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Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” begins with a Traveler, described as a “great Western explorer,” learning about a “peculiar apparatus” of justice. The apparatus, known as the Harrow, is administered by the Officer. Much of the first half of “In the Penal Colony” consists of the Officer explaining the logic and history of the Harrow to the Traveler. The Harrow is a delicate system of glass needles, which inscribe the crimes of those who have been condemned, bloodily and painfully, into their bodies. The procedure takes an average of twelve hours. The first six hours are very different from the second six. “For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before,” the Officer explains. “He suffers nothing but pain.”

Around the sixth hour, though, a great change begins to occur in the prisoner. Without fail, at that time the condemned become very quiet, and even “the most stupid of them begin to understand.” Where before they were suffering only pain, for the next six hours they suffer something in addition—the agony of self-recognition:

It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the Harrow spits him right out and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool. Then the judgment is over, and we, the Soldier and I, quickly bury him.

The whole time he is explaining how the Harrow works, the Officer is preparing to use it on a Condemned Man. As he speaks, the Officer adjusts the machine, unclogging it and setting it to make the correct inscription, then ordering a Soldier to strap the Condemned Man into the bed. The Traveler is sometimes distracted by the Condemned Man, and sometimes disturbed by what the officer is telling him; once, he feels the need to sit down. As his doubts about the system of punishment mount, he asks a series of procedural questions. Does the condemned man know his sentence? Has he received a proper trial? Does he even know that he has been condemned? The answer to all these questions is “No.” The condemned does not know what his crime is; he has had no chance to defend himself; the Officer himself serves as judge, jury and administrator of justice all in one. This information stuns the Traveler, who now “looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown.” He consoles himself that after all he is a foreigner in a penal colony, and perhaps “in this place special regulations were necessary.”

He takes some solace from the Officer’s mention that there is a “New Commandant” in the penal colony, who has doubts about the apparatus. Progress, that is, may be at hand. Indeed, it becomes clear that the Traveler is a pawn in a political battle between the Officer and the New Commandant, over whether the Harrow will continue to exist. According to the Officer, the “Old Commandant” had had full confidence in the apparatus, and the Officer speaks nostalgically about the days when huge crowds would bring their children to see justice done. Today, the Officer can hardly secure the funds to replace broken parts of the apparatus, and no one any longer comes to watch. Nevertheless, the Officer hopes that the Traveler, after watching the procedure himself, will vouch for the Harrow in a public meeting the next day.

The Traveler, patting himself on the back for his moral courage and his devotion to due process, informs the Officer that he will make no such statement. “I am opposed to this procedure,” he tells him.

● 

This summer was the summer we found out about the kids being kept in cages at the border. The makeshift detention centers at which they were held were, in many ways, no worse (and, in some cases, probably better) than the majority of the prisons and jails in which we hold more than two million of our fellow citizens. Still, they were children, and, for a number of weeks, it was hard to avoid the signs of their suffering: the audio of them crying out for their parents; the stories of their traumatic separations; the photographs of them sleeping on cement under Mylar emergency blankets, like the victims of some unnatural disaster.

“The kids are just—kids,” wrote four journalists for the New York Times, in a tone of inarticulate bafflement that was common to much of the reporting about the detention centers. The reporters listed the many senseless rules that defined life within the detention center: the bathrooms had to be cleaned; sharing food with others was not allowed; running, nicknames and hugs were off-limits. Then they related a story told to them by an employee at Casa Padre, a shelter for 1,500 migrant boys erected inside a Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas, close to the Mexican border. At night, the kids liked to make animal sounds. “The walls that separate the sleeping quarters do not reach the high ceilings, which means that sounds travel in the yawning spaces within the 250,000-square-foot building. One boy will make a loud animal noise, after which another will emit an animal-like response. ‘Someone will start mooing,’ the employee said. ‘They just think it’s funny. They just do it long enough so everyone can hear, and then we all start laughing.’”

The story communicated something simultaneously human and heartbreaking: the kids were just kids, doing kid things, but they were not just pretending, as many kids do, to be animals; they were also being treated like them by the American government.

Like the Traveler in Kafka’s story, we good Westerners wished to express our opposition. We did so in various ways: by contributing to fundraising drives to help the kids get lawyers, by writing to our congressional representatives, by shouting down Trump administration officials when they went out to eat, by making comparisons to Nazi Germany on Facebook. It all felt somewhat theatrical, which did not mean it felt insincere, or would necessarily be ineffective. Theater can sometimes be very effective. And there are times when—despite how helpless it may make one feel—saying “I am opposed” is the absolute best that one can do.

