A few days ago, I contacted the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague to see if they were open. The next day Barbara Jebavá, a museum administrator, replied that the museum’s doors would be closed until further notice. “Thank you,” she signed off, “for your understanding.”
Was there a different and deeper meaning to Ms. Jebavá’s farewell? After all, Kafka understood a thing or two about doors — namely that doors, whether they stand open or closed, block understanding. In his works, doors that stand open do not allow callers to pass through, doors that stand closed filter words and acts that those on the other side strain to understand. Doors open unto other doors, leading nowhere and communicating nothing. Not terribly surprising, really, that for the cover of his novella The Metamorphosis, Kafka wished to show a door opening onto darkness.
Few of his works, however, hinge more closely on doors than does The Trial. Seemingly overnight, Kafka’s novel has become our trial. Not only do doors open and close for the protagonist Josef K., but they are now opening and closing for all of us struggling to understand our changing world. For the most part, the light is as dim on one side as the other. It is all very, well, Kafkaesque.
Since late January, the term “Kafkaesque” has metastasized in the traditional and print media. The odds are good that this week you’ve read an account in the media that uses or quotes someone using the word. Most often, it is used to describe the federal, state, or local bureaucracies that the sick and those trying to care for them confront in seeking tests or treatment. The word has festered as quickly as the virus, with Merriam-Webster reporting a dramatic uptick of people looking up its meaning.
For someone who doubled over in laughter while reading aloud parts of The Trial to his friends, Kafka would probably get a chuckle over this factoid. There are, of course, as many definitions of the Kafkaesque as there are readers of Kafka. There are also those readers who admit they cannot define it but know it when they see it — or know it when they see it in someone else’s definition. As one of those readers, I find that one of Kafka’s many biographers, Frederick R. Karl, seems to get it right. We enter the Kafkaesque, he writes, when “we view life as somehow overpowering or trapping us, as in some way undermining our will to live as we wish.”
Swap out “life” for “the door” in Karl’s sentence and we sweep into the world of the Kafkaesque.
There was an immediate knock at the door and a man he’d never seen before in these lodgings entered.
Barely does the novel begin that we run headlong into a door. Still in bed, Josef K. demanded to know where his breakfast was. Instead of the boarding house’s maid, a strange man opens the door, wearing a uniform that “seemed eminently practical, yet its purpose remained obscure.” From this point — this opening of a door — obscurity is all the world has to offer Josef K. Expecting that life on that day will be just like it was the day before, he instead discovers that his life is no longer his own.
Of course, the experience of doors opening, strangers entering, and lives forever changing was never limited to the unnamed city in The Trial. The anonymity of the city flickers like a neon-bright arrow, pointing to the universality of such experiences. In our case, the door has been unexpectedly opened not by strange men, but instead by strange microbes. But this no more alters the Kafkaesque nature of our experience as does, say, Gregor Samsa’s exact entomological genus change his experience in The Metamorphosis.
Would we react differently to Josef K.’s predicament if the book’s cover were splashed in bright colors rather than shades of black? In a conversation with Milan Kundera, Philip Roth imagined a film version of The Trial with the Marx brothers — starring Groucho as K., of course, with Harpo and Chico playing the two guards. From stealing unannounced into Groucho’s life to stealing his food without shame, the antics and arguments of Harpo and Chico do indeed mirror those of the guards, who seem to have been recruited from the Keystone Kop Academy. When the guards explain to the confused but compliant K. why he cannot wear his nightgown in front of the inspector, how can one not hear Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly asking Chico’s Chicolini in Duck Soup, “What is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?” “Atsa good one,” Chicolini replies, “I give you three guesses.”
Like Rufus T., Josef K. finds himself trying, and failing, to answer the question he had just asked the man who had walked through his door: “Who are you?” The question also turns out to be a riddle, but one given another twist by the question Franz, the guard, asks by way of reply: “You rang?” Of course, he rang; of course, that is the right, but irrelevant answer. Franz might just as well have said to Josef, “Atsa a good one. I give you three guesses.” It turns out that three guesses won’t cut it for Josef K. or, for that matter, the reader. None of us will ever get it.
He’d always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad.
This line — short enough, perhaps, to engrave on a gravestone — describes not just Josef K. but most people in most places at most times. Our time — this very moment, as I write these very words — is no exception. The worst is now arriving in Houston, the city where I live, which has just announced a shutdown.
While my wife had made provision for our family’s future, the pop and crackle of panic I felt this morning at the local supermarket — or the constant jogging of FedEx, UPS, and Amazon Prime trucks up and down our street — tells me that we were the exception. Is it so odd, though? Unless they live in Sparta or Singapore, this is what nations do: take things lightly. This is why nations write up contracts of one sort or another that make a place for authorities who promise clarity and consistency.
This is, at least, what Josef K. thinks authorities are supposed to do as he tries to find the tribunal hearing his case. He eventually discovers a dilapidated building on a dark street in a distant neighborhood. Clambering up and down its maze of stairwells, K. knocks without success at dozens of doors lining the dreary halls. On the verge of giving up, he stumbles across the right door by deliberately asking the wrong question — “Does a carpenter named Lanz live here?” — and is ushered into a long room. It teems with judges who pore over pornography rather than law codes and a public that prefers entertainment to enlightenment. K. leaves the court as clueless as when he entered, with the room’s foul odor clinging to him.
