existentialism in the trial and notes from the underground

Existentialism in The Trial and Notes from the Underground   I stick my finger into the earth and it smells of wet mud.

I stick my finger into existence and it smells of nothing, where am I, what is this called the world, who is that lured me here, how did I come into the world, why was I not consulted, oh I stick my finger into existence and it smells of nothing. –          Soren Kierkegaard  Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Franz Kafka’s The Trial in particular present us with a view of the world that is deeply existentialist. The outlook on human condition that comes through these two books has much in common with the philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre. Kafka’s Josef K.

in the The Trial lives in a world that is virtually taken over by a faceless bureaucracy. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man lives in a world that is soulless, spiritless. Both live in a world that is ultimately absurd and pointless.;K.

leads a clueless existence. He simply does not know where he is going. The Underground man does not go anywhere. He simply sits in his nondescript sinkhole, essentially to rot.

The Underground Man’s existence is a nonexistence, whatever he may have been in his past life. After introducing himself, the Underground Man begins his narration thus:I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect.  I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect.  But I was not equal even to that.

  I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness—a real thorough-goingIllness (Dostoyevsky).;;Kafka’s narrative in The Trial ends with the wiping out of K.’s consciousness and existence, even as he is brutally executed:;But the hands of one of the gentleman were laid on K.’s throat, while the other pushed the knife deep into his heart and twisted it there, twice.

  As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him (Kafka). Both Kafka’s Trial and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground are explorations of what it means to be human, or rather, explorations of what it means not to be human.

The message that they convey is not the thesis of their content, but the antithesis. Alienation from life, society and existence is the dominant theme of both these novels.  And to be a human being is to be connected to be with life and existence, through the faculty of one’s reason. Meaninglessness, mindlessness, and absurdity are constant undercurrents in these two books.

And man is nothing if not mind; man is a constant search for, and discovery of, meaning. Kafka’s K. completely loses control of his life and is carried away by the forces of his circumstances. This is exactly what a human being has not to be.

A human being is meant use his free will, take responsibility and take control of his own destiny.  While Dostoevsky’s Underground Man simply does not care. He is jaded, intellectually, morally and spiritually degraded. He is indifferent to the “sublime and the beautiful,” and thoroughly mocks the very notion of it: That “sublime and beautiful” weighs heavily on my mind at forty But that is at forty; then–oh, then it would have been different!  I should have found for myself a form of activity in keeping with it, to be precise, drinking to the health of everything “sublime and beautiful.

”  I should have snatched at every opportunity to drop a tear into my glass and then to drain it to all that is “sublime and beautiful.”  I should then have turned everything into the sublime and the beautiful; in the nastiest, unquestionable trash, I should have sought out the sublime and the beautiful.  I should have exuded tears like a wet sponge. A human being has nothing if he does not have the capacity to be inspired by the sublime and the beautiful.

This inspiration is what moves a man to go out and do something that can make difference to himself and to the world. But the Underground Man has settled into inertia and indifference to the world, while K. develops an indifference to his life and is easily led to the ending of his pointless existence. K.

is too weak and lukewarm to assert his being. The Underground Man is too cold and sick to affirm his existence. K certainly seems to fight the system and seek justice, like any human being should. But not exactly as a human being should.

That is the whole point. His efforts are effete, and K comes out as one that is easily dominated and subdued. K is exactly like the village bumpkin in the priest’s parable in the penultimate chapter of The Trial: In front of the law there is a doorkeeper.  A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry.

  But the doorkeeper says he can’t let him in to the law right now.  The man thinks about this, and then he asks if he’ll be able to go in later on.  ‘That’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not now’.  The gateway to the law is open as it always is, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, so the man bends over to try and see in.

  When the doorkeeper notices this he laughs and says, ‘If you’re tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can’t.  Careful though: I’m powerful.;;The man from the countryside wastes a whole lifetime trying to get past the door:;He becomes senile, and as he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s fur collar over the years that he has been studying him he even asks them to help him and change the doorkeeper’s mind.;K.

’s efforts are largely, in effect, akin to this man’s begging the fleas to get past the door to justice, and as such are doomed from the beginning.  They seem to be sincere, but grossly misdirected. There has got to be a way out, or rather, way in, but the villager remains badly stuck all his life. This reflects a deep existential situation of man echoed by Kierkegaard in these words:;I feel as if I were a piece in a game of chess, when my opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved.

