Anti-Semitism as an Issue in the Trial of Kafka's Joseph K.
By: Joseph J. Waldmeir
Published: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 1961
The critical interpreters of Franz Kafka's allegorical examinations of a chaotic modern world have identified and proposed three distinct, occasionally even antagonistic, interpretations: the metaphysical-religious-mystical, the Freudian, and the generally social-cultural. A few of them, including Max Brod and W. H. Auden, have taken a turn toward a somewhat different interpretation on the evidence that Kafka was a Jew, and that his notebooks and letters betrayed great concern with the anachronistic problem of the Jew in modern society. But none of his critics has followed through with an overall investigation and exegesis of Kafka's fiction in terms of this concern.
The present paper is the result of a close exegetical examination of The Trial (London. Penguin Books. 1953) from this point of view. Such an interpretation can contribute valuably to a clarification of Kafka's world view, for if Joseph K. is a Jew then the Kafka hero is not so much a sensitive individual out of tune with his God, with his psyche, or with society in general as he is a member of a group actively opposed by a specific external agency, anti-Semitism. He is trying unsuccessfully to find his place in an antagonistic society while maintaining his dignity and worth as a human being. More than this, futile though they may be, his actions are not wholly self-conscious and negative, but are assertive and positive as well.
The tone of the novel and the nature of the problem are apparent in the first episode of the first chapter. Society, in the person of the two Warders and the Inspector, confronts K. with the accusation that he is a Jew, and waits for K. to acknowledge the accusation. There is no talk of punishment, no talk of incarceration. Society merely informs him of a fact. But the fact implies an anti-Semitic judgment, and it is this which K. fights here and throughout the novel. He refuses to acknowledge the accusation, refuses to confirm or deny his Jewishness, refuses even to laugh the whole business off, as he is aware he could easily do. Stubbornly, he challenges the legal right of his accusers to arrest him for a social crime. Here, for the first time, K. re-sorts to the argumentative device he is to use throughout the book. He attempts to force society back to its major premise. But since society reaches its conclusions more often emotionally than rationally, and rea-sons, if at all, not syllogistically but enthememically, K. succeeds only in erecting an impossible barrier to communication.
Society cannot understand why, if he is not a Jew, K. does not say it, prove it, and be done with it; or if he is a Jew, why he does not simply admit it and go on about his business. From society's point of view, it is K. who acts irrationally. The whole af-fair is extremely simple; there is nothing to argue about or even to discuss. When K. produces identification, the Warders reject it as being of no consequence in the matter at hand. When K. protests his innocence by asserting that the Law governing his crime exists only in the Warders' minds, one Warder answers: "He admits that he doesn't know the Law and yet he claims he's innocent." When he challenges the authority of the arresting officers, he is advised by the Inspector to "think less about us and of what is going to happen to you, think more about yourself instead." When he offers to consider that the accusation has not been made, the Inspector declines, then departs, leaving K. in the frustrating position of being unable to deny his guilt, and really forced to admit it in order to argue from the untenable position that his guilt should not be considered guilt.
And the frustration takes the form of a bitter choice between blind acquiescence to society's wishes or hopeless struggle against them in the Fraulein Biirstner episode of the chapter. Fraulein Biirstner's role in the novel is extremely important though she is actively present only in the first chapter. She represents K.'s desire to be a part of society in spite of its unworthiness. Imperfect, tainted, cowardly though she may be, she is a goal for K. In her own frightened interview with him as well as in K.'s interview with her Friend, it is apparent that he shall never attain her as long as he struggles against society's Judgment. But the judgment is stupid. It is impossible for K. to yield, to admit his guilt; but it is equally im-possible for him to reject his desires. In fact, simply because Fraulein Biirstner is denied him, his desire for her is almost desperate.
Motivated by this desire, K. attends the First Interrogation. The Chamber is located in the back room of an old house; the meeting is informal, is somehow clandestine. Angered by the feeling that he is expected to debase himself in such dismal surroundings, K. insists that he be accepted by society on his own terms. He protests so volubly against the accusation itself - avoiding any admission or denial of it - that he convinces his hearers of his guilt.
But guilt or innocence is not the issue and, dissatisfied with his inability to con-vince the interrogators that not the question of his Jewishness but why Jewishness is bad should be debated, K. returns to the chambers a week later. It is empty, but K. finds evidence that convinces him both that all argument is useless and that yielding is, for him, out of the question. He examines the Law books left behind by the Examining Magistrate and finds them filled with obscene, pornographic stories and pictures. While he is present, the Magistrate, a vicious lecher, sends a Law student to kidnap the Court Attendant's wife (she has been the student's unwilling mistress) for his own use. Following them K. learns that the Offices of the Law are located in the attic of the same old house that contains the Interrogation Chamber. K. enters, and is almost suffocated by the stale, strangling air. When a skylight is opened to alleviate the situation, clouds of soot fall through it. K., growing ill, is assisted out of the Offices by two attendants who grow equally ill as they catch a breath of fresh air at the exit.
