As Old As Sin
On Franz Kafka's The Trial
Here’s the first surprise: the trial itself, Josef K.’s famous trial, that most nightmarishly oppressive of Kafka’s inventions, just isn’t that bad. You saw the book’s cover, with its menacing collage of black. You glanced at the description on the back: “chilling,” “horror,” “totalitarianism.” Finally you read the opening line, redolent of Stalin and The Crucible: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” And then: nothing.
Even K. is surprised. Although at first he feels “assaulted” by the two guards who place him under arrest, in fact, beyond asking for a bribe of his pajamas, they turn out to be reassuring. When the inspector arrives, he formally announces the arrest, but, lacking any further explanation, tells K. to go back to work. “How can I go to the bank,” K. asks, “if I’m under arrest?” Yes, he’s under arrest, the inspector explains, but that’s not to stop him from working or going about his life however he wants. “Then being under arrest isn’t so bad,” K. says. The inspector replies: “I never said it was.”
This isn’t some kind of threatening wink. True to the inspector’s word, the court system only grows less intimidating in the following chapters. K. is invited to one inquiry in a tenement attic, where no questions are asked, and after that, the court ceases all communication. Nor is K. exactly anxious. He mocks an examining magistrate and wiles away his legal consultations playing lap acrobatics with the lawyer’s maid. In general, the trial affects his life only to the extent that he thinks about it. “The court wants nothing from you,” the prison chaplain tells him. “It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”
So then what is this trial that presses on K. so lightly, as if it were no more than the warmth from a hand hovering behind his neck? Let’s admit that this is not a question earnestly asked in polite literary company, where interpreting an author as weird, metaphysical, and famous as Kafka, like asking about the nature of love, is considered an activity only suited for poets and high school students. But the author himself was not above giving hints, and these hints link K.’s ordeal not to existential alienation, state oppression, God-shaped voids, or any of the other themes commonly shoveled on Kafka’s grave, but rather to one that often remains curiously overlooked: sexual desire and the byways of shame along which it slinks.
The first hint is the eerie parallel between K.’s arrest and the scene that immediately follows it. After returning from an uneventful day at work, K. decides to visit the boarder who lives across the hall, one Miss Bürstner. Although she wasn’t there earlier that morning when it happened, he wants to apologize for the inspector having commandeered her room during the arrest. Bürstner isn’t home yet, so K. asks after her with the landlady, who admits to some misgivings about the young woman. While not wanting to “slander” her, the landlady notes that she’s seen her in different neighborhoods, walking around with different men. K. is angered by the landlady’s insinuations, but his defense of Bürstner’s honor is a bit roundabout: if the landlady wants to run a clean house, he says, she ought to kick him out first.
This turns out to be an accurate self-assessment. When Bürstner arrives at midnight, K. is waiting in the dark hallway, frightening her with his approach. After he coaxes his way into her room, he insists not only on apologizing, but on showing her how the whole meeting played out, even moving around her furniture for accuracy. The noise alerts the captain living upstairs, and Miss Bürstner, worried (as K. was that morning) of being seen in a compromised position, demands that he leave. Instead, K. pulls her into a corner. “Although this might be unpleasant for you,” he says, in words that echo the inspector’s, “you're not in any real danger,” adding that he’ll cover for her if the captain knocks. This offends her: she’s done nothing wrong, she says, now echoing K.’s thoughts during his arrest, so why does she need excuses?
The arrest scene, in other words, is re-enacted, right where it took place, but with K. flipping roles. Walter Benjamin points out the theatric aspect of Kafka’s writing, and here it is made explicit. After rearranging the furniture, K. says, “And now the action begins. Oh, I’m forgetting myself, the most important character.” Perhaps he forgets because K. is now being played by Miss Bürstner, whom K. is “assaulting” through his visit.1 Here, though, in place of the metaphysical accusation that assaults K., there is the literal assault to which he subjects Bürstner: when she finally gets him out of her room, he starts kissing her, on the mouth, on the throat, “like a thirsty animal,” to which she briefly submits out of bewildered exhaustion, “as if she did not know what she was doing.”
Bürstner is not mentioned in the (unfinished) body of the novel, except in one excised fragment that seems written as a follow-up to this midnight visit: it describes how K. writes a letter to her (and, incredibly, to her employer), justifying his actions and asking for a chance to talk. She evades him, though K. doubts that “an ordinary little typist” could “resist him for long.” Notably, she is the only woman who offers K. resistance, in part because she is the only one he pursues so directly. K. has several intimacies during his trial, but in these situations once again the roles seem flipped: women like the lawyer’s maid are attracted to him by his trial, just as K.’s interest in Miss Bürstner was piqued by the landlady’s slander.
