Arbitrariness and Omnipotence
When K. first encounters representatives of the court system in his room in a boarding house, K. asks why and the man tells him, “We weren’t sent to tell you that….Proceedings are under way and you’ll learn everything in due course.” Kafka is setting up a world where the court is omnipotent and the populace powerless to even question its omnipotence. When K. asks, “How can I be under arrest,” the answer is, “We don’t answer such questions” and is told to accept the situation. This creates a sense of arbitrariness of power but also makes the power feel like a façade. There may be nothing behind it, but there is no way to get beyond the façade and prove it. It is even out of the ordinary that someone like K. would question it. The proceedings are so quotidian for the proceeders that K.’s questioner says, “you’re under arrest, certainly, but that’s not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession.” By the time K. realizes “He was at their mercy” it is a surprise only to him. And because K. provides the friction, it quickly begins to feel as though the world is designed to torment K. and K. alone. Others do not resist the law—they succumb to it or live within the system of the trial for as long as it takes.
Kafka also imbues a sense of omniscience in the world. It starts when K.’s landlady is talking about a fellow boarder. She has observed her in other quarters with multiple men and remarks on her behavior. I started to wonder who was watching whom and if in fact this is the type of world where everyone is being watched by someone. Of course everyone is being watched by someone, but we rarely pay the kind of attention to each other that Frau Grubach paid to her boarders. This awareness of the affairs of others is most fully realized in regard to K.’s legal proceedings—everyone knows what is going on with K.’s case except for K. Whether his landlady, his uncle, his business contacts, or even a painter he has never met, everyone seems to know more about his case than K. does. This shows the reader how information pervades and makes the world around K. seem like it is closing in. Although K. has not yet accepted the seriousness of his situation, everyone else has.
Kafka makes the law seem inevitable when K. shows up for his first hearing and K. remembers “the remark the guard Willem had made that the court was attracted by guilt, from which it followed that the room for the inquiry would have to be located off whatever stairway K. chanced to choose.” Reading this I wondered if the stairways weren’t in some way shifting or meeting or all leading the same place such that there was no escape for K. Later when the painter’s atelier door leads into another attic court, it seems there is no escape from the court. It is in fact everywhere. By making all of the laws and proceedings secret, Kafka makes them feel hollow and arbitrary, but at the same time there is no redress if one cannot know what they are working against.
It was interesting that K. found kinship with women who were victims of the powerful in some way or other. Whether his neighbor who was being watched, the law clerk’s wife, or Leni, the nurse/mistress of his lawyer, K. was attracted to and attractive to women who were making their own power out of their sex—the last thing that was seemingly theirs alone to control.
In my novel, Polska, 1994, I too wanted to create an awareness of the way people watch each other. I found the tidbits peppered in about other people’s lives by Frau Grubach to be most instructive. Kafka is showing me it is sometimes more effective to talk in the abstract about how other people are affected by the situation than it is to talk directly about the main character. This makes it a condition that pervades the world rather than making the main character simply a victim of it. Of course K. reacted differently than anyone else in the story, but he was not subjected to special laws. In fact most other characters were surprised by his resistance to the laws of their world.
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