Like any number of stunned citizens, I have in recent days been looking for something to help me to understand the latest shock to the political system and the national conscience, the pardoning of President Ford of former President Nixon. Now where are we? It has occurred to me that at least for the moment, and perhaps for some years to come, we are in something like the world of Kafka’s Castle.
To be sure, Franz Kafka’s novels, The Castle and The Trial, have come to provide a model that is frequently overworked or misapplied. At the popular level, the novels have given way to a word, “Kafkaesque,” which by now is plastered indiscriminately on almost any baffling or unusually opaque event that is not easily translatable into the going simplifications. Kafkaesque has certainly never seemed, until now, a word that might add appreciably to an understanding of the Watergate Years, even if any number of the characters and events that have surfaced along the way have partaken of that eerie mix, formerly associated with dreams, of the grave and the bizarre, the horrifying and the ridiculous, that gives Kafka’s novels their special resonance and saliency.
Likewise, the attempt to determine President Nixon’s culpability did not, strictly speaking, have much to do with the plight of Joseph K., the accused isolate of The Trial. Nixon protested his innocence no less vehemently, and his talent for self-delusion and self-pity undoubtedly enabled him to see himself in a predicament very like Joseph K.’s, as it is described in the opening sentence of The Trial: “Someone must have traduced Richard N., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”
Nonetheless, unlike Kafka’s doomed hero, the former President was never without the power to defy and obstruct the tribunals that would call him to judgment. And “the ending” that President Ford has written for Richard N.’s suffering is the very one that eluded poor Joseph K., despite his equally fervent efforts to bring his own famous case to precisely this conclusion.
And yet it is just this seemingly un-Kafkaesque ending that has now given to Watergate a truly Kafkaesque dimension. President Ford, so very deliberate about closing the Watergate story, has actually, like some latter-day Kafka, imagined an ending wholly in the modernist literary tradition that scorns conventional unravelings and final judgments as so much Mother Goosery, and insists instead upon the ungraspable, the impenetrable, on all that is tediously ambiguous. That human affairs can be settled and managed, even to some large degree understood, is an idea that is as uncongenial to the imagination of the good-natured Middle Western President as it was to the depressed and tormented Prague Jew. Story-writing, it now seems, makes even stranger bedfellows than politics. Kafka, thou shouldst be living at this hour — the White House has need of a new Press Secretary.
And there is, as I see it, another telling Kafkaesque dimension to Watergate now that President Ford has given us his version of an ending. It is the enormity of the frustration that has taken hold in America ever since Compassionate Sunday, the sense of waste, futility, and hopelessness that now attaches to the monumental efforts that had been required just to begin to get at the truth. And along with the frustration, the sickening disappointment of finding in the seat of power, neither reason, or common sense, or horse sense-and certainly not charity or courage — but moral ignorance, blundering authority and witless, arbitrary judgment.
It is as though the American public, having for a decade now been cast in one painful or degrading role after another — Kennedy’s orphans, Johnson’s patriots, Nixon’s patsies — has now been assigned by President Ford to play the part of the Land Surveyor K. in Kafka’s Castle. In this novel, the Land Surveyor, full of hope and energy, enters a village that is under “the jurisdiction of a labyrinthian bureaucracy whose headquarters is a rather inaccessible Castle looming over the landscape. How eager the Land Surveyor is to get permission from the Chief of the Castle bureaucracy — a Mr. Klamm of unascertainable competence — to get down to work and achieve a purposeful social existence. How willing he is to bend over backwards to live on friendly terms with the powers-that-be, imperfect as they are. Indeed, his early hours in the Castle village bring to mind the touching atmosphere that prevailed in these parts during the 30-day honeymoon with our Mr. Klamm. How willing! How eager! And how innocent.
For with all the will in the world to get on with the job, what the Land Surveyor discovers is that he can’t. The Castle won’t let him. He is blocked at every turn by authorities to whose inscrutable edicts and bizarre decrees he is beholden, but whose motives and methods defy his every effort to make sense of them, and to abide by them. And that the Mr. Klamm who is running the whole bewildering operation happens not to be a criminal does not make the Land Surveyor’s frustrations any less enervating to the body or the spirit.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2020