Cathedral of Knowledge

Make Camus and Kafka Proud 



The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can?t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.
Franz Kafka
Reflections On Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way

If you happen to notice the term “Kafkaesque” being used in a magazine, newspaper or Internet article, or book or movie review, invariably it is in connection with the description of a giant beetle or an individual suddenly thrown into the nightmarish world of a mammoth bureaucracy. For example, Swedish pop group “Day Behavior” sings: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band is lethal/I see Kafkaesque scenes of waking as a beetle.” Arianna Huffington describes the “Kafkaesque” bureaucracy of this nation’s school system. An article on Linux security asks: “Mandatory Access Control: Silver Bullet or Kafkaesque Nightmare? Part 2.” To “Average Joe” Joe Brancatelli, AOL telling him he can’t get his usage information via e-mail is “Kafkaesque.” Last but not least, Dilbert, the final arbitrator of all things Corporate America, receives e-mail pleas from his Faithful describing “Kafkaesque” tales of business expense deductions being disallowed by internally inconsistent company policies.

Surprisingly, given the generous use of the term across many spectrums, you won’t find any analysis of the subject around which most of Kafka’s writing revolves: the nebulous “Law” and its pernicious affect on the modern individual.

In many of his works, including The Trial, The Castle, “The Judgment,” “Before the Law,” and “An Imperial Message,” Kafka presents the “Law” as the omnipotent, intangible controlling force which is constantly at odds with, and yet removed from, his protagonists. The elusive Law appears to be the source of power for the court system in The Trial, for the Castle hierarchy in The Castle and for most other instrumentalities of authority in Kafka’s fictional universes. The Law pervades everything and yet remains totally inaccessible to man. The Law’s trial process is incomprehensible to the accused, as are the court’s exalted hierarchies and the unknown power that presides over them. The court system is manifested by an endless string of insignificant officials, each of whom knows only a small portion of the Law and are totally subservient to the supreme authority that exists somewhere in the distance. The gargantuan bureaucratic machinery of the court system becomes an evil depiction of a world of expediency and rationalism.

While “The Metamorphosis” is the most quoted of Kafka’s works, Kafka more directly examined the Law’s supposedly rational system of justice in his short story “In The Penal Colony.” A foreign traveler is invited to witness the execution of a soldier condemned to death for disobedience and insulting behavior. Neither the traveler nor the penal colony itself exhibits much interest in the execution. The Officer overseeing the execution, on the other hand, zealously protects and preserves the penal colony’s brutal rituals of punishment and its intricate killing apparatus known as “the Harrow;” all of which were developed years before by the former commandant who was soldier, judge, mechanic, chemist and draughtsman, all in one. The Officer religiously follows the guiding plans drawn by the godly former commandant. This “script” — when shown to the traveler — is revealed to be a labyrinth of lines, crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them.

The condemned man — who is chained before the Harrow like a submissive dog — does not know his crime or his sentence. As the Officer explains, the crime is revealed to the prisoner only as the Harrow inscribes it on the guilty man’s body.

Can you follow it? The Harrow is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing. Meanwhile the raw part that has been written on lies on the cotton wool, which is specially prepared to staunch the bleeding and so makes all ready for a new deepening of the script. Then these teeth at the edge of the Harrow, as the body turns further around, tear the cotton wool away from the wounds, throw it into the pit, and there is more work for the Harrow. So it keeps on writing deeper and deeper for the whole twelve hours.[1]

Kafka’s Harrow machine is perhaps his single best physical representation of the Law. The Harrow, with its intricate display of gears and cogwheels functioning in perfect sequence, embodies the notion that the Law’s justice system is based on a total belief in rationalism; that is, an implacable faith in a scientific universe governed by fully comprehendible principles. The corollary notion, as expressed by the Officer, is that through the functioning of such a rational system of justice, one receives “enlightenment.”

But how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour. Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription, he purses his mouth as if he were listening. [2]

In a bizarre reversal of fortunes, the condemned man is set free, and the Officer places himself on the Harrow, fully assured that he will be bestowed with the promised enlightenment. At the simple wave of the Officer’s hand, the Harrow adjusts itself to accommodate the Officer’s exact height, size and weight. Instead of the expected glow, however, the Harrow goes berserk and the Officer receives through his forehead the point of a great iron spike:

And here, almost against his will, he had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the Officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the head went the point of the great iron spike. [3]

Kafka shows the irrational nature of the Law when the Harrow goes haywire. The world in which the Harrow once performed flawlessly in accordance with the established principles of science has become a world in which a rational, predictable system of justice is no longer wholly rational and no longer fully predictable. In a larger sense, for Kafka, the Law represents the world order, and at every turn in the labyrinth, Kafka undermines the belief in the existence of a world order that is rational and humane. Kafka concludes that the belief in a rational system of justice gives us a false sense of security. Just as the Officer was undone by the very machine he thought he knew so well, we are lulled into thinking that reason alone will insulate us from the irrational forces, which lay just beneath the surface.

Though it is tempting to be beguiled by the fantastic transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant beetle, what deserves our attention is the force beneath which has the unfettered power to turn a man into an insect while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s the same force that flourishes in the shadows which feed off police artist charcoal sketches of missing children, distorted even further by age progression software; it revels in radioactive oatmeal fed by institutional Caesars to helpless retarded children and orphans; it dabbles in medicine, in dermatomyositis and polymyositis, rare skin and muscle diseases that cause a heart attack in a bruising 18 year-old running back; it patrols a Somali refugee camp at the turn of the millennium, stripping the inhabitants of any sense of promise or the worldwide moment, their time continuum beginning and ending with their last meal; it’s in the 1000 yard stare of a roadside memorial teddy bear marking the spot on the country road where two sweethearts’ innocent expectations of senior prom night were abruptly swindled from them by the utter futility of a single car crash. Kafka saw a more immense and darker evil than any rational legal system – no matter how extensive – could even begin to understand, let alone contain.

The nightmarish world in which a man finds himself suddenly transformed into a giant cockroach is the world in which we live. The macabre and distant penal colony — where the guilty learn their crime (only after it is too late), as it is inscribed on their body by a thousand judicious needles — mirrors the world in which the modern individual places blind faith in reason. The crucial lesson Kafka taught through his absurd stories is that man understands his own law only as he comprehends the “Law;” and with an inability to see beyond even the most conspicuous veneers, man’s inner self will remain as unfathomable as the Law. The inevitable result of such failure will be direr than Kafka portrayed, because while an impersonal bureaucracy can surely be oppressive, senior proms and oatmeal can be far more lethal.

[1] Franz Kafka, “In The Penal Colony” in Kafka, The Complete Stories  (New York:   Schocken Books, 1976)  150-1.

[2] Franz Kafka, “In The Penal Colony” in Kafka, The Complete Stories  (New York:   Schocken Books, 1976)  150-1.

[3] Franz Kafka, “In The Penal Colony” in Kafka, The Complete Stories  (New York:   Schocken Books, 1976)  166.