This makes Bürstner’s reappearance at the end of the narrative even more significant. By then, K. has lost interest in his dalliances and in his work, becoming obsessed entirely with ending the trial, even as the courts seem to recede farther and farther away from him; as a final push, he considers writing a document describing every action he’s ever taken, but is too exhausted by the thought of it to even begin. When the two “stage-actors” arrive to lead him to his execution, he seems resigned, tacitly accepting that death is the lone available out. But it’s when they spot Miss Bürstner walking in the street that the “futility of resistance” becomes fully apparent to him. He leads the stage-actors in following her, not because he wants “to catch up with her…”
…but simply not to forget the reminder she signified for him. “The only thing I can do now,” he said to himself… “is keep my mind calm and analytical to the last. I’ve always wanted to seize the world with twenty hands, and what’s more with a motive that’s hardly laudable. That was wrong; do I want to show now that even a yearlong trial could teach me nothing?…Shall they say of me that at the beginning of my trial I wanted to end it, and now, at its end, I want to begin it again?”
Ending the trial, in other words, requires ending this unlaudable desire to grope the world, which is signified to him by the woman whom he kissed like a thirsty animal. That seems clear enough; the question that remains is who imposed this trial upon him in the first place. Interestingly, K. doesn’t feel accused by Miss Bürstner. If he did, he might be too tempted to begin anew the usual seducer’s pattern, which he follows during his visit, of first apologizing profusely and then taking forgiveness as a green light for another pass. Nor is “they” any concrete social or legal apparatus working to protect her. The proceedings are too abstract for that.
Although he doesn’t read Kafka through this lens, Benjamin offers a useful insight in suggesting a patriarchal genealogy of accusation. “The world of the officials and the world of the fathers are the same,” he argues, although he goes beyond a narrow psychoanalytic view. These fathers are prehistoric fathers, and the law they uphold is the law of the first men. That’s why K. goes searching for it in crumbling attics and dusty backrooms, and also why he comes up empty—the law he seeks is too old to have ever been written down (except perhaps in his DNA), and there is no reaching back in time to interrogate Adam. “The sin of which [fathers] accuse their sons,” Benjamin writes, “seems to be a kind of original sin.”
And yet, perhaps because it’s less of a father-son affair, Benjamin doesn’t consider the original sin, the one that codified both sexual desire and the subjugation of women. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and saw their nakedness, but it was Eve who succumbed to the first bite and urged Adam to follow (after she herself was tempted, in a classic bit of phallic disembodiment, by the snake). For her weakness, God imposed upon Eve an additional punishment, above and beyond the toiling mortality to which he condemns Adam:
I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.
Childbirth, pain, desire, submission: in Kafka’s time, these punishments were not seen allegorically. When the British-born Queen Marie of Romania gave birth to her first son in 1893, her doctors wavered on giving her the chloroform she requested, believing that “women must pay in agony for the sins of Eve.” I picture these doctors as the living embodiment of Kafka’s officials, standing around, whispering nonsense, mere links in a chain of accusation whose far end has rusted into oblivion. What explanation could they really give Marie for why she was made to suffer?
And who could adequately explain to Miss Bürstner why she is slandered for walking on the street with men, or why she is more compromised than K. by his barging into her room? The guilt she feels derives from an ancient and perverse logic: the association between sexual desire and temptation, forged through representations of Eve, necessitates that, in any unsanctified sexual encounter (perceived or actual), the weaker party (perceived or actual) must bear the greater shame, because only weakness succumbs to temptation. It is similar to the logic that allows parents to unthinkingly devour what they would never permit to their children: what for the strong is mere living becomes indulgence in the weak.
Kafka himself was a cad and a man of his time, drawn to sexual pleasures he considered filthy even as he dreamed of marrying as a way to stand on equally masculine footing with his father. It may seem surprising that he would create in K. a character who feels, not merely guilt over an unchecked impulse, but a kind of phantom limb pain corresponding to the inexplicable shame he produces in Miss Bürstner.2 Yet sexual coercion reappears throughout Kafka’s work, often in surprising ways. In his first novel, Amerika, it is young Karl who is forced by his parents to emigrate after being “seduced” by Johanna, the family’s maid, a scene rendered with nauseating precision:
She put her arms around his neck and seized it in a stranglehold, and though she had asked him to undress her, it was she who undressed him and put him in her bed…Then she lay down beside him and wanted him to tell her secrets, but he had none to tell, and she became annoyed, whether jokingly or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered him her breast so that he too could listen but could not induce Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body, searched between his legs with her hand—in such a revolting manner that Karl shook his head and throat out from under the quilts—then pushed her belly up against him several times; it felt as if she were a part of him; hence perhaps the terrible helplessness that overcame him.
