U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching a Prague Set-up of an Italian Job: Kafka and Hugs for Everybody (Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to announce that Peter Kuryla, who has guest blogged for us in the past, will be joining us for a four-post, extended guest gig starting today. He’ll be posting every two weeks.  I’ll let Peter introduce himself:

I teach a variety of courses at Belmont, all of them involving intellectual and cultural history in one way or another. I’m currently at work on a cultural and intellectual history of an “imagined civil rights movement” and I’ve published a variety of things on diverse subjects, among others: civil rights demonstrations in relation to courtroom melodramas, Ralph Ellison’s 1964 dispute with Irving Howe, the relationship between William James and his father Henry James, Sr., and the idea of colorblindness and the Barack Obama presidency.  

Please join me in welcoming him (back) to the blog!  — Ben Alpers

Let me start this sequence of posts with a caveat: teaching intellectual history is a constant struggle for lots of reasons. My own limitations as a teacher certainly figure here, as does intellectual historians’ natural impulse to read closely, which makes things hard for students unaccustomed to that kind of work. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.

I’m not even sure how many students went along with what I describe here. I only mean to document some ways of doing it in the hopes that it might begin a conversation about how our craft meets up with the classroom. This is not intended as a portrayal of some magical classroom space where hands shoot up all over the place or every student grapples with complexities easily and willingly. I’ve also filled out some things, so this is not a reflection of what happened in the classroom. It’s a jump-off point.

Caveat dispensed with, I regularly teach a freshman seminar on epistemology called “Ways of Knowing,” one of those first year requirements that some universities offer, an admission that everyone probably needs at least some liberal arts instruction. Because the course is so broad and its subject matter so general, some of us try things out beyond our areas of expertise. Very often I use it as an opportunity to teach books other than those written by Americans. We don’t very often get to be autodidacts in our line of work, so this is healthy practice to my mind. Those of us who teach the seminar must also come up with a theme for our courses. I try to come up with bleak ones. I do this partly because an especially enthusiastic segment of the students on the campus where I teach tend to wear their privilege a little too easily, hugging one another to excess as a general practice, as in “I haven’t seen you in an hour, give me a big hug!” I tell my students that this is not something people in their forties do.

So I figure they need a course on, say, “Crime and Punishment” or “The Anatomy of Fights” (recent offerings).

My students and I have been reading Franz Kafka’s terrifying novel The Trial in my first year course with the theme of Crime and Punishment. They get it only too well, usually relating scenes in the novel to stories about their own experiences with getting tangled up in the various bureaucratic hoops through which they have to jump in their astoundingly crowded lives. (I honestly think they’ve had an easier time with Kafka than with the previous novel, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t expect this.)

This time around, in one of those moments in the classroom that comes with winging it some, I tried out the idea that we might consider how Kafka dealt with three kinds of “set-up”: first, how he sets-up scenes for the protagonist Josef K in one place or another, including the disorienting fact that sometimes he just puts him places without telling the reader how he happened to get there; second, the paranoia problem of Josef K, who seems to believe that he’s being set-up by the officers of the court and others, and third, the physical set-up of places where the action happens, which tend to have obstacles or spatial distortions.

In other words, the multiple notions of “set-up”—as emplotment, as perspective, and mise en scene, overlap with one another in interesting ways conceptually. A close reading of only a part of the penultimate chapter, “The Cathedral,” might better explain what I mean here. In that chapter, Kafka begins by simply plopping Josef K down at his desk in the bank where he works. We have no idea how he got there or even how long it has been since we left him after one of the most pathetic, darkly comic, and truly awful scenes at his lawyer’s place in the chapter preceding. (This is likely so because of the disjointed way Kafka wrote the novel, but we can disregard that for my purposes here.) We only know that he’s distracted, that he’s been ill, and that he’s merely going through the motions at work because he has long since been chewed up by the rigors of his ongoing trial. His manager has asked that he offer a tour of the city’s artistic sites to a very important Italian client. He offers him an Italian job of sorts. [1] Josef is irritated by this, but doesn’t see much way of getting out of it, because like many of us, he is worried about how it might appear if he rejects this honor given him by his boss. It’s an imposition given his health and circumstances, but there’s no way out that he can see.

