Blue Velvet (1986)

I have been making my way through all the films of a few directors. I’m currently watching all things Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman and watched almost everything David Lynch back in 2007.  I noticed, however, that I hadn’t written anything for a few of his films.  Blue Velvet was one of them so I re-watched it last night.  (I own almost everything by David Lynch.)

I didn’t like this movie at all the first time I saw it.  It was super disturbing to me.  But that was before all of my studies in Existentialism and Abusrdism, etc.  I also know a lot more about David Lynch now than I did when I first watched it. It’s a deeply disturbing film. It’s supposed to be disturbing!  It’s not violence for the sake of violence, it’s violence used in order to wake us up to who it is we truly are!

Many critics hated this film, but Lynch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for it. Blue Velvet helped launch a lot of careers, too. Isabella Rossellini had been known primarily as a Lancome model, but her role as Dorothy Vallens made her known as an actress, even though she had been in other films prior to Blue Velvet. This movie launched Laura Dern’s adult career. And Dennis Hopper was brought back into acting after having been in rehab.  I don’t know that I realized Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the lead role in the film, was the same guy who played the detective in Twin Peaks until watching it this time around.  (I hadn’t yet seen Twin Peaks when I first saw Blue Velvet.)

I don’t ever try to pretend that I really know what Lynch has in mind with his films. He says he creates a mood and it’s the experience he’s after, not an intellectual interpretation. What he often does is take a normal, every day occurrence and stretch it to absurd lengths. So you have to wonder if maybe he’s not referring to domestic incest in this film?  Everything is Mommy and Daddy and even the boy who just wants to help ends up having sex with “Mommy” and hits her. That scene was hugely moving to me because it’s what typically happens. Someone is abused and so they expect that abuse from everyone. They almost call it upon themselves by focusing on the ugliness in someone who would otherwise be respectful. We all have our Karamazov sides (Dostoevsky).


The old lady at the end of the film says, “I would never eat a bug”.  Well, if you were a bird, you would!   You can’t ever say “I would never” because situations dictate behavior. You say you would never have engaged in what the U.S. soldiers engaged in at Abu Ghraib, but you weren’t there, so how do you know? Philip Zimbardo did a now famous study called the Stanford Prison Experiment which proves that monsters can be made of decent people. It’s easy to judge when from outside of the situation.  But what happens when you are within it? The problem is never the individual, the problem is much larger than that – it’s the system. And we’re all a part of the system!!

I also like the first scene where we see the beautiful suburban yard Jeffrey’s father is working in. It’s perfect. But after Jeffrey’s dad is suddenly struck with a heart attack, we are shown what lies underneath the yard – lots of nasty bugs.  But those bugs help to keep that yard looking good, too, don’t they? Or are the bugs destructive?

When Jeffrey first enters Dorothy Vallens apartment, he’s acting as bug exterminator. He’s going to get rid of the dark underbelly of whatever is going on. Turns out, however, he’s got his dark underbelly, too! Sandy claims that she has a dream of all of the darkness being gone as soon as the robins return. But when the robin returns, it eats the bug which is viewed by the elderly woman as a disgusting act.

It’s all a matter of perception.

The mystery begins when we enter into the rotting ear with Jeffrey and we don’t come out of that ear until the very end of the film.  It’s these sorts of details that keep me watching David Lynch films over and over again. 

Red Beard (1965)

Red Beard is quite thought provoking, although it’s not one of my more favorite Kurosawa films.  But it’s still an extremely interesting and entertaining film. Stephen Prince provides the commentary on The Criterion Collection edition. He says this is the last film in the most productive part of Kurosawa’s career. It’s also his last black and white film and the last time he and Toshiro Mifune worked together. 

Mifune was forced to maintain his beard throughout the long process of filming Red Beard which did not allow him to be in any other films. This created a rift between Mifune and Kurosawa and ended up being very difficult for Kurosawa because Mifune was basically Kurasawa’s on-screen persona. (Sounds like Kurasawa could be extremely stubborn!)

Since 1943, Kurosawa had been making films that contained unlikely heroes and dealt with themes of wisdom, spiritual growth, enlightenment and the idea of living well by doing good for others. According to Prince, Red Beard, which was made in 1965, is the last time Kurosawa creates heroes or uses these themes in any of his films.

