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On the Demonic and Kafka
By Mike Adams
Kafka has been described as a writer of nightmares. To interpret Kafka in this fashion leads us directly into his mind, which is his world: both inner and outer. Finally we are confronted with ourselves. As we sail along, we find ourselves confronted with an ocean of meaning.
No commentary on Kafka can be as complete as the text itself. In this paper what I hope to do is offer an interpretation of Kafka's In the Penal Colony. It will necessarily say more about my own feelings and thoughts regarding the story than anything else will. Strangely, or perhaps appropriately enough, I find myself drawn to the increasingly demonic nature of the story. As a historian of the mind I see a prophecy: World War 11.
Once you are past the fourth dimension past present and future become increasingly continuous. In my analyses I have a number of options concerning time. The most obvious path to follow is to treat the story as a commentary on the nature of justice or punishment in Kafka's Prague. This would be legitimate. A more obscure approach would be to see what remains of the past lie within the story. Perhaps we could question this avenue, and ask ourselves," is there any disgust present or apathy or perhaps a sense of loss or hope?" What I hope to do, through a commentary upon the text, is show how the story symbolically leads us into the collapsed of an old institution into a present divorced from meaning and sense. And finally it ends with the last refuge of humanity, the explorer, leaving without offering any redemption. It becomes a story of the future, and the future lies in the tombstone: the tombstone of the damned. This essay is an attempt to show how meaning changes.
The story opens with four people, the officer, the explorer, the condemned man, and the soldier, standing around a machine in a valley. It is described as a "small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags..." (Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories, p141) There is a feeling of intense heat for the valley is shadeless and the sun is glaring. The heat is overpowering for everyone accept the officer, whose attention is held raptly by a machine. A machine without a name although its parts according to popular lore have nicknames. It is a machine that means death. It stands alone in the valley and it occupies the center of attention. Indeed, the first words of the officer are," its a remarkable piece of apparatus." (p140) From the beginning of the story the valley and its machine invoke the image of hell.
To the officer the machine is his life. Its function is to slowly torture people to death by writing the law that they disobeyed on their body with a needle. In the past this had been surrounded with much pomp and ritual. Everyone would attend the bizarre spectacle. But now, "the colony itself did not betray much interest in the execution." (p.140)
Yet this did not dampen the officers enthusiasm for his position. He is certain that the machine is intrinsically good and beautiful. Throughout the first third of the story, he is continually talking about it, and expecting the explorer to share in his enthusiasm. So certain in fact that he draws the explorer aside and asks him for his help against the plots of the Commandment. It never occurs to him that the explorer might not share his convictions. The officer is not a human being. All he cares about is the machine-- the traditions around it, its inventor, how marvelous it is, its beauty, its need to be preserved tortuous affects of, and its promise of redemption. Other concerns, such as the humanity of it, are not considered. This type of thinking process can be described as valent. A valent thought pattern is one that repeats without questioning itself: a feedback loop. Once a person is trapped in such a pattern, he or she is no better than an android. It is inhuman, and in the inhumanity we find the demonic.
The machine is a means that has been transformed into an end. This is abundantly clear if we look at the peculiar relationship that exists between punishment and justice within the story. To the officer, the justice lies in the process of punishment. He spends a great deal of time and energy describing with excruciating detail the exact method of punishment. The manor in
Which he does this is matter of fact as is apparent from the following quotation: "Here at the head of the Bed were the man, as I said first lays down his face, is this little gag, which can easily be regulated to go straight into his mouth. It is meant to keep him from screaming and biting his tongue. (p143)
The act of punishment is equated with a performance, Some thing which has great worth within itself. But punishment is a process, something mechanical. Human values cannot be attached to it. It can only be experienced. Only by applying justice to it can there be humanity in it. It is necessarily subjective when human beings apply it to each other. This is what separates human justice from the justice of nature.
But to the officer, justice does not appear of great importance. In fact, his concept of justice is inhuman and demonic. The officer states, "My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted." (145) If the officer, in his function as a judge, is told a crime has been committed, then it is punished. Truth is not questioned.
The officer argues this is necessary. If he were to ask the prisoner questions, he automatically assumes he would receive lies. What he is turning away from is the arbitrary nature of justice: its human side. For him, any crime receives the same response: guilt. An automatic response is no better that a mechanical one. It makes no sense. But it is hardly intended to. The sense lies in the precision. For the officer, judging is simply a necessary step before the real pleasure: punishment. Because it is not intended to make sense on a subjective human level, it is best described as senseless or inhuman. And this is how the world within the penal colony appears to the explorer. The explorer perspective is best scene in the following quotation:
"The explorer intended to make no answer, but he felt the prisoners gaze turning on him; it seemed to ask if he approved of such goings-on." (145)
In the conversation that takes place between the officer and the explorer, while the officer is intent on keeping the conversation within the domain of method, the explorer feels the need to ask why. The explorer wants to know what the crime was. He notices that the prisoner is following the conversation intently, so he asks if the prisoner is aware of the charges. He is told no. He asks how was the prisoner able to defend himself. He is told there was no defense. His questions are treated as distractions. The officer saw them as a danger to his "exposition of the apparatus..." (p145) The explorer's concerns are those of humanity. A tug of war is taking place between the human and the inhuman. Now we come to the turning point in the story.
