.:.THE FINAL CHURCH.:.
Kafka, David Tibet, and the Key to the Door of the Law
by June A. Jung
The beauty of Kafka, as many editors of his works have written, is the seemingly universal applicability of his parabolic stories, particularly his unfinished masterpiece The Trial (and its spiritual companion The Castle). Kafka’s closest friend and literary executor Max Brod famously thought that the novels’ protagonist Josef K.’s struggle with “the Law” was a religious allegory: of mankind’s struggle to know the grace of the Hidden God. One can see it as a political parable, a prophecy of the horrors brought by totalitarian states to come; or as social commentary on the spiritual dangers of living in an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic society. When I first read The Trial three years ago under the guidance of my thesis advisor, a professor of European Studies and fellow Kafka scholar, I thought of the story as depicting a crisis of personal and cultural identity, and its future in the face of the cultural homogenization brought on by the forces of globalization. Yet others still see the story Kafka tells in The Trial as a personal narrative—an attempt by Kafka to grapple with his own spiritual, romantic, and sexual “demons.” Elias Canetti in his book Kafka’s Other Trial makes a very convincing case for the thematic connections between Josef K.’s struggles with “the Law” with Kafka’s own “trials” with his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer. Readers, too, can apply the parable of Josef K.’s trial to any number of personal, societal, or historical events. It’s no wonder, then, that the word “Kafkaesque” gets thrown around so often and loosely in this age. It seems to me, though, that those who complain about the word’s overuse can blame its infinite applicability on Kafka himself.
Since the story of The Trial is so infinitely applicable, there are likewise infinite possibilities of answers to the story’s “parable within the parable” entitled “Before the Law.” The parable, we are told by the priest in the novel’s penultimate chapter, “is reprinted in all introductory texts to the Law.” Always in true form, Kafka here baits his readers in the most cruel way—by the implication of the priest’s words, we are being led to believe the story we are about to hear is the key to understanding the logic of the ever-illusory “Law.” Desperate to know the secret, we read carefully and hard. But instead—alas—all Kafka gives us in return is an existential slap in the face: the “man from the country,” no matter how hard he tries to persuade the guard, is never admitted inside the Door of the Law, the entrance point to divine insight into the inner workings of the cruel world in which the man from the country, and by allegorical extension Josef K., is forced to subsist. And as the man from the country breathes his last breath, the guard tells him those famous final words of consolation: “the Door was intended only for him.” Then the Door is closed.
For almost one hundred years now, Kafka’s readers have tortured themselves over the logical and ethical dilemmas of the parable. How can it be that the man cannot be admitted through a door that was “meant for him”? Is the man to blame for his own miserable death, or the insensitivity of the guard, or the injustice of the Law itself? Is there another way into the Door? Or perhaps even more accurately, is there a way at all? Kafka gives us no clear answer, neither here nor in any of his other works. “We ought read only the kind of books that wound or stab us,” Kafka once famously said. True to his word, stab “Before the Law” does, and it stabs most viciously. Judging by the way Kafka’s books “read,” and the manic, nervous energy that exudes from them, most of the time I think that Kafka was just as desperate as we are to answer his own questions. On more cynical days, though, I think that Kafka is laughing at us—that he has kept the secret for himself.
Allow me, nevertheless, to enter into the canon yet another possible answer.
In doing so, I turn to a somewhat unlikely source of inspiration: David Tibet of Current 93, one of the most beloved figures of the pre-apocalyptic music scene. The idea came to me in an equally manic state as I was feverishly trying to finish my senior thesis earlier in the year, which was, all things considered, a clumsy and foolhardy attempt to solve all questions about life, the universe, and everything within the universe of Kafka’s fiction, though it was undoubtedly earnest and inspired in its efforts. The thesis was, in other words, the quintessence of young-academic naiveté, the perpetual state of being for inspiration-stricken undergraduates the world over. But despite my eternal dissatisfaction with the steaming mess of words from which the idea of the allegorical relationship between David Tibet and Kafka was born, the idea itself has stuck with me. Indeed, if mania is good for one thing, it is for bringing together the most disparate of ideas and finding creative ways to make coherence out of chaos.
