[L. 68 | 75] 3 November 1963

About Kafka's Trial, as I remarked on an earlier occasion, it seems to me that the crime with which K. is charged is that of existing, and that this is why the charge is never made explicit. Everybody exists, and it would be ridiculous to charge one man with this crime and not the next man as well. But not everybody feels guilty of existing; and even those who do are not always clear about what it is precisely that they feel guilty of, since they see that the rest of mankind, who also exist, go through life in a state of blissful innocence. The criminal charge of existing cannot be brought home to those who are satisfied of their innocence (since judicial censure is worse than futile unless the accused recognizes his guilt), and also it cannot be brought home to those who recognize their guilt but who are not satisfied that it is of existing that they are guilty (since judicial censure fails of its intended effect if the accused, though aware of guilt, believes that the charge against him has been wrongly framed). To secure a conviction, then, the charge must be one simply of guilt; and so, in fact, it is in The Trial.

'"Yes", said the Law-Court Attendant, "these are the accused men, all of them are accused of guilt." "Indeed!" said K. "Then they're colleagues of mine."' (pp. 73-4) And this charge of guilt, clearly enough, can only be brought against those who are guilty of guilt, and not against those who do not feel the guilt of existing. But who is it that feels the guilt of existing? Only he who, in an act of reflexion, begins to be aware of his existence and to see that it is inherently unjustifiable. He understands (obscurely, no doubt, at first) that, when he is challenged to give an account of himself, he is unable to do so. But who is it that challenges him to give an account of himself? In The Trial it is the mysterious and partly corrupt hierarchical Court; in reality it is he himself in his act of reflexion (which also is hierarchically ordered). The Trial, then, represents the criminal case that a man brings against himself when he asks himself 'Why do I exist?' But the common run of people do not ask themselves this question; they are quite content in their simple way to take things for granted and not to distress themselves with unanswerable questions—questions, indeed, that they are scarcely capable of asking. K.'s landlady, a simple woman, discussing K.'s arrest with him, says

'You are under arrest, certainly, but not as a thief is under arrest. If one's arrested as a thief, that's a bad business, but as for this arrest—It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something abstract which I don't understand, but which I don't need to understand either.' (p. 27)
So, then, K. is under arrest, but he has arrested himself. He has done this simply by adopting a reflexive attitude towards himself. He is perfectly free, if he so wishes, to set himself at liberty, merely by ceasing to reflect. 'The Court makes no claims upon you. It receives you when you come and it relinquishes you when you go.' (The priest on p. 244.) But is K. free to wish to set himself at liberty? Once a man has begun to reflect, to realize his guilt, is he still free to choose to return to his former state of grace? Once he has eaten the fruit of the tree of reflexive knowledge he has lost his innocence,[a] and he is expelled from the terrestrial paradise with its simple joys. Having tasted the guilty pleasures of knowledge can he ever want to return to innocence? Can he, in terms of The Trial, secure a 'definite acquittal' from guilt, or does his case have a fatal fascination for him?
'In definite acquittal the documents relating to the case are completely annulled, they simply vanish from sight, not only the charge but also the records of the case and even the acquittal are destroyed, everything is destroyed.' (pp. 175-6)
'Definite acquittal', in other words, is a total forgetting not merely of one's actual past reflexions but of the very fact that one ever reflected at all—it is a complete forgetting of one's guilt. So long as one remembers having reflected, one goes on reflecting, as with an addiction; and so long as one continues to reflect, one holds one's guilt in view; for the Court—one's reflexive inquisitor—, 'once it has brought a charge against someone, is firmly convinced of the guilt of the accused', and 'never in any case can the Court be dislodged from that conviction.' (p. 166) To reflect at all is to discover one's guilt. So, then, is it possible to get a 'definite acquittal', to choose to unlearn to reflect? 'I have listened to countless cases in their most crucial stages, and followed them as far as they could be followed, and yet—I must admit it—I have never encountered one case of definite acquittal.' (Titorelli, on p. 171.) No, whatever theory may say, in practice having once tasted guilt one cannot unlearn reflexion and return to the innocence of immediacy, the innocence of a child.

