Kafka For President: 80 Years of The Trial
, January 20th, 2017 14:43
On the 80th anniversary of its first English translation, Brian Coney examines the parallels between Kafka’s essential work of philosophical fiction and the continued rise of global despotism. (Photograph by David Fenton)
When I woke in the leaden early hours of the 9th of November 2016, I quickly fumbled for my phone, glanced down and saw a dead-eyed Andrew Neil mumbling a stream of words that, for reasons that would soon become crushingly clear, did not instantly compute. Before I had a second to wipe the fresh rheum from my eyes, a rolling ticker feed informed me that Donald Trump had, contrary to every smidgen of sense and soupçon of sanity in the known world up until then, come out on top in the U.S. presidential election race. The shit hadn’t as much hit the fan than an entire sewage treatment plant had rear-ended into a wind farm. And we were all unwittingly conscripted to stomach the ensuing stink.
Oh, to have only stirred from uneasy dreams to find myself transformed into a gigantic insect instead.
Drawing the curtains later that morning, having all but sickened myself wading through the same articles, retweets and opinion pieces, a friend sent me David Fenton’s ‘KAFKA FOR PRESIDENT’ photo from the New York City demonstration against Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey (the establishment doppler for Clinton in the 2016 campaign) in New York in October 1968. E-mailed without any subject or afterthought, the silence – as Murakami put it best – spoke volumes. Where Humphrey’s campaign slogan of “Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It” sounded only vaguely foreboding, both in and out of context, the Trump/Pence psycho-bastard fever dream, wrought and perpetuated by a conveyer belt of desperation, misinformation and systematic fearmongering, had veered into the positively Kafkaesque on a daily basis. If only the clued-in lady wanting Franz for president in Fenton’s photo could’ve seen 50 years into the future; old Hubert Humphrey wasn’t so bad.
Writing in the July/August 2013 issue of The Atlantic, Joseph Epstein said the “art” of Franz Kafka was “chronicling the unravelling of lives in which illogic becomes plausible, guilt goes unexplained, and brutal punishment is doled out for no known offence.” As said issue was hitting the shelves, Egypt witnessed what the Human Rights Watch called "one of the world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history” when two anti-coup camps were raided and 2,600 people were murdered by security forces following President Morsi’s recent deposition. A week later, 1,429 civilians were killed in the Ghouta chemical attack during the Syrian Civil War, making it the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran–Iraq War. With Trump having reportedly spent $1 million researching running for the 2016 election a few months earlier and racially-motivated murders of innocent African American civilians at the hands of police steeply on the rise across the country, Epstein’s précis of the quintessence of Kafka’s craft read like a synopsis of a world that was nosediving.
“And why am I under arrest?” he then asked.
“That’s something we’re not allowed to tell you.” – The Trial
First published in 1915 under its original German title Der Process (The Process), the opaque world conceived by Kafka in The Trial sees bank cashier and bona fide everyman Josef K. arrested on his thirtieth birthday, unaware of having committed any crime. Forced to defend himself repeatedly to an unknown authority for an unknown offence, his struggle – masterfully woven by Kafka in a disorientating cul-de-sac of false promises, empty hope and shifty characters – has been read as forecasting the rise of Nazism (Bertolt Brecht deemed Kafka a “prophet of fascism”), predicting totalitarianism in the Cold War and as pre-empting the doubly pervasive notion of the definitive death of God amongst post-war scholars and critics. Though it remains a work of extraordinarily potent experiential essence and bizarre subjective kismet – perhaps the greatest novel relaying the first-hand tale of a free existentialist interacting with people in society – it’s what Kafka called (and capitalised) “the Law” that maintains its increasingly relevant subtext.
Born a Czech in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kafka lived as a German-speaker amongst Czechs, a Jew amongst German-speakers and a nonbeliever amongst Jews amid a crumbling operetta-like empire. Were it not for his upper-middle-class background as a reluctant insurance executive and doubt-ridden writer who burned an estimated 90 percent of his work during his lifetime, his status as a double minority would have been much more of a day-to-day inconvenience. Certainly, were it not for his death at the age of forty in 1924 due to starvation as a result of tuberculosis, he might well have realised the same fate as three of his sisters, who later perished in the Holocaust. Stemming from this contrasting social footing – one informed by dedicating much of his day-to-day work trying to prove the cases of workers injured on the job – Kafka became one of the first writers to abolish the legend of fair judiciary via The Trial. Written during the advent of modern bureaucracy in 1914-15, the novel took the rot in the kernel of judiciary and bureaucratic systems – the very impenetrable nature of covert court decisions and secret processes – and reaped an absurd legal drama that outlines the dark "justice" of dictatorial governments by way of ensuring Josef K. could never come close to understanding the nature of his condemnation.
As Donald Trump took to the stage that night back in November to claim victory, a subdued figure visibly drained from having spent his life edging towards his final form as a shameless imbecile, modern America felt – perhaps more than ever before – emblematic of the Kafkaesque in contemporary society. As much mirrored in mass incarceration (which has seen an increase of 700% since 1980), the slow death of due process, the corruption of plea bargaining (95% of criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved via pleas), countless race-motivated police killings and the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump, attorney and author John W. Whitehead unwittingly summed it all up when, speaking about the U.S. National Security Agency scandal back in 2013, he said, "This is Kafka's nightmare and it is slowly becoming America's reality.”
When Josef K. says in the first part of The Trial that he must have been wrongfully accused as he “was arrested without having done anything wrong” the doomed protagonist – just like the many innocent black civilians indiscriminately slain by the police and millions of U.S.-based foreign workers on the brink of deportation – had come face-to-face with an excessive ordeal. Indeed, with perhaps no-one in a more Kafkaesque situation than an undocumented worker in the U.S. fearing for their very existence under a Trump presidency, the uniquely bewildering – and deeply isolating – case of Josef K. serves to represent the case of every émigré dreading what the coming days, weeks and months hold.
