The Trial (1962)

I found a set of Orson Welles films at HalfPrice Bookstore.  I think the only Orson Welles film I’ve ever seen was Citizen Kane. Orson Welles acted in Third Man which I watched with Dreyfus’ class on Existentialism, but I don’t think he had anything to do with directing it. Anyway, the set was only $9.99 for 4 films so I bought it and my husband and I watched The Trial tonight.

Last year, I was introduced to Kafka through a study of Existentialism and read The Castle and several of his short stories. I also learned about the basic premise of The Trial but hadn’t yet read it so the movie was a major trip!  I felt like I was watching an adult Dr. Seuss story or something!!

There is a sort of funny coincidence. My son had befriended a boy from California whose parents had apparently kicked him out of the house to live with his brother. I guess they had hoped he would get a new set of friends which would get him out of the trouble he had gotten into in California. I noticed that this kids was reading The Trial and I told him I was impressed. He said he was a relative of Kafka. Anyway, this boy managed to get himself into a lot of trouble here in Texas, too. Part of the problem, I think, was that he thought himself too innocent. I tend to think that is the problem with adolescence in general.

Adolescents are engaging in adult games yet still think of themselves as innocent children. It’s that sense of innocence that gets them into the most trouble.  If they would just admit their guilt, perhaps they wouldn’t get into so much trouble. Problem is, adults likewise maintain their innocence and refuse to admit their guilt, even when the evidence of their guilt is indisputable. Our entire legal system is based on the idea that we have the ability to be innocent. And that raises a really interesting question. Are we innocent? Or are we guilty by mere fact of our existence?

What happens when we begin to question our existence?  We discover our absurd inadequacies, and those of society, and this can lead to despair because we are forced to face the absurdity of existence. The reason it is so upsetting is because we have in our minds how existence “should be”, but when we start to really look at how it is, it doesn’t meet with our expectations. We want life to be orderly but it isn’t orderly.

That’s the problem with utopianistic visions and perhaps why both the legal system and the church are emeshed together in K’s “nightmare”.  We can demand justice all we want, but someone is always going to get the raw end of the deal when it comes to someone elses sense of justice.  (Sartre said “Hell is other people”.)  We demand justice because we think ourselves innocent.  But we are guilty by mere fact of being.  (Or at least by consciousness of our being.)

As I said, I haven’t read The Trial, but I imagine Orson Welles did a fantastic job of adapting it.  It’s not an easy subject matter to convey and I thought the film did the job brilliantly. I felt like I was in the middle of a surreal nightmare up until its inevitable end. I also appreciated the extra touches, like the Holocaust victims with numbers around their necks and the atomic bomblike explosion.  

We’re all guilty because our egos want to make sense of what makes no sense.

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.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

I read The Castle because Thomas Merton had highly recommended it in connection with with Camus. In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus devotes a chapter to “Hope and the Absurd in Kafka”. But it is Camus’ The Plague where Merton makes the comparison. He says that both The Castle and The Plague “deal symbolically with the relation between the inscrutable powers that influence man’s destiny without his being able to understand them.” Merton seems to take it for granted that K. has been summoned by the Castle. But I’m not so sure I agree.

For me it was difficult to tell whether K. was actually summoned by the Castle or if he, for whatever reason, decided he wanted to leave his hometown and find a new place to live so made up the summons. He clearly has no intention to go back home and frequently says he plans to make the village his home. It’s very ambiguous. Whatever the case may be, he is given the run around and cannot penetrate The Castle no matter how hard he tries.

Merton says that Kafka is speaking about religious alienation: “man’s struggle to bridge the gap between himself and a realm of utterly inaccessible transcendence.” The problem is that man attempts to “imagine and understand grace in terms of hierarchic organization, that is to say, in terms of “law”‘. For anyone who understands the New Testament, it is clear that this involves a contradiction that is beyond any solution. But for anyone who knows church history, it is also clear that the contradiction is in fact, inevitable. They cannot understand grace in any other terms.”