Red Beard also represents a change in Kurosawa’s thinking. In this film, he moves away from direct confrontation with social problems because Kurosawa has recognized that politics doesn’t help. So he shifts from a social critique to the timeless view of human suffering.

The screen play for the movie was loosely based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto.  Kurosawa also created a sub-plot which he took literally from Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Injured ( aka The Insulted and Humiliated).  He filmed the scenes exactly as Dostoevsky wrote them.

The main character, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto, has just graduated from medical school in Nagasaki. This is significant because Nagasaki is the home of western medicine in Japan. The Dutch had brought western medicine to Japan through the port in Nagasaki. The Japanese called it “Red Hair Medicine”.  Red Beard is a doctor who is very adept at western medicine, but likewise recognizes the traditional Japanese mind/body connection. He bridges the pre-modern and modern/east and west.

At the beginning of the film, Red Beard asks to see Yasumoto’s notes. This angers Yasumoto because he thinks of his notes as personal property.  Red Beard, on the other hand, sees them as being for the good of everybody. This is part of the east/west split. The medical profession isn’t just about prestige and money, it’s first and foremost about serving people.

For Red Beard, an outward illness is always the sign of an inner wound of the heart. Life inflicts pain on those who are willing to endure it and Red Beard sees his job as the attempted alleviation of the suffering created by the existential pain and horror of being in the world. This requires as much compassion as it does medical know how. Medicine is often too literal minded to grasp the depths of death.  When Yasumoto looks upon death, all he can see is a man gasping for breath – he is unable to see into the man’s heart.

Throughout the film, Yasumoto undergoes a slow awakening as he more and more willingly becomes the pupil of Red Beard. Yasumoto slowly begins to recognize the paradox of  individualism:  the more we are able to recognize ourselves as individuals, the more likely we are to engage in self-sacrifice. This comes straight from Dostoevsky:

Voluntary, fully conscious self-sacrifice, free of any outside constraint of one’s entire self for the benefit of all is in my opinion the mark of the highest development of individuality; it’s highest power; it’s highest self-mastery; the highest freedom of one’s own self will.”  –  Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Prince says that part of the reason Kurosawa uses Otoyo in the film (based on Dostoevsky’s Nellie in The Insulted and Injured) was because he had a similar experience when he was in his 20s. He found a young girl tied to a bed and her stepmother was burning her skin. He tried to free the girl from the bed, but then chastised him for it. If Kurasawa were to let her go, she would be punished much more severely.  So he left her because his pity would only make things worse. For Kurosawa, we are all condemned to endure life: suicide is not an option. But this creates a dilemma similar to what Kurosawa experienced with the girl because doctors are very often faced with having to save people who would much rather be dead.

As always, Kurosawa provides much to contemplate!

The Silence of God Trilogy (1961-1963)

I recently watched all of Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God Trilogy. Bergman was raised by a Lutheran minister in a very harsh, cold religious atmosphere. My religious upbringing was much more warm and less imposing so I can’t really relate to what it was he had to let go. The God he had been taught to wait for was like a spider. Something hideous and cold. But he eventually came to the conclusion God is Love. He tried to get this across in Through a Glass Darkly, the first of the trilogy, but it didn’t really come across as he had hoped.

Through a Glass Darkly is “conquered certainty/God defined”.  Winter Light is the second in the trilogy – “certainty unmasked/God exposed.” It’s about a minister who is asked to tell a man why he should believe in God, but the minister finally professes his own disbelief. He comes to realizes his life has been a lie. It’s a harsh reality. Supposedly, this was Bergman’s favorite film of all the films he has made.

Near the end of the film, a disabled man who has suffered physically all of his life and wonders why it is everyone focuses on Jesus’ suffering since it was a relatively short suffering. Surely, the true suffering was created by the betrayal of his friends. That’s the suffering we endure when we discover we’ve been betrayed by our ideas of God. It’s harsh.  It’s cold. It’s grey.