He meets with the client and the miscommunication continues in more literal terms. While Josef K’s Italian is apparently decent, the Italian client speaks in a Southern dialect he has difficulty understanding. His manager understands it perfectly, but Josef K quickly gets lost. The manager and the Italian slow down long enough for him to discover that Italian wishes to cancel the broader tour and limit things to the city’s cathedral.

After some time at his desk in a state of gloomy irritableness, Josef K rushes across town and arrives at the designated spot at eleven. The Italian is not there. We know from the earlier discussion that the two had agreed upon ten o’clock for a meeting, so Josef K has his time wrong.

To summarize thus far, Josef K appears at his desk without reference to how much time has elapsed since we left him, he has been put in the cathedral with the Italian for reasons only dimly known (he has a reputation apparently as an art aficionado, but this is only for superficial reasons to smooth over business meetings), and he arrives late and misses his appointment. We also don’t know what the manager and the Italian had discussed, because Josef K, whose perspective is all we know about, was lost and gave up trying to follow their conversation.

Things get weirder from there. The cathedral is nearly empty and only dimly lit. As Josef K waits, he follows a limping old sexton who beckons him from across the cathedral. It seems the right thing to do. Breaking off from the old man eventually, K spies a strange pulpit near the chancery at the side of the church. Its stairs are hardly big enough for one preacher and it features an oddly angled stone atop it that requires that the speaker lean over it to stay put. (There are several moments like this in the novel, where bizarre physical obstacles appear, whether the comically low ceiling in the gallery in the court early in the novel, or the painter Tintorello’s bed that blocks a small door to the court offices somewhere in the middle of the text.)

A priest appears. He ascends onto the pulpit, lights a lamp and leans over the stone. In the grip of awareness of social convention, Josef K worries over how to make his way out of the cathedral lest the priest begin a sermon. While it makes little sense that the priest would preach at that time of day, Josef K feels that if the priest starts he’ll be compelled to stay and hear him out. He opts for a middle way and tiptoes down the aisle toward the exit. The priest then calls to him by name: “Josef K!”

After musing about how fond he was of the time before the trial had begun and people never knew his name—the glories of the unsurveilled—K tries to creep away in the hopes that the priest might believe he had not heard him call. Reading the novel up to this point, we know that Josef K desperately wants to keep the number of people who know about his trial to a minimum. Part of the oppression and terror that he feels comes from his worry over the fact that so many people know about it.  Of course, it’s a nearly empty cathedral so K’s footfalls sound like gunshots. He peeks just a bit over his shoulder and the priest notices it. He’s caught and so he makes his way back toward the pulpit.

It’s a wonderfully comic moment if we imagine K being caught during a guilty glance over the shoulder. After all, the guilt and responsibility are the critical ideas here. Our sense of the speed and superficiality of modern life is like a guilty glance over the shoulder. We might also puzzle over why Josef K feels so compelled to stay to listen to a sermon in a pretty much empty cathedral. Authority can do that to a person.

Thus far our sense of the set-up has got us the following: Here is an individual who has come to a place for reasons only dimly understood. Contingencies and accidents play a role in that he forgets the proper time for his real meeting, only to be immersed in what appears to be a set-up, which is the real point of him being there. It doesn’t really matter that he’s late. It all seems inevitable. After all, the priest, although a stranger to Josef K, recognizes him and calls him. K has also found himself in the set-up because he presumably chose to obey the promptings of social convention: the sexton who beckoned to him and the priest who called him.

The nature of the space also amplifies his presence, an empty cathedral where most movements draw others’ attention directly to him, only increasing his paranoia, his sense of the trial, his feeling that people see him. As Josef K becomes acutely aware of his movements due to the set-up of the space, it also becomes painfully evident to him that the set-up is on.

We could speculate that Josef K’s manager was in on this, in that their initial meeting with the Italian was designed to confuse K. Perhaps it was a gambit to get him to that decisive space and to the priest. At the very least, in terms of Kafka’s set-up/emplotment in the novel, the Italian job looks like a thin pretext to get Josef K into the cathedral for the climactic discussion that follows. Kafka gets away with a sloppy set-up/emplotment because it’s a set-up from Josef K’s perspective anyway. That is, by this time Josef K’s fate is inevitable, which the set-up (mis en scene) of the cathedral reveals, it being most empty, only amplifying his presence. Kafka plays with this by making sound the critical feature, in that Josef K is disoriented by the darkness in the cathedral space, but acutely aware of the sound of his footfalls. He cannot see so well, but he distinctly senses that others must know he is there.