The best one can do to ward off the inexorable verdict—'Guilty, with no extenuating circumstances'—is to seek either 'ostensible acquittal' (p. 176), wherein awareness of one's essential guilt is temporarily subdued by makeshift arguments but flares up from time to time in crises of acute despair, or else 'indefinite postponement' (pp. 177-8), wherein one adopts an attitude of bad faith towards oneself, that is to say one regards one's guilt (of which one is perpetually aware) as being 'without significance', thereby refusing to accept responsibility for it.

K., however, is not disposed to try either of these devices, and seems, rather, to want to bring matters to a head. He dismisses his advocate as useless—perhaps the advocate in The Trial represents the world's professional philosophers—, and sets about organizing his own defence. For this purpose he recruits, in particular, women helpers, perhaps regarding them as the gateway to the Divine (if I remember rightly, this is one of Denis's earlier views—in Crome Yellow—that makes life so complicated for him). This view is clearly mystical, and is denounced in The Trial. '"You cast about too much for outside help," said the priest disapprovingly, "especially from women. Don't you see that it isn't the right kind of help?"' (p. 233)

In The Castle, on the other hand, K. uses women to get him entrance into the kingdom of heaven, and perhaps with some effect; but in The Castle guilt is evidence of the existence of God, and the guiltier one is the better chance one has of getting the favour of the Castle (thus Amalia indignantly rejects the immoral proposals of one of the gentlemen from the Castle and is promptly cut off from the Divine Grace, whereupon her sister Olga prostitutes herself with the meanest Castle servants in the hope of winning it back).

In The Trial the task is to come to terms with oneself without relying on other people; and although we may sympathize with K. and the other accused in their efforts to acquit themselves before the Court, actually the Court is in the right and K. and the others in the wrong. There are three kinds of people in The Trial: (i) the innocent (i.e. ignorant) mass of humanity, unable to reflect and thus become aware of their guilt, (ii) the (self-)accused, who are guilty and obscurely aware of the fact but who refuse to admit it to themselves and who will go to any lengths to delay the inevitable verdict (the grovelling Herr Block of Chapter VIII, for example, has no less than six advocates, and has succeeded in protracting his case for five years), and (iii) the (self-)condemned man, who, like K. in the final chapter, faces up to the desolating truth and accepts the consequences.

'The only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and discriminating to the end. I always wanted to snatch at the world with twenty hands, and not for a very laudable motive either. That was wrong, and am I to show now that not even a whole year's struggling with my case has taught me anything? Am I to leave this world as a man who shies away from all conclusions?' (p. 247)
For the reflexive man who retains his lucidity, there is only one verdict—'Guilty'—and only one sentence—death. K.'s death in The Trial is the death of worldly hope; it is the immediate consequence of the frank recognition that one's existence is guilty (that is to say, that it is unjustifiable); and this execution of the capital sentence upon hope is actually the inevitable conclusion to The Trial. I think you told me that you had found that K.'s death was an arbitrary and artificial ending to the book, which ought to have finished inconclusively. This would certainly have been true of Block, who clearly did not have the moral courage to face facts: Block would never have condemned himself to death (i.e. to a life without hope), and to have him executed by divine fiat would have been senseless. But with K. it was different: just as he had arrested himself by becoming reflexive, so he had to execute himself by admitting his guilt; and this is the furthest that anyone can go—in the direction of understanding, that is—without the Buddha's Teaching.


[68.a] Note the ambiguity, the ambivalence, of this word innocence, so close to ignorance, just as guilt and knowledge are sometimes almost synonymous. Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, knew that they were naked, and they were ashamed.[1] [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[68.1] innocence: In an early letter (29 June 1958) to the Ven. Ñānamoli the author remarked: 'Avijjā is a primary structure of being, and it approximates to innocence, not to bad faith, which is a reflexive structure, far less fundamental. Is it not odd that, existentially, avijjā would be translated alternatively by "guilt"—Kafka, Kierkegaard—and "innocence"—Camus, Sartre? Innocence and guilt, both are nescience.' [Back to text]