Kafka The Trial: a Schopenhauerian parable?

Kafka’s The Trial is a novel that commentates on multiple aspects of society, from pointing out the deadly absurdity that can exist in an overly bureaucratic society, to examining the complex nature of justice, and the impossibility of having a perfectly just society.  It will be argued that he takes ‘Schopenhauer’s philosophy of justice’, and inverts it, by making the majority of the characters in the novel aware of eternal justice, except of course, Joseph K., for whom justice is unattainable and invisible. This is the opposite view of the world to that of Schopenhauer, who viewed an understanding of eternal justice as a ‘nirvana’, a pinnacle of human achievement. Firstly a brief examination of academic thought on how Kafka was influenced by Schopenhauer, and a similar overview of Schopenhauer’s theory of justice will be undertaken, before arguing that the portrayal of justice in The Trial is grounded in Schopenhauerian metaphysics.

Schopenhauer’s influence on Kafka in The Trial is asserted by Karl who makes the following observation:

He [Kafka] can no more get close to freedom or liberation than K. can in an understanding of the law in The Trial. Whatever motivates the individual is counterbalanced by the will of the world; and Kafka here departs from the Nietzschean ‘will’ by reverting to Schopenhauerian will, that force that is too great for the individual to overcome except through art itself.

(Karl 1991, 738)

Ryan in his paper, Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death and Rebirth in The Metamorphosis and Satz and Ozsvath in their paper, A Hunger Artist and In the Penal Colony In the Light Of Schopenhauerian Metaphysics both undertake a more detailed analysis of that influence. Ryan’s paper traces the etymological   roots of the surname Kafka uses in The Metamorphosis from Schopenhauer’s use of Samsara. Ryan sees Kafka influenced by ‘Schopenhauerian and Indian metaphysics’ (Ryan 1999,139) which echoes the Satz and Ozsvath   argument.

Satz and Ozsvath see Kafka’s view of the world, and salvation as echoing Schopenhauer: ‘parallel metaphysics’, (Satz and Ozsvath 1978, 202) however they see Kafka differing to Schopenhauer’s positive assertions by ‘challenging with mocking questions’ (1978, 202). They go on to assert ‘Kafka’s characters embody Schopenhauer’s conceptual and philosophical ideal of man in his purest state, but it is an ideal gone completely askew’ (1978, 202), a vision of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that seems to be replicated in The Trial. They see Kafka as writing: ‘an exploration and critique of Schopenhauerian ontology which, though predominantly pessimistic, still offers hope of redemption to a rare few through suffering and selflessness’. (1978, 203)

In his extensive paper ‘Schopenhauer’s Theory of Justice’ Profesor R.Marcin defines it thus:

Justice, in Schopenhauer’s system, is not an epistemological construct. It is neither rights based nor process based. It rejects the concept of individual duty as vehemently as it embraces the concept of collective guilt. For Schopenhauer, justice is not a way of assessing reality. For Schopenhauer, justice is a facet of reality itself. Schopenhauer’s theory of justice is, thus, an ontology, a study of being itself.

(Marcin, 1993,813)

Schopenhauer sees justice as eternal:

…which rules not the state but the world; this is not dependent on human institutions, not subject to chance and deception, not uncertain, wavering and erring, but infallible firm and certain. The concept of retaliation implies time, therefore eternal justice cannot be retributive justice and hence cannot like that admit respite and reprive, and require time in order to succeed, balancing the evil deed against evil consequences only by means of time.

(Payne trans. Schopenhauer I 1969, 350)

Using Schopenhaurian metaphysics, it is argued that this eternal justice, is what Joseph K. fails to see, consequently he is unaware of his crime, for which Schopenhauer uses the words of the Spanish poet Caulderon to express: ‘for mans greatest offence is that he has been born’ (1969 I, 355) explaining it thus: ‘how could it fail to be an offence, as death comes after it in accordance with eternal law? In that verse Calderon has merely expressed the Christian dogma of original sin’. (1969 I, 355)

Kafka seems to not only use the signifier of original sin in The Trial, the apple which was for Joseph K.: ‘as he ascertained from his first great bite, much better than the breakfast from the filthy night café’, (Parry trans. Kafka 1994, 8) but also seems to concur with Schopenhauer’s theory that:

…the fall of Adam represents man’s finite animal, sinful nature in respect of which he is being abandoned to limitation, sin, suffering and death…death of Jesus Christ represents the eternal, the freedom, the salvation of man …every person is Adam as well as Jesus.