Neither argument with nor acquiescence to such a Court is possible for a self-respecting man. The Court, if not the Law itself, is capricious, obscene, foul, disgusting, and rapacious. It has no legal sanction: witness its relegation to the attic of an old house (later K. learns that its branches are present in most of the old houses of the city) . It can certainly have no moral sanction. More firmly convinced than ever that he is right and the anti-Semite is wrong, K. must decide on some sort of action. "While he stayed quietly at home," he thinks, "and went about his ordinary vocations he remained superior to all these people and could clear any of them out of his path with a hearty kick." But it is as impossible for K. to remain quietly at home as it is impossible for him to dignify his opponents by disregarding them.
As K. realizes the growing insecurity of his position the necessity to strike back becomes stronger. After his visit to the Court Offices he finds that he is to be cut off permanently from Fraulein Burstner, and his frustrated desire takes the form of the Whipper revenge daydream. K. is extremely ashamed of the dream but he cannot rid himself of it. All that the Warders had done was to accuse him of the truth, for K. is a Jew. The Warders are not responsible for any of the implications in the accusation; to punish them is senseless. Yet, faced with a Law and a Court and Officials such as those he has already dealt with, what alternative had he? Ashamed of the vengeance day-dream or not, like his desire for Fraulein Biirstner, this is something that K. cannot resist or abolish.
At this, his most discouraging moment so far, his Uncle enters the scene, and K.'s hope and confidence are partially restored. The Uncle has two suggestions: K. can leave the environment as the Uncle had done twenty years before, thus avoiding the problem, or he can avail himself of certain legal weapons at his disposal to fight the case. K. refuses to retreat to the ghetto, and hopefully chooses what appears to be energetic action. It turns out to be action in a vacuum; K.'s hope is false, his confidence misplaced.
Almost immediately K. suspects that the sickly and weak Advocate to whom his Uncle introduces him will prove ineffectual. When he discovers that the Clerk of the Court has been lurking in the shadows of the Advocate's room, signifying that the Advocate is in intimate contact with the Court in charge of K.'s case and is therefore anti-Semitic, K.'s suspicions become certainties and he abruptly leaves the room. Leni, the Advocate's nurse-housekeeper-mistress, attempts to seduce K. into yielding to the wishes of the Court. "You can't put up a resistance to this Court," she says; "you must admit your fault. Make your confession at the first chance you get. Until you do that, there's no possibility of get-ting out of their clutches, none at all." These sentiments are echoed later by the Advocate who explains to K. that "The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to the existing conditions. ... Anything but draw attention to oneself from above! One must be low, no matter how much it went against the grain." To try to alter things was to in-vite destruction, since the organization would not really change, "unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, more severe. . ." K.'s affair with Leni signifies his desire to yield; in fact, Leni interprets the affair in those terms. But in his more sober mo-ments K. reaffirms his stubborn non-capitu-lation. "Above all," he thinks, "if he were to achieve anything, it was essential that he should eliminate from his mind the idea of possible guilt. There was no such guilt."
Still, his stubbornness has seriously far-reaching ramifications. His position at the bank has been placed in jeopardy, leading the Manufacturer, one of his erstwhile clients, to suggest that he attempt to get the artist Titorelli to intercede for him. The presence of his Uncle has reminded K. that his family is somehow involved in the case, too, that though he fights alone he may not win or lose alone. This latter responsibility is far more terrible than his responsibility to himself, and K. is not permitted to for-get it. He is motivated to go to Titorelli by the weakening of his authority at the bank, out the torments he suffers at the hands of the little crippled girls attached to Titorelli's boarding house are haunting reminders that his actions may be responsible for the fate of the whole family of Jews.
Titorelli is the artist who in a sense has created the Examining Magistrates of the Court by falsifying their stature, their dignified mien, and their judicial surroundings in his portraits of them. While K. waits, Titorelli elaborates on a portrait of Justice until she is changed into a likeness of the Goddess of the Hunt in full cry. In spite of this warning by the master dissembler, and in spite of the warning implicit in the Furies' pursuit of him up the stairs to Titorelli's studio, K.'s hopes rise when the artist accepts his assertions of innocence.
Titorelli points out and defines three pos-sible solutions to the case of an innocent man: Definite Acquittal, which is theoretically possible but actually impossible, though legends indicate that such acquittals may have taken place in the ancient past (a probable reference to the vindication of the Jews as Chosen People in the Old Testament) ; Ostensible Acquittal in which the charge is lifted for a short time or until a new arrest is made (a reference to the possibility that the Jew may win over part of society but never all of it) ; and Indefinite Postponement in which the accused may go on with his life in a probable conviction that his case will never come to a conclusion (a reference to the apparent acceptance of the Jew into society as a Jew) .