Let us then begin with the basics. Fellow lovers of David Tibet’s music know the fundaments of his life story very well, especially his tumultuous relationship with Christianity, which he has chronicled in painstaking detail in all of Current 93’s albums. In the eighties, Tibet made no pretenses about his heathen leanings in his music, though in my view Tibet’s creative output in that decade was never so much about his true spiritual interests than it was about his antagonism of the Christian faith, which is the thematic centerpiece in virtually all of Current 93’s albums in the era. It is true that virtually all of the major acts in the golden age of the industrial and neofolk scene made conspicuous use of their musical platform to espouse their radical ideologies. However, while bands like Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and Death in June were busy espousing their theories on new-age chaos magick in their music, Current 93’s sonic polemics busied itself with a decidedly old-hat topic, which had already been done to death by the first-wave punk bands by the time Current 93’s first major album, Nature Unveiled, was released.
And what was the nature of this Christian God that Tibet worked so tirelessly to defame? The picture of Christianity in Tibet’s mind during that era was articulated most thoroughly in Current 93’s 1988 release Christ and the Pale Queens Mighty in Sorrow. While the earlier albums Nature Unveiled and Dogs Blood Rising were more so mere blasphemies for blasphemy’s sake, Christ and the Pale Queens was, on Tibet’s part, a far more solemn and serious-minded dissection of his views on the Christian God that so inspired and riled him. In the album, Tibet describes in vivid detail his vision of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ—“menstrual night,” as he often dubs it. In it, we are shown the image of God, self-obsessed and wrathful and attended by pagan idols (the “pale queens”), who spends his eternity in an ethereal hall of mirrors “considering himself without end,” and meanwhile bringing down from Heaven the “mushroom clouds” of death and destruction:
A throne at the end of the road
We shall crawl with our knees so broken
Ripped and torn and burned and pulled and dragged on the way
We were turning, we were burning in the fires
And the people that stoked it are they
It was Christ that left tenants of love
The Armageddon angels of bliss
Apocalypse with a kiss
From Christ and the pale queens mighty in sorrow
Clearly, the Christian God of Tibet’s imagination during this time was full of hypocrisies: here we see a fickle, wrathful “God of love” who consorts with the historical enemies of the Christian faith (the pagan “pale queens”) without a second thought, and who claims to espouse a doctrine of mercy and grace while condemning humanity to an eternity of hellfire and torment. In Dogs Blood Rising to a lesser extent and much greater in Swastikas for Noddy, Tibet takes his condemnations of the Christian God a step further still, by characterizing him as no less than a rapist, who decimates pastoral landscapes and defiles the bodies of innocents with reckless abandon. Consider, for instance, the visage of the “coal blacksmith” in the Swastikas for Noddy ditty of the same name. In the song, he pursues the virgin maiden with predatory zeal, countering her parries of his advances at every turn. In the shapeshifting game that ensues between them, the “coal blacksmith” bests her every time—the water-dog catches the duck, the greyhound catches the hare, and the spider catches the fly. Even when she dies, the coal blacksmith is not satisfied—he in turn “became the cold gray clay” to “smother her all around.”
Is this “coal blacksmith” not of the same nature as the Christian God in Christ and the Pale Queens? Like the coal blacksmith, the God that Tibet envisioned in Christ and the Pale Queens is too an “infernal creator,” the forger of a world of suffering in which humanity is doomed to exist, who rapes the body of humanity without regard or remorse. Indeed, the virgin maiden’s struggle against the coal blacksmith is the same archetypal struggle between humanity and the cruel God that creates him, which he in turn annihilates for the sake of his own pleasure—the very same archetypal struggle that Tibet had contended with all throughout his early career, and probably still contends with to this day.
