1.) THE DECONSTRUCTION AND REIFICATION OF LAW IN FRANZ KAFKA’S “BEFORE THE LAW” AND THE TRIAL (I’ve highlighted the parts that you DON’T have to read. You DON’T have to read all 44 pages!)
There are so many strange and interesting things about K., most of which are introduced in the first chapter of the novel, and the thing that I find really interesting (besides the acceptance of his arrest that Melissa talked about in her post) is the audience that he has throughout the beginning of his day and his subsequent arrest (I’m not quite sure what else to call it even though he is never taken into custody). It starts off with him and the familiar elderly woman across the way watching each other, and with each subsequent irritation he feels with the proceedings, another person is added, starting with an ancient man and ending with the red-haired man. Who are these people and what do they have to do with K. and his arrest? The woman and his interaction seem like it could possibly be a daily thing, the way that they gaze or glance at one another in the mornings, she is something familiar and comforting. Both of the men are foreign to him, the ancient one does not pose any sort of perceived threat to K., but the red-haired man is now blonde, and proves as a distraction to K. in which he doesn’t realize the departure of the inspector and the guards. K. goes along with a lot of interesting twists and turns throughout the novel, but there always appears to be an audience watching him, and distracting him from what is really going on. The audience is something for K. to perform for, like in the court scene and even here is giving them a bit of a reluctant performance, and something to distract K. from asking real questions to help him figure out what is really going on. Is the audience even there, or paying him that much attention? I am positive that this older woman is at least present, whether or not she is paying that close of attention to K. is a whole other question, but shouldn’t the other people she is seen with, presuming they are family, also look familiar to K.? Why does the man with the red goatee change to blonde by the end of the chapter? How does the audience interfere with the events surrounding K. and the entirety of his arrest and trial instead of help, add, or clarify them?
Though chapter five, “The Flogger,” is a difficult and rather startling chapter to read, I believe it can be helpful to consider when thinking about how the officials both divert and consume K.’s attention — diverting his attention away from discovering the truth behind the nature of his arrest, but also psychologically consuming his attention so as to render him incapable of escaping the power structure he has become a victim of.
“The Flogger” takes place in the bank where our main character is employed. Working late one night, he walks past the junk room in the bank, where he hears groaning coming from the inside. Opening the doors, he finds a leather-clad flogger preparing to whip two of the guards, whom K. recognizes as the men who arrested him a couple of weeks prior. K.’s attempts to bribe the flogger prove to be ultimately futile, and K. has to hear and see the two men suffer as they are beaten, which deeply upsets him. The next day K. returns to the junk room out of curiosity to see if anything (anyone) is still there. Much to his dismay, he finds the three men still in the room and notices that “everything was unchanged, just as he had found it in the previous evening when he opened the door” (86) — a moment so temporally odd in that it suggests a “time travel” of sorts.
While there is much to dissect in this scene, I immediately thought back to the initial scenes of The Trial. Going back to the beginning of the story when K. is asking about the nature of his arrest, he is assured that “you’re under arrest, certainly, but that’s not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life” (17). To this K. responds, “Then being under arrest isn’t so bad” (17).
While I don’t believe it takes Kafka until page 80 to show K.’s naïveté inherent within the above statement, I think “The Flogger” explicitly (though perhaps unsurprisingly) contradicts the promises made by the officials regarding the simplicity and ease of K.’s arrest: the psychological, emotional, physical effects of K.’s arrest are now totally inescapable. Through this insertion of officials into K.’s workplace, the idea of K. being able to continue living an “ordinary life” is now completely ruptured. Seeing the flogger in the junk room thus perpetuates the idea that the violence and power inherent within the system that punishes K. is everywhere. I do have some hesitations as to whether or not the flogging actually occurred, though. Given that the second time K. walks into the junk room the scene he comes across appears to be a sort of “looped version” or repetition of the scene from the night before, this does make me wonder if K. was just hallucinating the event. Perhaps that would even make for a more powerful reading, as it would contribute to the paranoiac behavior K. has already been seen (as many of my classmates have pointed out) to exhibit thus far.
I am interested in the seemingly contradictory balance between K.’s renunciation of his arresters’ authority over him, and his submission to their authority in spite of his resolute denial of their claims. When K. is informed by the two guards of his arrest, he is unsurprisingly confused and frustrated at their lack of ability to explain themselves or the situation. To his knowledge, he had not done anything against the law, and he was left with many questions – “What sort of men were they? What were they talking about? What office did they represent? After all, K. lived in a state governed by law, there was universal peace, all statutes were in force, who dared assault him in his own lodgings?” (Kafka 6). This excerpt gives way from confusion to defensiveness, and he is consciously unwilling to grant the guards the authority or power they claim to have. However, on multiple occasions he seems to submit to these figures of authority without meaning to: when he is ordered to dress in a more presentable manner, he complains even as he is “already lifting a coat from the chair and holding it up for a moment in both hands, as if submitting it to the judgment of the guards” (11). When the inspector comes into his own house, he requests permission to sit down and it denied (13). These instances of submission contradict the challenges to his arresters’ authority which he frequently verbalizes in his confusion.
