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Dostoyevsky and Kafka: Guilt, Redemption and the Modern Man

In The Trial, there is no question of deserving or inviting guilt: it is presumed. Raskolnikov’s division of humanity has become redundant: all that is left is the “ordinary”, who’ll “whip themselves, they’re so well behaved” (Dostoyevsky 262). In The Trial, the relation between crime, guilt and punishment is no longer causal: it is an a priori condition of human experience. The disease of bad conscience has taken root, “spreading [...] like a polyp”: it has “[infected and poisoned] things to their very depths with the problem of punishment and guilt” (Nietzsche 71-3). Josef K., like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, knows: “that though I was innocent I was guilty and, as it were, guilty according to the laws of nature” (qtd. in Friedman 152). It is in no way a fair trial, for his irredeemable guilt is abstractly predetermined, unlike Raskolnikov’s: “he lives and he is condemned” (Camus 101). Camus recognizes The Trial as a “work that is absurd in its principles”:


Nothing is lacking, neither the unexpressed revolt (but it is what is writing), nor lucid and mute despair (but it is what is creating), nor that amazing freedom of manner which the characters of the novel exemplify until their ultimate death (104).


Yet beginning with the premise of hopelessness, Kafka reveals “in the human condition [...] a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility” (Camus 102). In his “universe devoid of progress”, Kafka introduces “hope in a new strange form”: not a “cure” for bad conscience, but a “remedy” which “brings the malady back into normal life”; to “accept” and even “cherish it” (104). If we agree that Kafka’s works are not ultimately expositions of total nihilism, then in fact Nietzsche’s account of conscience provides a further, unexpected insight. Though he describes conscience as “the greatest and most sinister sickness” to afflict mankind, Nietzsche also claims that:


with the emergence of an animal soul turned against itself and taking sides against itself, something so new, [...] so unprecedented, so enigmatic and pregnant with the future came into existence [...] Since that time, man counts among the unexpected and exciting lucky throws of the dice played by Heraclitus’ “great child” (65-6).


The “centuries of the vivisection of conscience and animal-self-torture” are precisely man’s “greatest experience, our artistry perhaps” (75); and in his presentation of the “emotionally moving face of man”, who derives “reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs” (Camus 109) we perceive Kafka’s humanity and sympathy for man’s struggle against meaninglessness. In fact, the simultaneous knowledge of the vanity of human struggle and the hero’s “insistence” on that struggle, constitutes the “work’s tragic quality” (Camus 105) and its hopefulness:


The work which was but an ineffectual repetition of a sterile condition, a lucid glorification of the ephemeral, becomes here a cradle of illusions. It explains, it gives a shape to hope. The creator can no longer divorce himself from it. It is not the tragic game it was to be. It gives meaning to the author’s life (Camus 107).


This also suggests an explanation for the overwhelming presence of hands in The Trial[ii], which seem to provide both the literal fabula of the text, and its siuzhet – the story of its writing: the self-consciousness of writing, as if even in the process of creation Kafka constantly questions the possibility of meaning and significance. Yet ultimately, whether or not it is (objectively) meaningful is irrelevant; the struggle to create is what “gives meaning to the author’s life”, just as Josef K’s struggle against abstract sin – to have a trial at all – is what gives meaning to his otherwise empty, alienated existence.


Alienation, Friedman argues, is an essential element of the “problematic of modern man”, who is both “exile and rebel – not in his relation to any particular social structure but in his stance towards existence itself” (4). The modern novel begins “where they begin – with alienation and inner emptiness, [...] and the absence of an image of meaningful personal and social life” (Friedman 152). This desire to escape or affirm the “isolation and inauthentic existence” is central to both Dostoyevsky and Kafka’s novels (Friedman 151). It can be analysed in terms of the recurring issue of the need for recognition or affirmation of the ‘other’, which Raskolnikov denies and Josef K. never experiences. In these novels the “problem of evil and the problem of justice do not turn on the question of whether an individual’s suffering is greater than his crimes but of whether or not he attains authentic existence” – that is “a reciprocally confirming relationship with other men and nature” (Friedman 275)[iii]. Yet in Crime and Punishment and The Trial the heroes are isolated from this essential component of “basic reality”: “reciprocal contact” (Friedman 275).


