MY TOP SHELF
[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Franklin Library, 1977; full grey morocco; gilt titles and humped spine; moiré endpapers in black with black ribbon; gilt edged paper in text; translated by W and E Muir; and illustrated by Phero Thomas.
Someone must have traduced Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
How do you feel when your bank bounces a cheque – usually in favour of your secretary or your landlord or, even better, your golf club – and you get a computer generated letter – long after the affront has been administered to the payee of the cheque – and which does not name any actual person in the bank but which bears an anonymous squiggle over the printed title ‘Team Leader, Dishonour Team’? Just think of that – your bank has a whole team dedicated to dishonouring you and the rest of its customers. Does the team get to march to a tune? Do they have their own guernsey?
Or, you get another computer driven letter that contains the name of no real person. It is almost entirely incomprehensible, but it is alleging that you owe your government a large amount of money for tax. You correspond with computers and you cannot get any sense from them. You sense that they do not know what the law is and that they do not care about you. But the one thing you do understand is that they say that the law stands behind their assessment and says that it is right and that you have the onus of proving them wrong. Are not really bad criminals better treated by the law?
Or you live in a regime where you get fined for driving offences that are detected by computers and notified to you by computers and which carry points which are tallied by computers until you get enough to lose your licence – by computers. Computers then notify you that you have scored enough points to have lost your licence and that accordingly you are not allowed to drive. You seek to challenge that decision – if decision it is – and the bureaucracy showers incomprehensible paper all over you. It refers to an ‘Infringements Court’. Do people really believe that there is such a court? In the meantime the law is that you have been deprived of your licence and therefore your livelihood by a process untouched by a human hand, much less by judicial hands.
These instances of contemporary absurdity – of how we are losing our way and our rights – are called Kafkaesque. Franz Kafka was a German speaking Czech Jew who trained in law but who engaged in office work to support his writing. His best known work is The Trial. It is set in an indeterminate time and place and it follows the course of an absurdly unreal legal process brought against its hero who is named Joseph K. It begins with the text set out above and it does not relent.
The events of the day somehow lead K to be attracted to another tenant, Fraulein Burstner. ‘K … rushed out, seized her, and kissed her first on the lips, then all over the face, like some thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring of long-sought fresh water …. He wanted to call Fraulein Burstner by her first name, but he did not know what it was.’ There is a recurring streak of anonymity and unreality.
When he gets to see the court, he enters a door directed by a young woman with sparkling black eyes who is washing children’s clothes in a tub. He felt like he was going into a meeting hall. When he got before the crowd he said: ‘Whether I am late or not, I am here now.’ This was met with a burst of applause. K thought that ‘these people are easy to win over’. K tells the Examining Magistrate that ‘I do not say that your procedure is contemptible, but I should like to present that epithet to you for your private consumption’.
There are nightmare elements throughout. The uncle of Joseph K refers him to an old lawyer. The lawyer is ill but agrees to see Joseph. The lawyer is looked after by a nurse called Leni who is attracted to men generally, and accused men in particular. Leni immediately propositions K, and not without effect. The lawyer knows more about K’s case than K, because he is a lawyer who moves in legal circles and has discussed this case with his colleagues. In this system, the accused is never told the charge. Sometimes they try to guess what it might be by looking at the course of the interrogations. ‘In such circumstances the Defence was naturally in a very ticklish and difficult position. Yet that, too, was intentional. For the Defence was not actually countenanced by the Law.’ (The third question put to Galileo on his second visit to the Inquisition was: ‘Why do you think you are here?’)
There are ranks of lawyers. At the bottom are pettifogging lawyers. They are all over the place. At the top are the truly great lawyers. No one has ever met one of those. The most important part of the role of the lawyer was counsel’s personal connection with officials of the court. No client ever dismissed a lawyer – such a thing was not done. An accused man, once having briefed a lawyer, must stick to him whatever happened. It is rather like marriage, but more binding.
Joseph K is so preoccupied with the process – which in no way resembles what those in the common law would call a trial – that his work at the bank is affected and a deputy manager is moving in to poach his clients. K has to keep customers waiting, and he sometimes gets some satisfaction from the fact that others have to be kept waiting. It is a way of stressing the hierarchical nature of the world of Joseph K. (When will our computers be programmed to be sweeter to those with money?)