This leads to a bigger question: from where is authority derived? Does it exist only when others submit to it? On only the second page of the novel, K. speculates that by speaking aloud (and explaining his actions to the stranger intruding in his room), he unintentionally “acknowledged the stranger’s right to oversee his actions” (4). Could the subsequent events have been any different if K. had not acknowledged the authority of the stranger, or is authority/power something the guards would have possessed regardless of K.’s acknowledgment?
I found K’s interaction with the priest was very interesting, especially near the end of their conversation when the priest says that he, a religious official, belongs to the court, a secular entity (Kafka, 224).
The priest represents multiple versions of “the Law”, the religious law as well as the standard social law in which K finds himself a prisoner of during his trial. The two men discuss law within the space of the cathedral, with the priest elevated and under an intense light whilst K remains in shadow. K looks to this man for guidance, perhaps of a different nature in regards to his situation and the priest proceeds to give him the analogy of the doorman. At the end of their conversation, the priest reiterates that he is the prison chaplain and is still a part of the system that is imprisoning K.
Indeed, the whole cathedral scene resembles a courtroom, with the chaplain standing in the pulpit and addressing K with a certain authority that is reminiscent of a court judge sitting on the Bench. The priest gives K advice on the law and how his case is going as a lawyer would.
I found this scene interesting because there is always the stress in government about the separation of Church and State yet, as we see with this interaction between K and a member of the clergy, members of the Church are still subject to secular law, that the Law is permeating in all walks of life and like the law, the priest shows K the way out when he’s done with him in a rather cold manner despite the personal conversation that the two had. It is here that he is still a servant of the court as the prison chaplain and as such, he will leave K to his fate as their time is now at an end.
The idea of diversion in The Trial seems a particularly interesting one to me, especially considering the first real instance that Connor mentions—when K. remembers that he hasn’t seen the guards, Willem and Franz, leave his home. I specifically remember reading this passage and marking it as a moment of marked malignancy. What’s most unsettling about these lapses in attention or inhibited vision is the uncertainty about whether they’re harmless occurrences given paranoid attention by K., or whether there really is a malicious intent in the actions of members of the Court. Whatever the case, the novel does not seem interested in landing firmly on one side of the line; of course, this only increases the unmoored feeling one encounters in K. and themselves. In one startling instance in the Courtroom, K. is almost reminiscent of the narrator in Hamsun’s Hunger as he, maddeningly, becomes his own inhibitor during his oration. Kafka writes, “As K. interrupted himself at this point and glanced at the silent magistrate, he thought he noticed him looking at someone in the crowd and giving him a signal” (48). A pertinent reading here would focus on the paranoic structure of this sentence—the two gazes, K.’s which sees the magistrate but is blocked information, and the magistrate who might not know he is seen but still retains a privilege of secret information—and recognize that the anxiety and complexity of the thought comes from discontinuity, distraction, and distance from truth. Whether the Court and its magistrate are malevolent, or not, K. has internalized their function as he “interrupt[s] himself” and breaks the continuity of his diatribe against the impersonal Law and its executors. This self-imposed distraction becomes centered around yet another instance of privileged knowledge that K. does not have access to: usually it’s ‘The Law,’ abstract, but in this case it’s a furtive glance full of secret meaning that distances K. from the truth he seeks. I agree with Conor that The Trial seems to be another opportunity to employ Lacan’s work on absence and gazes; though now, distraction and self-impediment can be discussed in relation to Hunger as crutch of paranoic (and “normal”) cognition.
The strangest part of the novel, for me, was K.’s acceptance of his arrest. He never gets concrete proof of his arrest with papers, he doesn’t initially get a reason for his arrest, and no one even comes down to his house to arrest him in the beginning, but K. accepts his situation and chooses to be controlled by the two guards. The book seems to switch back and forth between two opposing and valid perspectives: the guard’s opinions and K’s opinions. To the guards, it is weird that K. would question the Law when he admits he doesn’t know it. Yet, to K., it is crazy that he is being arrested with no proof. Both of these perspectives seem valid, and I think that even though the guard’s aren’t fully developed characters, they are representative of a system that controls because its participants allow it to control them. In this case, K. chooses to conform to an unknown system and trust in it, when he doesn’t even understand it.