As with the novel's complementary parable Before the Law (itself a literary masterclass meditating on the very same cosmic joke without a punchline) the potent ambiguity that fires the enigma of The Trial is, by virtue of its continued adaptability to all systems sustained by corruption and dysfunction, precisely what sets it apart as a truly important work. Despite Josef K. being surrounded by various judges, warders, attorneys, a painter who can supposedly help him and a priest that is inexplicably connected, the episodic nature of the novel divines the innate helplessness and unending loopholes of all modern justice systems that are inherently crooked. Take the U.S. justice model, where so much depends on pleas, relationships and strategy; where the wrongly convicted have to try to navigate an unbalanced system where they have much less power than the prosecutors; where the ideal of an adversarial system is next to non-existent, the lack of funding for defendants is scarce and the dangerously informal process – strongly reflected with subtle complexity by Kafka in The Trial itself – results in a profoundly disorientating experience where secret negotiations occur between the prosecution and the defence outside of the formal process of public proceedings in a court room. In the case of Josef K., as with many justice systems around the world, there is all too often insufficient judicial oversight of the hidden processes where prosecutors hold vast power in a deeply skewed interaction.
In an article for the Guardian on 12 September 2015 (published on the same day Trump told a campaign rally in Boone, Iowa, “If you're illegal you gotta go back. We gotta build a wall and we gotta get rid of the bad ones. We've got some real bad ones”) Gary Younge said of the sudden spike in public awareness of the European migrant crisis: "A three-year-old’s body was what it took to make it clear that it was human beings we were talking about and not, as Katie Hopkins had described them, “cockroaches”. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse, the “insect” became a person." But whilst Younge’s inverted parallel was a certainly an astute one, it’s the overpowering sense of helplessness, guilt and the unknown that consumes Josef K. It's The Trial, not Gregor Samsa, that best exemplifies the case of refugees perilously setting off for a country they’re legally not allowed to enter, and whose only alternative is to stay – and possibly die – in a warzone. Where Europe’s acrimonious setting aside of legal norms of due process has fashioned a Kafkaesque reality for asylum law and the continent’s steady departure from the Refugee Convention continues to re-define its own parameters for establishing a humanitarian program that obstructs a vast number of asylum applicants from requesting international protection, the 18,501 European migrants who have perished attempting to seek asylum in the last three years are victims of the same inherent insidious bureaucracy that animalises and eventually executes Josef K.
Where Kafka’s novel The Castle boded the uncertain constitution of Brexit (namely in the interminable process of trying to leave without knowing whether or not it will ever be achieved) and his short story In the Penal Colony warned of the dangers that lurk in the manifestation of structures based on authority and control, thereby foreshadowing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond, it’s in the sheer multiplicity of dead-ends that litter The Trial – written during a period in which the aspirations for a united Jewish identity were challenged by a refugee crisis in Prague that resulted in the issue of an official decree banning Jewish refugees from the Galican from entering the city – that echoes the systematic futility faced by the vast majority of asylum seekers literally dying for refuge. As Josef K. says in relation to his dissatisfaction with his pompous advocate Herr Huld and the unknowable trial he faces in general, “Progress had always been made, but the nature of this progress could never be specified.”
In the 1870s, just a few short years before Franz Kafka was born near the Old Town Square in Prague, New York City policeman Alexander “Clubber” Williams said, “There’s more law at the end of a police man’s night stick than in a decision of the supreme court.” Without context, this quote can be read two ways, but in the case of Williams (who insisted until his death in 1917 that he’d never clubbed anyone “that did not deserve it”) he was a lawman who fell comfortably under a certain breed of uniformed despot, the pitiful blueprint of which has seeped down and resurfaced in cold-blooded ways in contemporary America over the last five years. Where the “illogic becomes plausible” part of Joseph Epstein’s summation of Kafka’s craft runs parallel with both the Trump endgame and Brexit (an exemplary case of an impenetrable headfuck that no great writer should ever have to endure envisioning) the “unexplained guilt” and “punishment that is doled out for no known offence” that defines The Trial is, whilst chiefly the story of extrajudicial killings of African Americans by police, from Ferguson and Baton Rouge, also the story of every single innocent person who has ever faced brutality by the hands of law enforcement impunity. And yet, whilst the lives of the innumerable innocent, unarmed and attacked – just like Josef K., K in The Castle, the unidentified man in Before The Law and numerous other Kafka characters aside – are backed into a corner by forces they might not always understand, the very real pursuit to attempt to move from beyond dwelling “outside” of the law – from Black Lives Matter and UNICEF to countless justice campaigners working with the wrongfully convicted and every single person who will take to the streets of D.C. on January 20 to protest – is a growing, intoxicating force in both the States and further afield.
Whilst a national reading of The Trial discredits the remarkable universality of Kafka’s absurdist meditation on justice and judgement, the context of modern America (a land which Kafka never visited but one he used as the the confusing milieu for his incomplete first novel Amerika) is surely the clearest lens through which to view it today. When Trump dusts down his China-made suit, blankly nods to his migrant wife and stands to take the presidential Oath of Office this afternoon, one could do worse than stop to remember that – despite his demands to his good friend and editor Max Brod just before his passing – some of Kafka's greatest works, including The Trial, were not merely unfinished but also posthumously published; confirmation, if it was ever needed, that no weight of Kafkaesque doom or self-doubt should irrevocably mould one’s worldview beyond recovery.
Nonetheless, the prescience of The Trial will remain a exalted caveat against complicity with those forces of subjugation that not merely create but also reinforce the machinations that routinely conspire to divide, destroy and – perhaps most critically of all – deceive us.