The third film is The Silence about two sisters who represent different aspects of one person. Supposedly, Bergman wanted this film to be “a rendering of Hell on earth – my hell.” It was a hugely controversial movie when it was released because it contained homosexuality, masturbation, and other controversial sex scenes. One of the women is dying. She’s a translator – she translates books from one language to another so that others can understand them. At the same time, she and her sister speak the same language but do not understand one another.

This is the crux of existential angst. The dying sister represents our need to live up to certain ideals while the younger sister represents fleshly desire. The two cannot be reconciled in current Western society because our value of abstraction based on reason is completely incompatible with individualism and individual desire. The younger sister desperately wants to break away from the older, dying sister. She says things like “I wish she was dead” to a man she’s had casual sex with but who doesn’t understand her because they don’t speak the same language.

Dreyfus said that it is this lack of compatibility that has created the lack of meaning we experience today.  Our reliance on abstract values has created in us a reluctance to accept our darker sides. We want a perfect world where there is no crime, ugliness, baseness (Karamazov’s in Dostoevsky terms), but until we fully accept the darker aspects of our nature, we cannot transcend them.

Like the woman in Through a Glass Darkly who decides she can’t live in two worlds, we’ll opt for the world of illusion.  Or like the minister in Winter Light, we’ll opt for disconnectedness rather than love.

Lately, I’ve sort of redefined the problem to myself in terms of prescriptive and descriptive knowledge. We have a habit of understanding what is prescriptive as descriptive. We desperately want the world to be how we want it to be so are incapable of accepting the world as it is. We create gods, systems, and institutions upon this desire and then become slaves to them. We lose our freedom and innate ability to trust. Bergman uses children and outcasts to represent our original innocence – the boy in The Silence remains able to enjoy himself despite the loneliness and starkness of his surroundings.

I didn’t grow up with a cold religion, but I totally understand the disconnect that Bergman points to.  It’s such a difficult thing to reconcile. Atheists who turn to science, technology, etc. for salvation from the world as it is are no better than theists who turn to God for salvation. It’s the same thing – the same disconnect.

The Idiot (1951)

I’ve never actually read The Idiot so can’t compare Dostoevsky’s novel to Kurosawa’s adapatation, but have seen this film several times.

Unlike Stray Dog, this movie is cold, cold, cold!!  The origination of the plot for the film is given to us in various ways: some of it is written in third-person narrative; some of it is spoken third-person narrative; and some of it we figure out through the actions of the characters. I’m not sure I’ve completely followed the purpose of the various forms, but it’s interesting – kind of like reading a novel while simultaneously watching the action unfold in front of you.

The film starts out in written narrative: “Dostoevsky wanted to portray a genuinely good man.  It may seem ironic, choosing a young idiot as his hero, but in this world, goodness and idiocy are often equated.  This story tells of the destruction of a pure soul by a faithless world.”

I’m laying out the plot just to try and get it straight in my mind…

The idiot prior to becoming an idiot, Kameda, was accused of war crimes he didn’t commit and was sentenced to death. At the last minute, the sentence was revoked, and he went crazy from the shock of the pardon.  He developed epileptic dementia and had so many fits he eventually became “an idiot”.  He can’t recall what life was like before his idiocy.

Akama befriends Kameda and tells him about Taeko Nasu, whom he fell in love with because he had been repressed as a child and took one look at Taeko Nasu which immediately released all of those pent up passions. He stole money from his father to buy her a diamond ring and this so outraged his father he disowned him. But his father died and so Akama has recently come into his fortune.  Both he and Kameda are headed to Sapporo. Kameda is going to see Mr. Ono, his only relative, who is tied up in some ugly business regarding Kameda’s ranch, I think. The military had reported Kameda as officially dead, and it seems that somehow, Mr. Ono sold the ranch through Kayama?  But that has me a bit confused.

Taeko Nasu is apparently a woman of ill-repute.  Supposedly, she’s been Tohata’s mistress since childhood. Fearing for his reputation, Tohata has offered a dowry of 600,000 to marry her off, but doesn’t really want to let her go. Taeko Nasu, like Akama, feels like a caged animal. Akama feels this way because he was forced to repress his emotions, Taeko Nasu because she has been a kept woman since childhood and has likewise has had to repress who she is.

