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Franz Kafka’s The Trial: The State and Religion

Aug 26th, 2015 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

Ah the glorious days of misspent youth.  In my case, I am not sure they were all that glorious nor were they particularly misspent.  However, some important things were not accomplished. Recently, through deep introspection, I came to acknowledge and accept an important absence from my youth: I had never read Kafka.  Consequently, as part of my journey to achieve wholeness and self-actualization and to remedy the shortcomings of my youth, I immediately paid a visit to, and purchased a couple of books. One of which was The Trial.

When I finished reading, my first revelation was that his stories were a tad Kafkaesque. Who would have thunk it. My second revelation was that the metaphor in The Trial was worthy of some reflection and that is the concern of this little essay.

First, a disclaimer. The analysis offered here does not claim to reveal what Kafka intended to express as The Trial’s metaphor. Rather, it is an offering of one that fits the story so well, that it demands consideration as the story’s dominant metaphor.

I will assume that readers of this essay have read the novella and are familiar with the story.  If not, synopses are easily found[i].  The uber condensed version goes like this:  Josef K., a bank officer, was accused of a crime.  The nature of  the crime was never specified, either to Josef K. or to the reader.  The story follows his life after the charges were made and documents his attempts to resolve the situation.  At every stage, the “black box” of the bureaucratic legal system got darker as the obfuscation of matters increased.  Authorities at every level deferred explanations and resolution, stating that matters were under the control of a higher authority, whoever they may be.  As the story nears its conclusion, K. has an encounter with a priest, also an agent of the court.  He tells K.  that there is a presumption of guilt and he talks about the mystery of redemption. The encounter ends with the priest offering an allegory about a man attempting to gain “access” to the law. The functionary who controls access denies the man judgment about that access until his death is imminent. The priest and K. discuss the allegory at length. The priest explains that the meaning of the allegory has been interpreted in many different ways. At the story’s end, K. was led by two functionaries of the court to his final judgment, to which he acquiesced.

There is a consensus among literary critics that a dominant theme in The Trial is a critique of the bureaucratic legal system and the state which houses it. It is natural to view The Trial as a critique of bureaucratic gridlock, ambiguity, goal displacement, unfairness, and the apparent illogic within the system. But The Trial is more than that.

It is important to consider the historical milieu in which Kafka wrote The Trial.  It was a time (1914) when the Continent was in a process of choosing new state forms following the decline of feudal monarchies and the rapid rise of industrial economies.  Several options were on the table: liberal democracy, fascism, and socialism.  It is likely that Kafka was preoccupied with how the legal system and its bureaucracy would be used in the modern administrative state. Even though The Trial was written before the Russian revolution, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the evolution of the modern administrative state in liberal democracies; Kafka may have been prescient of how the legal system would be used as a means of generalized social control. Not only in its more severe incarnations like Hitler’s regime and Stalinist Russia, but also in its more subtle forms, such as in liberal democracies.  Consequently, The Trial may be considered an allegory of how the state institutes generalized social control by creating a world in which the locus of power was hidden behind a wall of administration.  Such control may be  a purposeful, goal-oriented act of the state, or it may just be a consequence of the increasing bureaucracy required by the new scale of the economy, or it may be both.  In any event, the “black box” beyond the wall of administration becomes an important arbiter of one’s life’s course and, in time, its power becomes taken-for-granted and naturally expected by the governed. That interpretation of Kafka is important, but The Trial is more than that.

An allegory illustrating that a nation’s governed cedes some control of their lives to the state via its legal system is not novel.  Although The Trial is a story about bureaucracy and the state, it is also a story about religion. What is novel about The Trial is that it illustrates the commonalities between the nature of control by the state and the nature of control by the church and religion. It reveals the similarities between the two with respect to capturing control, the techniques it uses to do so, and the effects of that capture.

The metaphorical correspondence between K.’s plight and the response required to the Christian doctrine of original sin is developed through the story.  It reaches a culmination in the interaction with the priest.  We come to realize that K., and others who may be accused (everybody and anybody may be accused), are destined to live with an imposed and assumed guilt and, consequently, must lead their lives seeking redemption.  The etiology of the guilt is somewhat mysterious and not of the individual’s doing, but it is present nonetheless.  The verdict about redemption is withheld to the final hour and is done so in private and not for public consumption. This adds to the mystery of it all.  The story of The Trial not only describes the plight of those living under a Kafkaesque state, but also the plight of those embracing a religious doctrine that requires them to live their lives in search of redemption.  The most significant difference between the two is that the state enforces this plan through their control of violence (a basic characteristic of the state), while religion does so through the voluntary internalization of doctrine by its adherents.  Although this differences is important, when it is considered in historical context, the difference becomes attenuated.  Historically, the church and the feudal state worked as a team in the use of violence and, even after the decline of feudalism, the church continued to exercise some control through violence. So the church, like the state, has also exercised control through violence or its threat.  Similarly, the modern state maintains compliance in a manner similar to religion. It does not primarily maintain its authority from the use of or threat of force (although it always holds that option in reserve).  Rather its authority is maintained by the development and acceptance of its legitimacy–much like religion does.  For those of us living in modern, stable democratic states, we simply take-for-granted the role of the state and its legitimacy in executing those roles.  The latter observation is most important, since the legitimacy and taken-for-grantedness of the state’s actions when combined with nationalism, patriotism, and the like takes on a character that resembles faith and is “religiously” held and supported. The two institutions, religion and the state (especially the modern capitalist state), are actually symbiotic.  Max Weber, a contemporary of Kafka explained this symbiosis in his work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  He showed how the protestant ethic of toil and subservience fueled the rise of capitalism and its administration by the state.

The manner in which this process of control is manifest on both accounts (within religion and for the state) has some striking similarities. First of all, the ultimate authority resides behind a wall.  For the state, it is the mystery behind the bureaucracy and for religion it is the mystery of God’s ways.  The custodians of the black box are critical in maintaining the wall and the methods which they employ are also critical.  For the state, the custodians are the administrative class and for religion, the custodians are a clerical or lay elite.  Both groups of custodians claim no authority in the ultimate decision making. Rather they defer it to a higher authority.  It always lands on God’s doorstep in religion and, as we read in Kafka, for the state it is passed on to some unknown higher authority.  It is also true that the custodians do not claim complete knowledge of what is behind the wall and they themselves find the black box a bit of a mystery.  The keepers in both realms, being a bit removed from the ultimate authority, are free to engage in a bit of skullduggery. This is something that Kafka goes out of his way to describe.  However, the most important similarity is that the two institutions produce acquiescence and compliance of the governed. The potential to experience harm, even eternal harm, in the presence of uncertainty produces resignation, acquiescence, and compliance. It is the perfect storm for behavior modification and it is the calling card of both institutions. Even if the current custodians and/or the ultimate authority are not fully intending or utilizing that acquiescence and compliance, it is there by historical circumstance and is aligned with their interests.

In a nutshell then, the following story applies to both institutions. An important locus of power in life is situated behind an administrative wall and a complete understanding of it is beyond the capacity of the governed.  The keepers of that wall are of little help in gaining that understanding, since they themselves are not privy to its mystery. Since they administer access to the black box, they are capable of manipulating that access to serve their personal needs or to interpret the meaning of the box in various and sundry fashions. One shared component of that meaning is an externally imposed guilt on the governed.  Consequently the governed are destined to toil all of their lives in pursuit of redemption.  It may be argued that for liberal democratic states, the imposition of guilt and the sentence of “toiling for redemption” is not present in the way it is in totalitarian states and for religion.  This has some merit, but is not categorically true.  In our time and in our state, minority populations have had that guilt imposed and must toil for redemption.  Perhaps more important literarily, in Kafka’s time, Jews were imposed with that guilt and expected to work all their lives toward redemption.  Kafka was a Jew working in Prague.  Most Kafka scholars consider Kafka’s Jewish status of great importance as a determinant of what he wrote.

It is natural to assume that the processes described above are intentionally designed acts of actors seeking to produce subservience and acquiescence among the governed.  If Kafka had this metaphor in mind; this is probably what he was thinking.  However, it is not an accurate description of reality.  It is almost certainly true that in antiquity when religious texts were being developed and religious leaders were organizing the faithful, that control was part of  their design.  The doctrines and texts are too well-tailored to the control of behavior and subservience of the flock to believe otherwise.  It is also true that the design and maturation of the modern state reflects the interests of the powerful, exactly those who are its prime designers.  Even though it is true that the design of these institutions reflected intentions of  control, acquiescence, and subservience; the institutions are perpetuated by a different mechanism.  The major mechanism contributing to the maintenance of these institutions is that they become taken-for-granted, accepted, and their authority deemed legitimate by the population.  This comes about not from a rational evaluation by the populace.  That is, each individual does not weight the costs and benefits and conclude that this is a good thing and, therefore, legitimate.  Rather it comes about through living it, doing it, and practicing it generation after generation.  As each successive generation is introduced to living within these institutions (what sociologists call socialization), the practice becomes more accepted and taken-for-granted.  Anything that is taken-for-granted is accompanied by a perception of its legitimacy–that’s actually what taken-for-granted means in this context.  This does not imply or suggest that the manipulation of the institutions by identifiable actors does not exist.  That does happen and, perhaps, way too often.  It just means that the fundamental essence of the institution is maintained by their historical practice and its consequent taken-for-grantedness.

Whether Kafka had a metaphor like this in mind is lost in its own black box and buried with him in his grave.  I suspect that most scholars perceive that the probability that this is what Kafka was thinking is remote.  Given the historical context of his writing and his personal biography, I humbly suggest that the probability might be a little higher. In Kafka’s mind or not, the metaphor is an important one to consider.

Regardless of whether Kafka was interested in forwarding the notion that religion and the state operate similarly with respect to garnering subservience and acquiescence; it is certain that many will object to the idea itself.  The faithful will respond that, “Our belief does not come from manipulation and we are not a flock of sheep that just acquiesces to the powers-that-be.  Many religions and the religious fight for fairness and justice and against the interest of the powerful.” The patriots will respond, “Our nation is not one of acquiescence and subservience.  We always have the ability to change it.”  To both, I would respond, “The essence of these institutions is not the same thing as what is possible.  The fact that you embrace those views so categorically and faithfully is evidence that the invisible hand of control and its siblings, acquiescence and compliance, is present.”

[i] Here are a few:,,,

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