In the officers mind the explorer is ultimately cast as the judge of the penal colony. But because the officer wholeheartedly believes in the strength of his convictions, he fully expects the explorer to uphold them.
The officer states:
"This procedure and method of execution which you are now having the opportunity to admire, Has at the moment no longer open adherents in our colony
I am its sole advocate and at the same time the sole advocate of the former Commandant's tradition. (p153)
The source of the valent thought pattern is revealed. The officer is a bureaucrat possessed with the vision of the former Commandant. He seeks the salvation of the visions that he believes to be good. But the explorer denies him.
Now the officer finally doubts himself. He responds in the only fashion left to him. He frees the condemned man, lays himself upon the apparatus, and instructs it to write "Be Just" upon his body in the barely legible scroll of the former Commandant. As the executioner, the justice lay in the process. As the executed, the only redemption to the awful torture that must be undergone is in the sixth hour when the prisoner finally knows why he is being so callously killed. It is a very finite level of redemption, but it is none the less the last domain of order in a world increasingly senseless. But there is no redemption for the officer. Meaning changes and disorder prevails. All we are left with is a rising sense of doom.
The machine falls apart and the officer is cruelly murdered. This is symbolic of Kafka's world. In the end there is no order any longer, no final authority. Indeed throughout the story, were confronted with the absence of human authority. The former commandant lays dead. Yet his vision lives on much like a corpse. As the officer states:
"Well it isn't saying much if I tell you that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come." (p141)
One mans decadent vision still haunted the penal colony. Now it's decaying. The machine collapses. Is there any hope? Kafka's answer in the final part of the story is no. In order to escape the past you must bury the dead. Otherwise you are guilty of repression, and ghosts will survive. The officer's very existence is an omen of the nature of the world.
The whole story is ghostlike and purposeless. An execution is allowed to take place with no public support. An official is allowed to continue in his function because the new leader lacks the strength of will to get rid of him. One would suspect that the new Commandant who is never seen or heard from is not very effective. Out of this absence of hope lies the prophecy.
In the end we are confronted with a number of symbolic images: the collapse of the machine, the tombstone of the former Commandant, and the explorers flight to the sea. From image to image, a transformation takes place, which dictates the future of this world.
The explorer offers humanity. It was he who sought justice and answered questions. He was no machine. But humanity no longer has any place to occupy in this world so instead it takes flight. Perhaps the explorer is Kafka, and the ocean that he runs to, his mind. The image of the ocean has long been associated with the soul mind or madness.
The tombstone is the point of tension, the source of all evil. Under it lies the former Commandment. At this point, the connection between the former Commandment, the officer, their shared visions, and the demonic, is made clear. The tombstone lay under a table because the priest felt it was to unholy to allow to exist on consecrated ground.
But a tombstone under a table is problematic. It is allowed to exist in public, but is ignored and merely tucked out of sight. In fact people sit around it and eat. From this image there is a sense of denial. There is a prophecy on the tombstone. It says, "that after a certain number of years the commandment will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have fait and wait!" (p167)
This is Kafka's answer. At some point in the future, the center will collapse entirely, and a demon will rise to resume the old order. And the people are allowing it to happen.
Modernism was initially associated with a sense of progress. In France, people felt that the machine could offer redemption. It freed the workers from prior drudgery and increased the standard of living rapidly. These were the banquet years.
After World War 1 a new image of the world, which had its precursors, was born. People began to associate the machine with guns. Science had brought new deadly inventions such as poison gas. There was a sense of dread and hopelessness. And indeed the interlude after the Great War quickly turned into World War 11. This was a time of mass paranoia.
This was Kafka's world. He worked as a bureaucrat for the decadent Austrio-Hungarian Empire. This change in worldview is what I see in the story In the Penal Colony the machine is now cast in hell. It is controlled by a demon following a demonic dream that won't die. Decadence leads to decay, but no one rebuilds. Instead both the soldier and the condemned man both run around aimlessly after they are freed. No one but the explorer, who is not of this land, cares to deal with the body of the officer. What's not dealt with will rise again. For me this is the prophecy within In the Penal Colony.