Kayama is about to marry Taeko Nasu in order to get the 600,000 yen dowry and this somehow involves Mr. Ono – maybe because he sold the ranch through Kayama? I’m not sure.  According to the film, Kayama isn’t really a scoundrel, he’s just an unassertive coward.  Secretly, he’s in love with Ono’s daughter Ayako.

There are lots of twists and turns that keep twisting and turning.


So, Akama ends up with Taeko Nasu, but it isn’t pretty for either one of them.  They look like the Adams Family but with hateful passion rather than joyful, loving passion. The doors of their large home creak and everything is dirty and dark.  Really dark. Kameda ends up in love with Ayako who is likewise in love with him. But she can’t let go of her jealously toward Taeko Nasu who Kameda also loves, but not in the same way he loves Ayako. Ayako promises she won’t let her impetuosity get in the way, but of course it does.

Desire, rather than reality, rules the outcome of everyone’s destiny.  Nothing is allowed to be what it is.  Instead, everything is judged on image.  Emotions are repressed and come back to bite in a big way.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read, The Idiot, but this sounds a lot like what I know of Dostoevsky’s story. He was sentenced to death and somehow managed to escape and likewise suffered from epilepsy. Dostoevsky had some sort of mystical experience during his imprisoned days that made him feel connected to all that is. He de-magicalized the sacraments and re-framed them within existential terms. You see a lot of those re-framed sacraments within this film.

The idiot represents Christ and the isolation that is experienced by someone who is “good”.  People recognize the “good”, but they can’t accept it because to accept it requires too deep of a look at their own lives. Akama’s love is solely based on passion, and this eventually kills Taeko Nasu. But Kameda’s love for Taeko Nasu is based on the Christian ethic of forgiveness.

This sort of turns the norm around – where the upper class thinks of itself as “good” while the lower classes are “bad”.  This thinking was true in both Japan and Russia (and in the U.S. although the U.S. doesn’t like to acknowledge class differentiation).

Kurosawa is compassionate toward the suffering of those who get stuck in situations they had little control of but maintains that human beings still control their destiny through the choices they make.  It’s the existential malaise: we are responsible for who it is we are – no matter our circumstances.  And, what we think of as good and bad has been socially conditioned – it isn’t absolute.  Those who consider themselves to be “good” and superior to those who are “bad” have no right to claim that superiority.  Those deemed “bad” by society remain worthy of compassion and are very often “bad” thanks to the actions of the “good” who refuse to acknowledge their darker sides and what it is they have contributed to the actions they deem unworthy.

No Excuses: Lecture 14, The Three Grand Inquisitors: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hesse

Dostoevsky anticipates some central themes in Heideggers works. In Notes from Underground, we are introduced to an unlikable character. Spite and resentment characterizes everything he does. The central theme is that of freedom and free will. Dostoevsky is attacking the enlightenment and the idea that people can improve themselves (which is something Nietzsche also attacks). And he attacks the idea that people can have free choice in a way that it leads to happiness.

Dostoevsky shows that freedom and happiness are opposed. Happiness is very often the absence of freedom. Dostoevsky attacks the entire Enlightenment. What he specifically attacks is the idea that we can create a society that will make everyone happy. But what gets left out with this idea is our personal freedom. What is most important to us is our free will. But in so far as we go along with the plans that are supposed to make us happy, what we loose is our freedom. The Underground Man sees being spiteful as a philosophical freedom, not a character deficiency.

Freedom is a good in it’s own right, it is the most important benefit that we have. Joining and sacrificing freedom for the grand plan of society is to render us inhuman.

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky challenges the assumption that a person who is “very good” will contribute to the well-being of society. Aristotle, Christianity (through the idea of following Jesus’ example) and the Enlightenment all subscribe to this idea: the better the person, the better society. In contrast, the main character of The Idiot, by doing good, makes everybody’s lives terrible. The consequences of goodness are not always good themselves.

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement. The main concern of the novel is nihilism which Dostoevsky is radically against (as is Nietzsche and Kierkegaard – nihilism was taking over Europe during their time). Ivan represents the Enlightenment philosophy as well as the nihilistic principles. Through Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha – we see the whole spectrum of society with Ivan caught in the middle.

