Kafka's Trial Here There Is No Why essay

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Kafka's Trial

"Here there is no why"

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz.

Attempting to determine what Franz Kafka really meant in any of his stories is a difficult undertaking, given the absurdity and irrationality of the situations he describes and characters that do not seem to function or react as 'normal' human beings. This is especially true in his unfinished novel The Trial, where the young and successful bank executive Joseph K. is arrested and put on trial without charges and for no apparent reason, then taken out and murdered a year later. He never knows why all of this is happening to him, and perhaps Kafka's main point is that there is no 'why'; there is no reason for any of it, and indeed the characters and society he portrays are not acting in a rational manner. Like Primo Levi in Auschwitz, who was thirsty and broke off an icicle outside the barrack's window, when an SS guard grabbed it from him and he asked 'Why' they only response he got was 'Here there is no why'. Under the circumstances, this was a perfectly sensible answer, given that the entire rational world had been overturned and inverted. Kafka seems to have anticipated that modern civilization was moving in this direction, and many of his characters were successful, assimilated German Jews who suffer from anxiety, depression and alienation, perhaps because they have an intuition that things will not end well for them. Even though The Trail was written during the First World War and remained unpublished at the time of Kafka's death in 1924, he may well have been a prophet instead of a writer and had a sense of the direction that the future would take in the decades ahead, where war, genocide and mass murder would become the norm, and the insane and irrational became 'sane'.

In The Trail, the Law, the courts and the judicial system are invisible and irrational, operating by rules which the people caught up in the Process (Der Prozess) do not understand and which no one ever explains. Indeed, there may be no real rules or laws at all, just on ongoing process that has no rational purpose beyond its own existence, like a machine or assembly line of destruction that just keeps running by its own momentum. Joseph K. may have been a victim of a bureaucracy, but it is a far more sinister and murderous one than that of the old Hapsburg Empire. In the end, two officials from the Court take him out to a quarry and tell him to commit suicide with a knife, and they were not at all interested in his work, education, family life and contributions to society. All that was meaningless to them, since they had a schedule to keep and orders to be obeyed: to them, he was just another name on a list, and possibly not even that but just a number. People from the windows nearby see that he is about to be killed but do nothing, no more than most of the Germans did when they witnessed to Jews being beaten, sent to concentration camps or 'resettled in the East'. Josepk K. had never learned what the charges were against him, never even seen the judge or the court where he had been condemned. No one helps him or intervenes on his behalf as these two officials jam the knife in his heart and twist it, and his last thoughts were that he was just being killed like a dog.

Kafka's writing could be described as existentialist or even surrealist, but it presents a portrait of highly alienated and unstable characters living a sick, bourgeois society that is not progressing but rather regressing and sinking into irrationality and degeneracy. At the same time, it is also highly repressive toward women, while minority groups like the assimilated, successful Jews of Kafka's Prague also seem to live in a state of anxiety and insecurity about the future -- and rightfully so as it turned out. His alienated modernist characters are always insecure and uncertain about their identity, fearful about the future and seemingly trapped in a condition on unreality. Their problems may be resolved by committing suicide at the end of the story, as the officials wish Joseph K. To do, but in the end he is unable to perform this self-destructive act and forces them to do it. Caught up in the machinery or death and destruction as he is, the only real choice left to him in the end is an existential one, but not whether he will live or die but only how he will die. His death has no real meaning or purpose, nor is any reason given for it, and there is no hope of any redemption, resurrection or afterlife.

Like many of Kafka's characters, Joseph K. is a lost, hopeless soul, with a divided bourgeois and German-Jewish self, so much so that the other characters may not even exist in reality outside of their own minds and internal dialogues. They seem cut off not only from themselves, but family, friends and society in general, and no one is willing or able to help Joseph K. navigate through the bureaucracy and the Process. Perhaps they do not care or have no idea how to help, or they simply have a sense that he and everything he represents is already doomed to destruction. Kafka's parents spoke Yiddish, which he actually regarded as a purer form of German that the High German (Hochdeutsch) that became the standard language in modern times. They were the recently emancipated and assimilated Jews who became citizens of the Hapsburg Empire and were allowed to serve in the military, yet there was also something surreal and impermanent about this situation, given the high levels of anti-Semitism that still existed in society. Kafka often reflected on this subject, including the idea that Yiddish was his real mother language rather than German, and was worried about the fate of the assimilated Jews, cut off from their language and traditions. He and his characters like Joseph K. existed uncomfortably as assimilated Jews, living in a chaotic era or revolution and global warfare, and often despised and distrusted by the larger society. Even they were superficially successful on the material level, this story has the same sense of doom, insecurity and foreboding that runs through all of his work. Although Kafka died before Hitler came to power, he seemed aware that things were not going to end well for the Jews of Europe.

Only a small minority in Germany actively opposed the Nazi regime and even though their actions were nothing less than heroic they were also tragically ineffective. Most Germans only regretted that Hitler had lost the war, and they denied any knowledge of the crimes of the regime or complicity with them. Part of the reason for this was the traditional German authoritarianism and passive acceptance of a string state. Even so, Hitler's support was enthusiastic in the 1930s and during the early years of World War II, when he claimed credit for ending unemployment and a strong of quick, easy victories over Czechoslovakia, Poland and France. This support only began to turn lukewarm with the defeats on the Eastern Front, the entrance of the United States into the war and the night-and-day bombing of German cities. Even in defeat, Germans rarely criticized Hitler, no doubt reinforced by the fact that doing so was against the law, although lower-level Nazis came in for more grumbling due to their corruption and venality. Not all of the Germans were true believers in Nazism but enough of these existed to dominate the state, the larger society and the coercive apparatus. Many were not enthusiastic about the Nazi policies toward the…[continue]

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