“The Judgment”

("Das Urteil")

Franz Kafka

1912

(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)

CharlesBridge_PaulCookCrop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook.  Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka's hometown of Prague.

 

This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life.  The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried.  Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things.  He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation.  He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement.  His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation.  When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself.  As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge.  Georg flings himself to his death.

DasUrteilI called it an existentialist horror tale.  That it is horror is obvious.  It is existentialist, though, because Kafka provides us with a state of mind, a progression, and a motivation, but not a philosophical underpinning, nor a moral assessment.  For this reason the critics can bat about theories as to the religious or else psychoanalytic nature of the father-son conflict and the death. The truth of the matter—keeping within the context of this story alone—is simply that we are not told what ideals or worldview to embrace, nor on what psychological or religious bandwagons the story may be a passenger.  For us to try to squeeze a belief system and an ethical evaluation out of a story like this is in a way an affront to the author, who did not leave these up to us by accident.  It is his narrative strategy.

As readers, we are in a better position to perform two other kinds of examinations instead.  First, we can look at the evaluations the story raises within ourselves: especially, what is it we value that makes the father’s judgment, though terrible, at least somewhat sensible?  Horror derives from the grotesque warping of a germ of truth-- otherwise an event is just ridiculous or mundane.  If the father had told his son to kill himself because he stole a loaf of bread, we would probably not be horrified.  We would simply dismiss the father as psychotic, for allowing a petty transgression to outweigh the far superior value of life.  Perhaps we are troubled by the story, the way it is, precisely because there is a sense in which the son was disregarding what is important in life, and thus was reducing the value of his own life.  Of course we would never condone the father’s judgment, but this is not the point.  The point is that, while disagreeing with him, we might-- though it is disturbing even to admit--we might see where he is coming from.  This unsettling point is what is important about the story.

The second examination we can perform removes us further from the story: we can evaluate Kafka’s general approach.  We might conclude that Kafka’s art is not as “deep” as it could be, in the sense that he has decided to penetrate only to the level of raw experience, the uninterpreted animal level of passions and responses.  Still, it is arguably better to remain philosophically tacit than to do as many lesser writers have done: to assume foundations and then saturate the prose with evaluation and interpretation, with the utmost of overconfidence, triviality and carelessness, drawing conclusions that are as trite as they are unsubstantiated.  I almost find Kafka refreshing (what a strange word to use for such a story!) in his avoidance of such drivel.  Notice, also, that if Kafka had offered a frank moral evaluation, he would have precluded our horror, since (if the above argument is correct) horror is made possible by our own tension at the central event.  We would probably have been distracted from introspection if the author had given us explicit moral guidance.  Our reaction to the story would have crumpled into the humdrum junior-high assessment of whether we agreed or disagreed with the author.

This story strikes the heart in an eerie way.  I experienced a partial macabre sympathy with the nightmarish robotic obedience of the suicide, and shared with Georg the spite, guilt, determination, resignation, hopelessness, frustration, shame, and self-loathing he must have been feeling at the end.  Any identification we have with Georg’s downfall, we have because we share the knowledge that we ought to be concerned for others, not to be a betrayer, not to be superficial and self-absorbed.  Somehow this intuition tells us that the wages of such sin must be death, for one's life has been less than useless if one has lived like this.  The fact is poignant that his father is the one who reveals this to Georg, and has revealed it to his friend already (“all that is secret will be made known”).  I say this not to introduce the relevance of the Freudian father-son conflict model, for that model is a particular interpretation of a relationship whose fundamentals can be just as well understood without reference to psychoanalytic theory.  A father is at once the reason for a son’s existence, the most influential shaper of his destiny, and his main protector against harm.  Only a father’s command could control a son so, and yet a father is the most horrible source imaginable of a command to suicide.  Not by coincidence is a father considered the closest natural analogue for a Supreme Being who is the final arbiter of human destiny and sits in judgment, in which he often appears cruel even in justice.

 

Kafka was a Jewish Czech who wrote in German.  Although their language is a Slavic one, the Czechs have always considered themselves more aligned culturally with the West than the East, closer to Germany than Russia, just as they looked towards Rome rather than Byzantium in the Middle Ages.  In light of these considerations, I have placed Kafka among Germanic rather than Slavic Literature.  As for his Jewishness, one of the results of the Diaspora is the perennial question of whether a Jew is more like  other Jews or more like his adoptive countrymen.  Kafka is more like nobody-- the question is moot in his case.  Still, just as the Jews are spread throughout the world, I suppose they will be spread throughout the cultures covered by this site unless they come from Israel, for lack of a better solution.

 
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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE (translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir):

It was a Sunday morning in the very height of spring.

-(first sentence)

 

What could one write to such a man, who had obviously run off the rails, a man one could be sorry for but could not help?

 

“So now you know what else there was in the world besides yourself, till now you’ve known only about yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly have you been a devilish human being!—And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!”

-Georg's father, to Georg.

 

At this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge.

-(last sentence).

  

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READ THIS WHEN...

...you want to be disturbed into a heightened sensitivity to the fragile human will and conscience.

 

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the somber meditator upon existentialist fiction:)

  • Franz Kafka, "Metamorphosis"  (1912)
  • Franz Kafka, The Trial  (1925)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea  (1938)
  • Albert Camus, The Stranger  (1942)

(for the obsessed with the neuroses of family relationships:)

  • Euripides, Hippolytus  (429 BC)
  • William Shakespeare, King Lear  (1605)
  • Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh  (1885)
  • August Strindberg, The Father  (1887)

 

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

The Everyman library has a great trilogy of the major works of Kafka-- this one contains the short stories, including "The Judgment".


 

Paperback

The Penguin Deluxe Edition (since when does Penguin have a Deluxe Edition?)

 

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