Franz Kafka

June 5, 2006

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(1883-1924)

Major German novelist and writer of short stories of the 20th Century
The adjective "kafkaesque" has come into common use to denote mundane yet absurd and surreal circumstances
Suffered from clinical depression, social anxiety, and tuberculosis
Requested that all his manuscripts were destroyed after death
Never finished any of his novels
Obtained the degree of Doctor of Law
Believed in existentialism: the individual is an agent of choice and must suffer consequences of those choices

The Trial (Published-1925)

Surreal novel
Kafka never intended for it to be published
Josef K. is arrested and subjected to the rigors of the judicial process for an unspecified crime
Themes of political injustice, absurdity of human nature, paranoia, the inevitable guilt of all humans, misunderstanding and miscommunication, problem of allowing others to do our thinking for us (lack of independent thought), struggle of authority and personal agency, hierarchy of power and dependency, trouble of judgment (deception of appearances, importance of impressions), luck
Claimed to be related to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Quotations:

"Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested."

"'And don't make such a fuss about how innocent you feel; it disturbs the otherwise not unfavorable impression you make.  And you should talk less in general; almost everything you've said up to now could have been inferred from your behavior, even if you'd said only a few words, and it wasn't terribly favorable to you in any case.'"

"'Who do you think you are?  You ask what sense it makes, while you stage the most senseless performance imaginable?'"

"'No.  You're under arrest all right, but not the way a thief would be.  If you're arrested like a thief, that's bad, but this arrest-.  It seems like something scholarly, I'm sorry if that sounds stupid, but it seems like something scholarly that I don't understand, but that I don't need to understand either.'"

"…some sort of stubbornness had prevented K. from taking a cab; he had an aversion to even the slightest outside help in this affair of his; he didn't want to enlist anyone's aid and thus initiate them in the matter even distantly; not, finally, did he have the least desire to humble himself before the commission of inquiry by being overly punctual.  Of course he was now running to get there by nine if at all possible, although he had not even been given a specific hour at which to appear."

"'I'm completely detached from this whole affair, so I can judge it calmly…'"

"'Forget about my danger; I only fear danger when I want to.'"

"'…knowing that I'm not at all concerned about the outcome of the trial, and would only laugh at a conviction.'"

"…he had suffered defeat only because he had sought to do battle.  If he stayed home and led his normal life he was infinitely superior to any of these people, and could kick any one of them out of his path.  And he pictured how funny it would be, for example, to see this miserable student, this puffed-up child, this bandy-legged, bearded fellow, kneeling at Elsa's beside, clutching his hands and begging for mercy.  This vision pleased K. so greatly that he decided, if the opportunity ever arose, to take the student along to Elsa one day."

"'Perhaps none of us is hard-hearted, perhaps we'd all like to help, but as court officials it can easily appear that we're hard-hearted and don't want to help anyone.  That really bothers me.'"

"'Josef,' his uncle cried, trying to twist away from him so he could pause, which K. prevented, 'you've undergone a total metamorphosis; you've always had such a keen grasp of things, has it deserted you now, of all times?  Do you want to lose this trial?  Do you know what that means? it means you'll simply be crossed off.  And that all your relatives will be drawn in, or at least dragged through the mud.  Pull yourself together, Josef.  Your indifference is driving me crazy.  Looking at you almost makes me believe the old saying: 'Trials like that are lost from the start.''"

"'You misjudge her,' said the lawyer, without defending her further; perhaps he wished to show by this that she needed no defense."

"Nevertheless, the most important factor is still the lawyer's personal contacts…"

"For instance the following story is told, and has every appearance of truth.  An elderly official, a decent, quiet gentleman, had studied a difficult case, rendered particularly complex due to the lawyer's petitions, for one entire day and night without a break- these officials are truly the most industrious of people.  Now as morning approached, after twenty-four hours of probably not very productive work, he went to the outer door, waited in ambush, and threw every lawyer who tried to enter down the steps.  The lawyers gathered on the landing below and discussed what they should do; on the one hand they have no real right to be admitted, so they can hardly start legal proceedings against the official, and as already mentioned, they have to be careful not to arouse the ire of the bureaucracy.  On the other hand each day missed at court is a day lost, so it was important to them to get in.  Finally they decided to try to wear the old gentleman down.  One lawyer at a time would rush up the stairs and, offering the greatest possible passive resistance, allow himself to be thrown back down, where he would then be caught by his colleagues.  That lasted for about an hour; then the old gentleman, who was already tired from working all night, grew truly exhausted and went back into his office.  At first those below could hardly believe it, so they sent someone up to check behind the door to make sure there was really no one there.  Only then did they enter, probably not even daring to grumble.  For the lawyers- and even the least important of them has at least a partial overview of the circumstances- are far from wishing to introduce or carry out any sort of improvement in the court system, while- and this is quite characteristic- almost every defendant, even the most simple-minded among them, starts thinking up suggestions for improvement from the moment the trial starts, and in doing so often wastes time and energy that would be better spent in other ways.  The only proper approach is to learn to accept existing conditions.  Even if it were possible to improve specific details- which, however, is merely an absurd superstition- one would have at best achieved something for future cases, while in the process of damaging oneself immeasurably by having attracted the attention of an always vengeful bureaucracy.  Just don't attract attention!  Keep calm, no matter how much it seems counter to good sense.  Try to realize that this vast judicial organism remains, so to speak, in a state of eternal equilibrium, and that if you change something on your own where you are, you can cut the ground out from under your own feet and fall, while the vast organism easily compensates for the minor disturbance at some other spot- after all, everything is interconnected- and remains unchanged, if not, which is likely, even more resolute, more vigilant, more severe, more malicious."

