Every so often I would come across the word Kafkaesque, either somewhere in the news or some literary reference or uttered by an academic and/or intellectual in conversation. After this occurred once or twice, and after I grew tired of pretending I had a grasp on what the term meant, I looked up the adjective so I could better understand its definition. As defined by Merriam-Webster:
Well, fuck. That wasn’t any help. I mean, I get that there’s oppression and nightmarish qualities involved, but the dictionary definition of the term basically says that if you haven’t read it, you won’t understand. After a few more times of coming into contact with the term I decided to go ahead and join the club of people who are able to use the term with some sense of knowing precisely what it means, so I picked up The Trial, by Franz Kafka.
Our protagonist in this novel is the Chief Financial Officer of a bank by the name of Joseph K., presumably in Germany although I don’t think this is ever explicitly stated. We join Joseph K., most simply referred to as “K.” throughout the novel, on an exciting morning for him. This is the morning that K. is arrested. For what, he hasn’t a clue. All he knows is that men have shown up to his place of residence, inconvenienced him, embarrassed him in front of his landlady and violated the personal space of a fellow tenant in his building. (I hope you read all that in Rod Serling’s voice. I just did.)
From the jump, it’s clear that K.’s understanding of crime and punishment in his society is very disconnected from reality. Nearly nothing is the way he expects, and sometimes even demands, it to be. His arresting officers have no idea why K. is being arrested, and why should they? It is not their job to know such things. The officials he comes into contact with after his arrest cannot help him either. They, too, are simply doing their parts in a much larger show. From the moment I met K., I wanted to yell through the pages for him to shut his damn mouth and quit believing that he knows things about the world he lives in. Then again, I have been detained for questioning by the law in more than one country. My propensity for silence in the face of law enforcement is a learned trait. I am certain the first time I found myself arrested, my ignorance was just as glaring as K.’s. Regardless, I began very quickly to wish the man would simply shut the fuck up. Alas, he did not.
What K. did do was attempt to assert logic, or rather his version of logic, in a world that was very illogical, or rather one that seemed illogical to him. His expectations of the criminal justice system in his world are time and time again dashed by bureaucracy, nonsensical tradition, the intertwining of strange actors in various roles, a judicial system patched together in attics and alleys which I assume could only be the product of a long road of economic turmoil, and ultimately by a sort of religious experience itself. It’s unknown why this superficially familiar world behaves the way it does. The history of this society, much like its geographical location, is not rigidly defined. The reader is simply given the experiences as they happen when they happen with no discernible backstory as to why the world described is the way it is.
K.’s biggest problem is his unwillingness, or inability, to accept his situation for what it is. He often believes things are too serious in times when he should not, and dismisses his trial in the times he should be focused. He stands up to authority, which only ends up exposing his ignorance, and finds friendships in the least productive places, namely a chamber maid who he believes to be his closest ally. Unfortunately, she simply has a fetish for accused men. In the end, it is a story told to him by a priest that seems to help K. find some acceptance of his position, or perhaps just finally exhausts him into submission. I would believe either. Everything he knows, or believes he knows, doesn’t matter. He simply is where he is and has his part to play. If he had known the exact right things to do, people to trust, statements to make… then maybe his outcome would have been different. But that’s the catch of K’s world; no one ever knows what the right thing to do is, because everyone only knows their part. Escaping a trial is the stuff of urban legends. It’s believed to have been accomplished before although no one in present time has ever known any heroes who have done the right thing and been given their release. Whether or not the right thing to do even exists could be debated, although it’s my opinion that it does not. The only right way to be is the way you are supposed to be, even if that is not the way you are.
By the time we reach K.’s final moments, he is almost tranquil in his acceptance of his position. Not entirely, but almost. He attempts, best he can, to remain calm and stoic in the steps leading to his execution. He welcomes his executioners, only wishing they were of a better sort rather than wishing they were not there at all. He attempts to struggle for a moment, but even that resistance seems out of place to him and so he does not keep it up very long. I wish I could say that K. experienced at least one true moment of clarity before he died, but even in the end he seems to still be searching to make sense of it all.
Kafka never makes sense of his world to us. He never explains it, never tells us why it is the way it is. That’s the point. It’s not up to us to understand the world according to Kafka. It’s only up to us to know our place in it. K. never knew his charge, never met his final judge, never heard the bell ring on his own trial. That wasn’t his place. His place was to play the part of the defendant, and a guilty one at that. Just as it was the part of his executioners to play the part of his executioners, his lawyer the part of his lawyer, his judges the part of his judges. None of the actors understood their role, but they all accepted it. In Kafka’s world, understanding is not requisite to acceptance. That is the nightmare.
I’m going to read more of Kafka’s works. I want to solidify my understanding of the world according to Kafka. In the meantime, I’ve worked up my own definition of the term, one that doesn’t rely on whether or not you’ve ever read a Kafka book. I reserve the right to change my definition, at will, as I discover knew things about it in practice. For now, I define it as follows:
Kafkaesque: When the world you know is immaculately shattered by the world which is, helpless as you may be to prevent it…