For Merton, the hero of The Castle is Amalia. She refuses an insulting summons from the Castle and she and her family are disgraced by this refusal. The Castle is always to be obeyed but she chooses to do what is “wrong” (yet she is in the right). She is Sisyphus. “She refuses unquestioning obedience to an arbitrary and revolting command. Her act is precisely the kind of choice which Camus describes as “revolt” against the arbitrary and the absurd, in affirmation of one’s personal life, one’s own authenticity and existential truth.” A significant point: it is not the Castle that ostracizes Amalia’s family, it is the villagers. Also, Irving Howe points out that part of what makes Amalia heroic is that she does not challenge the Castle’s dominance or criticize it. She simply refuses to have any connection with it. She is sustained by suffering and a quiet resolve. (Olga calls Amalia’s refusal “the original cause” of the family being despised. (Original sin that creates the fall?)

K. is “the stranger” to the village. He doesn’t understand the internal workings of the society and is constantly bungling his efforts to get into the Castle. The administrators of the Castle seem to be unsure what it is he has come to the village for but because they never make an error, they assume he is there to do land surveying, as he says. But rather than employ him, they do what they can to keep him somewhat complacent while giving him the runaround. On the one hand, he is standing against the system. On the other, he’s trying to figure out how to become a part of it. He’s no hero like Amalia is a hero. But that he wants to reach the heart of The Castle puts him in stark contrast to most of humanity that prefers comfort and complacency to struggle.

Max Brod was a friend of Kafka’s who pieced the book together after Kafka’s death. He, like Merton, put a strong emphasis on the religious aspects. He said the Castle represents a wish “to get clear about ultimate things” with the recognition that it is impossible to get clear about ultimate things because the world will not yield to lucidity.

Kafka wrote, “Man cannot live without permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.” K. searches for a way to penetrate the castle, completely exhausts himself, but his lifelong quest does not lead to a conclusion.

Kafka was Jewish so it is possible the book could also have to do with being displaced from your home and trying to fit into a totally different culture. There are many instances where it is clear that people don’t really want him in the village but simply tolerate his being there. Even the Chambermaid claims that K. is lower, socially, than she is. But at the same time, several people look to K. to help them break out of the system.

It could be specifically about a Jewish experience, but this experience has now become common within all of modern man. Irving Howe writes, “No other writer of our century has so strongly evoked the caustral sensations of modern experience, sensations of bewilderment, loss, guilt, dispossession. These are sensations known to millions of people quite unaware of Kafka’s writings and without any claim to philosophical reflection.” Robert Atler says that the distinctive quandaries of Jewish existence have become quandaries for all mankind. Kafka merely recognizes them. (He’s not out to convert anyone.)

I found the book to be incredibly tedious in parts which was very likely intentional on Kafka’s part. When K. falls asleep during Brugel’s advice, I thought I might fall asleep, too! It just went on and on and on and on… And you never know, is Brugel offering something of value? Should I be paying closer attention to his ramblings? Or is this just more of the same old runaround K. comes up against at every turn?

The book actually ends mid-sentence. Max Brod said he once asked Kafka how he intended to end the book and Kafka replied:

The ostensible land surveyor was to find partial satisfaction at least. He was not to relax his struggle, but was to die worn out by it. Round his deathbed the villagers were to assemble, and from the Castle itself word was to come that though K.’s legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was to e permitted to live and work there.

So Kafka never intended to have K. reach the castle.

Just a few quotes I found interesting:

After Freida has allowed K. to look through the peephole at Klamm (the Castle authority), the landlady chastises him: “But just tell me, how did you have the face to look at Klamm? You needn’t answer, I know you think you were quite equal to the occasion. You’re not even capable of seeing Klamm as he really is; that is not merely an exaggeration, for I myself am not capable of it either.” (This from a woman who was summoned by Klamm so apparently has slept with him.)

The Mayor: “Is there a Control Authority? There are only Control authorities. Frankly, it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?”

K. to the teacher: “…but that I had other things to think of than polite behavior is true enough, for my existence is at stake, which is trheatened by a scandalous official bureaucracy whose particular failings I needn’t mention to you, seeing that you are an acting member of it yourself.”

Olga to K. on getting official appointment in the Castle: “…let us say someone like that [someone wanting to seize an opportunity for Castle promotion] goes in for the examination, for years he waits in fear and trembling for the result, from the very first day everybody asks him in amazement how he could have dared to do anything so wild, but he still goes on hoping – how else could he keep alive?” (Kierkegaard?)

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?