woensdag 2 september 2015

Kafka 100 years later

The name of the writer Franz Kafka is in European culture associated with a literary view on bureaucracy. Kafka’s relative unicity and distinctiveness within European culture – or more specifically literature – lies in his depiction of an excessive, megalomaniacal bureaucracy. Such a bureaucracy developed in modern Western societies over time, perhaps also in states outside of the Western world.

The “juridification”, detailed rules and procedures related with state affairs, forms indeed an interesting theme, but especially in its interrelation with human nature. Do such detailed, codified rules, laws, and legal processes dehumanize, “mechanize” humans, and necessarily turn them into uncritical robots? This can result in an unnatural, even evil state, where human empathy and human lives become secondary (“befehl ist befehl”). People potentially become a link in a wider chain, with those at lower levels not knowing what goes on and is decided at higher levels.

Even before I actually read anything by Kafka, I knew that Kafka was known for this theme, and I also already sensed that such a thematic would lend itself very well for a literary examination.


I read Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, one of his best-known novels, written in 1914 and 1915 (officially released later), which deals with bureaucracy. Kafka was from Prague, Czech Republic, and from a German-speaking Jewish family. So, a specific background, one context/country, and an earlier period. What I find interesting to examine, however, is the following: how “universal” is this novel? and: is it still relevant today, in 2015? It is now exactly 100 years after it was originally written.

Of course, human character and nature are not bound to time or place, and literary works are almost by definition about the universality of human character, especially (ideally) those considered "classic". Yet, such works – and also the novel ‘The Trial’ – contain an interaction with a specific social context, in a specific time and place, making it inherently topical. Is it in that sense only relevant for European or Western societies? And then of the time of writing?

I enjoyed reading the novel ‘The Trial’, I should say on forehand. It is a type of literary work/novel that I like. While Kafka’s writing style is a bit formal and to-the-point, it also is imaginative and appealing in some way. There’s a good balance, I opine. It engaged me. Human interactions, as well as the locations and places (mostly indoors) are depicted vividly, transporting me as if I were really there, which is the mark of a good writer. Perhaps it was readable for me, because the settings and contexts were always very clear, and the main character, Josef K., had a perspective that was at least clear and understandable. Reading it I thus came to look through this main character’s eyes, also because the somewhat “formal” writing style ironically made identification easier.

That’s an irony I encounter in several cultural expressions: literary works, as well as films, plays, musical pieces a.o.: the more - though not a total - “rational distance” is taken by the creator (author, story-teller or artist), the easier I identify with it, can get into it. Some may prefer more irrational emotional “outbursts”, captured in art, but I often find these too particular and personal. Too self-involved, maybe.

‘The Trial’ is about a man of about 30 years old, having a steady mid-level job in an office, at a bank. He suddenly ends up in a fight with the legal system in a very absurd way. He is arrested temporarily, summoned to come to court, followed and constantly “kept in check” by people around him. It is not made clear to this main character, Josef K., of what crimes he is actually accused/guilty, nor is this explained to the reader. He is prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, and tries to fight this by seeking help at lower legal levels, seeking lawyers to aid him, and attending and preparing for trials. It all is very non-transparent and absurd, yet at the same time bureaucratic, formalized, and with many specific rules. Via via, he gets to know people “who know important, powerful people” that indirectly might help him during this trial.

The precise reason for this trial, all the while, remains unclear. The main character just knows: I am a suspect in a trial set up by powerful people. Everyone around him: at his job, clergymen at the cathedral, his friends and neighbours, get to know this, and treat him accordingly. A large part of the novel consists of him trying to work the system in his favour at the lower legal, judicial levels. This may not seem to be a very spectacular story line, but actually was described engagingly by Kafka..at least in my opinion.

The book was finished, as I mentioned, in 1915. The genius of it lied not just in its accurate description of an existing reality. Moreover, it lied in its predictive value: Communism would start arising in Russia not long after (1917), while Fascism, Nazism or related dictatorships would also come up in Europe. Those all consist of state-led oppression, hidden in complex bureaucracies, intentionally set up to avert or “fragmentize” away blame for actions against individuals, to other levels or “departments”. Not just states, but also big companies know of course this type of bureaucracy and division of tasks, deliberately dividing - and obscuring - responsibility. Dictatorships or big companies do not aim at democratic transparency, but also democratic states have elements of bureaucracy undermining the transparency. All this exists today, and makes Kafka’s ‘The Process’ by definition, I find, “universal”, and still relevant in this day and age.