"How could he possibly sustain himself alone, once he has enlisted aid?"

"He didn't have time right now to examine the truth of everything the painter said, let alone to disprove it; the best he could hope for was to induce the painter to help him somehow…"

"'How can any person in general be guilty?  We're all human after all, each and every one of us.'"

"'You're deceiving yourself about the court,' said the priest, 'in the introductory texts to the Law it says of this deception:  Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he can't grant him admittance now.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he'll be allowed to enter later.  'It's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but now now.'  Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior.  When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: 'if you're so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I've forbidden it.  But bear this in mind: I'm powerful.  And I'm only the lowest doorkeeper.  From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before.  The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.'  The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar's beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter.  The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door.  He sits there for days and years.  He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties . The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him he still can't admit him.  The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper.  And the doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: 'I'm taking this just so you won't think you've neglected something.'  Over the many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly.  He curses his unhappy fate, loudly during the first years, later, as he grows older, merely grumbling to himself.  He turns childish, and since he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's collar over his years of study, he asks the fleas too to help him change the doorkeeper's mind.  Finally his eyes grow dim and he no longer knows whether it's really getting darker around him or if his eyes are merely deceiving him.  And yet in the darkness he now sees a radiance that streams forth inextinguishably from the door of the Law.  He doesn't have much longer to live now.  Before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into a single question he has never asked the doorkeeper.  He motions to him, since he can no longer straighten his stiffening body.  The doorkeeper has to bend down to him, for the difference in size between them has altered greatly to the man's disadvantage.  'What do you want to know now,' asks the doorkeeper, 'you're insatiable.'  'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man, 'how does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance.'  The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars at him: 'No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you.  I'm going to go and shut it now.''"

"…the correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are not mutually exclusive."

"'Why should I want something from you.  The court wants nothing from you.  It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.'"

"…the responsibility for this final failure lay with whoever had denied him the remnant of strength necessary to do so."

"'Like a dog!' he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him."

The Refusal (1920)

Story of a small town under complete control of their leaders without any question of authority
The citizens annually submit a petition that is always refused

Quotations:

"Now it is remarkable and I am continually being surprised by the way we in our town humbly submit to all orders issued in the capital.  For centuries no political change has been brought about by the citizens themselves."

"One is almost under the impression that the people here say: 'Now that you've taken all we possess, please take us as well.' In reality of course, it was not he who seized the power, nor is he a tyrant.  It has just come about over the years that the chief tax-collector is automatically the top official, and the colonel accepts the tradition just as we do.
Yet while he lives among us without laying too much stress on his official position, he is something quite different from the ordinary citizen.  When a delegation comes to him with a request, he stands there like the wall of the world.  Behind him is nothingness, one imagines hearing voices whispering in the background, but this is probably a delusion; after all, he represents the end of all things, at least for us."

"Actually a single soldier would have been quite enough, such is our fear of them."

"They don't actually do anything evil, and yet they are almost unberarable in an evil sense."

"'The petition has been refused,' he announced.  'You may go.' An undeniable sense of relief passed through the crowd, everyone surged out, hardly a soul paying any special attention to the colonel, who, as it were, had turned once more into a human being like the rest of us.  I still caught one last glimpse of him as he wearily let go of the poles, which fell to the ground, then sank into an armchair produced by some officials, and promptly put his pipe in his mouth."

"In all important matters, however, the citizens can always count on a refusal.  And now the strange fact is that without this refusal one simply cannot get along, yet at the same time these official occasions designed to receive the refusal are by no means a formality. Time after time one goes there full of expectation and in all seriousness and then one returns, if not exactly strengthened or happy, nevertheless not disappointed or tired.  About these things I do not have to ask the opinion of anyone else, I feel them in myself, as everyone does; nor do I have any great des8ire to find out how these things are connected.
As a matter of fact there is, so far as my observations go, a ertain age group that is not content- these are the young people roughly between seventeen and twenty.  Quite young fellows, in fact, who are utterly incapable of foreseeing the consequences of even the least significant, far less a revolutionary, idea.  And it is among just them that discontent creeps in."

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2 Responses to “Franz Kafka”

  1. Franz Kafka Says:

    A few more from Kafka:

    “You are free and that is why you are lost. ”

    “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

    “In the struggle between yourself and the world second the world.”


  2. Those are great.
    You know, when I bought my first book by Kafka the lady at the register said that he (Kafka) would ruin me. Isn’t that a funny thing to say? Anyway, thanks for the quotes.


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