Dialectic Essay

Sorry it’s late. I had trouble finding out how to post. I’m bad with computers.

Truth and Judgement in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony

One of the more interesting things that  Peter Neumeyer discusses in his essay, “Do Not Teach Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’” might be in his more accurate translation of “the ‘explorer’ called by Kafka a Forschungsreisende [r]” rather as one who ‘is “‘seeking for answers,’ a Forschung being an inquiry” (Neumyer 107).This re-translation is important first because it re-defines or reaffirms the traveler’s role in the story as judge. Secondly, it sets up a reading of “In the Penal Colony” as a search for truth. Of course, this reading is not new to Neumeyer. Scholars have been debating the ramifications of Kafka’s work with moderate success for years, mostly through the lens of religious allegory and modern times as either worse or better.

To establish the religious allegory needed for either argument, readers should first establish Kafka’s somewhat obvious symbols. First, Kafka sets up a dichotomy between the Old Commandant, whom he describes in mythic terms as not only the founder of the colony, but also the “designer” of the machine and the source of all the laws – and the New Commandant, who, “obviously, although slowly, was intending to introduce…new procedure.” Finally, the Traveler, as a stranger to the Colony also stands for the modern man.

The first thesis, which Neumyer argues, suggests that modern times are a degenerate form of a past perfection especially on a moral plane. Such an argument is not entirely difficult to make or understand. Most important to this reading though is probably the Officer. First, he is the most articulate of the characters, and the only one that is forthcoming with the Traveler. Note-worthy too is the fact that, though he is now the only one fanatical about the Old Commandant, the Machine and the “transfiguration” which it can insight in “the martyred [or condemned man’s] face” he is not the only one who practices the laws. The Condemned Man, for instance, does not fight the sentence, and neither does the New Commandant. In the least, then, the Officer’s true belief is admirable for the Traveler.

On the other hand, however, readers also interpret the story as a look at Christianity and its emphasis of forgiveness. The vengeful Old Testament God is then represented by the Old Commandant, while the New Commandment represents the New Commandant’s forgiving nature. Importantly here, the Traveler’s opinion is explicitly with the New Commandant, in whom who he “has hope.” The Traveler, whose voice counts as important for both champions of the new and old ways, states he is  “‘opposed to the process,’” which he believes to be cruel. Another point also comes when the Officer creates his own sentence – to “BE JUST” – and the machine stabs him repeatedly without giving him an epiphany. If one does not believe that the machine could ever be just, than it was merely because the thing was too old, but even if it was a symbolic gesture, than the Officer experiences the same meaningless pain and violence that he had inflicted on others. The Condemned Man’s pardon likewise reflects the goodness of forgiveness.

Having explored both of these briefly, however, there still seems to be no satisfying consensus to the argument. However, in my opinion that is the point of Kafka. There is no one answer. The Traveler is not in the penal colony to find truth, but to seek it, and he notably leaves empty handed. However, I think that to an extent, the Traveler’s dissatisfaction and opposition of the “process” might not even be in the cruelty, but instead the easy answers As far as “seeking answers” goes, neither the older ways or new ways seem to even be looking. A few good examples of this come when first, the Traveler comments on the wool uniforms in the sub-tropic heat, and on the incomprehensible designs. The Officer’s respective explanations that the uniforms remind them of “home” or that the script must be complicated enough to last the duration of the torture feel like flat reasons. Similarly, neither the New Commandant or the Condemned Man actively fight the old system. Changing the system will be difficult for the New Commandment, but necessary. It will call not just for less harshness, but a re-evaluation of the principles.

In the end, it is no about whether what you believe is right, but that a person find something to believe.

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