‘Transparency’ is a key word here, I think. Bureaucracy and transparency are at odds. I would add another “key word”, though: power. Power differences are what enable oppression through bureaucracy, limiting transparency deliberately. This is not absent in Kafka’s novel, in fact it is a main line in the book. More concretely, the main character Josef K. seeks to “work within the system” and with the powers to be, to get out of his prosecution, only finding that it is not enough to get him out of his situation, save him. His dealings with bureaucracy are adaptive on his part, just because he wants to maintain his bourgeois life style and obtained status: a middle-level job at a bank, reporting to superiors, the unavoidable “kissing up” to bosses..all to eventually be able to pay the bills. Despite his quite complacent attitude, the system still sees him as a suspect, as someone who is guilty, and thus to be controlled,..not someone to be respected or even left alone. Even though he is not put in detention as such in the novel.

Here we come to deeper dimensions behind Kafka’s depictions, which I think extends even beyond excessive bureaucratic systems known as such: Communism, Nazism, Fascism, police states, dictatorships, multinational companies, and people who work in them. A bigger system above this – at a higher level – is the Western economic system with global influence.


Adherents of Rastafari – basically a Black Power movement with a spiritual dimension (dixit Mutabaruka) - , which originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, call this global Western economic system “Babylon”. It includes a specified semantic dimension, of course, of historical colonialism and slavery, oppression of Blacks, neo-colonialism, and the rape and pillaging of Africa. Babylon oppresses the poor. Poor Black people and other people. That is mostly how “Babylon” is described by Rastafari adherents in Jamaica and elsewhere. At the same time, “Babylon” is also seen by Rastas as a non-transparent “system”, an evil force, dehumanizing individual people, degrading our human essence. A wicked, devilish system. It is here that Kafka’s writings can be related to this Rasta concept of Babylon, making the novel even more universal and “classic”..

Especially also the term “mystery Babylon”, used by many Rastas (in reggae songs and elsewhere) alludes to this “nontransparency” aligned with oppression.

A main difference is that Rastafari-adherents mostly aim at “being separate” from this system, and do, unlike the main character in ‘The Trial’, not work within it, as he does. At least not to the same degree. They do not want to be part of the same system, Josef K. in Kafka’s novel does, albeit sometimes reluctantly, as a type of “uncle Tom”.


To stay within the same Caribbean setting as where Rastafari first arose, I recently (August, 2015) saw two recently released feature films/movies – both released in 2013 – in a cinema in Amsterdam, as part of a World Cinema festival: one from Trinidad and Tobago, set in its capital Port of Spain, one set in Kingston, Jamaica. Both films were set in what can be called “ghetto areas”, poor or working-class areas in the respective capitals. They both deal with the present times (i.e. around 2013).

The one in Port-of-Spain was set in the neighbourhood Laventille in the East part of town, a quarter known also for its contribution to local culture: calypso music and Pan. Calypsonian David Rudder stops short of calling Laventille a real “ghetto” in all senses, because he notes the presence of “hope” and “light” in Laventille..it nonetheless is still a poor neighbourhood with social problems. People in it need to survive, and criminality is rampant, including gangs. The Trinidadian movie, which was called ‘God Loves The Fighter’, had this crime and criminal life as theme, in a quite cynical way. The multiracial main characters (being criminals) were involved in gun crime, and prostitution, at one point even protistuting a minor to a pervert, such as organized by a “pimp” of Chinese descent. Like other criminals, they lived a life of partying, trickery, and created an illusion around them, rationalizing their cynical and essentially parasitic lifestyle, as if they’re not just essentially hurting/using other poor people. This serves to "drown" their conscience, so to speak. One such rationalization became the film’s title, taken from a conversation in it: it is asserted that criminals are the real “fighters”, unlike people with “normal” low-wage jobs or those unemployed who are not involved in crime and guns, but stay poor and powerless.