Pay no mind to the corrupt smell, he’s told: “[I]n the end people get quite used to it.” A truth, it seems, for all times and places.
No file is ever lost, and the court never forgets.
Why ask an expert to unpack a complex subject when you can ask an amateur? Why not ask an artist, for example, to interpret laws which are contracting tendril-like around your throat?
On the advice of a lawyer, Josef K. treks to an even more distant and decaying district of the city to find Titorelli, the court painter. The artist’s studio, teetering at the top of a tenement, is dark enough to be buried below it. Escorted by a pack of adolescent girls, whose faces reflect a mix of childishness and depravity, K. arrives at Titorelli’s door. Or, rather, what passes for a door: a few planks sloppily nailed together, leaving wide and uneven cracks. They are wide enough for Josef K. to see Titorelli approach from the other side; once on that side, K. discovers that the cracks are wide enough for him to hear the whispering girls still in the hallway.
Just as the crack in the wall in the BBC series Doctor Who opens on a parallel reality, the cracks in Titorelli’s door lead to an alternative world as well. It is, as the good Doctor would say, a wibbly-wobbly world, composed of laws that parody the world of laws that Josef K. had once known. Better than Doctor Who, we are back to the Marx brothers. Slap a mustache on Josef K. and curly hair on Titorelli and you have Groucho and Chico negotiating the contract, replete with first parts of second parties, in A Night at the Opera.
And indeed, for Josef K., there is no Sanity Clause. Instead, his three options — actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction — are all Insanity Clauses. Tearing up the first clause — Titorelli “know[s] of no actual acquittals” — the two men debate the remaining clauses. Both can ward off K.’s conviction, but neither can win him actual acquittal. Instead, they will leave him in a state of freedom that, at any moment, can be revoked. In the end, there is no end: once the trial is over a new one can begin at any moment.
Hurriedly putting on the coat he had taken off in the squalid and sweltering room, K. stumbles toward the door, yet cannot open it: the girls are pulling the handle on the other side. At Titorelli’s suggestion, K. tries a second door. But this one is also blocked, not by the girls but by the bed. Titorelli only leans over to open it after K. agrees to buy several of his paintings. Swaying rather than walking from his experience, K. descends the staircase and escapes the building.
The paintings, K. discovers, are identical: a landscape with “two frail trees standing at a great distance from one another in the dark grass.” Social distancing, it turns out, determines even arboreal relationships in this universe.
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.
The most confounding appearance of a door in the novel occurs in a cathedral that stands as darkened and desolate as today’s cathedrals in Europe. It is the designated rendezvous for Josef K. and a foreign business client who wishes to see the city’s sights. While the client fails to show up, his place is filled by a priest who, staring down at K. from the balustrade, shouts, “Can’t you see two steps in front of you?”
By way of providing a road map for K., the priest then relates a parable. It is, more or less, the same story, titled “Before the Law,” that Kafka had published in 1915, shortly before he began The Trial in earnest. In it, a man from the country, wishing to behold the Law, approaches an open door, glowing with radiance, which leads to it. He asks the doorkeeper permission to enter, but the latter refuses his request — “at least for now.” There are more doors after this one, the doorkeeper adds, kept by even more fearsome keepers. The man from the country acquiesces and is given a stool. For days and years he sits by the open door, waiting for the permission he is never granted. In his dying moments, the wizened seeker asks the doorkeeper why no one else has ever sought to enter the door. Who would not, after all, wish to behold such a sight? “Because the door was for you alone,” the doorkeeper replies, “and now I am shutting it.”
So, too, the parable: it slams shut on our face. Over the past century, a cottage industry of hermeneutics has woven a staggering variety of interpretations from the story’s resistant thread. Does it point to the byzantine character of the Hapsburg bureaucracy under which Kafka lived? His never-requited relationship with his fiancée Felice Bauer? His desperate quest for metaphysical meaning?
As the doors of our houses and apartments shut on us, those of us fortunate enough to have material and financial resources find ourselves with days, perhaps months, to sit on stools and contemplate the ways Kafka’s trial resembles our trial. The currents of misinformation that Josef K. tries to navigate seem like a dress rehearsal for the misinformation and the disinformation that flourish on social platforms and cable stations. The magistrates and guards who people Kafka’s modernist masterpiece would be at home in our postmodern world of alternate truths. Ultimately, K.’s question — What authorities are in charge of the trial? — is our question as we undergo our own trial. As our political and health authorities repeatedly contradict one another, we hope the latter are in charge, but we know the former have final say. This is the same political authority Titorelli depicts in the official portraits as a judge about to “rise up threateningly from his throne.”
It is tempting — no, I am tempted — to conclude that, while K. finishes his life in a dark stone quarry, this is not necessarily our fate. I am tempted to write that instead of waiting mutely by the door of our government, many of us are demanding to be heard. I am tempted to write that some are now ignoring and charging past the doorkeeper. And I am tempted to write that, whereas K. ends his trial isolated and alone, our trial finds us isolated but increasingly united.
But I am resisting the temptation. Our experience under the novel coronavirus is, like the novel of Kafka, unfinished.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history.