Kafka’s The Trial revolves around the parable of the law; it is the hermeneutic puzzle that promises to be a key to the larger work, though no doubt others have approached the situation conversely, whereby the larger puzzle of the novel is the key for the parable. Whether or not it is appropriate to handle a puzzle as if it were a key, it demands scrutiny: not what does this mean, but what is Kafka judging about judgment? That a final judgment before the law is impossible to those who heed the law, since their heeding the law means that they obey the watchman and do not enter? That one is already under the law when one is denied entry into its domain, that the law is always and already enforced?
The parable sustains both possibilities, but the novel could not endorse the interpretation of the parable that would be suggested by Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans:
We must be under no illusion: the reality of our present existence continues as it is! The Resurrection, which is the place of exit, also bars us in, for it is both barrier and exit. Nevertheless, the ‘No’ which we encounter is the ‘No’ – of God. And therefore our veritable deprivation is our veritable comfort in distress. The barrier marks the frontier of a new country, and what dissolves the whole wisdom of the world also establishes it. Precisely because the ‘No ‘ of God is all – embracing, it is also His ‘Yes’. We have therefore, in the power of God, a look – out, a door, a hope; and even in this world we have the possibility of following the narrow path and of taking each simple little step with a ‘despair which has its own consolation ‘ (Luther).
By way of the “No,” Barth finds faith; the negation of all of our world by God, his radical alterity to it, demands faith in Barth’s view. It is tempting to read Barth as commenting on the same experience and understanding of Faith as Kafka, and vice-versa, despite Barth’s being a Protestant Christian and Kafka a Jew. Here from Barth:
Men are lost, even though they know nothing of salvation. Then the barrier remains a barrier and does not become a place of exit. The prisoner remains a prisoner and does not become the watchman. Then is waiting not joyful but a bitter – sweet surrender to what is inevitable. Then is the contradiction not hope, but a sorrowful opposition. The fruitful paradox of our existence is then that which consumes it like a worm. And Negation is then – what is normally meant by the word.
Our arrogance demands that, in addition to everything else, some super-world should also be known and accessible to us. Our conduct calls for some deeper sanction, some approbation and remuneration from another world. Our well-regulated, pleasurable life longs for some hours of devotion, some prolongation into infinity. And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves.
What are all those enigmatic creatures of God – a zoological garden, for example – but so many problems to which we have no answer? But God only, God Himself, He is the Answer. And so the boundary which bars us in and which, nevertheless, points beyond itself, can since the creation of the world be clearly seen through the things that are made by God.
In all this mist the prime factor is provided by the illusion that it is possible for men to hold communication with God or, at least, to enter into a covenant relationship with Him without miracle…
And even faith, if it proceeds from anything but a void, is unbelief; for it is then once again the appearance of the slavery of unrighteousness seeking to suppress the dawning truth of God, the disturbance of all disturbings.
Barth’s theology of God, insofar as it can be extracted and separated from his Christology, is consonant with the moments of despair in Kafka. But I think it’s incumbent, once that consonance is apprehended, to hear against it the dissonance of their understanding of God and Faith–and not only because Kafka is not a Christian. Barth and Kafka need to be held apart because the denial of God, the “No” of Barth is, in the novels and short stories encountered in the context of human relations; the consequence is not a denial by God or denial of God, but a denial by humans, sometimes as rejection, sometimes as ignorance, sometimes as reasons and rationality, sometimes as explanation, and sometimes, even, as love; that negation is not a negation of the world, but a negation in and by the world.
The doctrine of humanism is: “the world is good enough for me; I must be good enough for it.” The doctrine of Barth’s protestantism is (perhaps): “the world cannot be good enough; I must be good enough–have faith in–the impossible God who is necessary for the world.” For Kafka, the terms of the formula are shifted entirely: “the world negates itself for me; I must be in it.” Whatever “beyond” in Kafka’s novels–whatever inaccessible locus of authority or proceeding–it is read as religious allegory because religion has asked us to think of the “beyond” and its negative as part and parcel of spiritual, religious thought, in any number of traditions (with the alternative being the denial of a beyond at all, an immanence in creation in Pantheism, for instance); but in Kafka, the “beyond,” immanent only in its being always beyond what is accessible and firm like a foundation, is of the world that it always seems to exceed.