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Kafka's portrayal of modernity in The Trial


In The Trial, Kafka portrays modernity as a bewildering and oppressive force, characterized by a bureaucratic system that is both complex and impersonal. The protagonist, Josef K., is caught in a nightmarish legal process that reflects the alienation and helplessness individuals feel in the face of modern societal structures.

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How does Baudelaire's definition of modernity apply to Kafka's The Trial?

In certain ways, the difficulty you are experiencing in answering this question has to do with the way in which the question is formulated. Although Baudelaire is concerned with "modernity" and Kafka is called a "modernist", Kafka's work is much more closely linked with German Expressionism than with the early stages of French symbolism, and so the connections between the two authors are somewhat tenuous.

What they have in common is that they both respond to the same situation, that of an industrialized urban environment in which workers experience alienation from their labor. Baudelaire's theory of modernity argues that the artist must respond to this new environment rather than retreating into a nostalgia for the past, portraying the newly urbanized world and the crowds of the cities, but still remaining an outsider or detached observer, rebelling against bourgeois society while documenting it, and searching for strange elusive beauty within urban squalor.

Kafka's novel shares with Baudelaire's vision of modernity a setting in which the narrator, K., is alienated from his bourgeois job and endures the impersonal system of bureaucratic government both as a participant and a victim. Like Baudelaire, he finds no solace in Christianity, although they differ in that Baudelaire is rebelling against Roman Catholicism as one brought up in the Church, while Kafka was from a Jewish family laboring under antisemitism. In both writers, the rejection of God as an organizing principle, giving purpose to individual lives and the moral structure of the world, leaves them with a world which is inherently irrational, with no moral compass. Thus we never get a sense of why K. is being tried or what things are considered just or unjust in his society. 

Another major similarity is in the portrayal of sexuality, and the way in which sexual practices serve as a locus of resistance to bourgeois society, with many of the poems of Baudelaire and the flogging episodes of The Trial invoking a homoerotic sadomasochism that subverts conventional notions of sexuality as linked to marriage and child rearing. The connection between sexuality and oppression is also apparent when the law books K. finds prove to be pornography.

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How does Baudelaire's definition of modernity apply to Kafka's The Trial?

Hello! Charles Baudelaire's definition of modernity can be summed up by one of his most famous quotes:

Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.