(Payne trans. Schopenhauer II 1969, 628).

The final chapter has Joseph K. taken off to his place of execution with ‘outstretched arms’, (Parry trans. Kafka 1994, 174) leading one to assume a cross like shape has been described. The bleak ending to the novel reinforces similarities with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of eternal justice:

All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the   necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is                         objectified, and thus merely a commentary on the affirmation of the will to live. That our existence itself implies guilt is proven by the fact of death.

(Hollingdale trans. Schopenhauer 1970, 34)

However there is much else in the novel that seems to cast Joseph K. as one who is blind to the concept of eternal justice, blind because it exists only at the deep level of true reality:

…a level that is all but foreclosed from us. We must of necessity- a necessity imposed by the very structure of our perceiving minds – function at the level of phenomena, with in the constraints of time, space, causality, plurality and individuation behind the veil of Maya’. (Marcin 1993, 852).

The scene where we meet the whipper who is administering a punishment unwittingly instigated by a complaint K. made against his initial warders from chapter one, can be read with regard to the Schopenhauerian theory of justice as embodying this concept:

temporal justice which has its seat in the state…this becomes justice with regard only to the future, without such regard would remain without justification, would indeed be a mere addition of a second evil to what has happened, without sense or significance…Tormentor and tormented are one. The former is mistaken in thinking he does not share the torment, the latter in thinking he does not share the guilt, If the eyes of both were opened the inflictor would realize that he lives in everything that suffers pain in the whole world. (Payne trans. Schopenhauer I 1969, 354)

The effect this has on K., after Willem tells him: ‘we are only being punished because you reported us’ (1994, 66) would, though bothering him somewhat while he is witness to the whipping, is soon forgotten; because he quickly puts his own character image first, as he denies the existence of the whipping to a colleague, hence K. hides his culpability from him. He dismisses the cries of pain as: ‘it was only a dog howling’, (Parry trans. Kafka 1994, 69) a comment that is revisited as he (arguably) has an epiphany at the moment of death, his last words being: ‘like a dog!’ (1994,178) and his last thought: ‘It was as if the shame would outlive him’(1994,178), perhaps indicative that he has finally understood the concept of eternal justice.

Indeed the perception Joseph K. has of the world, a world that exists in the novel as a dream–like metaphysical construct where time and space seem to follow rules different to those imposed by the consciousness, ergo the rules that enable individuation, giving the world that Joseph K. sees a cohesive plurality which gives rise to feelings such as paranoia and ennui. This is never  more obvious than in the visit he makes to Titorelli the court painter. He exists in a world where justice is everywhere, the hunchback girl can be viewed as being in receipt of an unjust life sentence, though still happy, and importantly happier than Joseph K.: ‘the hunchback girl clapped her hands with joy’ (1994, 112), and Joseph K., consumed with his own case, and thereby his ego, is according to the Schopenhauerian theory, only aware of the phenomenal world, and not the nomenal world where eternal justice exists. Schopenhauer viewed art and artists as a way of lifting the veil of Maya to allow a glimpse of the nomenal world, Jacquette sees it thus:

‘We can gain an understanding of the world without the mind through ascetic (and moral) suffering and self denial, because suffering and aesthetic contemplation in suppressing individual willing reveal nonrepresentational aspects of the world as it is in reality’.

(Jacquette1996, 4)

When K. visits the artist the reader is shown a world where order and cleanliness are replaced with chaos and dirt, Titorelli who puts up with invasions of privacy by the children, with tacit pleasure: ‘laughing as he met the onrush of girls’ (Parry trans. Kafka 1994, 129). This attitude is in stark contrast to K.’s, who is always resolutely compassionless, even when confronted with a hunchback child, on who K. confers this withering judgment: ‘Neither Youth nor physical deformity had saved her from utter depravity’ (1994, 111) and compassion and sympathy have a great significance in Schopenhaurian philosophy:

The concept of sympathy or compassion, which is, as I have shown, the basis of justice and philanthropy…accordingly, sympathy is to defined as the empirical appearance of the wills metaphysical identity, through the physical multiplicity of its phenomena.

