Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 23, 2016

Kafka’s frustrations with law still relevant

Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor emeritus of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, likes to write about Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and the word coined for his name, Kafkaesque.

A Greenberg column recently pointed out that Kafka “grew up in a Jewish middle-class minority within a German-speaking minority within a Czech minority within an Austro-Hungarian empire that was already a fading minority within a world full of collapsing empires ….”

In a 2002 article, Chicago lawyer Douglas Litowitz put it this way: “[Kafka] never qualified as truly German, Czech, or Jewish.” Is it any wonder, then, that Kakfa’s work is largely about “outsider jurisprudence”?

Kafka was a lawyer for the state agency that ran Prague’s workers’ comp system, a complex bureaucratic maze governed by “German legalese.” Now that’s Kafkaesque.

The protagonists of Kafka’s works are outsiders – lonely, misguided, confused souls – who never find the champion needed to win their cases.

I first read Kafka in early 1973. By the year’s end, I’d read everything of his that was ever published – stories, diaries, letters, plus the three novels. I got hooked on this quintessential lawyer-writer prototype.

I have now taught Kakfa for 14 years, to law students.

“The Trial” features a shadowy justice system that pervades the life of Josef K., a bank executive who gets arrested on his 30th birthday. He is not taken into custody, as such, but rather released after a preliminary hearing held in his boarding house.

Then he spends the next year battling the Prosecution – never learning what he is charged with. Now that’s Kafkaesque.

The court’s judges are shrouded in secrecy. The process is chaotic, erratic and mysterious. The lawyers are inept, ineffective and long-winded. Painters, tradesmen and relatives from the country know as much about the process as anyone.

Kafka’s world, says U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, “is actually closer to reality than fantasy” from the standpoint of “clients.”

I’m with Judge Kennedy on this, but I do recommend that my students read Kafka as comedy. That’s the only way I can make sense of it. Some hold that his work is uninterpretable.

The theme of “The Trial” is encapsulated in a story told to K. by a priest, who thinks K. is deluded about his case: “In the writings that preface the law, that particular delusion is described thus: Before the law stands a doorkeeper …”

To this doorkeeper comes a “man from the country” who asks to be admitted to the law. Sorry, says Doorkeep to MFC. Can’t let you in. MFC asks if he’ll be able to get in later. Doorkeep says maybe. MFC stays there the rest of his life, asking repeatedly to enter, occasionally trying to bribe Doorkeep. All to no avail.

Doorkeep, a fierce-looking, talkative dude, allows as how he’s the lowest doorkeeper in a chain that gets worse on the inside. Says he can’t endure even looking at the third one from him.

As MFC is dying, literally, he asks how come no one else, in all these years, came ‘round trying to get in. Doorkeep says, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Kafka shared “Before the Law” with friends at social gatherings. It generated laughter. Few analysts, though, treat Kafka as comedic.

I cannot but note, though, that in season 4 of “Gilmore Girls,” a Professor Fleming assigns “The Trial” to his class, which Rory is taking. But no discussion of theme is included. Now that’s Kafkaesque-ish.