I have re-uploaded some of my older papers here, mostly in order to be able to reference them.
Time travel is undeniably an ingredient in our popular culture. There is a seemingly endless chain of novels and short stories, movies and TV programs using it, in one of its many forms, as a dramatic device.
In this article, I shall treat time travel strictly as a feature of fiction; I’ll discuss its function in such fiction, and what we might learn from it —- strictly in that function. I won’t speculate about whether time travel is a real possibility.
Time travel stories prompt us to ask intriguing questions about causality (can an object brought backwards from the future be instrumental in its own creation?) and identity (what does it mean for me to travel to the past and prevent my own birth?); others relate to cognition (how do I know I have arrived at a different time?) or even ethics (supposing we could – should we be allowed to take actions that change the past?). All such questions have their origin in a paradoxical feature of the idea of time travel, which I analyze in this paper: the combination of perspective fusion, story knots, and frustration of the will.
Thomas Mann’s “Der Tod in Venedig” ends with Aschenbach’s, the protagonist’s, death; but that death isn’t simply the conclusion of the story, it rather is its central topic: it gives the work its title, it is what all the plot lines have as their vanishing points, and above all, it’s alluded to and symbolized by characters and events all the time. These prefigurations in the story are the focus of this essay.
In addition to structural allusions to later passages in earlier ones and characters whose description suggests reading them as death per- sonalized, there are more aspects to the prefiguration technique. Most importantly, they connect several tendencies in the story which all contribute to Aschenbach’s fate: mental and physical fatigue, an in- creasing inability to withstand temptations and weaknesses, and a feeling of drifting towards unreality. By prominently employing prefi- guration to bring out all these tendencies, Mann not only achieves a high coherence between earlier and later parts of the story, but also highlights the interconnectedness of these tendencies.
Aschenbach’s development (or decline) over the course of the story reflects a growing willingness, albeit one which always had been rooted in his personality, to accept and even actively engage in deception along with other (including more artistic) deviations from reality: in the service of beauty, that shimmer of unreality.
Reading Kafka can be confusing, and The Trial is perhaps, among his works, the one which produces this effect most strongly. It has invited speculation on many interpretative levels; prominent among them are autobiographical, religious, psychoanalytical and other largely impalpable readings. That there is room for all these speculations is in part what makes it fun to engage with Kafka’s work, and the texts are ambivalent enough to guarantee that they will never come to a conclusive end.
On the other hand, there are many aspects of his work, and the novels in particular, which merit close, down-to-earth interpretation work. One of them is the way in which the protagonists are portrayed. Far from being understandable only from the larger speculative framework that many seem to take as prerequisite, we can ask questions about their personalities, the particular way in which these personalities are presented, and the way they develop (or fail to develop) over the course of the narrative.
In this article I pursue a close reading of the first chapter of The Trial, which I take as a personality study of the protagonist, Josef K.; he is, as I shall argue, displayed as a weak and faulty character through and through. However, the resulting picture is a sharp and coherent portrait, and made neither deliberately inconsistent nor obscure by Kafka.
I extend my interpretation of The Trial, working towards a more complete understanding of the novel. In an earlier paper (“The Character of Josef K.”) I have kept close to the text and primarily analyzed the personality of Josef K., the main protagonist, and the way he is portrayed in the first chapter of the novel. I now continue by focusing on one of the most dense and interesting passages of The Trial: the story ‘Vor dem Gesetz’ (‘Before the law’), and the surrounding dialogue between K. and the chaplain, in the chapter ‘Im Dom’. As before, I shall refrain from bringing in a speculative interpretation framework prematurely. We should look at what we can learn directly from the text first.