Now we’ve hit upon something important—that mythical archetypal struggle between man and the unseen forces that decide his fate. For anyone who has read Kafka, this struggle should sound very, very familiar, since that archetypal conflict in one way or another defines the conflict in nearly every one of Kafka’s stories, both great and small. Tibet’s envisioning of the struggle as that of rapist-versus-innocent is particularly resonant in The Trial, and the protagonist Josef K.’s struggles against the various agents of the courts of “the Law,” which arrest and accost him for reasons unknown. In the novel, “the Law” is depicted quite overtly as a rapist, the first reference to that effect appearing in the very first pages of the story, when one of K.’s arresting guards, Willem, informs him of the Law courts’ approach to “due process.” The guard tells K.:
“…Our department, as far as I know, and I know only the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out.”
The guard’s claim seems troubling enough to K. (and the reader) as it is, given its implication that the normal assumption underlying normal operations of due process—that the accused are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty—seems to be suspended in K.’s case, and furthermore against K.’s own understanding of how “the Law” is supposed to function, which he makes clear with his response to Willem’s claim: “I don’t know that law.” But what is more troubling still to the reader is Willem’s assertion that the Law is “attracted” to guilt, which seems to imply, at least in the first iteration of this oft-repeated claim, that the Law, like a dog, can somehow sniff out guilt—whatever that means.
But when K.’s lawyer, Huld, makes the same claim as Willem later in the novel, the Law’s attraction to guilt becomes described as explicitly sexual in nature, as he explains to K. his servant Leni’s tendency to become sexually attracted to his clients:
“Leni finds most defendants attractive. She’s drawn to all of them, loves all of them… If you have an eye for that sort of thing, defendants are indeed often attractive. …It’s clear no obvious change in appearance is noticeable once a person has been accused. …Nevertheless, an experienced eye can pick out a defendant in the largest crowd every time. On what basis? you may ask. My reply won’t satisfy you. The defendants are simply the most attractive.”
With Huld’s claim, the Law—which was already a “rapist” of K.’s legal rights in the metaphorical sense—becomes a rapist in the literal sense as well, a predator of just the same nature as Tibet’s “coal blacksmith.” Even the symbolism that both stories employ is the same: in “Oh Coal Black Smith,” the virgin dies at the hands of a dog, and in The Trial, Josef dies “like a dog.”
But there are yet more relevant parallels between the archetypal struggle between mankind and the “coal blacksmith” God and that of Josef K.’s struggle against the Law. Consider also the Law’s seemingly magical ability to appear and disappear from K.’s life at will, just as the coal blacksmith is able to magically change his shape for the sake of his chase. From the very beginning, the Law courts invade K.’s privacy and confound his understanding of his legal rights, first invading his bedroom on the day of his arrest, and then his workplace in the “flogging scene” of the novel, when K. unassumingly opens a door to a broom closet inside his office only to discover one of his arrestors being flogged by another guard, apparently in response to K.’s earlier protests about his arresting guards’ treatment of him at the outset of the novel.
Yet, despite the Law court’s ability to invade the spaces of K.’s everyday life at will, it disappears from his grasp with equal ease: when K. is summoned for his initial inquiry, he is almost unable to find the location of the court offices, since they are located in an inconspicuous location inside a tenement complex on the outskirts of town. As a result, K. inadvertently shows up an hour late to his first hearing, which angers the presiding magistrates and foils K.’s chances of making a good first impression, though, infuriatingly, the agents of the Law courts never told K. the designated time of his hearing to begin with. But then, when K. later seeks out the offices on his own time in his determination to make a better impression, he finds the offices inexplicably empty, with the location of the court offices having transformed again into a tenement building.