Titorelli is a painter with influence. He asks the question that criminal lawyers generally avoid: ‘Are you innocent?’ When he gets an affirmative answer, Titorelli says, ‘I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the Court indulges and in the end, out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.’ K asked the painter how he came into contact with the judges. ‘That was quite simple ….I inherited the connection. My father was the court painter before me. It’s a hereditary post. New painters are of no use for it…..For every judge insists on being painted as the great old judges were painted, and no one can do that but me.’ Titorelli thinks therefore that he is unassailable. He assures K that ‘as you are completely innocent, this is the line I shall take’. But then the painter goes on to give K the bad news: ‘I have never encountered one case of definite acquittal.’ The best that K can hope for is ‘ostensible acquittal, or postponement’. ‘Ostensible acquittal’ is a masterpiece of evasion. In such cases it is just as possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the court and find officers already there waiting to arrest him again. The very fruitful meeting with the painter ends with the painter selling K a few paintings.
The lawyer says that he has discussed K’s case with a judge who does not think much of. K: ‘But for all they know, the proceedings have not yet even commenced.’ ‘At a certain stage of the proceedings there was an old tradition that a bell must be rung.’ It was perfectly possible that K’s case has not reached that stage even yet.
The last chapter is called ‘The End.’ It begins:
On the evening before K’s thirty-first birthday – it was about nine o’clock, the time when a hush falls on the streets – two men came to his lodging. They were in frock coats, pallid and plump, with top hats which were apparently irremovable. After some exchange of formalities regarding precedence at the front door, they repeated the same ceremony more elaborately before K’s door.
Later K says to himself: ‘Tenth-rate old actors they send for me ….They want to finish me off cheaply ….What theatre are you playing at?’ He was repelled by the painful cleanliness of their faces. They are mechanical and anonymous as the warders who came to arrest K. They take him to a quarry and his last words are: ‘Like a dog!’
The end is unseemly, but not nearly as unseemly as the millions of ends inflicted by the secret police of Hitler or Stalin in ways and circumstances that Franz Kafka could never have dreamed of.
Orlando Figges informs us that on 28 July 1938, two young girls, Nelly and Angelina, were arrested without notice with their mother, Zinaida, by two NKVD operatives. Their father had been arrested nine months before, and not seen since. The girls were told that they would not see their mother again and would be sent to different children’s homes. When they left, the girls could see the NKVD beating up their mother. Unlike Joseph K., Zinaida was told of the charge against her. She was charged with failing to denounce her husband. The State said its subjects owed more allegiance to it than to their husbands or wives. She was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp – the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. She was nursing a baby at the time. Could the singular mind of Franz Kafka have comprehended such denials of the essence of our humanity?
Kafka wrote at a time when people spoke of the death of God, meaning peoples’ loss of faith in God. What we now see is not a voluntary loss of faith, but a mandatory placing of faith. After Einstein, physics passed beyond the understanding of all but a few. Most of us have to take the physical world on faith. It is like Darwin – and that ask is too big for some. It is the same now the way computers control so many parts of our lives. They add to our sense of loss of independence, to our sense of helplessness.
This novel is very different to the novels of the great George Orwell warning us of the loss of humanity under totalitarian regimes. The Trial is more like an opera or a tone poem. It is very twentieth century. Think of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck or Lulu, or The Makropoulos Case of Janacek, or The Chairs of Ionesco.
The Trial delivers slashing insight into the frailty of the human condition. As it happens, the nightmare vision of this artist may not be realized again under dictators like Stalin and Hitler, but more simply by the accretion of the processes that we have now mastered, as a result of which the trial system keeps getting longer and longer, lawyers keep getting more and more expensive, and the law itself just gets more and more incomprehensible, and the descent in each is completely assured and computer-assisted. Did Kafka the lawyer see this, or is it merely implicit in the vision of Kafka the artist? You will recall that great lawyers were like acquittals – they had never been seen.
As is commonly the case with great artists, the vision of Franz Kafka was eerily prophetic.