(Payne trans. Schopenhauer II 1969, 601-602)

In a domestic situation as diametrically opposed to K.’s as possible, which is demonstrated by the use metaphor of the door key, for both the children at the start: ‘They’ve had key to my door made, they lend it to each other’ (Parry trans. Kafka 1994, 113) and the judge who Titorelli is painting: ‘I’ve given him a key to the door too, so that he can wait for me in the studio if I’m not at home’ (1994,122), have access to the painter’s studio. If this open community based attitude is compared to the consuming anxiety K. exhibits when somebody enters his room, or the room next door in the opening chapter, it can be read as demonstrated the stifling self-regarding egocentric nature of Joseph K. that hinders his capability to conceive the notion of eternal justice, which is his doomed quest.  Titorelli has painted justice, and K. observes the work with the observation:  ‘Justice has to be motionless or the scales will waver and there is no possibility of a correct judgment’, (1994, 115) oblivious to the multi-layered irony in his statement, when the sketch ends up resembling the goddess of the Hunt, the prescient nature of the transformation is also lost on K.. When the painter asserts: ‘If I paint all the judges in a row on the canvas, and you argue your defence before this canvas, you’ll have more success than you would have before the actual court’, (1994, 120) it is arguable is referring to the aesthetic contemplation that Schopenhauer valued. The statement the painter makes: ‘I’ve never been present at a single acquittal’, (1994,121) perhaps the truest statement in the book that not only depicts the painter as a knower of the truth but underlines the fact that no one is innocent, as per the logic of eternal justice. The conversation that leads up to this pronouncement, discussing the type of aquittal K. will settle for also identifies the  impossibility of innocence: ‘Of course it’s possible that in all the cases known to me the party was not innocent. But isn’t that improbable? In so many cases not one innocent party? (1994,115). The more K. obsesses about his own innocence, the less he has any regard for the world beyond himself, consequently the more invisible the law becomes.

Perhaps no Kafka essay on The Trial is complete without the ubiquitous reading of the parable, Before The Law, that occurs in the cathedral, however for this reading, the statement K. makes prior to hearing the parable, is of significance as it demonstrates K. holding a view of humanity that is somewhat different to Schopenhauer’s: “ ‘But I am not guilty’, K. said. ‘it’s a mistake. How can a human being ever be guilty? We are all human beings here after all, each the same as the other’”. (1994,164) Schopenhauer has this to say about the degree of guilt inherent in the human condition:

If we wish to measure the degree of guilt with which our existence itself is burdened, let us look at the suffering connected with it. Every great pain, whether bodily or mental, states what we deserve; for it could not come to us if we did not deserve it.

(Payne trans. Schopenhauer II 1969, 580)

The impression we have developed of K.’s character can be interpreted in the famous parable by reading it in the following Schopenhaurian manner. The man from the country (East of Eden?) can be everyman, and the door keeper is a metaphorical representation of his ego, which is why the doorkeeper is reliant on the man not realising that he is own egocentric nature, baring the way to ‘the thing in its self’ eternal justice, nirvana, or the law, depending on whose philosophical phrase one chooses to describe this destination of constant human striving. Hence the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the man and the doorkeeper and the unattainability of the law. Marcin sums this up thus:

The base condition we find ourselves is egoism. And because our perceiving minds function in the world of phenomena where time space causality, plurality and individuality hold sway, our egoism is conditioned by those factors. At the level of true reality, our egoism is a very basic and fundamental error. (Marcin 1993, 855)

To quantify the many observations regarding the nature of the justice that is exemplified in The Trial, I would submit that the fabric of the text is woven from Schopenhauerian philosophy, including his theory of justice, however assuming one overarching metaphor would be to underestimate both the power of the novel and the intellectual ability and subtlety of Kafka. We are presented with a protaganist K., who finds the world he inhabits alien, looking for an invisible law that it is argued exists in a metaphysical consciousness. However Kafka mutates this concept so the concept of eternal justice becomes a claustrophobic oppressive reality for Joseph K. This inversion imbues the novel with an existentialist tone,  Joseph K. dies like a dog, as the futile search ends. Schopenhauer’s philosophy of eternal justice is portrayed as a pessimistic, nihilistic, nightmare construct. Satz and Ozsvath’s concise conclusion describing Kafka’s depiction of Schopenhauerian philosophy thus: ‘The ideal realm of Schopenhauer has become for Kafka, a vision of the unattainable perceived through the domain of the destructive will’, (Satz and Ozsvath 1978, 210) is difficult to better.


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