In Crime and Punishment, “inauthentic existence” manifests itself physically and mentally. Morson argues that the “great Russian novels” were “negatively philosophy”; “novels of ideas only insofar as they are novels that fight against the primacy of ideas” (151). Like Derrida, they opposed the metaphysical impulses of Western philosophy, “which had come to emphasize the general over the particular, the abstract over experience” (Morson 158). The novel – “a genre which deals with the particulars of experience” – became their “tool directed at the abstractions” of theory (154). Through Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky envisages the consequences of theory-governed life: “he was young, abstract, and consequently cruel” (323). He has “decidedly withdrawn from everyone, like a turtle into its shell”: physically, he emulates the “degraded and slovenly” but wears his pride as a shield against sympathy (28); mentally, he believes himself to have discovered a new word, a self-justifying rationale of independence from common humanity. His mind is the product of “cogito ergo sum” (Friedman 275): a “separate, autonomous province, split off from his heart and intuitive awareness”, which “dictates” his perception of reality:


His mind thus becomes his means for denying not only the other parts of his own character but also the independent reality of other persons. [...] it is his isolation from others that has produced this detachment in which other people seem contained only in his thought and assessed only by his theories (164).


The investigator Porfiry Petrovich declares Raskolnikov “a modern case”: “the human heart [...] chafed by theories” which replace instinctive generosity and kindness towards others with the cold comforts of abstraction (Dostoyevsky 456). Raskolnikov’s isolation is “self-reinforcing” (Friedman 164):


I hid in my corner like a spider. You were in my kennel, you saw it... And do you know, Sonya, low ceilings and cramped rooms cramp the soul and mind! Oh, how I hated that kennel! And yet I didn’t want to leave it (Dostoyevsky 417).


In his cramped apartment in industrialized St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov’s isolation from man and nature is complete and self-perpetuating. He perceives the “infinite solitude and estrangement” (103) as a “terrible and impassable abyss [...] between him and all these people” (545) – schism is, appropriately, his most reccuring characteristic. His alienation is so entrenched that, like a spider, he feels “threatened by the very existence of others” (Friedman 165): “He lived somehow with lowered eyes: it was repulsive and unbearable to look” (Dostoyevsky 545). Yet in refusing to recognise others as persons, he undermines his own reality – which in Hegelian understanding actually consists in relations to others: even in confession and exile, “he may have sensed a profound lie in himself and his convictions” (545). The only “genuine way of life” is a “reciprocally confirming relationship” with man and nature (Friedman 275) – something Raskolnikov does not achieve until the novel’s end. Raskolnikov’s initially defines his relationship with Sonya as mutual exile: they are “cursed together”, for “you destroyed a life... your own (it’s all the same!)” (Dostoyevsky 329) – he recognizes her only as a type, corresponding to his own, not as an individual. A final reconciliation is effected in a rare scene of natural beauty:


on the boundless, sun-bathed steppe, nomadic yurts could be seen [...] There was freedom, there a different people lived [...] as if the centuries of Abraham and his flocks had not passed. [...] Suddenly Sonya was beside him. [...] She [...] gave him her hand as timidly as ever. She always gave him her hand timidly [...] as if fearing he might push it away. [...] But this time their hands did not separate” (Dostoyevsky 549).


Entering into a reciprocally confirming relationship with nature and Sonya, Raskolnikov finds escape from his self-constructed prison. Thus we can understand Raskolnikov’s ‘schism’ as the conflict between “two different understandings of reality, two different images of man – the isolated individual whose real life is found in his consciousness and the person who stands in living relation to all things”, in which the latter emerges triumphant (Friedman 274).