;But we have to move, and move on in life. Man certainly seems to be trapped, in an existential cul-de-sac. But he has only to use his intelligence to find a way out, and not act as a clueless yokel who did not know better than getting stuck at the first obstacle.;Most interestingly, the villager gets a fundamental doubt in the very last moments of his life.

His reason and intelligence become activated only when it is too late to do anything about anything. This is the most crucial and illuminating passage of The Trial:But he seems now to see an inextinguishable light begin to shine from the darkness behind the door.  He doesn’t have long to live now. Just before he dies, he brings together all his experience from all this time into one question which he has still never put to the doorkeeper.

He beckons to him, as he’s no longer able to raise his stiff body.  The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man.  ‘What is it you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘You’re insatiable.’  ‘Everyone wants access to the law,’ says the man, ‘how come, over all these years, no-one but me has asked to be let in?’  The doorkeeper can see the man’s come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so, so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: ‘Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you.

  Now I’ll go and close it’. That is the bitter irony of man. He is prevented from accessing the very door that is exclusively meant for him. The villager sees ‘an inextinguishable light’ behind the door; this is the sign of divine destiny of man.

That the door itself was “meant” to be accessed by him, in the first place, indicates that  there is some power beyond, which takes care of man. However, although the door is specially meant to be accessed by man, the path is not straightforward, there are obstacles at every step of the way. It is left to the intelligence of the man to figure out the way. Josef  K.

critically fails in this test as does the villager in the priest’s parable. K is also naïvely carried away the sophistry of the priest who gives devious and convoluted explanations of his parable, which only further confuses him. Notwithstanding all the lengthy alternative interpretations of this parable by the priest, the simple fact is that the door to justice (and truth, and freedom, and so on) was entirely made to allow in the man. If such a most special door is present, there must definitely be a way in, too.

But the villager waits and waits and waits passively without taking thinking about any other alternative course of action. This is the passivity that characterizes K. and in the end brings about his doom. The man from the underground is also most prominently about passivity, lethargy, and inaction.

He chooses to comfortably retire from life and world at forty, and simply starts waiting for death. He admits in the very beginning: “The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was “sublime and beautiful,” the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether” The “sublime and the beautiful” is the door to truth, to freedom and justice. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness exist together. The man from the underground adopts a most unhealthy and self-defeating attitude that one can take towards life.

  However, he has some very powerful insights from time to time: “Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation,” Man has nothing to be grateful in the end, neither does K. nor the Underground Man, because they are stupid, they fail to use their intelligence. Towards the end of the crucial first part of Notes from Underground, its “paradoxalist” writer makes an interesting confession: “Besides, I am bored, and I never have anything to do.”  This is a plain expression of existential ennui, which is made much of, in all its various forms, by subsequent existential writers.

Our inspiration, motivation and energy sources come from deep within ourselves where we are connected to the infinite universe around us. However, if we feel alienated from ourselves and our world, we cut ourselves off from these energy sources, and in the absence of an abundance of living vital energy to impel us ever forward in new adventures and experiences of life, life would be naturally subjected to endless ennui. “Life is a useless passion,” deplores Jean Paul Sartre. “The only existential question is whether or not to commit suicide,” proclaims Albert Camus.

Kierkegaard talks about nothingness. “We are all divorced from life, we are all cripples, every one of us, more or less,” bemoans the writer of Notes from Underground. “Life is Elsewhere,” declares the title of the acclaimed novel of Milan Kundera. But, in fact, life is not elsewhere, only we are elsewhere, where we ought not to be, each of us buried, rotting and rankling in our own underground holes, cut off from the sun, the wind, and the inexhaustible romance of this world.

 If K. inhabits a world that has become nothing more than an elaborate lie, the Underground Man inhabits a world that has nothing of truth in it. But these worlds do not correspond to the real world out there. Each of us has to strive to find what this “real world is” — the existentialist quest goes on.

                       References: Kafka, Franz. “The Trial.” 9 Nov 2006. < http://www.

gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/ktria11.txt>Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from the Underground.

” 9 Nove 2006. < http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/600>          

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