Ice Friday: Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”

Whenever you think you have it bad, read Kafka to realize how much worse things could be:

Once more the odious courtesies began, the first handed the knife across K. to the second who handed it across K. back again to the first. K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself, as it traveled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast.IMG_4940 But he did not do so, he merely turned his head, which was still free to move, and gazed around him. He could not completely rise to the occasion, he could not relieve the officers of all their tasks; the responsibility for this last failure of his lay with him who had not left him the remnant of strength necessary for the deed. IMG_4945His glance fell on the top story of the house adjoining the quarry. With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of a window there suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial at a distance and that height, loomed abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still further. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind? Was help at hand? Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? IMG_4947Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot stand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the high Court to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all of his fingers. But the hands of one of the partners was already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. IMG_5003With failing eyes, K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. “Like a dog!” he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.*

(The end of Franz Kafka’s The Trial)

The Eternal Complainers

It’s one thing to be self-reflective – what a fine and therapeutic thing that is! – but entirely another to brood and whine so exhaustively that no one is willing to suffer your lamentations nor even bear your presence. That said, it is a great vehicle for a story. Truly, many of our most oft-quoted heroes are little more than bitter complainers who just need to be heard. (Note that they are all men.)

5. Ivanov (Anton Chekov, Ivanov) An overly dramatic fellow who really is a jerk to everyone around him, but he doesn’t know why and he really does seem to care, so much so that he takes it out on himself in the end.      ivanovIf an intelligent, educated, and healthy man begins to complain of his lot and go down-hill, there is nothing for him to do but to go on down until he reaches the bottom–there is no hope for him.

4. Josef K (Franz Kafka, The Trial) There is no doubt that Josef K has reason to complain – horribly treated by everyone around him, resulting in his inevitable abandonment and death – but what a depressing collection of thoughts! josef kYes, that’s the conspiracy: to persuade us all that the whole world is crazy, formless, meaningless, absurd. That’s the dirty game. So I’ve lost my case. What of it? You, you’re losing too. It’s all lost, lost. So what? Does that sentence the entire universe to lunacy?

3. Alvy SInger (Woody Allen, Annie Hall) A very funny neurotic to be sure, but it’s not hard to understand why Annie finally moved across the country to get away from him. alvyI’m obsessed with uh, with death, I think. Big – big subject with me, yeah. I have a very pessimistic view of life. You should know this about me if we’re gonna go out. You know, I – I feel that life is – is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.

2. Holden Caulfield (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye) A spoiled, selfish know-it-all who somehow holds the key to decent society. Kill all of the phonies. Indeed. holdenIt was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.

1. Hamlet (Willy Shakespeare, Hamlet) A most moody fellow, profound in thought and discourse, not so great on doing anything – except for royally fucking everything up. hamletWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?