Whereas in Crime and Punishment the “dead end of isolation and inauthentic existence” (Friedman 151) can be chosen or rejected, in Kafka’s The Trial it is the inescapable world order. Kafka completely “refrains from any dealings with nature”; Raskolnikov’s “kennel” has become the norm: “All the habitations of men are lightless, airless and dirty” (Heller 177). Thus Josef K. is condemned from the outset to an inauthentic existence; and this is repeatedly confirmed in his disastrous relations with women who blend into one, forever repeated, failed relationship. These women are reduced to a few, generic details: their names (if discovered) are never complete: Elsa, Leni – “he wanted to call Fräulein Bürstner by her first name, but he did not know it” (25). These women consist of hips, arms, hair, legs, and hands – their faces are barely described: Josef “had no particular desire for [Fräulein Bürstner], he could not even remember exactly what she looked like” (Kafka 19). Hands – the only regular source of human contact for Josef K. – are potent symbols of a desire for intimacy, and for power, control over one’s fate: “automatically, K. reached out for her hand, but she was gone” (43). Each woman represents for K. a means to an end: after discussing his arrest, he asks Bürstner “do you think I’m innocent, then?” (21); the court attendant’s wife and Leni are means of “taking revenge on the examining magistrate” (43-4) and the judicial system as a whole; even Elsa is described as having “one great advantage”: “she knows nothing about my trial” (83). Josef K’s “tragic irony” is that he is “a man who in using everything as a means to his end loses both the means and the end”: he strives for immediacy of action and relationship, but in “‘taking advantage’ of everything constantly”, he endlessly defers the present for the hope of future immediacy – which “is never reached indirectly [...] but only directly when all means are put aside” (Friedman 324-5). It appears both that these women are automata, and that they are “empty. Empty because she belonged to K” (Kafka 44). However, Josef”s relations with them – which appear forward, even predatory – are underlined by a sense of desperation, so that these affairs seem “more like a plea than a summons” (20); “he put his arms around her and kissed her [...] like a thirsty animal greedily lapping the water of a pool it has discovered” (20). He is suspicious of them, believing them to be “corrupt like all of them round here” (40), always suspecting (and seeking) a link to a court “trap” (43); and yet he is “helpless” before their seductions, even damaging his case by accepting the “advocate’s mistress” (84). These “bitter, enticing” women, (84) who “look down” at K., who “betray” and “lie” to him (46), use their hands, though “much smaller” than his own (80), as “soft” but manipulative tools (39): they can “seize”, “grasp”, and “clasp” as well as any “pretty little claw!” (83). Yet, as Leni triumphantly asserts (to K’s “dismay”): “You’ve swapped her for me! [...] Now you belong to me!” (84). The “her” described is the only potential “other”, distinct from his own ends and the Court itself, and the only hope for a reciprocal relationship: Elsa, the wine-bar waitress, who he describes (in the clutches of Leni) as his “girlfriend”, and of whom he carries a “photograph on me”: her skirt, hands, and hips are all typical elements of Kafka’s depiction of women. However with “she was smiling as she looked to one side, it was not possible to tell from the photograph who she was smiling at” (83), there is a sense in which, if only he could be the definite object of that smiling gaze, if he were to “kneel by Elsa’s bed, clasp his hands together and beg for mercy” (45), that even he could escape the alienated, empty gestures of life dictated by The Court.


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[ii] According to The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Trial (translated by David Wyllie), ‘hand’ figures 249 times in The Trial – much more than ‘trial’, ‘court’.

[iii] Though Bakhtin argued that “the Dostoyevskian novel was a profoundly non-Hegelian entity” (Emerson xl) – based on a reductive reading of Hegel as resolving the world into thesis, antithesis and synthesis – certain elements of his philosophy are useful in examining the very Hegelian issue of our relation to the ‘other’: for example, the concept of “a dynamic world of interrelationships’, in which ‘an individual identity’s meaning rests not in itself but in the relationship of that thing to other things within an all-encompassing, ever-changing whole” (Leitch 626). Dostoyevsky appears to have subscribed to a similar theory of identity: “try to determine where your personality ends and another personality begins” (qtd. in Friedman 275).