The Trial presents a case that keeps both the protagonist and the readers guessing. It inserts a strange situation into an otherwise ordinary life, and the main character is forced to cope with it while he carries out his daily routines. As K. says, he does not view his trial as a joke, but as something that ultimately does not matter to him. This belief is quickly reinforced during the initial inquiry, when he loses faith in the credibility of the bureaucracy. While he first intends to “observe more than speak,” he begins an impromptu speech about the problems of the trial, ignoring the magistrate’s supposed authority (Kafka 43). This shows K.’s confidence in his conclusion: that the trial is nothing but a case of corruption and the targeting of an innocent man. “Given the senselessness of the whole affair, how could the bureaucracy avoid becoming entirely corrupt? It’s impossible, even the highest judge couldn’t manage it, even with himself,” he says on this (Kafka 50).
I can see the connection between Slochower and Kafka’s text. It certainly seems like nobody is giving a clear answer to K., and people actively avoid sharing the truth, whatever that truth may consist of. The general suspicion that K. feels is visible to readers in small ways, such as when he walks to the initial inquiry: “Contrary to his normal habit, he was taking close note of all these surface details, and he paused a while at the entrance to the courtyard” (Kafka 39). This, combined with his later discovery of the badges that each man wears in the courtroom, shows his increasing fear of being observed by higher authorities. Such a fear juxtaposes his assertion that there is no threat behind this unorthodox trial. This might connect to the dueling states of mind that each of us would exhibit in a similar situation: even though we know that the whole situation is ridiculous, we are still threatened by the possibility of being watched.
What stood out to me while reading The Trial was how the system that punishes K. feels somewhat nebulous, lacking a concrete presence. As Slochower writes in The Limitations of Franz Kafka, in Kafka’s stories, the “others” “have no concretized existence. They are shadowy epiphenomena. They have no personality of their own, no individual life or legitimacy” (294). For Kafka, his enemies are unreachable and invisible, and yet, without knowing K.’s charges, the rules of the court, the intricacies of the bureaucracy, or the identity of the judges, our story continues.
This power structure that lacks any sort of tangible identification appears to elicit paranoic tendencies from our narrator. However, his initial skepticism morphs into a form of paranoic arrogance when he makes a long speech to the people in the court room, where he is “convinced that he [is] expressing their thoughts” (Kafka, 45). While what K. said was “harsher than he intended” he thought is was “nonetheless accurate…[and] should have earned an applause” (45).
In today’s world, we might refer to this nebulous power structure as “the man.” While there is an intuitive understanding of what this phrase means, when asked to explain it, it becomes a little more complex. When thinking about power and surveillance, there is no one specific “man” or building or place that holds this ultimate authority. It’s multifaceted, intricate, spread out amongst several people, places, and things. We, too surveil ourselves and others. Therefore, when the narrator attempts to get into the mind of this system of power that is charging him with who knows what, if anything, he seems to be projecting his own thoughts and anxieties onto these blank canvasses.
Posted by Conor
Throughout, The Trial, the main character Joseph K. struggles with gaining recognition from the officials that are persecuting him. The withhold crucial information from him about his arrest which causes K. to suffer immensely. However, Harry Slochower writes in his article that the protagonists Kafka has created are lacking. Slochower feels that they don’t have a distinct identity which hurts the story. These officials don’t appear to have any information to offer K. and they make themselves appear as lowly as possible. However, if looked at in a different perspective this was likely done on purpose by Kafka. Instead Slochower should look at these protagonists as a way of inhibiting K.’s vision. There are several instances where it appears that K. is being distracted from the truth. When K. is first confronted by the officials in his chambers at the beginning of the novel, he insists they tell him more information. They respond with indifference saying, “There’s been no mistake. After all, out department, as far as I know, and I know only the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That’s the Law” (Kafka 8). In this quote, no information has been given. In fact, it appears that the officials are attempting to appear unknowing as to what K. has done. K. is naturally angered by this and presses further, but in vain. No information is given to him. In the end, K.’s attention is diverted as if to prevent any more prying. It is suspicious behavior. This diversion of attention from the truth is similar to the plot in, The Purloined Letter. K., like Paris’s police are searching for something. The letter is in plain sight, but the fact that it is in plain sight diverts the eyes of the police so they are hidden from the truth. K. even acknowledges at one point that his attention is being affected by the officials. “Then K. remembered that he hadn’t seen the inspector and the guards leave: the inspector had diverted his attention from the three clerks, and now the clerks, had done the same for the inspector. They didn’t show much presence of mind, and K. resolved to pay greater attention to such things” (Kafka 19). This theme of diversion continues where K. is left in the dark. Once he attempts to gain more information, a distraction stops him from discerning the truth. What other instances in the narrative do you see the officials are adverting K.’s attention, and how does this affect the storyline? Or should K. use the technique of self-observation used to heal paranoia patients to discover what it is he has been accused from? The book doesn’t ever give a straight answer.