradict one another (a judge’s favour is important, a judge’s favour matters little; your case is proceeding before your eyes, your case is indefinitely postponed; the court is just, the court is merciful), there is a High Court that is virtually inaccessible to man, women are strictly corrupt figures of temptation, and terror is divine. But while the penultimate scene features an allegory as, well, arresting, as anything JC ever said about mustard seeds, it seems to me K. is first and foremost a careerist—and what intrigues me is maybe this is what’s so damning.

K. does his job well. He enjoys the status and self-importance working at Bank affords him. His petty clerks are satisfyingly jumpy. And he loathes the Assistant Manager. Apart from his reactions, responses, and appeals to the strange Court players, this is about as rich a profile as he get of pre-arrest K.

K. makes every attempt, initially, to protect and retain his position post-arrest, but we sit in judgment as he oscillates, curiously displaying none of the practical judgment we might expect from his initial character build. K. acts based on waves of affect, surface impressions of individuals, and when he attempts to behave logically, he’s interrupted or deferred. The more he squirms, the more our confidence in him drops, despite ourselves, our knowledge of the inanity of the court, despite our better judgment. Somehow, the future possibilities for K. seem to shrink, as they often do for the guilty.

K.’s rebellion against the Court is an instinctual middle finger response, no more, no less, primarily because he always accepts its authority on some level, just as he continues to cling to the authority gained through his job throughout the process. K. seems to act out as opposed to act, shamed and cured of his frustration and resentment as he seeks out a small pat on the head from some superior, a pinch of recognition and self-worth in a truly absurdly structured world.

Plenty of twenty somethings looking for OK jobs feel a lot like K:. on trial for some crime that can’t quite be defined and worse, doesn’t need to be. Those educated and in debt raise a beer to this sinking ship, while nonetheless feeling panicked and ridden by inexplicable guilt, grasping around desperately for an “in”. When contacts seem encouraging, possibilities flow and warm feelings swell. When they are off-putting, superior airs are assumed: I didn’t want that fucking unpaid internship anyway. Taken altogether, the squirming, discomfort, and misalignment between a vague (false) promise and grimy inheritance is probably just as cringe-worthy as K. shrinking before our eyes. Short-term, knee jerk reactivity in fluctuating times is bound to leave you disoriented.

What strikes me about The Trial is its terrifying realism. Absurd, senseless, self-consuming systems are grim and the creatures that inhabit them abide by some blend of instinct and ritual. Their blindness and individual insignificance is somehow both sickening and refreshing, but the collective vision of the blind leading the blind is stunning. The fun and terror of reading without religious allegory (or even an abstract appeal to another transcendental like ethics or the good of man) is the absence of redemption or renewal. The rat on a hamster wheel, the puppet dangling limp on strings is our ancestry and our inheritance. Or, to think of it in other terms, Kafka put it elsewhere as follows: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last day.”

And until the sweet late of “too late” most of us shuffle along following K., cognizant that “There would be nothing heroic in it were he to resist, to make difficulties for his other companions, to snatch at the last appearance of life by struggling. He set himself in motion, and the relief his warders felt was transmitted to some extent even to himself.”

A fatalistic anti-hero isn’t a subversive portrait anymore, if it ever it was. It’s become a sickeningly sweet salute to our overripe, handwringing, cringe-worthy times.


Find more posts by Emily Hass here.


Post a Comment