(Read it at http://www.kafka-online.info/in-the-penal-colony.html)
We are observers in life, travelers, and as we travel, we soak in the moral atmosphere we encounter. Kafka wants us to examine ourselves and sets the story with this fairly clear agenda. The Officer is the judge, the jury, and the executioner. He’s like me. All the characters are like me. The prisoner is curious. He doesn’t know what is happening to him. He knows something is going to happen. He knows it’s important. I liken him to my little poodle that went in for neutering yesterday. He looked up at me with big, inquisitive eyes. He wondered, “Is this a good thing?” I don’t ask him what he thinks. He’s only five pounds after all and he’s a dog. Did he want this? I doubt it. As purveyor of society’s norms I decided it was best. As my prisoner, he doesn’t have an option. The prisoner in the story is an innocent and he doesn’t have an option. The Officer had about the same level of power over him as I had over my dog.
We are slowly drawn into the apparatus, into its corruption; into the protective thought processes that society uses to surround evil and make it seem benign. It’s evil, we admit, but it’s evil that’s been going on for a long time, it’s institutionalized evil. The prisoner’s crime will be inscribed on his body and he will come to a realization. Before he dies, he will know his sin against society, against the status quo. The traveler is most like me. He is weak. He doesn’t want to make a judgment. He hunts for every rationalization.
Rationalization one. I am only an observer. I am not to make moral judgments. Rationalization two. There is nothing I can do. This is the way things are in this country. I am not to interfere. I wasn’t sent to interfere. I was sent to observe. Rationalization three. I cannot succeed so there’s no sense in trying. All of the traveler’s rationalizations are disproved one after another. The officer explains that the machine, (the old bureaucracy) is breaking down, that there is a new order that doesn’t support execution via the apparatus. It isn’t until he is sure he will succeed that he voices opposition to the old order. The officer, ensconced in the beliefs of the old order, has nowhere to go. He is forced to acknowledge his error, his sin against justice. He has “Be just” inscribed on his body. Perfect.
The general internet definition of rationalization is “the cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.”
Franz Kafka is a difficult pill to swallow. I choke on this story. I identify most with the traveler and that is Kafka’s intention. It is his story, his penal colony and his characters. I am an observer of his thoughts and his thoughts are hard to take. What he is attempting to do is to force me to look myself squarely in the face, in the heart and in the soul. He strips away my defenses, my rationalizations. I can’t say I wouldn’t do what any of the characters did. I’d like to think that I’m morally superior to the officer but am I? I wouldn’t condemn a man to death without a fair trial. I’m better than that. Aren’t I?
Guilt rears up like a prehistoric dragon slimed by my personal jealousies and self-contempt. I judge every day. I look at my fellow man and find him wanting. I find reasons to justify my judgments. I think person A is stupid, person B is well dressed or stupidly dressed, person C is locked in the prison of his or her own limitations. On the other hand, I am good. I am just. Yeah, right.
There are more specific definitions of rationalization on the internet. “In psychology and logic, rationalization (also known as making excuses) is a defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation, and are consciously, made tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means. Rationalization encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings and often involves ad hoc hypothesizing.”
I do this. We all do this. Kafka knows this and he’s trying to warn me about it. Rationalization prevents me from seeing the truth. When I see person A as stupid, it doesn’t mean they are stupid. It means they think differently than me. It means they don’t share my manners, my mores, or my customs. If I see their opinions as valid, they are no longer stupid. They are intelligent.
This is on a personal level but Kafka was going beyond the personal level. He was a lawyer. He was conscious of justice on a higher plane, on a sociological plane.
“In sociology, rationalization refers to the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational calculated ones. For example, the implementation of bureaucracies in government is a kind of rationalization.
Many sociologists, critical theorists and contemporary philosophers have argued that rationalization, as falsely assumed progress, has a negative and dehumanizing effect on society, moving modernity away from the central tenets of enlightenment. The founders of sociology were acting as a critical reaction to rationalization.”
Something in this definition hooks me. “Rationalization, as a falsely assumed progress, has a negative and dehumanizing effect on society, moving away from the central tenants of enlightenment.” So this definition is saying that rationalization can be country wide, society wide, movement wide.
That’s why Kafka is great. He didn’t limit himself to either a religious or a political interpretation. I think he was teaching me or attempting to teach me about humankind. Most lessons I have learned in life have taught me humility. My ability to understand is limited. My time on earth is limited. My exposure to life is limited. Kafka was a great thinker. He grew in moral stature as he grew in pain and he is trying to teach us from his experience. It’s not a fun lesson. I don’t want to be here learning this. It’s difficult to look within at the evil that resides there. But my evil isn’t unique. It exists everywhere, in all men, in all societies, in all ages. The value of this story is its universality.