The performance, moreover, is not condemned to be tragic; or, not always. Sometimes our acting contributes to stopping the horrible thing from happening. On June 20th, President Trump signed an executive order effectively ending the policy of separating parents from their children. There was still much work left to make sure the children would be released from state custody and reunited with their families, but it seemed, at least momentarily, as if the pressure had had an effect. The children would get to leave the detention centers. The theater of cruelty would move on to some other, less visible, precinct—and we, or most of us anyway, could return to our customary concerns.

● 

After the Officer realizes that the Traveler, far from helping him secure political support for the Harrow, is going to deal a deathblow to its future, he frees the Condemned Man. The Condemned Man, hardly able to believe his luck, fishes his clothes out of the bloody pit and goes to wash up with the Soldier. Meanwhile, the Officer pulls out a leather folder and asks the Traveler to read from it. The Traveler has a hard time making out the words, but they evidently comprise a new sentence: “Be Just!” This is the sentence that he, the Officer, will now submit to. Soon, the Officer stands before the Traveler completely naked:

The Traveler bit his lip and said nothing. For he was aware what would happen, but he had no right to hinder the Officer in any way. If the judicial process to which the Officer clung was really so close to the point of being canceled—perhaps as a result of the intervention of the Traveler, something to which he for his part felt duty-bound—then the Officer was now acting in a completely correct manner.

Yet when the Officer lies down beneath the Harrow, it does not work as he had described it working. Instead of deliberately etching his sentence on his body, it simply begins stabbing him. The Traveler watches in horror. He “wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain. It was murder, pure and simple. He stretched out his hands. But at that point the Harrow was already moving upwards and to the side, with the skewered body—just as it did in other cases, but only in the twelfth hour.”

When the Traveler looks at the Officer’s face after the Officer has been murdered by the Harrow, he is struck by how similar it looks to how it had looked in life: there had been no “transfiguration.” “What all the others had found in the machine, the Officer had not,” the Traveler observes. “His lips were pressed firmly together, his eyes were open and looked as they had when he was alive, his gaze was calm and convinced.” And yet, the Traveler’s description of the Officer’s facial expression conflicts with his confident analysis of it. Even as he must have been aware that his beloved apparatus was brutally murdering him (the final blow was a spike through his head), the Officer had remained “calm and convinced.” Perhaps he had known the truth of his judgment from the beginning—that is, of what would be required for justice to be done in his own case.

The Traveler persuades the Soldier and the Condemned Man to help him lift the Officer’s body off the bed and roll it into the pit. Then the three of them go the local tea house, where the Traveler scatters some coins among a group of ill-clothed men he refers to as “poor, oppressed people.” Then he makes for the harbor. As he begins to board his boat out of the penal colony—apparently without delivering his intended message about the Harrow to the New Commandant—he notices that the Condemned Man and the Soldier are following him. “They probably wanted to force the Traveler at the last minute to take them with him,” the Traveler thinks, apprehensively. The Traveler has no intention of allowing this to happen. As the Condemned Man and the Soldier race to the end of the dock, “the Traveler was already in the boat, and the sailor at once cast off from shore. They could still have jumped into the boat, but the Traveler picked up a heavy knotted rope from the boat bottom, threatened them with it, and thus prevented them from jumping in.”

As in so many of Kafka’s stories, we may see ourselves, at various moments, as any of the characters in “In the Penal Colony.” But there is a reason the story is told by the Traveler from the West. First with his moralizing about the barbaric and arbitrary form of justice that is meted out by the Officer’s apparatus, and then with his concluding assertion of separation from the penal colony’s “poor and oppressed” inhabitants, he epitomizes our own civilized queasiness about the realities of crime and punishment, whether the issue is immigration enforcement, policing or the maintenance of order among those who have been, whether justly or not, “condemned.”

Is the problem really that the penal colony’s laws are carried out inconsistently? That its penalties are harsh or outdated? The Traveler indicates that fairer procedures, or more progressive political leadership, will make the penal colony more humane and just. His concluding rush to distance himself from the colony and its inhabitants, however, betrays a more disturbing possibility: that the colony itself may represent an injustice so monstrous that to speak “rationally” about its procedures constitutes its own kind of obscenity. His refusal to openly acknowledge this fact—indeed, he acknowledges it only by way of involuntary gestures—is what makes the Traveler seem, within the moral economy of the story, even less worthy of respect than the Officer. Whatever the brutality and arbitrariness of their “peculiar apparatus,” at least the Officer, and the Old Commandant, had not buried the reality of their power under a shroud of ennobling abstractions.

As he makes his way back to his own country, about whose judicial procedures we are told nothing, the Traveler appears to be free of everything—of his responsibility for the prisoners in the colony as well as of the maddening conviction of the Officer. This freedom, we suspect, will in time inflict its own wounds. Yet nothing guarantees that the Traveler will ever be as lucky as those who had been compelled to understand, by dint of the Harrow, the full extent of their guilt.

—JB & RW

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