The idea that freedom is central to Christianity is something Dostoevsky wants to throw into question. This isn’t just a religious problem, it’s a dilemma of humanity writ large. He shows this through the Grand Inquisitor who is stunned by Jesus’ reappearance. He decides Jesus has to go because what Christianity has done over the past 1400 years is succeeded in making people happy. They are happy at the hopes it raises, in being saved, in being in the shadow of Jesus who has not yet appeared. But with the appearance of Jesus, people now have to face reality. Given the choice between freedom and happiness, the Grand Inquisitor says people will always choose happiness. So in the end, Jesus is re-crucified.

The same story is presented in Woody Allen’s Crime and Punishment. A man commits a brutal crime under the spell of nihilism – there is nothing worth obeying. Although the crime itself is petty, the man is haunted by a deep guilt. In Brothers Karamazov, Ivan said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. But what we get from Ivan is a picture of nihilism at it’s absolute worst. Ivan’s world is a world that entirely depended upon God for it’s values and depended upon God for the authority for us to obey those values – and it had cast off that God. If we are dependent upon this God, then it follows that without this God we are left with nothing. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were against this sort of nihilistic thinking. This is why Nietzsche said “God is dead and we have killed him”. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky think this dependence on an abstract God is hugely problematic.

The absurd is taken to spectacular heights in Kafka. The novella, Metamorphosis, is likely his most spectacular work. It deals with self-identity. In this story, the body is thoroughly changed, but the mind remains exactly as it is. Samsa has to cope with this change. He has to work with his horrible effect on his family. Kafka explores how our self-identity is construed by our body, but especially by our role in society and especially how other people treat us. His family comes to despise him and hate him. (What happens when you redefine the role in your family?)

Kafka’s The Trial sets the stage for Camus’ trial for Mersault in The Stranger. The idea is that we are all essentially guilty and it doesn’t have to do with any particular crime, there may be no crime at all. Just being human, just being conscious, makes us guilty. Consciousness is not just a blessing, it is also a disease. It allows us to see ourselves as inadequate creatures. With that self-consciousness comes not only guilt, but despair. If we say something is Kafkaesque, what we mean is that something is not only absurd, but also upsetting to our very notion of ourselves as human beings and our concept of life as it should be. We think life should be orderly, but life is not orderly.

Hermann Hesse was primarily influenced by Nietzsche and Buddhism. Hesse is one of the few writers who tries to bridge European and Indian thought. Siddhartha (1922) is an entire novel attempting to make this bridge. In Demian, Demian is a very well-adjusted young man. So well-adjusted that he is independent in a way that young men and children are not supposed to be independent. It is a refusal to go along. His influence on his fellow classmates and friends is far from being demonic. It’s just the kind of challenge that philosophers in Existentialism like to talk about.

In Steppenwolf, the central metaphor is of a 45-year-old man who is half man and half wolf. This was a metaphor used by Goethe and secularized by Descartes. Hesse wants to challenge this bifurcated notion of the Cartesian self – not in terms of a unification of the self, but a further fragmentation or elimination of the self altogether.

Harry Haller, the main character, is in every way a Nietzschean man. He considers himself to be one of the Masters but not in a brutal way. He is polite, mannered, and a good citizen. But he is brilliantly educated, extremely creative and exactly what Nietzsche represents in his discussion of the higher man. Like Kafka, Hesse challenges the very idea of NIetzsche’s “self” (the idea of aspiration, the idea of taking life so seriously). What Haller is mistaken in is thinking that his personality is split half and half (half man, half wolf). Instead, Hesse says Haller has “no self” (which is the same as saying he has many selves). This is demonstrated through the Magic Theater where all values are turned upside down.

The Western conception of the self imagines the self as a fruit – peel off the skin and there is a hard pit core at the center. In Steppenwolf, the self is presented as an onion. Peel off one layer and there is another layer. Peel of that layer and there is yet another layer. There is no center. This is a Buddhist picture. In accepting this picture, Haller can accept a joy and happiness that he was unable to learn otherwise.

Nietzsche’s theory is admirable and persuasive, but there is something obviously missing and that is humor, joy, and happiness. Nietzsche talks about these things, but we are never convinced. Hesse makes us convinced that we can start with something like Nietzsche but attain a passion that even Nietzsche didn’t understand.

