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

Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "