BEFORE THE LAW WITH GHOSTS ON TRIAL

The outbreak of the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror, made reforming ideas suspect among the English governing class. Jeremy Bentham allowed  his time and energy to be dispersed among a number of different projects. Among them was one that absorbed the personal fortune he had inherited from his father and gave him the severest disappointments of his life. This was a project that became an overriding obsession: the panopticon. The name derives from the Greek and it was a plan for a model prison, which was later also adapted to the purposes of a pauper’ workhouse.

Public hanging of witches. From Sir George Macenzie's Law and Customs in Scotland in Matters Criminal. Edinburgh, 1678.

Public hanging of witches. From Sir George Macenzie's Law and Customs in Scotland in Matters Criminal. Edinburgh, 1678.

Bentham saw in it a remedy for the prison conditions that had already become a scandal in the late eighteenth century. In the jails of the period, scenes of Hogarthian squalor were normal. The prisons were the trash bins of a corrupt legal system collapsing and vomiting forth male product to hang,and women to be burned on the flimsiest of premises . The jailors were corrupt, and the jails formed a concentrated, exaggerated image of the world beyond their walls. The poor starved and the rich lived high, if disease did not take them, for jail fever struck down lawyers and judges as well as prisoners.

“It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveller, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveller had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been asked to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest in the execution was not very high even in the penal colony itself. At least, here in the small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes, apart from the Officer and the Traveller there were present only the Condemned, a vacant-looking man with a broad mouth and dilapidated hair and face, and the Soldier, who held the heavy chain to which were connected the small chains which bound the Condemned Man by his feet and wrist bones, as well as by his neck, and which were also linked to each other by connecting chains. The Condemned Man, incidentally, had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.(In The Penal Colony, Franz Kafka )kafka9
Yet the work is far broader than a consideration of the morality of capital punishment, almost trivializing it in its rush of moral and ethical dilemmas. Kafka’s trademark submission to futility and the hopeless is present, the pathos running knee deep in mud, all bound together and iced with the rubber stamp approval where the condemned have no opportunity to defend themselves due to the presupposition, incontrovertible,  of ”guilt beyond doubt”. As an offering to a form of Moloch, the officer sacrifices himself to a machine and a cause.Neither the old Commandant nor the new commandant ever physically appear in the story. The old represents traditional religion of any form, while the new represents secularism. The dog-like character and animal docile like nature of the accused have religious connotations to the biblical parable where Jesus is the shepherd, and his sheep are his congregation of followers. In much the same fashion, the officer is the shepherd and the condemned man is merely one of his sheep. “The officer tried to protect himself against all eventualities by saying, “Of course breakdowns do happen” . Just like religious framework breaks down when some biblical miracles seem impossible. The hopelessness and absurdity that seem to permeate Kafka’s works are considered emblematic of existentialism. The theme of the ambiguity of a tasks value and the horror of devotion to it was one of his constant preoccupations.

Burning of Sodomites, England

Burning of Sodomites, England

“the organization of the entire penal colony is his work”. Referring to the previous commander, an almost mystical figure. Moreover he says a new commander “would not be able to alter anything of the old plan”; a satirization on the part of Kafka of a bureaucracy in pieces, yet once established, plods on with a life of its own, despite any changing of the guard. An insatiable beast. Kafka’s was a literary construction that emphasized the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe; a regard of human existence as unexplainable, but stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts. The lack of a divine being allows for complete freedom in existence, thus introducing the element of law, guilt and punishment. The tone was colored by Kafka’s indifference to formal religion throughout most of his life. While he had a sense of Jewish identity, this identity was complicated by a sense of alienation from Judaism, but was not the anticlericism of Bentham; just an aggressive indifference that permeated his psyche and helped provoked neuroses.