ACIM Lesson 142: Review of Lessons 123 & 124

My mind holds only what I think with God.

  • I thank my Father for His gifts to me.
  • Let me remember I am one with God.

Substitute reality for God.  We think we are separate from reality because we think what we think about is reality.  But it’s actually illusionary because when we have a rational thought about something and put words to it (labels and categories, etc.), it is already in the past.   Alan Watts provides an example from Marshall McLuhan, it’s as though we are “driving a car while looking at the rearview mirror.”  The environment in which we believe our self to exist is always a past environment.  It isn’t the one we are actually in.

Clearly, the past no longer exists.  And all that lies before us is infinite potential (Nietzsche’s analogy of being out at sea and realizing we’ve burned both the land and the bridges and all there is, is sea, sea, sea.)   When we put too much faith in our past (the land and bridges), then we can’t be open to the present.  But if we fully recognize that we exist in infinite potential, how could we not be grateful?

Hubert Dreyfus said this was exactly how Dostoevsky “existentialized” (de-magicalized) God.  God, for Dostoevsky, was a field of infinite possibility.   We live, breathe, and have our being within this field of infinite possibility.   When we realize this, what is there to blame?  The past doesn’t bind us unless we allow it to bind us.  We give the past all the meaning it has and it doesn’t even exist!!  Make it a good story – one that opens you to infinite possibility and frees you from the past rather than a story that keeps you mired in the past.

Be thankful.  We are one with all that is and all that is exists in infinite potentiality.

Kafka Short Stories

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died at the age of 40 (1924) by starvation (he had tuberculosis which made it painful to eat). He came from a middle class Jewish family in Prague.

According to Joachim Neugroschel, in the nineteenth century, traditional absolutes were being replaced with scientific and technological absolutes. With this shift, the concept of “nature” and “natural” shifted.

Neugroschel writes, “For Christianity and European civilization, “nature” has always been something to overcome, conquered, tamed, domesticated – subdued and subjugated for human use. The West draws an artificial line between “nature” and “human” or “man-made” – as if a beaver’s “natural dam” and an engineer’s technological dam were not subject to the same physical laws, the same “natural” laws.” But “natural” was also used to uphold the ethical. Some forms of behavior were attacked for being natural while others are upheld, like men’s dominion over women, Europe’s domination over the rest of the world, the nuclear family, family values, etc. To make things more confusing, “unnatural” is considered to be a put down. Fascism saw itself as lending mother nature a helping hand by killing anyone that the fascist state declared unnatural.

Kafka uses “nature” in an almost sort of divine sense. His protaganists very often have to pay a terrible price when they go against “nature” (like Gregor Samsa turning into a bug). The punishment is as severe as the punishment meted out by a vengeful deity in a Greek tragedy.

So the question becomes, how natural are these systems that have been deemed natural? Kafka wants to expose the destructive basis of systems but at the same time wants to restore things back to their “natural” order in some way.

My favorite stories in The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) are: “The Judgment”, “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “A Report for an Academy”.

Kafka wrote “The Judgment” when he was 29. I think the story has to do with the changing times. The father held the punitive patriarchal role of the family, but the mother has died which has subdued him somewhat and the son has stepped in and assumed increasing responsibility of the family business. It seems to him the natural progression. But as the son has become more powerful, the father has become less powerful and sees this as a threat. The father is hugely judgmental, critical, says his mother’s death was harder on him than on the son and ultimately condemns his son to death. The minute the father starts lashing out at his son in this way, the son immediately cowers and reverts back to the original father-son relationship with father as all-powerful and son at his mercy. The son obeys his father and throws himself over a bridge.

Psychologically speaking (which would only be a very shallow interpretation) it is extremely difficult in households with controlling, judgmental parents for children to establish their own power and control. The individual is subjected to the judgment of the parent which declares the individual non-existent until he judges him as existent. Even as an adult, it is very difficult to establish a sense of self-mastery when the value of individual existence is left up to an authority figure.