In sum, all of the law court’s activities in the proceedings of K.’s trial seem designed to frustrate and confuse him, as part of the proceedings for the “punishment for his sins” that K. cannot in his court-willed ignorance know, since he is never told the reasons for his arrest. And just as in the case of Freya Aswynn’s “prophecy” revealed in the Swastikas for Noddy track “The Final Church,” it seems that the only way in which K. can be “redeemed” from the presumption of his guilt in the eyes of “the Law” is not his confidence in his own innocence—which the painter Titorelli misguidedly attests is “the main thing”—or his submission to the law court’s arbitrary will, but only with his death: that his body is “snatched away” by the Law court so that “the good remains,” so that all that appears to offend the principles of the Law, but by the same token is allowed to exist by the Law (since it can mandate the death of its subjects at any time), ceases to exist. And if any of that seems the least bit confusing or convoluted, the only person you have to blame, as is true with the infinite applicability of “the Kafkaesque,” is Kafka himself.
Now I have made my case: The two archetypal struggles that I have outlined here—that of the rapist “coal blacksmith” God and mankind in Tibet’s early works and that of Josef K. and the Law—are one and the same. In both “stories” we see the same themes being played out on the same grandiose scale with the same end-result—death—and are even delineated with the same symbolic language (such as “rapists” and “dogs”). Now I finally return to the problem I posed at the beginning of this essay, which is also posed by virtually all of Kafka’s fiction: how do we “solve” the existential dilemma that Kafka poses in “Before the Law”?
The answer lies in the ultimate distinction between the story of Josef K. and that of David Tibet’s grapplings with God. In the former, the story of the struggle never ends—Josef K. dies like a dog, the Law’s secrets are never revealed, and with Kafka himself long dead, his readers are left to wander through his stories’ labyrinths forever with neither comfort nor insight. Tibet, on the other hand, overcame: in 1992 with the release of Thunder Perfect Mind, he revealed himself to the world as a Christian, having never turned back from that declaration since. But in my view, it would be inaccurate to say that Tibet “found” God in the course of his musical and spiritual evolution. Though Tibet makes a point out of keeping the full details of his faith under wraps (understandably and rightfully so), it seems fair to say that Tibet’s view of God is not entirely conventional, and is more so an amalgam of his many and varied spiritual and scholarly interests. That is: the God that Tibet “found” is of an entirely different nature than the God that he “knew” before his conversion—a different God altogether.
Tibet’s transformation reminds me of the similar spiritual evolution of the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who for many years struggled unendingly with the Roman Catholic Church’s conception of God as a wrathful punisher of sins before finally coming to his own realization about the “true nature” of God:
“I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. …I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God… [Until] at last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”‘ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.”
As is clear with this passage, Luther too found it impossible to reconcile himself to having faith in such a seemingly cruel and malicious God as the one he saw in that of his Catholic “teachers.” The God that Luther eventually discovered indeed overtly opposed the God of his teachers, who Luther believed mistook, to their spiritual peril, the theological concept of “good works” as the primary means to salvation, rather than faith. And with his answer, Luther found immense peace within his soul, which had been tortured for so long by the seemingly contradictory idea that God could love and yet damn his sinful creations simultaneously.
Given the constancy of Tibet’s faith since Thunder Perfect Mind, it seems that Tibet too has found the peace that Luther found upon his discovery of the “doctrine of faith.” To be sure, Tibet’s own faith probably does not much resemble the hardline orthodoxy of Luther’s, though with Tibet’s opaqueness about the exact nature of his faith, one can never be certain. What can be said for certain, though, is that although their individual conceptions of God may be different, the two men’s newfound faith in him was equally hard fought, and that the “old God” that they exchanged for the new have similar features.
What I will say next is my own account of the spiritual implications of such an act of exchange—I wish to represent nothing more. To me, the God of old that tortured the consciences of David Tibet and Martin Luther is still alive, and he will exist as long as doctrines of hellfire and punishment are taught. He is alive in not only the religious sense, either: One may find the “coal blacksmith” God living in the heart of any tyrant—indeed, as is the final thesis of this discussion, one can also find him lurking in the pages of The Trial. But in my view, what Tibet and Luther symbolically accomplished in their discovery of their true faith is nothing less than a reinvention of God: one that not merely resists, but undermines by his existence the testimony of the old.
