The Accursed Sovereign

Shame in Death

Posted in Literature, Philosophical Anthropology by bradishn on March 2, 2010

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Kafka’s The Trial (and you actually care about not having The Trial spoiled) you may want to turn back now.

K. now perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself, as it traveled from hand to hand above him, and plunge it into his own breast.  But he did not do so, he merely turned his head, which was still free to move, and gazed around him.  He could not completely rise to the occasion, he could not relieve the officials of all their tasks; the responsibility for this last failure of his lay with him who had not left him the remnant of strength necessary for the deed.  His glance fell on the top story of the house adjoining the quarry.  With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of a window there suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther.  Who was it?  A friend?  A good man?  Someone who sympathized?  Someone who wanted to help?  Was it one person only?  Or was it mankind?  Was help at hand?  Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked?  Of course there must be.  Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.  Where was the Judge whom he had never seen?  Where was the high Court, to which he had never penetrated?  He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.

But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice.  With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act.  “Like a dog!” he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.  (Kafka, Franz.  The Trial.  Schocken Books, New York: 1992, pp 228-9.)

Joseph K.’s final scene begins with the quasi-comedic passing of the knife between the two partners sent to kill K., who in turn looks away as though he were distracted.  At this moment, he notices an individual who perhaps possesses some power to save K. and stop his execution.  As though meditating upon K.’s predicament, Kafka inserts his own aside: “Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.”  And as easily as K. becomes distracted, he is killed.

In this final scene, Kafka treats us to a play on words: “…watching the final act.”  On the one hand, the act refers to the act of killing Joseph K., which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the fault of the partners who stab him since they end up watching the act rather than committing it.  On the other hand, “the final act” refers to the entirety of the production that is Joseph K.’s trial, reminding us of William Shakespeare’s adage about the world being a stage and the people all players.  To take a stab at Kafka, if the world of The Trial was a stage, the production would be called Synecdoche in New York.

Finally, we are left contemplating the death of Joseph K., a contemplation which is already guided by the final line of the novel: “it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.”  K.’s death remains shameful, and it is only in this light that we are allowed to understand his death.  In making the final line about the shame of K.’s death, Kafka creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Indeed, the last line of the novel seems to live a few seconds longer than K. himself.  This final sentence hangs off the edge of the book.  It is both an excess of the novel, and yet the defining moment of the novel.

But what do we have other than shame in death?  Many in our society spend their final days in a hospital, unable to tend to their basic needs.  There seems to be little pride in a moment of death such as this.  One might instead think that dying in some blaze of glory would have no shame in it, but in this too there lies a flaw.  If the reason that such a death has no shame is because in it an individual achieves their potential, then the flaw lies in assuming that their blaze of glory is their ultimate and final potential.  The beauty of human potential lies in its ambiguity, its amorphic quality.  A blaze of glory, though perhaps less shameful than a quiet death in a hospital bed, fails to do justice to human potential since it always confines it (though this confining character no doubt evinces itself in all forms of death).

In the end, all we have is shame, the shame of untapped potential.


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