Karl is led to this surrender by a variety of forced flirtations. Sometimes Johanna had stared at Karl’s face for inspiration while writing letters. “Sometimes she brought him things he didn’t want and pushed them silently into his hand.” Inexperienced and meek, Karl is a ready victim, and Johanna calculates each push and prod to be below the threshold of rousing his indignation. But she’s successful not because Karl feels confused or annoyed; she’s successful because her provocations make him feel ashamed. He’s done nothing wrong, of course, but he’s caught in an insidious mechanism of that ancient and perverse logic: somehow, as soon as the victim feels uneasy about where all this is heading, they also lose faith in their own innocence. It’s as if only a guilty, tempted individual could be nervous about something as trivial as a strange object being pressed into their hand. The greater the victim’s discomfort, the more palpable the sexual subtext seems to become. By an illusion of causality, the victim feels this subtext emanating from their own body.
And just as the law pursuing K. is “attracted by guilt,” so the victim’s discomfort attracts and emboldens the aggressor, who nonetheless maintains an air of affable, innocent impartiality, as though they were merely curious to learn whether the other will fall (Johanna has no qualms after the incident; like K., she writes a letter detailing what happened, which she sends to Karl’s uncle in America). But Kafka also understood how behind this bemusement lurks a threat. The Castle, his final novel, revolves in part around the narrator’s relationships with women who were punished for being too ungracious in response to sexual advances made by powerful castle officials. These punishments were not carried out formally, “not after a regular trial,” but by a whisper-coordinated shunning. The perverse logic finds a way to impute guilt to the less powerful individual even if they resist.
Traditionally, the lone escape from this double bind has been to sanctify desire through marriage. This institution does not appear in Kafka’s fiction, and as much as he praises becoming a family man in the famous letter he wrote to his father, in his own life he never went beyond a series of broken engagements. In the same letter, he expresses how much he would hate to have a son like himself. Given that he felt accused by his father of various inadequacies, perhaps he saw, in the possibility that he might in turn accuse his own child, how marriage’s promise to absolve the sin of weakness was also a trick for replicating it.
Husband to wife, father to son, boy to girl, so the roles are re-enacted, the scripts transmitted, the performances judged, the long-dead authorities strengthened. This theater is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of human life (a cynic would say it is the fabric) that to notice it requires a rare unsettling, like the one K. experiences during his arrest. Perhaps he feels it when one of the guards, like Johanna, pushes K. with his belly (in a “positively friendly way”). Perhaps in this moment K. feels these officials to be a part of him. Or else it’s when, denied his breakfast, he takes instead from his nightstand a “beautiful” apple; perhaps it’s his first large bite which reveals to him that the power he has over “ordinary little typists” is in fact only a stage prop he’s been given to hold, and which now he cannot get rid of, an animating force over which he has as much control as over the sharpness of his teeth. His life is neither his nor beautiful—ultimately, he accepts the need to end it.
Is there some less brutal way to show that our centuries-old trial hasn’t taught us nothing? For the half-touched among us, it’s true that this trial isn’t that bad, but it’s bad enough that we all, in our own way, keep asking this question. Kafka’s most hopeful note comes at the end of Amerika, when Karl discovers the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, an acting troupe of near infinite proportions, which accepts all who want to join. It’s still a hierarchy (at the bottom of which sit “people with European high school diplomas”) and it’s still patriarchal (families follow the father’s assigned role), but “all that is expected of the applicants,” as Benjamin puts it, “is the ability to play themselves.” Of what the theater might look like we see only a glimpse: the trumpet section, where the women trade off playing every two hours with the men, the former wearing angel costumes, the latter dressed as devils.
The promise of the Nature Theater is not self-expression, but the assurance that it’s all an act. Karl is skeptical. After being hired, he begins running into disappointments, like a mean-spirited servant who causes him to muse: “Always, even in the most transparent relationships, there was someone who wanted to trouble his fellow men.” Could we ever make our relationships so transparent, ever know so clearly that everyone is just playing their role, that the troubles they create would no longer cause us suffering? This possibility, like the Nature Theater, sounds like a lie. Then again, so was the story of Adam and Eve. A lie told enough times becomes true. This tendency is how humanity gets itself into trouble, time and again. And time and again we hope, teeth clenched to the point of breaking, that it can get us out if it.
That word (überfallen) is used four times to describe K.’s presence after being used three times to refer to his arrest. Both encounters are also described as lasting thirty minutes, a curious specificity in an often dream-like narrative.
This, even more than the fact that K. never loses his job, lends a little irony to all the essays that describe as “Kafkaesque” the tribulations of men who suffered professional disgrace on the basis of hazily processed allegations of sexual misconduct.