Kafka: Retribution & the Progress of Gods

Franz Kafka. In the Penal Colony. 1919. Appropriately Kafkaesque story.

penal colony_kafka

Spoilers ahead.

In a remote island prison colony, a traveler arrives to witness an execution. The victim is to be strapped into a machine that will engrave onto his body the words of his sentence, for he was never tried and his sentence never communicated to him—not until his quivering flesh deciphers the inscription being carved deep into his back. As the presiding officer explains, everyone is guilty of something. However, as the officer shows off the machine and strives to persuade the visitor of its righteousness, it emerges that the vindictive old commandant has died and his more humane replacement will soon terminate this exquisitely agonizing method of execution. Therefore, the officer straps himself into the machine.

This story is classic Kafka—a bureaucratic version of Joseph Conrad’s cosmically cruel and remote supermen, with echoes of the infernal machines of Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre. Also, the story is laden with biblical connotations. Does the old commandant symbolize the Torah’s all-punishing Jehovah, with his demand for human sacrifices; the new commandant the all-loving Christ; and the officer’s self-immolation a signifier of humanity’s moral progress? Remember that Kafka wrote In the Penal Colony amid the ghastly slaughter in the trenches of World War I. 

As the epigraph on the old commandant’s tomb indicates, righteous evil will arise again—the pagan demon-god of the Old Testament will fuse his Kantian thirst for retribution with the allure of death-dealing technological marvels to rob “humanity” of itself. Perhaps.

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