Throughout Titorelli's exposition the Furies clamor outside the door and the studio becomes stiflingly, disgustingly hot and air-less. In spite of a tremendous lethargy which settles on K., in spite of an over-whelming desire to yield, K. has the cour-\age and wit to see through the two possible proposals." 'Both methods have this in common/ " says Titorelli, " 'that they save the accused from coming up for sentence.' 'But they also prevent an actual acquittal,' said K. in a low voice, as if embarrassed by his own perspicacity. 'You have grasped the kernel of the matter,' said the painter quickly."
With Titorelli's admission, K. manages to rouse himself sufficiently to leave the studio. But first he buys three of Titorelli's paintings, all exactly the same, as all three suggested solutions have been exactly the same. To escape the Furies, K. leaves by a different door, and finds himself in another branch of the Law Court Offices to which Titorelli's studio is actually an adjunct. The musty, sickening air becomes more nauseating, and K. dashes through and out of the Offices closely pursued by the Furies who have managed somehow to reach him.
Bewildered, misled by his Uncle, by the Advocate, by the painter, K. resolves to con-tinue his struggle without help. He meets Block, the Commercial Traveler, in the Advocate's home and learns that at least part of his trouble is founded on superstition. Block tells him of the general belief that one's guilt is betrayed by a certain facial characteristic, not the size and shape of his nose, but the set of his lips. K. also learns from Block that his case is being tried before a Low Court, and that the function of the Low Court appears to be to work unceasing-ly to prevent the accused, like Block and K., from carrying his case to the High Court; that society actively prevents final judgment, the examination of the major premise, in the case of the recalcitrant Jew. And finally, witnessing Block's debasement by the advocate, K. learns that "the Advocate's methods, to which K. fortunately had not long enough been exposed, amounted to this : that the client finally forgot the whole world and lived only in the hope of toiling along this false path until the end of his case should come in sight." His new knowledge only serves to entrench K.'s stubbornness, to make more adamant his refusal to yield. He unequivocally dismisses the Advocate.
Betrayed, trapped, once again alone in his trial, K. is assigned the responsibility of guide for an Italian official whom he can-not understand well enough to converse with. The Italian, clearly a representative of historical Christianity, suggests that they meet at the Cathedral to begin their tour. K. arrives first, and while waiting, decides to evaluate the paintings in the Cathedral. The first and only one which he examines, and that dimly, in the flickering light of his pocket torch, is of Christ being laid in the sepulchre while an armored knight stands guard.
The painting is a revelation. Implicit in it is the major premise for which K. has sought so eagerly throughout the trial: the Law is the curse of the Christian God upon the Christ-killer Jew. Society effectively enforces the curse simply by guarding the tomb, that is, by being Christian. There is no need for K., the Jew, to examine the other paintings in the Cathedral; there is no need to wait longer for the Italian official. But K. hesitates. The argument of the painting seems to him not absolute and irrevocable. He is disturbed by society's role as unreasoning enforcer of the curse, and by serious doubts as to the validity of the premise. Thus he is summoned to the pulpit to have his questions answered.
His case is progressing badly, the priest tells him." 'You are held to be guilty. Your case will perhaps never get beyond a lower court. Your guilt is supposed, for the pres-ent at least, to have been proved.' 'But I am not guilty/ K. answers. 'It's a misunderstanding. And if it comes to that, how can any man be called guilty? We are all simply men here, one as much as the other.* 'That is true/ said the priest, 'but that is how all guilty men talk.'
"No argument is possible, as none had been possible at the beginning of the trial. The Court's decision is a foregone conclusion either with or without the premise; but granting the premise, the case is even more hopeless and struggle is useless. Neither K.'s legal nor extra-legal, formal nor informal machinations can serve to resolve the chaos resulting from his stubbornness and society's prejudice. The Jew must simply accept his place on the perimeter of society, even though accepting it gains him nothing but the absence of struggle. The priest points out that K. has hurt his cause specifically by seeking outside help, particularly the help of women. K.'s reply, that the natures of the Court and of the lecherous examining magistrate are such that the inter-cession of women might conceivably aid his cause, betrays a misunderstanding of society's function and motivation, betrays a con-fusion of the Law with the Court.
"Can't you see anything at all?" the priest shrieks.
He then attempts to explain to K. the complex relationship among the Law, society, and the Jew by reciting to him the parable of the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper is society, or the Low Court, authorized by the High Court to stand between the Jew and the Law. He does not know why he stands there. He has not, nor ever can have, any direct knowledge of the Law. But he does have the Law's authorization, and this is a sufficient justification for his actions, irrational though they may appear to be. The Law exists above and beyond and regardless of society; the doorkeeper is distinct from the Law even though he serves it. This is the most deadly point of all. In the parable the Jew cannot achieve even a minimum converse with the doorkeeper, let alone the Law, either by pleading, arguing, or gift-giving. But even if the door-keeper were to change in his attitude, even if K. were to be accepted unqualifiedly into society, there would follow no ultimate change in the Law. The Jew, as the priest puts it, is not really barred by the doorkeeper; he is merely not admitted.
