Jul 27th 2014

Kafka’s The Trial: Is the Search for Meaning Possible?

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

Note to my readers: This essay is a follow-up to my rereading of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, more personal essay than review. I hope to follow my musing on Kafka with another brief essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses —even in the face of the seeming impossibility of doing that with the tome of a novel. I’ll culminate this series with a discussion of how these three seminal modernist novelists examine and articulate the issues of moral ambiguity and will divide that final essay into sections for ease of access.

I do not pretend to be either critic or philosopher, but rather an author in search of meaning through narrative. This essay is the second in the series. Admittedly, I would have been wiser—or it would have made scholarly sense—to place the Kafka essay first. But my choice has not been a scholarly one, but rather the way in which these re-readings have come off my bookshelf. 

On rereading Franz Kafka’s The Trial I am struck by this question: Is the search for meaning possible, let alone worthwhile?

In this essay, I refer to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work had an early and considerable impact on my thinking. MacIntyre in After Virtue* examines the history of philosophy and the importance of the Aristotelian virtues. He makes this powerful assertion: 

“If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices likewise as qualities likewise which tend to failure.”

MacIntyre’s reference here is to the Aristotelian virtues and to his view that “the Aristotelian tradition can be restated in a way that restores intelligibility and rationality to our moral and social attitudes and commitments.” 

In other words, MacIntyre believes, as I do, if you allow my oversimplification, that the search for meaning in life matters. With Joseph K.’s trial, Kafka addresses the question of whether the search matters and answers, at best, with uncertainty.

Kafka encourages the reading of Joseph K.’s trial as a search for meaning through his details on the nature of the trial. First K. is arrested but not detained. He is told, 

“You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life.”

One must conclude this is no ordinary arrest as that term is usually understood. In fact, K. is not detained until his execution. It appears to be simply fortuitous that K. even appears for the interrogation, the only seemingly formal event related to his arrest that occurs in the novel. 

No visible trial occurs before that execution.

Perhaps K. explains this best when he addresses those present, who, he finally concludes, are all officials: 

“You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such.”

Here it seems the reader is being asked to consider whether K. should indeed take the trial seriously. But if K. at age thirty is being given the chance to evaluate his own life, he must do so in the face of increasing uncertainty about the value of the search. 

By chapter seven “Lawyer ° Manufacturer ° Painter,” the thought of his case is always on his mind and he considers giving the Court

“a short account of his life, and when he came to an event of any importance explain for what reasons he had acted as he did ... .” 

But the narrator tells us that legal assistance in this court is essential while he also tells us, “Nothing was of any real value but respectable personal connections with the higher officials … .”

A lawyer is needed, but both lawyers and the system are corrupt. K.’s dismissal of the lawyer Huld would then seem to be his one act of courage. He understands that, when the accused relied on a lawyer, “the client ceased to be a client and became the lawyer’s dog.” 

But K. who has gone to his execution without a lawyer has ended up in just that position, as he says before he dies, “Like a dog!”

Kafka may be saying that the search, the evaluation of one’s life, must be undertaken in the face of absurdity, and I would agree, but then one must conclude that this is K’s failure—the failure to recognize this fundamental truth.

Frau Grubach, his landlady, hints at this view in describing her sense of the arrest in chapter one “The Arrest ° Conversation with Frau Grubach ° Then Fräulein Bürstner”: 

“It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something learned which I don’t understand, but which there is no need to understand.”

And certainly the priest in chapter nine, “In the Cathedral,” leads us in this direction when he advises K.: “You cast about for too much help ... .” 

But Kafka provides very little substantiation for K.’s failure. He has dismissed the lawyer in the face of disaster. He has begun to take the trial more seriously. He has some sort of realization before his death:

“The only thing I can do now ... the only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and analytical to the end. I always snatched at the world with twenty hands, and not for a very laudable motive, either. That was wrong, and am I to show now that not even a year’s trial has taught me anything?” 

If Fraulein Bürstner represents the hope of love in the face of this absurdity—she appears, or seems to, at just this moment—K. is now able to do without her.

Can one conclude that Kafka is saying that rational thought is the answer? Certainly not in the face of what has transpired in the novel. For nowhere has K. actually examined his life in a rational way. 

Does this mean that K. has failed? I am left with a profound sense of uncertainty on all counts.

Is K. guilty? 

Does the search matter?

Is, indeed, a search for meaning possible? 

If the search matters, life must be viewed as a journey that each of us must evaluate with intense introspection in the face of death. And what would seem to follow is that each life must be seen, in some way, as a meaningful narrative.

I ask, why write anything, make anything, care about another human being, fall in love if nothing is nothing is nothing?

That is the dilemma that Kafka presents powerfully, poetically and, indeed, purposeful in its elliptical episodic representation of events in this novel that include the absurd legal system and K.’s minimal change in character. 

Kafka presents us with the absurd and with little sense of hope in the face of the chaotic, meaningless world we are all thrust into.

Herein lies the articulation of moral ambiguity that this novel so eloquently presents and that I hope to explore with you in essays to come. A discussion of the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses is next up. Hope to see you back here.

* Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, second edition, 1984, pp. 144 and 259.




     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.