In “The Metamorphosis”, the father has lost a lot of money which has depleted his strength and so the son has stepped in to become the sole income earner of the family and does a good job. This increases the power of the son and decreases the power of the father. When the son becomes a bug, the father’s power slowly increases and rapidly increases when he lodges the apple in Gregor’s back that leads to Gregor’s death.

“In the Penal Colony” has a slightly different theme, but I think it’s in the same ballpark. An officer has been maintaining an inhumane, elaborate execution system that his previous Commander built. People are judged as guilty without being able to defend themselves and without even being told that they have been judged. The apparatus works by writing the nature of the crime into the skin of the judged over and over again. By the 6th hour the judge finally realizes that he has been judged (enlightenment comes) and likewise recognizes the judgment. The officer explains the observance of the judge at this point as an almost spiritual experience. But a new commander is now in place and he is not in favor of this execution system. So the officer is trying to talk the traveler into telling the Commander that it is a beautiful system. The traveler says he can’t do this so the officer tells the condemned man to get off of the apparatus and places himself there instead. The apparatus malfunctions and stabs the officer through the forehead. There is no spiritual experience that takes place – no look of enlightenment. The expression the officer had before he was on the apparatus is the same as in death.

I think this story could be understood on many different levels. But what I keep seeing in Kafka’s stories is this idea of judgment. In a patriarchal system, the father who is head of the household and a Commander of a penal colony hold similar positions. They both function very much like the traditional abstract punitive God. In all of these stories, there is the sense that a new understanding is taking hold but this new understanding cannot be understood by those who still exist within the patriarchal system. (Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” can’t make himself understood, Georg in “The Judgment” realizes his father is senile and so cannot understand Georg.)

In “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis”, a shift is taking place that is disallowed by the power structure currently in place. In both stories, the father figure is waning (God is dying), but in a last burst of energy, manages to denounce the son and the son accepts this denouncement and dies. The old system remains in place, however tentatively. But clearly, this system is nihilistic rather than life giving.

“In the Penal Colony”, a new system is likewise taking the place of the old. A more humane view is replacing the previous, inhumane view.

God, in a patriarchal system, represented a deity who could give or take on whim. Disobedience was punished and very often, the punished didn’t know what it was he was being punished for. The same is true in the family structure. A child is affected for life by the punitive judgments of the father in a patriarchal household. It’s as though this judgment is being written over and over again into the child so that it is always with the child through adulthood and until death. The child must walk a slippery slope into adulthood because what he perceives to be the natural progression is perceived by the father as disobedience. This is true of patriarchal societies as well.

But in “In the Penal Colony”, the commander is dead. (God is dead) and has been replaced. There is a young officer fanatically trying to uphold the system that his Commander put in place, but he knows the system is no longer powerful. His apparatus is in disrepair and he suspects that it is scheduled to be destroyed altogether. But he is still a part of the system and cannot go on without it. As though the Commander (a potential father figure to the young officer) is judging him from his death bed, the officer intends to place himself on the apparatus and his judgment is simply “Be Just”. But rather than have this written on his body and having enlightenment come to him at the 6th hour, the apparatus malfunctions and he is killed immediately.

What does it mean to “be just”? Especially if God (the patriarchal system) has died or is dying and the system that had been based on this God is now malfunctioning?

In “A Report to an Academy”, and ape has become human and is making a report to a scientific academy. He was caged and pinned down and realized there was no way out. His only choice was to be stuck in a zoo or to become human. He decided it would be better to become human so he learned to imitate humans (which he found to be quite easy) and became so successful at it that he was able to perform on the Vaudeville stage. His only freedom existed in becoming something he wasn’t. The ape says, “I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason.” At night he comes home to a half-trained female ape. But during the day, he doesn’t want to see her because her gaze has the madness of a bewildered trained animal that only he can see. He can’t stand to look at that gaze because it pains him too much.

This is another story that can be understood on many levels. But I think it still has to do with the idea of judgment. In a patriarchal society, it isn’t enough that we exist, we have to justify our existence in some way. And if we can’t justify it, then we die, either figuratively or physically. At the end of the story, the ape says, “In any case, I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report.”

So another question: Does modern man truly live? Or does he simply report? Is he just more data to add to the formula Dostoevsky talks about in Notes from Underground? We’ve gotten rid of the punitive God, but are we now caged by our reason?