Tag Archives: social institutions

Killed by Society/ Unsaved by the State – A different view on ‘The Trial’ by Kafka

When Kafka wrote ‘The Trial’ he was not making a political comment on the state. Not the formal state. The view that he was is fairly common. It sees ‘The Trial’ as a representation of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the authoritarian state. An irrational, secretive and non-transparent state at that. The appeal of this interpretation is clear.  Kafka lived and wrote at a time when autoritarian states were emerging in a major way. Whether fascist or communist. In this interpretation, Kafka can be seen to be anticipating the major dangers inherent in them. This puts the trial in the position of anticipating Orwell.

However, there are problems with this interpretation. The most clear is that in ‘The Trial’ Josef K. is faced with what appears to be a false court. A cheap low budget court that he cannot take seriously. The ‘real’ court and the ‘real’ state, the serious institutions for Josef K. also exist in the story. They are a touchstone in his failure to take the court he is confronted with seriously. Josef K. actually sees himself as part of this rational, serious state with his role in the bank and status. He does not doubt its superiority over the odd, undeveloped and poor court that he is faced with.

Another issue that is difficult with ‘The Trial’ is the failure to ever find out what Josef K.’s crime/ accusation is. This is interpreted in the ‘authoritarian state’ interpretation as part of the danger of these states. They can try you and punish you without your even knowing what it is you are accused of. This clearly ties in well with concerns about individual liberty and fairness in authoritarian states and indeed in the contemporary ‘global terrorism’ environment with its security measures calling for imprisonment without trial.

Yet none of this deals with some very clear aspects of Kafka’s book. Critically, there are continued hints that if he approached his trial the right way, he would be fine. If he leaves things in the lawyer’s hands, relies on his uncle’s connections. If he allows a range of ‘irrational’ and unexplained institutions to play their part as suggested by those around him.  The business man client at the bank suggests that he go and see the painter for example as this seems effective. The various female characters that jump to help him, also push him to engage with these practices. Nobody can explain why they work, but all suggest that they do work.

Josef K. is unable to seriously engage in these various practices and institutions. His ‘rationalism’ and affiliation with the formal rational state and its institutions as well as his belief in their obvious superiority is a key factor that prevents his engagement. He cannot really get passed this obstacle even when he begins to realise that he may actually be in serious danger.

Josef K.’s disdain for social obligations and niceties goes beyond the trial process. He indicates strong preference for his rational work at the bank over social niceties. He does not really want to see his uncle. He would rather work. His uncle chastises him for not seeing his cousin more, perhaps hoping for a deeper relationship or coupling. He has no serious friends and is noted for not starting a family or marrying, something he is criticised for.  His various interactions with women are revealing in this respect as well.  While happily engaging in intimate interactions with them, he does not even consider the linking of these to any form of wider social obligation. His feeling of rational, work related superiority subsume all these social issues which he has little time for. He does not engage in society. He sees it as beneath his rational world view.

Now, it is in this that I suggest that Josef K.’s crime is clear in ‘The Trial.’ It is not clear to him and may not be clear to a rational individualist reader. Yet, his crime is his disdain for social obligations and social institutions. He is called to account for these and could save himself through reliance on social institutions but he refuses to take them seriously.  Those who should be in his social network continuously try and pull him in and save him. They are far from passive but he will not yield. The result is he is killed ‘like a dog’ by society.

The Trial is an acute observation of the role and strength of social institutions even in the face of the rational state. Kafka had clear issues with society, not with government. He felt himself rational and superior but knew the strength of that which he could not abide. In this sense, The Trial is directly connected to Metamorphosis where his alienation from society and the family is so extreme.

“The Trial’ therefore does not anticipate a strong controlling, authoritarian state at all. Rather it anticipates a failure of the rational state, or indeed rationalism, to subvert social forces and institutions that are pervasive. ‘The Trial’ better anticipates contemporary China than it does an Orwellian state. Now if you believe that China is an Orwellian state, you might not see what the point of my entire argument is but you would agree that Kafka anticipated it in accordance with the ‘authoritarian state’ interpretation. However, you would be left with the parts of the story that don’t fit the argument. Kafka foresaw the impossibility of the authoritarian state in the face of strong society.

(c) 2014 Nualláin Ó Searcaigh

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