Witch Trial

Witch Trial

In Before The Law, the protagonist seeks admittance, to no avail until time and death inflict their duty on him to suffer the fate of man. All his experiences of refusal and rejection, in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

All his life Bentham was frightened quite literally of ghosts.He connected this fear with his hatred of vague abstractions in moral and political philosophy. Knowing this, and like Kafka, there is something obsessive in his search for clarity and order.Kafka would call his ghosts a result of bringing into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. ”It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and even more so in a series of letters where one corroborates the other and can refer to it as a witness. How on earth did anyone get the idea that people could communicate by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold — all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. ”

''Actor Bjorn Thors (L) who plays "Gregor", joins other cast members as they perform an excerpt on the upstairs part of a split-level set which has been tipped on its side, from the play "Metamorphosis" at the Sydney Theatre on April 22, 2009. Metamorphosis is based on Franz Kafka's bizarrely comic and most well-known story set in Prague in the mid-twentieth century, where the unremarkable life of the Samsa family is turned upside down when their son, Gregor, emerges one morning inexpicably transformed into a monstrous insect. The upstairs part of the set is tipped on its side so that actor Bjorn Thors can literally climb the walls.''

''Actor Bjorn Thors (L) who plays "Gregor", joins other cast members as they perform an excerpt on the upstairs part of a split-level set which has been tipped on its side, from the play "Metamorphosis" at the Sydney Theatre on April 22, 2009. Metamorphosis is based on Franz Kafka's bizarrely comic and most well-known story set in Prague in the mid-twentieth century, where the unremarkable life of the Samsa family is turned upside down when their son, Gregor, emerges one morning inexpicably transformed into a monstrous insect. The upstairs part of the set is tipped on its side so that actor Bjorn Thors can literally climb the walls.''

Like Kafka, Bentham continues to arouse a certain pervasive uneasiness. Benthams model prison emerges as a nightmarish image of his own mind, of a desire to retreat into a perfectly ordered, insualted world, in which he would assume at its center, the omnipotence and the omniscience of God. The totalitarian parallel is too close for comfort, and at the heart of the system there seems to be a kind of fear; the kind of fear to which Kafka, seemed to know and which numbed him emotionally. Kafka’s The Castle and Before The Law share this same calcualtion, denigration of impulse, and neglect of spontaneity that set him apart from a more hopeful, though perhaps naieve context.

They both wrote in an arcane, quasi-legal style.The Trial is a fictional account of an individual’s arrest, trial, conviction and execution on charges that are never explained to him.It is K’s encounter with an irrational legal system that he preconceived as fair, just and predictable and not the arbitrary,  unfathomable  and chaotic model Bentham put forth i which all efforts to pick one’s way through a part of this dense forest required an erudition as profound as it was pointless.  The Trial has many potential meanings. This ambiguity of meaning has resulted in a profusion of interpretation often as inconsistent and contradictory as the story itself. Interpretations of The Trial cover a spectrum from the highly abstract to the literal.  The Trial is a story of guilt on a metaphysical level; a quasi-abstract story of man’s mental and spiritual collapse  or a story of an innocent man plagued by an unyielding god similar to the story of Job.

Kafka, Illustration, Robert Crumb

Kafka, Illustration, Robert Crumb

”According to Kirchberger The Trial depicts the process by which K. gradually becomes enmeshed in an elaborate clandestine legal organization “which employs corrupt warders, oafish inspectors and examining magistrates.”Kirchberger calls this system the “unfamiliar jurisprudence” and notes that “the reader is led only by degrees into the sphere of a strange ‘jurisprudence’ with which
the populace is largely unfamiliar.”

The limits of my language, Wittgenstein said, are the limits of my world, and Bentham’s language, in his search for concreteness and precision and system, became increasingly like the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984. In the same sense, Kafka’s generalized legal language in ”The Trail” was also a language tailored to the needs of theoretical consistency and had the same ardent effort to eliminate terms like human rights and human dignity. Where Bentham explored the possibility of conditioning human beings to be happy, Kafka inverted the libertarian concern to focus on the unhappy ruled by less than benevolent despots. In both writers, there is little accommodation of a diversity of values and ways of living; not surprisingly, uncomfortable like a prison. Bentham wrote to his French translator Etienne Dumont, ”We shall for we will, be despots of the moral world”. It was a figure of speech, but figures of speech are sometimes significant. From ”Unhappiness” by Franz Kafka:

kafka, Robert Crumb

kafka, Robert Crumb

‘What can I do?’ I said, ‘I’ve just had a ghost in my room.’

‘You say that exactly as if you had just found a hair in your soup.’