The Law is vulnerable; it has to be. A major premise so intimately connected with irrationality cannot stand firm against the attack of reason. K. strikes at its weakest point: he asserts that the doorkeeper is either simple-minded or a swindler. The priest answers that to doubt the doorkeeper is to doubt the Law, since the doorkeeper serves the Law. K., not yet ready to denounce the Law, denies only that it is a proper justification: "'I don't agree with that point of view,' "he says;" 'for if one accepts it, one must accept as true every-thing the doorkeeper says.' 'No, said the priest, 'it is not necessary to accept every-thing as true, one must only accept it as necessary. "
Cornered now, K. realizes that he cannot defeat the Law, vulnerable though it may be, since it exists so potently simply by virtue of its vulnerability. The Court, society, is separate from the Law, can never under-stand the premise justifying its acts, could accomplish nothing even by understanding it or by acting differently- yet to disavow society is to disavow the Law and to invite destruction. K. does not hesitate. With desperate courage he answers the priest. "A melancholy conclusion," he says. "It turns lying into a universal principle."
Society must destroy any man, but especially the Jew, who forces it back to the basic premises upon which it rests its prejudices and actions, and who then flatly dismisses the premises as lies. K's brave denunciation of the Law has sealed his fate.
But K.'s courage gives way briefly to depression. As he is being led to his execution in the final chapter he catches a fleeting glimpse of Fraulein Biirstner, hurrying away from him, still unattainable, and he "suddenly realized the futility of resistance." But just as suddenly the depression is re-placed by a reborn courage; This is the first time he has seen Fraulein Biirstner since early in the trial, and though she is moving away from him she is no longer cut off from him by her Friend or Captain Lance. He has refused to yield, to admit his guilt even in the vain hope that he could thereby achieve his goal. The goal has been removed farther and farther from him because of his stubbornness, but now suddenly it is there before him, not clearly perceptible, hurrying away, still unattainable- but there nonetheless, as if his very stubbornness itself had forced it to appear.
His courage and defiance renewed, K. asks himself: "Am I to leave this world as a man who shies away from all conclusions? Are people to say of me after I am gone that at the beginning of my case I wanted it to finish, and at the end of it I wanted it to begin again? I don't want that to be said." He must be destroyed, but if he meets his fate bravely, defiantly, protesting-ly, placing the onus of it on society, then his death shall not have been in vain, for his dignity and manhood will be restored. He refuses to place the knife in his own throat, and as society drives it home, he dies "Like a dog!" pointing a prophetic finger at society, crying out the words "as if he meant the shame of [them] to outlive him."
The interpretation of The Trial offered in this paper is, in spite of its singularity, perfectly consistent with the three standard interpretations as they are in fact perfectly consistent with one another. The various episodes and incidents cited in support of the argument here have been justly used to support the other arguments as well. Thus for example the Cathedral episode is climactic on all levels. It contains not only the symbolic justification for society's tyrannical anti-Semitism, but it also justifies symbolically the tyranny of conformity under which not only the Jew, but modern man in general lives. And it is at the same time the House of Kierkegaard's tyrant God, and of Freud's tyrant Father.
Too many Kafka critics, in their enthusiasm for their own interpretations, have occasionally forgotten that his work is allegory, and that it is in the nature of allegory to be ambiguous. The allegorist examines metaphorically the causes and consequences of a human condition, in Kafka's case, the chaotic condition of the modern world. The metaphors become levels of meaning, and the allegory owes its artistry to the consciously intricate mingling and meshing of the levels. The allegory is ultimately clear only in terms of the metaphors; the critic must treat its ambiguity with respect. When he submits the work, as I have The Trial, to a close and careful exegetical examination from the point of view of one of its levels, he must constantly be aware that the other levels exist, or he in effect destroys the allegory.
The object of this paper has not been to add to and enrich Kafka criticism, but to clarify his allegorical argument and conclusions by emphasizing the richness in the texture of his work. Reading The Trial, or The Castle, or America, or many of the short stories as considerations and condemnations of society's vicious persecution of the Jew does not weaken their artistry but strengthens it. The chaos is not resolved here. But simply hearing in the work, how-ever faintly, a note of protest, a defiant cry, a hopeless prophecy is to discover a new, more optimistic dimension in Kafka's world view, and a greater depth of meaning in his allegory. Michigan State University
FRANZ KAFKA (Courtesy Austrian Information Service, N. Y.) (see page 10)