Baudelaire is largely concerned with the human experience in an urban and cosmopolitan context. He focuses on the moral complexity and ambivalence of individuals, explores the sensuality of the human experience and stresses a rejection of the innate goodness in individuals. Kafka's 'The Trial' showcases Baudelaire's fascination with sex (both sacred and adulterous), death, oppression, condemnation without the benefit of justice, corruption in the highest echelons of urban leadership, hopeless fate, secularization and the utter rejection of morality, and a fascination with the macabre. Baudelaire's definition of modernity is a transient experience of decay, corruption and oppression: all of these are present in Kafka's 'The Trial.'
The story starts out with the protagonist, Josef K (chief financial officer of a  bank), charged with a nameless crime. He is summoned before a shadowy court with no recourse for justice. K does not even know where to turn in order to extricate himself from this nightmarish judicial persecution. You can clearly see Baudelaire's and Kafka's portrait of modernity in very stark terms: the prospect of totalitarian oppression and a redefinition of truth and reality is the future, and it is frightening in its intensity and hopelessness.
"No," said the priest, "you don't need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary." "Depressing view," said K. "The lie made into the rule of the world."
Josef K 's uncle Karl introduces him to a lawyer, Dr. Huld, who can supposedly help him, but all the lawyer does is tell him how his own connections with powerful members of the court system has brought great advantage to countless other unfortunates like himself. Uncle Karl is incredulous that K should be in such trouble. He imagines that something must have led up to such a trial:
"Things like this don't come all of a sudden, they start developing a long time beforehand, there must have been warning signs of it, why didn't you write to me"
Still undeterred, Uncle Karl suggests that K should have a short holiday and go to stay in the country with him and his family. K disagrees, stating that such a course of action would not help matters, as it would indicate 'flight and a sense of guilt.' You can see that K is feeling cornered: Kafka paints a world where the individual becomes more and more alienated from society, where everything is closing in on the individual and there is no real help or escape from such a dire predicament. While his Uncle Karl, the lawyer, and the finally revealed office director speak of K's case as if he is not in the same room, K wanders off and has a sexual encounter (K indulges in other sexual escapades with women in the novel) with Leni, the lawyer's mistress. In the novel, both sexual temptation and infidelity lurk steadily in the background, juxtaposed with a consistent atmosphere of inevitable entrapment by the forces of oppression. If one is to be successful at all, one must play the part required by those who set the rules:
Everything is connected with everything else and will continue without any change or else, which is quite probable, even more closed, more attentive, more strict, more malevolent.
These officials are in many ways just like children. Often, something quite harmless - although K.'s behaviour could unfortunately not be called harmless - will leave them feeling so offended that they will even stop talking with good friends of theirs, they turn away when they see them and do everything they can to oppose them. But then, with no particular reason, surprisingly enough, some little joke that was only ever attempted because everything seemed so hopeless will make them laugh and they'll be reconciled. It's both difficult and hard at the same time to deal with them, and there's hardly any reason for it.
The innocence of the accused is not then determined by presenting evidence to support one's case, but by the careful cultivation of egos in the hierarchy of justice. Such corruption is usually the province of totalitarian societies, and that's where our word 'kafkaesque' comes from. It describes Josef K's world perfectly, a world where a powerful and labyrinthine bureaucracy is accountable to no one, controls every aspect of an individual's existence and punishes whom it sees fit. It is a world where neighbors inform on other neighbors and family members; there is no recourse to justice and random acts of violence are perpetrated on unsuspecting innocents. Control of the masses is the purpose of this modern nightmare.
In the end, Josef K is executed 'like a dog,' as he says before he breathes his last. The charge is still not made plain to the reader nor to poor Josef K.
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How does Kafka portray his views on modernity in The Trial?

Kafka’s views on modernity are made evident as he describes Joseph K. making his way through Juliusstrasse, the poorer district in which K.’s first inquiry is supposed to take place. K. immediately feels lost as he walks down the street, which is “flanked on both sides by almost completely identical buildings, tall gray apartment houses inhabited by the poor” (Kafka 38). Uniformity, as well as increasing wealth inequality, accompanies the modern rise of cities. Kafka describes this district, which could serve as a paradigm for any generic European city in the early 20th century, as intimidating in its size/population, yet aesthetically unimpressive. His description does not do the district’s inhabitants any favors either. The reader can feel Joseph K. cringe as people call out to each other over his head and as a gramophone begins to “murder a tune” (38). Thus, Kafka depicts modernity as synonymous with increasing chaos and anonymity.

Kafka also pays attention to the lack of cleanliness in this city, suggesting that modernity is closely associated with squalor and corruption of people. As K. goes to the painter Titorelli’s apartment, he encounters a sordid scene:

. . . there was a gaping hole from which, just as K. approached, a disgusting, steaming yellow fluid poured forth, before which a rat fled into the nearby sewer. At the bottom of the steps a small child was lying face down on the ground, crying, but it could hardly be heard above the noise coming from a sheet-metal shop beyond the entranceway. (140)

K. never has to go far to witness the filth of a modern city, including smog and soot, as well as this unknown liquid. In this scene, there is much to pull his attention from one thing to the next. He cannot stare too long at the liquid and the rat because there is a child crying, and he cannot focus on the child because there is a loud industrial sound close by. Kafka infuses this sense of chaos with the corruption of youth, a theme which he carries forth throughout K.’s meeting with the painter, for the meeting is constantly interrupted by a group of corrupted girls who have nothing better to do but pester grown men. All in all, Kafka does not portray a very positive view of modernity.

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