A Little Kafka

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one morning.” Thus begins Kafka’s enigmatic novel The Trial.  The trial never takes place;  K. is never free nor incarcerated; the court never tells him the nature of the charges against him; he is supposed to know them, and his ignorance is further proof of his culpability.  When he tries to get information from the court, he is accused of impatience or impertinence; when he tries to ignore the court or simply wait for their next move, he is blamed for indifference or obduracy.  In one of the final scenes K. is talking to the prison chaplain in the cathedral, and the priest, after another of K.’s efforts to gains some certainty about his fate, tries to explain K.’s situation by telling him the following parable:

“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard.  To this doorkeeper, there comes a man from the country who begs admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed then to enter later.  ‘It is possible,” answers the doorkeeper, “but not at this moment.”  Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man bends down to peer through the entrance.  When the doorkeeper sees that, he laughs and says “If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission.  But note that I am powerful, and I am only the lowest doorkeeper.  From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other.  Even the third of these has an aspect that I cannot bear to look at.”

The man is given a stool and permitted to sit down at the side of the door, and there he sits for many years.  Again and again he tries to get admission or at least a definitive answer, but he is always told that he cannot enter yet.  At long last his life is drawing to a close.

Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole of his sojourn condenses in his mind into one question, which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper.  He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body.  The doorkeeper has to bend far down to hear him, since the difference in size has increased very much to the man’s disadvantage.  “What do you want now?” asks the doorkeeper, “you are insatiable.”  “Everyone strives to attain the Law,” answers the man, “how does it come about then, that in all these years, no one has come seeking admittance but me?”  The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength, and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since the door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

“So, the doorkeeper deluded the man,” says K. immediately.  But the priest convincingly and carefully proves to him that the doorkeeper cannot be blamed, that he even went far beyond his duty to help the man.  K. is perplexed, but cannot dismiss the cogency of the priest’s long interpretation.  “You have studied the story more exactly, and for a longer time,” he concedes.

“So you think that the man was not deluded?”  “Don’t misunderstand me” warns the priest, and proceeds to show that there is another interpretation which shows that the deluded person is really the doorkeeper.  And so convincing is this second exegesis that in the end K. is forced to agree again:  “This is well argued, and I am inclined to agree that the doorkeeper is deluded.”  But again the priest immediately finds fault with K.’s agreement, for to doubt the doorkeeper’s integrity is to doubt the Law itself.  “I don’t agree with that point of view,” says K. shaking his head, “for if one accepts it one must accept as true everything that the doorkeeper says.”  “But you yourself have sufficiently proved how impossible it is to do that.”   “No” says the priest, “it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”  “A melancholy conclusion,” says K.  “It turns lying into a universal principle.”

And with this, their dialogue ends on the same exhausted, ambiguous note that pervades all of K.’s attempts to reach an understanding.  Every time he thinks he has succeeded in putting the bewildering sequences of events in order, he is shown that it is not the “right” order.  The priest’s last words are “The Court makes no claims upon you.  It receives you when you come, and it relinquishes you when you go.” Kafka’s K., like Dostoevski’s  Prince Myshkin, lives in a world where the Tables of the Law can be turned around and reveal that the contrary to them is written on the other side.  Behind Myshkin the doors of an insane asylum close forever, and K. is eventually killed by two envoys of the Court.

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One Response to A Little Kafka

  1. Miss Virginia says:

    I think I’ve heard this story before. Who is this Kafka? A Holdeman minister? He certainly knows the story.

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