329. (Franz Kafka)

Kafka’s The Trial takes as its subject matter the disenchantment of turn-of-the-century bourgeois modernity; but it presents, in what it does with that subject, the futility and frustration at attempts at enchanting a discourse that is itself a well-spring of disenchantment.  The discourse is that of the law: not this law or that law, but the notion of law at all, the concept of law that gradually pervades the human, the animal, and the divine, without which, perhaps, we cannot think, it being commensurate with notions of rightness, of what ought to be the case, and even what is in fact the case, a judgment of what is dependent on a judgment of what happens. The disenchantment of bourgeois modernity is, on such a reading, only the most evolved stage in a disenchantment that has inhered in human thought since humans thought (perhaps a comparison to Adorno’s Neolithic foundation of rationality is warranted); in bourgeois modernity, though, the notion of law finds divergent and fragmented expression (a la Habermas) in the aesthetic, the religious, the scientific the legal notions of “rightness” according to different sorts of laws. The Court of the novel, though, is an arbiter not only of laws, but of the discourse of law, period; the defendants are attractive before they are known to be defendants because even the erotic is implicated, subsumed under the law, its presence in the novel among the most uncanny and difficult to reconcile with any reading that would interpret the court as standing for one particular sphere of law, religious or bureaucratic. The Court adjudicates the discourse of law, with its hermetically-sealed rationality.

The novel itself, though, is not a mere presentation or exposure of the Court and its modernity. It might be said that Kafka seeks, through the narrative devices of enchantment found in fairytales and stories told by children, to enchant the disenchanting discourse of law—the Court itself is a function of such an attempt, a fantastical creation like the Castle, albeit one that exists in the hiding-spaces of attics and closets. Or it might be said that Kafka writes about disenchantment the only way that it can be written: through the devices and fictions of enchantment, since disenchantment itself is characterized by the same irrational, arbitrary, inexplicable as enchantment, albeit in a negative, inverse form. That is, the horrors of the disenchantment world are much the same as the horrors of the enchanted world, with the implication being that we may live in one or the other, without it mattering much; the sentimental yearning for the alternative is misguided in so far as it is already present. We can pass through the looking glass (and Alice is relevant, her childish free judgment itself an inversion of Josef K’s) but what we find there will only be the same thing, in reverse; everything being the same, though, it will make no difference. We are pursued and hemmed in by the discourse of law, but we might as well be pursued and hemmed in by powers of magic.

At one point, the Court is compared to a biological system, operating by laws of Nature; at other time, it appears as a religious surrogate, operating by laws of God; at the end, Josef is killed, like a dog, with a shame that will outlive him, made both sacrifice and scapegoat, subject to the law as brute or as holy martyr; but there is no difference in so far as both are subject to laws that they cannot make sense of.

It is a novel about a dull, thirty-year old adult who is made to seem a child before the Court. begins “one morning,” like a fairy-tale and Josef K is very much a child in his understanding of what ought to be done, of what is required of him, and of authority; those are all matters of the law, the discourse of law itself, which he must come to accept, on terms that he can never understand; he is, in other words, growing up, since much of the passage of adulthood is understood in a discourse of law, whether the laws of the state (tried as an adult), or the laws of reason (capable of reasoning, no longer immature, as Kant says).

What does it mean to “enter into the law”? That phrase recurs in the final parable in the cathedral, which occasions a parodic furor of scriptural hermeneutics. But none of the interpretation asks what the edifice of law actually is; the edifice belonging to the law? The court itself? The prospect of entering into the law seems as disorienting as the prospect of appearing before the court itself. K’s final question asks “where” the high court and judges are; the parable tells us where the law is, making it a concrete, bounded presence; in both cases, what matters is that one knows it to be the law, and one knows it to be beyond one’s reach; it is both present and inaccessible. How does one enter into the law? In the same way as one enters into reason: through learning, through growing up, through education and upbringing; it is the Aristotelian account of entering into logos, reason and language alike, but also, as a concomitant of either, the discourse of law, of right and wrong, of judgment and ought. Each person speaking a language must take first-person possession of any of these terms, and does take first-person possession of them, but in so doing finds that they are without, beyond, imposing an unattainable external seat of judgment by which one’s self is judged.  

The disenchantment is already enchanted, can only be known as something enchanted; what we call the disenchanted just happens to be the only enchantment we can know, and that we know in speaking and thinking with reason, with language, with law.


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