What I am thus proposing by my finally concluded discussion of David Tibet’s life and works is to view his spiritual transformation as a model that “answers” the archetypal model of spiritual crisis found in The Trial. As I said before, the “problem” presented to the reader of The Trial and “Before the Law” is left unsolved—both Josef K. and the man from the country die without ever knowing the reason for it. What is clear, though, is that both K. and the man from the country’s methods, which range from tactics of resistance (such as when Josef gives his rabble-rousing “speech” to the magistrate presiding over his initial inquiry) to bows of submission (such as when he decides at his uncle’s behest to enlist the help of a lawyer), turn out to be ultimately useless to reverse his fate: to be consumed, both literally and figuratively, by the bureaucratic jaws of the Law.
It thus appears to me that a doctrine of reinvention and undermining, over and against a doctrine of resistance or submission, is the only possible means to successfully oppose the archetypally “Kafkaesque”—whatever form that may take. To be sure, opposing a cruel God with one of one’s own invention has far fewer tangible consequences than opposing something like a cruel and unjust legal system. But the process may begin simply by reinventing one’s old conception of “the Law,” and witnessing it for what it is: an entity whose motives cannot be understood not because its will is hidden from us, but because its will is nonsense. To me, it seems that Josef K. never came upon this realization. But if he did, it would have only occurred on the day of his execution, when he finally stopped resisting the orders of the guards that led him to his death, and when it was far too late for him to save himself (even if at least only temporarily).
For those of us residing in the middle plane, who are freer than K. but less free than gods, to adopt a “doctrine of reinvention” requires the use of more subtle and creative methods to bring about the desired result—that is, to undermine the current order of things. A detailed account of such methods is the subject of another essay. But I will say that these methods do not have to be political in nature, in the sense that K.’s methods of resistance against the Law are “political.” As a matter of fact, it is my view that any actions committed for the sake of the doctrine I propose should ideally be wholly apolitical—that is, designed to take away attention and participation from the aspects of everyday public life that are governed by the various private and governmental entities that constitute “the state” (or “status quo”) in which we live.
In other words, I propose to establish a public culture whose primary guiding principle is to undermine the everyday itself. And that, of course, means whatever you, the reader, wants it to mean—it can even be as simple as manipulating your personal aesthetic (which you’re probably already doing), and finding ways to impart it upon the world. What these types of actions could ultimately accomplish, beyond its ideological aims, is create conditions of existence that feel more communal, more magical, and most importantly, more fun. Because for me, and perhaps and hopefully you, fun has always been the name of the game—and is the very thing that Kafka and all of his fictional aliases seemed to forget to have.
- Current 93. Christ and the Pale Queens Mighty in Sorrow. Maldoror, 1988. Vinyl recording.
- —. Swastikas for Noddy. L.A.Y.L.A.H. Antirecords, 1988. Vinyl recording.
- Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans. Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken, 1998. Print.
- Luther, Martin. “Preface to Latin Writings.” Trans. John Dillenberger. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. New York: Anchor, 1962. 3-12. Print.
- Robertson, Ritchie. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Castle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. xi-xxvi. Print.
1.In his introduction to the Oxford World Classics reprint of The Castle, Ritchie Robertson quoted that Brod thought that the impenetrable, unreachable castle that the novel describes symbolized “an abode for divine grace” (xiii).
2.The Trial (Schocken 1998 reprint), pp. 215. All subsequent references to The Trial use the pagination of this reprint.
3.From “Christ and the Pale Queens”; Christ and the Pale Queens Mighty in Sorrow (1988).
4.The Trial, pp. 9.
5.The Trial, pp. 9.
6.The Trial, pp. 184-5.
7.The Trial, pp. 149.
8.“The Final Church”; Swastikas for Noddy (1988).
9.Martin Luther’s “Preface to Latin Writings,” pp. 9. See above “Works Cited” list for full citation.