Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Trial: Or, Defending Your Life

Kafka is reported to have laughed uncontrollably when reading aloud from The Trial. If "life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think," then perhaps we should think more deeply about the life situation Kafka describes and feel less acutely the fear of the faceless system that takes hold of Josef K. The aspect of fear is the most salient characteristic of the novel, with many calling the story a nightmare. It certainly can be read that way, comparing Kafka's system to 20th century totalitarian states that controlled every aspect of their citizen's lives. Or considering the devolution of K. to be the result of psychological demons, like Dostoevsky's character Golyadkin in The Double. These readings, though, do not cause laughter, uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps we can find Kafka's joke elsewhere.

K. is on trial for his life, prosecuted by an extra-judicial system that inhabits the dusty corners of the city and the deep recesses of people's minds. Everyone seems aware of the system, but no one has any direct knowledge of it, the real system, that is. K.'s neighbors seem to know about his arrest even before he does, as they stare in through the windows of his rooming house. His uncle Karl (or Albert) immediately understands the gravity of the situation when K. informs him that "it's not a trial before the normal court" and scurries him off to his longtime friend, the lawyer Herr Held. No one, though, can tell him anything about the system's real decision-making process. Lawyers, painters, merchants, and priests that K. meets have dealings with only the lowest level of the system and their efforts to game the system seem totally unconnected with the final verdict.

A similar story is told in the 1991 movie, Defending Your Life, written and directed by Albert Brooks. Daniel Miller also faces a trial by an extra-judicial system. His trial does not take place on earth during Miller's life, but in "Judgment City" immediately following his death. By setting the situation in the afterlife, Brook avoids the absurd character of The Trial, since the simulacrum of the earth that we see in Judgment City is not, by nature, at odds with the extra-corporeal purpose of Miller's trial. Miller faces two possible outcomes, being sent back to earth to live another life or going on to become a full citizen of the Universe. He must show that he has conquered his primal fears in order to go on since fear is incompatible with living a full life. In contrast, those on earth, the "little brains, " are always consumed by their fears.

Defending Your Life may not have an intentional connection to The Trial (an overt connection would have been a marketing nightmare), but there are common elements which the two works share.

Each protagonist begins his story on his birthday and each is alone, unconnected. Daniel is divorced and considers his coworkers his family; K. has only the occasional liaison with Elsa, who "by day received visitors only in bed."

Daniel's trial judge tells him, "even though this feels like a trial, it really isn't. It's just a process that helps us decide" (emphasis added). The Trial, or Der Prozess in German, "refers not only to an actual trial, but also to the proceedings surrounding it, a process that, in this imaginary world, includes preliminary investigations, numerous hearings, and a wide range of legal and extra-legal maneuvering." (Breon Mitchell, 1998, Translator's Preface, The Trial).

Daniel receives the judgment of the court, but makes the final judgment himself, by transcending his fear and joining the love of his (after)life, Julia. The two "old supporting actors" who take K. to his end, per Mitchell, "draw near his face and lean cheek-to-cheek 'to observe the verdict,' [...] in Josef K.'s own eyes." Both protagonists thus carry their verdict within themselves.

Herr Held seems ineffective as K.'s lawyer, not even producing the first petition after several months. Daniel's stand-in lawyer, Dick Stanley, also seems ineffective, not responding to the prosecutor's arguments, saying instead, "No counter at this time, your honor," and "I'm fine." K. discharges his lawyer and Daniel would like to, but when we see the final verdict in each case, we see that the lawyers do right by not doing. They are not trying to be persuasive with regard to the system (they know they can't), but are trying to be persuasive with their client. Daniel, partly because Dick Stanley does not stick up for him at the screening session, eventually decides to stick up for himself: this is the key to his success. Note that Daniel's primary lawyer, Bob Diamond, with a littler brain than Stanley, uses an approach which serves to enable Daniel in staying within his shell.

Held is not persuasive with K., who discharges his lawyer and assumes his own defense. This does not end well for K.

K.'s guilt can perhaps be covered under the umbrella term, fear, but there are specific details which describe his unexamined life to greater benefit. First note his living situation. He does not live independently, even though he is a senior officer of the bank. He lives in a single room of a boarding house where all his domestic needs are attended to by the landlady, Frau Grubach, and her cook.

K. has no life partner and has bizarre relations with the women who do enter his life. He occasionally visits Elsa, described above. He has hardly said a word to Fraulein Burstner, who also resides at the rooming house, but after relating to her the details of his arrest he "seized her, kissed her on the mouth, then all over her face, like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring it has found at last. Then he kissed her on the neck, right at her throat, and left his lips there for a long time." He even eyes Frau Grubach, when he "looked down, as so often, at her apron strings, which cut so unnecessarily deeply into her robust body." He also repeatedly visits Held's nurse, Leni, probably abandoning Elsa for the time.

K. suffers professional jealousy of the vice-president of the bank, and romantic jealousy of Block, the merchant who is a client of Held and somewhat of a ward of Leni's. K. thinks highly of anyone he associates with when he thinks they offer him an advantage, but immediately despises them as he begins to suspect that they don't. This change of attitude can happen in an instant.

K.'s life ethic is a catenary, not a Roman arch: "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." Initially, he treats his arrest as a joke and is unconcerned with the proceedings. He passively accepts the help that comes to him: his uncle leads him to Held, the manufacturer introduces him to Titorelli (the official portrait artist to the court), the bank president guides him to the priest at the cathedral. These resources he ultimately rejects because he has more confidence in his own organizational talent to lead his own defense.

He completely misreads the system in attempting to fight the process, so in a short six months he reaches the final verdict. He would have done better to heed the advice of the inspector on the day of his arrest: "think less about us and what's going to happen to you, and instead think more about yourself. And don't make such a fuss about how innocent you feel; it disturbs the otherwise not unfavorable impression you make."

By thinking of himself, his life, and making of it what was good for him, he would have achieved the third possible release that Titorelli mentions: protraction. Living under a sentence of death, but living it well. The first release, actual acquittal, is unachievable, occurring only in legend. (Elijah comes to mind). The second release, apparent acquittal, offers only a false hope since rearrest is possible at any time. K. actually took a fourth path: denial. He chose to fight the Law and the Law won, quickly and decisively. K's verdict could be seen in his eyes.

Daniel's verdict could be seen in Julia's eyes.

Tzolkin date: 5 Eb, long count

I saw Defending Your Life at its initial release and at the time didn't think it particularly funny and not at all revelatory. I was probably too much like Daniel in his pre-emancipation cocoon to appreciate it. I too wanted Julia to bite off the long string of spaghetti as she ate in the Italian restaurant.

I now see the humor in Brook's movie and believe it can be seen as revelatory as in the above connection with Kafka. Julia can slurp in public as much as she likes. Kafka's and Brooks' names are not often linked together in the same sentence, but that may merely be a brief hiatus once Kafka's humor and Brooks' life insight become better known.

- L.T.