The Jamaican movie was called ‘Kingston Paradise’ and was set in likewise crime- and violence-ridden ghetto areas of Kingston (“Downtown”), and had as main characters a couple who with associates made a living with prostitution or by stealing valuable things and scams, such as by stealing an expensive, “fancy” car owned by a middle-class Jamaican of Lebanese (Arab) descent. The scheme of stealing the fancy car seems not well thought out, and likely doomed to fail. The overall tone in the Jamaican movie was less cynical when compared to the Trinidadian film ‘God Loves the Fighter’. It had more humour and was more light-hearted in tone than this last. The relationship between the main character and his girlfriend annex business partner (he is also more or less her pimp) was not without tension, insults and screams, or violent threats, but also was in some way “cute”. In some way the opportunistic criminal seemed to feel affection for his female partner, though showing it in strange ways. The “car scheme”, by the way, cost an involved friend of this main character his life (murdered by other criminals).

Okay, I considered the films to be entertaining, and also to a degree educational and instructive about ghetto life and criminality in respectively Trinidad and Jamaica. But do these films also relate to Kafka’s notion of an absurdly excessive bureaucracy? Is a Kafkaesque (European-based?) interpretation of these Caribbean films not too far-fetched to try to apply here?


I think, philosophically or even sociologically, a comparison is not far-fetched, and can certainly be made. With all his aims of seeking favours (via others) of “higher judges” and his consulting of lawyers and others to favour his trial - what would we call today “networking” - the main character Josef K. in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ remains still lower than them, and is still oppressed and disempowered by them. He cannot free himself from this organized trial against him, and remains a “suspect” and bound.

The same way, I argue, that criminals in poor areas are, despite their self-delusion, part of the negative system, part of what the Rastas call “Babylon”. Their exclusion from normal society, and thus from ordinary jobs, eventually made them turn to do illegal things to make money. As a criminal in the movie ‘God Loves the Fighter’ cynically stated, in discussion with a partner in crime who wanted to have a better, non-criminal life.. (in my own words): ”You think you send your resumé to apply for a job and get it?..this (my gun) is my resumé..”..

Their efforts to live outside the law are not dissimilar to how Josef K. seeks a way out of the trial hanging over his head, through contacts within the system: the more powerful system still determines their life and actions: it creates wealth differences, ghettos, social problems, keeps the poor in poverty, alienated from wealthy society, with no enduring positive source of income, only what seems a temporary relief through cynical means (i.e. crime).

I think therefore that Kafka’s relevance should not be reduced to just one society (Prague? Europe?), or one bureaucratic system and legal proceedings or buildings in one specific place. I think it also applies to a similarly non-transparent and repressive global economic system, determining from afar inequalities in this world, creating underdeveloped countries, keeping for instance the African continent poor, favouring Western multinationals, neo-colonialism, racial inequality (which is intertwined with social inequality in the Caribbean, with its history of slavery.. the ghettos are mostly inhabited by Black people), etcetera. In that sense those criminals who think they found a smart way out, as those portrayed in the said movies/films, result from that system as well. Thus they are part of the system, even if they would deny it.


Tellingly tragic is in this regard the final scene of Kafka’s work ‘The Trial’. Kafka has written several parts of novels which he did not finish – writing was his loved hobby and relief from his office job, he stated -, but at least ‘The Trial’ has a clear “final” scene. I found the ending scene strong and impressive from a literary and dramatic perspective. The main character Josef K. is taken, as if detained, by force by two men to a remote place, where he is eventually murdered. This seemingly as an end-result of the said “trial” against him. In the final scenes there is a beautiful “Cervantes/Don Quijote-like” phrase Kafka lets the main character Josef K. think: “The logic may be irrefutable, but cannot compete with a person’s will to live”.. In the same final scene, in his final thoughts before dying, the main character concludes that he never got to see the judge, those higher in the hierarchy..that he never reached the higher court, setting up this whole trial against him...

In some way like some criminals in the said movies lose their lives in poor, disadvantaged areas, mainly after being killed by other criminals.. They never got out of the ghetto - not even the one in their minds -, and remained figuratively bound to it.