We might consider a riddle: what sort of scenario can one imagine where accidents or mistakes don’t determine the outcome–the outcome is unavoidable no matter what one does—where one is mostly blind but acutely aware of one’s predicament, and where the more one is aware of oneself the more inevitable the trap appears? Perhaps Kafka means to say that modern life itself is a set-up and its inevitable outcome is death. Of course, death comes for Josef K in the very next and final chapter.

In the cathedral chapter anyway, following the three set-ups I’ve described here, Kafka has the priest spin out an allegory within the allegory, so to speak, and it only brings things home to terrifying effect. The broader point is that Josef K must at some point acknowledge his own guilt. The trial is his life and the court that accuses him blindly follows its own law, independent of Josef K’s willingness or unwillingness to do anything about it.

People familiar with the novel might recall a riotously comic, sadomasochistic, erotically charged scene much earlier in the text where Josef K comes upon a court-appointed “thrasher” punishing the two guards who initially arrested him. The thrasher, pretty much bare-chested in some sort of leather attire, canes the guards in a closet inside the bank where K works after having them remove their clothing. K is in effect responsible for their plight because he had complained to the court about their behavior. Even more, as K’s obsession with his own trial grows, he neglects the purpose of his own work at the bank, making his clients wait unreasonably, ignoring their needs. The bizarre presence of the court’s punisher in a closet at the bank where K works prefigures the ways in which the protagonist comes to reenact the obstinate lack of transparency that characterized his first court proceedings early on in the novel. He acts in concert with the will of the court without realizing it at the time.

The court treats everyone as if they are guilty. Taking responsibility for one’s life requires the realization that death is the only outcome of the sadistic trial that is modern life; living means enduring the trial, somehow delaying the inevitable. Innocence, a full acquittal, is only the stuff of legend, vaguely remembered by some. The outcome is the same for everyone, the responsibility shared. We all die shamefully with Josef K, wishing all the way to the end that we might continue the trial in the face of the inevitable.

Maybe hugs aren’t so bad after all.

I wonder if my students went back to their dorms after this discussion and found someone to hug. I bet that those who did really meant it this time around. I also wonder if, in an epistemology class, thinking requires despair before it can be taken seriously. Otherwise, we don’t really understand the stakes involved, which makes the first thing we read in class, Socrates’ Apology, all the more powerful for our modern sensibilities. When Socrates contends that he would rather die than cease to examine—to think—then we have to consider what it means to be unable to think. We’re following up The Trial with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. I’ll discuss Arendt in relation to some of these thoughts next time out.

[1] I guess I should mention that my title is also something of an inside joke or historical pun based upon the fact that Kafka worked for a short time at an Italian insurance company in Prague. He hated it.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Welcome to the blog Peter. Have enjoyed your previous posts and your contribution to the Burt roundtable; looking forward to more!

    • Thanks very much for that Dan. I’m pretty flattered to be read by you to be sure. I’m looking forward to this.

  2. Judging from the amount of fun I had reading this, your students are lucky indeed to have you as a teacher! Kafka makes me feel guilty for how much I enjoy him; this is supposed to be depressing, yet it is also a riotously good time. Hrm :).

    Anyway, looking forward to your next post!

    • Someone, perhaps Kafka’s friend and biographer, Max Brod, once reported that Kafka often laughed out loud when he read his own work. The eerie magic of Kafka is that PK’s summary itself begins to sound like Kafka’s flat, deadpan prose.

  3. On the comic: That part of Kafka is what makes him so much fun. I agree, Robin. It’s an awful, exquisitely sardonic laughter. What Richard says is probably right, that my own summary comes off as Kafka deadpan. One thing I tell my students to do when they get confused or tangled up in a book like The Trial is to just narrate it. Describe it as directly as possible, as if telling a friend about some scenario in the book. When you say it out loud in straightforward summary, you get how ridiculous it all is. The humor comes through that way.

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