Kafkaesque Trials

It is probably a disgrace but for the longest time I imagined that Frank Zappa , Frank Capra and Franz Kafka to be the same person and I imagined that author of the various articles made a spelling mistake (I also got creative and imagined that Franz Kafka after immigrating to the US anglicized his name to Frank Capra) . Watching “It is a wonderful life” and “It happened one night” and reading the Metamorphosis cleared up that blunder in a jiffy. But long before I heard of any of them , I had heard the adjective Kafkaesque to describe a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Josef K starts his day as any other but finds out that he has been arrested and nobody is able to give him the reason for his arrest. At the beginning we are as incredulous as Josef K but as time passes , one cannot help but start feeling a sense of empathetic desperation . He encounters a series of people who seem to be cogs in the machine , likeable and willing to help but powerless to help . It is interspersed with entanglements with various women whereby which his spirits rise but crash again . That enhances the despair in the protagonist and us as we follow him. And the icing on the cake is when he is berated by family for bringing disgrace .  It is probably the greatest book on the shortcomings of bureaucracy . The whole book is chilling

The Trial was written almost 2 decades before Nazism came to power and arrested people for reasons of religion , appearance and gender preferences. History is rife with entire communities treated in a similar manner for some bizarre reason or the other ; Jews, Poles ,Russians,Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses  and homosexuals under Nazism , liberal minded people under communism , the Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War, India during the Emergency and the list goes on. I imagine this is exactly how life is , under any despotic regime.

To get a better idea of the horror , I decided to watch Schindler’s List after almost 20 years and while horrifying , it did not have the same quality as the Trial. Perhaps 1984 would have been a better idea. But I realized that with Nazism or Socialism any of the other schisms, one is provided a reason (even a lousy reason is better than no reason). Man being a reasonable creature; loves having a reason (regardless of good or bad) so one knows what one is up against. A faceless tormentor is far more insidious . The shadow of the faceless tormentors follow us incessantly throughout the novel as Josef K leads us on a roller coaster of emotions. I wonder if that is also why (good) horror movies tend to have such a hold on us.

I had read the Metamorphosis before but the Trial is far more gripping and darker. It is not something that I would want to visit again but it is a mesmerizing story.


In 2002 , I used to work for a small electronics company in Ohio . The president of the company was a loudmouth transplant from Philly and liked to hear himself speak. He was giving us one of his rah rah speeches and he wanted to tell us little people that he had problems similar to everybody else and could empathize with us . He listed out a litany of problems in his family including one that took me completely by surprise , having a bi-racial couple in the family .Until that day , I was not aware that this was a problem!!

But interestingly ‘Un Capitano Moro’ written by Cinthio over 5 centuries earlier seems to ignore it . And it must have fascinated Shakespeare because he used that plot for Othello ,  changing minor details . Personally I think Othello the moor could have been replaced by a white man and we could still have a story rife with intrigue and drama and tragedy .  The racial tones provides for extra drama such as Desdemona being scared of Othello to begin with and eventually in stark contrast ends up falling in love and marrying him.

The plot is simple and plays upon men’s fear of being cuckolded and though the play is called Othello , the most fascinating character is Othello’s lieutenant , Iago . Iago controls the downward spiral in the play , he is responsible for Othello’s friend Cassio falling out of favor with Othello , he encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to request that he be put back into the Moor’s good graces , he conspires with Roderigo who is in love with Desdemona , he has his wife Emilia steal the prized handkerchief that Othello has given Desdemona and plants it in Cassio’s apartment , he attempts to have Roderigo kill Cassio and eventually kills his own wife Emilia when she tells the truth to the Moor and of course poisoning the ears of the Moor and inciting jealousy in his unsuspecting heart. But Iago as knavish as he is, he is being tormented by the same emotions that he is exploiting in Othello. Iago is convinced that he has been cuckolded.Another reason seems to be his resentment at being passed over for promotion. But to me, losing a promotion hardly seems to be cause enough to warrant the kind of havoc that he brings about. 

The backdrop in the play is the Ottomans attacking Venice and Othello being in charge of repelling the attack . That earns him favors from the nobility of Venice and also their support for his marriage.

There is a long entertaining monologue from Iago where he chides Roderigo for wanting to kill himself out of disappointment and he keeps repeating the phrase “Put money in thy purse” . Iago is convinced (or convincing Roderigo) that given enough money , Roderigo would be able to snatch Desdemona from Othello. Shakespeare (or Cinthio) gives us fascinating character sketches for these very different human perspectives . Othello is a remarkable man but when clouded by emotions of  jealousy, he is unable to think normally. Sometime back , I read that the human brain is actually 3 different brains , the lizard brain or the amygdala is responsible for  controlling emotions , the mammalian brain and finally the cerebral cortex which is in charge of rational thought . In terms of speed ,the amygdala functions in milliseconds , whereas the cortex takes up to 30 seconds to process the same information so if you see a tiger , your amygdala tells you to flee but rational thought takes longer to process the same information and in 30 seconds one could end up as the main course for the tiger. On the other hand when Othello is plagued by jealousy , his normal cognitive powers are no longer evident , having been hijacked by emotions and he is doomed to make disastrous decisions . Shakespeare displayed shrewd insight into human psychology 400 years prior to us finding the actual reasons. Also the term ‘Green eyed monster’ seems to have its origins here in this play.

Another one of my favorite passages was from Desdemona .

Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. ‘Tis even so;

As expected in a tragedy , the main characters Othello and Desdemona lie dead . Today we would blandly call it a murder suicide . Iago is in chains and taken off to be tried .

If there is a lesson to be learned from Othello , it is that Hasty Othello should have been more patient before strangling Desdemona . He certainly needed to understand whom he could and could not trust

Haste hath no redemption in Shakespeare’s world … or ours.


Lost in Paradise

As a child , one of my fantasies of paradise was rivers of milk and honey(more honey and less milk) and candy trees (anybody remember the song ‘Big Rock Candy mountain’) , in adolescence these imaginary rivers ran full of honey or coke and …  whisky or dark rum (preferably more alcohol and less of the sweet stuff)  ;in short paradise is a place where I could drink and drink and drink and have no hangover. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks , the media was buzz with the concept of 64 virgins and the hijackers believing that was their ordained rewards , 64 virgins in the afterlife !!! 64 !!! All I could conclude was that these attackers probably had never been around women. Can one imagine the cacophony that would ensue with 64 women competing for your attention and the jealous cat fights and the “You looked at her longer than you looked at me ” and so on and so forth .. So thank you , but no thank you , I will sin enough on earth to ensure that I don’t get that kind of a paradise. Hard to imagine that anybody would call that paradise least of all somebody who had to live with 64 virgins.

Coming back to rivers of whisky , there is the river Styx in Inferno which transports the souls, the river Lethe in Purgatory which washes away your sins but to my great disappointment there is no river in Paradiso . No river which gives me license to sin in Dante’s paradise , apparently all of your thirst is automatically sated so no more drinkies!!  On the plus side there are no 64 virgins waiting for you either . Dante’s paradise is one where you are on your way to merging with god . It is a beautiful concept that once you let go of your earthly desires , you are free from the noise and can listen to your own inner calling , what Dante calls the voice of god , or the divine seal ; if one chooses to ignore the religious aspects , one could still interpret that as the voice of our one true calling  and I found myself mesmerized with that thought. Interestingly there is one passage where Dante cannot view god and he is granted divine sight by the Virgin Mary because one cannot view god with mortal eyes . I could not help but draw parallels to the Bhagwad Gita where Arjuna has to be endowed with divine vision by Krishna because it is not possible to view god with mortal eyes . I had to conclude that Joseph Campbell’s theory of these myths springing up simultaneously in different unrelated cultures had to be true . The other hypothesis is that Dante was influenced by Indian culture but there is no evidence that is indeed the case . If anything there seems to be an underlying contempt for Indians , Ethiopians and other heathens in his writing .

As we ascend levels , Dante uses the same Ptolemaic model but now he focuses on virtues rather than sins , it is a brilliant re-use of the same structure used in Inferno and Purgatario, had Dante not become a politician and a poet , he would have made an excellent engineer .It was evident that he had also used some of the ideas from Astrology as well  . He associates  Mercury with ambitious spirits , Venus with lovers , Sun with Intelligence(Theologians and Philosophers) , Mars with heroism ( martyrs) etc . I did have a brief shock when I read that he was ascending towards the Primum Mobile .My first instinct was that this was a typo , surely they did not have Premium Mobile(cellphones)  in heaven .

On a touching note , with all the theological melodrama that Dante is unfolding for us to, he hangs tight to his beloved Beatrice . It is surely a subtle (or not so subtle ) indication of (earthly) love lasting forever , even as he makes it change guise into a more ethereal kind of love in paradise .

Canto IV was one of my favorites , he talks about how a man when given free choice between two equally favorite foods would starve to death (Anybody who has read Sheena Iyengar will say he is right on the money 7 centuries ago) . Beatrice informs him that his wish and doubt was tearing him two ways . Another verse in Canto VIII goes as follows

That ever revolving nature whose seal is pressed into our mortal wax  does its work well but takes no heed of where it comes to rest

In short talent knows no home , it can show up in the richest or most plebeian of places for no reason whatsoever .

What nature gives a man , fortune must nourish concordantly or Nature like any seed out of its proper climate cannot flourish 

If the world below would learn to heed the plan of Nature’s firm foundation and build on that, it then would have the best from every man

But into holy orders you deflect the man who was meant to strap the sword and shield and make a king of one whose intellect is given to writing sermons and in this way, your footprints leave the road and go astray

Dante packs tons of wisdom in short bursts and even partly digested can be quite a revelation.

Dante does play fast and loose with his rules  , for e.g. the emperor Justinian , a champion of Christianity is accorded paradise but Justinian was a ruthless man who in one notable incident slaughters 30000 protesters at the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the Nika riots. Even from a theological perspective , Justinian had raised doubts about Jesus being the son of god but royal decrees have a way of according pardon and rewriting history.

I had to wonder what is so comedic about this classic. I learned that a comedy is defined as a happy ending (not the $20 happy ending that one is accustomed to get in Thailand)  , if one was expecting Jerry Seinfeld or his 13th century equivalent doing a standup routine as the grand finale, I am afraid we are going to have to ask for our money back though this is a no refund deal. Rather this is one of a kind , a happy ending where Dante is united with God in Paradise.

Reading the last 33 cantos of Dante’s masterpiece is not much of a walk in Paradise .While it is definitely a hard work to read (the folks at my book club are thankful that they are moving to something easier , Othello!!), Dante leads us through a magnificent journey that is extremely worthwhile.  I imagine that the pleasure of reading a work like Dante multiplies when one reads the pre-requisites but it is certainly navigable by itself without any aids but one’s own imagination .