Franz Kafka’s The Trial is among the emblematic books of the 20th century. On the eve of his 30th birthday, a respectable young businessman is arrested in his home by thuggish and corrupt officials. He is summoned to a weird court to face charges that are never stated. The legal process becomes ever more surreal. It gradually becomes clear that many others are enmeshed in the coils of this same court – a court that none can ever permanently escape, although personal influence from court favorites can sometimes buy a little time. For the arrested man, K., there is no escape. A year almost exactly to the day after his arrest, he is apprehended again, led to a stoneyard, arranged on a slab as if for sacrifice, and invited to kill himself. When he refuses, he is stabbed in the heart: the verdict.
It’s a wild and suggestive story. Hannah Arendt quipped that it was Kafka’s fate, never having earned a good living himself, to provide gainful employment for generations of intellectuals to come. This prophecy has more than proved itself. He is a mainstay of college courses and of Ph.D.s in literature.
K.’s trial has been variously taken to anticipate and symbolize the show trials of 20th century totalitarianism. Or the guilt of the soul before an angry God. Or the doom of free sexuality by the institution of marriage. Or the condition of the Jew in antisemitic Europe. Or the struggle of the emotional spirit under the strictures of reason. Or. Or. Or. (Googling to find something of interest about Kafka on the Internet, I came across a student paper on one of those free-plagiarism services used by desperate students that analyzed the deficiencies of K.’s legal strategy. Here, it struck me, was a genuinely novel approach: the first paper to suggest that The Trial was the story of … an actual trial! That has to be worth at least a C …)
One reason that Kafka looms so large on college curricula is precisely that he can be so fruitfully interpreted. By trying to figure out what The Trial “means,” students learn how literature generates meaning. They discover that The Trial can usefully be read in multiple ways, and that these ways do not preclude each other. The haunting story and allegoric style of The Trial make it a bottomless treasury for the human imagination, yielding riches to all who seek them.
Despite Kafka’s high place in the contemporary literary canon – despite the hugely improved new English translations which have provided the texts for the excellent Geoffrey Howard audio recordings – I cannot help fearing that these riches are sought by fewer and fewer. Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to movies or television shows.
Here in the blogosphere, certainly, the contrast is stark. I just did a Google blogsearch. For “Franz Kafka” and “The Trial,” 7900 entries. For HBO and “The Wire,” 59,000. For HBO and “The Sopranos,” 72,000. For “Battlestar Galactica,” 399,000.
Now “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” are fine shows, that do many of the things literature does. I loved the early seasons of “The Sopranos” myself. As for Battlestar Galactica, well who am I to cavil at a show that has done so much to introduce adolescents around the world to the appeal of things Canadian? Still, I do often feel that we live in a world gone color blind or hard of hearing, cut off from deeper connections that were once broadly shared.
The decline of literature is a phenomenon with many causes.
Technology is the most important obviously – movies and TV are more arresting, more accessible, and less demanding than text.
There are cultural changes at work too. Contemporary culture has scant room for arbiters of excellence, yet without them the obvious and easy will drive out the enduring and important. In any area of art – not only literature, but also music and the visual arts – the modern person reminds me of the first encounter of the modern child, raised on fried chicken strips, and an actual roast chicken: “This thing has bones!”
Then of course there is the collapse of self-confidence among those who ought to act as arbiters. Roger Kimball has devoted a lifetime of work to excoriating the multiple self-betrayals of teachers and critics of the arts and literature. So far, alas, the results of his labors are at best inconclusive.
What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this:
Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity. Or because they talk explicitly about sexuality or some other topic deemed likely to excite student attention. Or because they reflect approved attitudes on the issues of the day.
The usual result is simply to bore the students – to deaden for a lifetime any potential enthusiasm for the thing they think they are studying. But for the small minority of students whose enthusiasm for reading cannot be killed even by the academic study of literature, the effect is (if possible) even worse. For them, the study of literature has been turned into an experience of organized lying.
Some will be deceived. Some will be corrupted. And some will be made cynical. Why not treat comic books as literature? After all, that’s how we treat Alice Walker!
And yet I persist in hoping that precisely because literature touches something profound and permanent in the human spirit and human condition, that the very best will continue to find its audience. The Trial of course ranks among the very best. And it even gives us a story, a style, and a word to describe the dominant character of contemporary literary life: what is it, but Kafkaesque?