‘You’re making a joke of it. But let me tell you, a ghost is a ghost.’

‘How true. But what if one doesn’t believe in ghosts at all?’

‘Well, do you think I believe in ghosts? But how can my not believing help me?’

‘Quite simply. You don’t need to feel afraid if a ghost actually turns up.’

‘Oh, that’s only a secondary fear. The real fear is a fear of what caused the apparition. And that fear doesn’t go away. I have it fairly powerfully inside me now.’ Out of sheer nervousness I began to hunt through all my pockets.

‘But since you weren’t afraid of the ghost itself, you could easily have asked it how it came to be there.’

‘Obviously you’ve never spoken to a ghost. One never gets straight information from them. It’s just a hither and thither. These ghosts seem to be more dubious about their existence than we are, and no wonder, considering how frail they are.’

‘But I’ve heard that one can fatten them up.’

‘How well informed you are. It’s quite true. But is anyone likely to do it?’

‘Why not? If it were a feminine ghost, for instance,’ said he, swinging onto the top step.

‘Aha,’ said I, ‘but even then it’s not worth while.’

I thought of something else. My neighbor was already so far up that in order to see me he had to bend over the well of the staircase. ‘All the same,’ I called up, ‘if you steal my ghost from me all is over between us, forever.’

‘Oh, I was only joking,’ he said and drew his head back. ( Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir )

Kafka, Robert Crumb, Mairowitz

Kafka, Robert Crumb, Mairowitz

Jacques Derrida has written extensively on Khafka’s ghost.In the Letters to Milena Jesenska the figure of the ghost assumes a position of importance in Kafka’s poetics. The ghost is positioned by Kafka as a literary figure standing in for the trope of absence. Kafka’s interest in, and belief in, the ‘ghosts of letter-writing’ reveals his intense awareness of the fact that letter-writing is always before an absent addressee and that this absence of the interpretive moment pragmatically informs the semantic quality of writing. That which Kafka is writing will come to have a meaning, but it does not yet mean anything. It will become, and so will he. Writing opens itself up to the future. Writing precipitates itself toward its future, that is, toward its meaning, that is, toward itself. It opens up the future out of itself. It inaugurates words, literatures, authors, beginnings.

Derrida has written, though challenged,on the theory that for man to respect himself he must be capable of doing evil. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)  Derrida offers evidence that in The Trial, Kafka invents characters who deploy a Nietzschean-sourced language of deconstruction related to what we now call theory; that in “Before the Law” Kafka’s priest deconstructs The Law to which K. is subjected, and that Kafka exposes the discursive devices by which laws can be deconstructed. Kafka’s text then opens the way to another kind of deconstruction of that-which-is-already-deconstructed. ( Jacques Derrida in his 1987 essay, “Before the Law.”)

”So when is the Law created in Kafka’s story?  ( Before The Law )It is created as soon as the countryman asks the doorkeeper for admittance and accepts the denial from the doorkeeper. Here is the Law. The countryman gave authority to the doorkeeper and the doorkeeper issued a rule, a command, a law. The gate stands wide open and there is no physical barrier preventing the countryman from passing. The doorkeeper even steps aside, not blocking the countryman’s way. What blocks and prevents the countryman from passing through the gate is the newly created Law, the command from the doorkeeper to not trespass. The countryman, in obedience to the Law, follows its dictate and never passes through the gate, dying in the process…Who decides, who judges, and with what entitlement, what belongs to the Law?” Answer: the countryman who approaches the gate. “Who decides, who judges, and with what entitlement, what belongs to literature?” Answer: the reader who approaches writing.”( Project Mayhem, Kafka, Derrida Before The Law )

''Filming in the Cloisters for Newsreel 68 Gerhild Schiller behind Camera, Ingid Frost on Dolly, Johnathon Plummer Pushing dolly near Cam, Phil Bealer pushing dolly far side, Jim Hunnigan - Jeremy Bentham's Ghost''

''Filming in the Cloisters for Newsreel 68 Gerhild Schiller behind Camera, Ingid Frost on Dolly, Johnathon Plummer Pushing dolly near Cam, Phil Bealer pushing dolly far side, Jim Hunnigan - Jeremy Bentham's Ghost''

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