Monday, 13 August 2012

Tolstoy, Kafka and the system

The French army has invaded Moscow. The majority of the population has fled already. Fires are ravaging the city. Amongst those who’ve stayed behind is Pierre, former officer of the Russian army. He’s plotting to assassinate Napoleon when he enters Moscow. Being a morally good person, he saves a child from a burning building when he goes out. The day before, he had saved a French officer. Ironically he’s arrested by the French on the grounds of arson.

Pierre is somewhat a Kafkaesque character. By no fault of his he’s arrested for a criminal he didn’t do and faces execution. In The Trial, Joseph K is sentenced to death for and executed for a crime he doesn’t know, by a faceless court integrated in a judicial system that has no beginning and end. Even the circumstances in which Pierre finds himself happen to have the darkly humorous tinge of Kafka’s fiction. After being arrested, he’s interrogated by Davout, one of Napoleon’s most fearsome commanders. At first he’s not even noticing Pierre, who’s wishing he’ll see him as a human being.

“Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre.” He thinks that look has ‘established human relations’ between the two, humanizing him before Davout, making him worthy of salvation, forgiveness. But just then an adjutant walks in and interrupts Davout. A mere chance event, a random occurrence, but it dooms Pierre’s chances of being saved because they disrupt Davout’s humanity; he forgets Pierre and starts tending to other businesses, leaving Pierre wondering whether he’ll be executed on or. This could easily have been a scene by Kafka. In Kafka, power and cruelty tend to be hidden by a layer of good-humorousness, of kindness. Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and his precursors” discusses how a later writer can change the way we read past writers, and indeed this is the case. Pierre’s predicament is very Kafkaesque, as this excerpt shows:

Pierre could not afterwards remember how he went, whether it was far, or in which direction. His faculties were quite numbed, he was stupefied, and noticing nothing around him went on moving his legs as the others did till they all stopped and he stopped too. The only thought in his mind at that time was: Who was it that that had really sentenced him to death? Not the men on the Commission that had first examined him – not one of them had wished to or, evidently, could have done it. It was not Davout, who had looked at him in so human a way. In another moment Davout would have realized that he was doing wrong, but just then the adjutant had come in and interrupted him. The adjutant, also, had evidently had no evil intent though he might have refrained from coming in. Then who was executing him, killing him, depriving him of life – him, Pierre, with all his memories, aspirations, hopes, and thoughts? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt that it was no one.

It was a system – a concurrence of circumstances.

A system of some sort was killing him – Pierre – depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.

Here it is, a system, a faceless, bodiless, impenetrable entity that has power over men. Kafka wrote of these forces through parables: the court system, the castle K. futilely attempts to gain access into. Entities that exist unto themselves, opposing the protagonists’ efforts to understand them or to find meaning in a confusing world.

Tolstoy’s wording is also very modern: the system. That’s just one of those words you see bandied around a lot these days to explain anything and everything. The members of the Occupy movement are always using it when they want to name whoever is secretly ruling the world, controlling our lives. It’s such a useful word because it can mean anything really. It encompasses bureaucracy, laws, rules, institutions, the stock market, anything that seems inscrutable, chaotic, conspiratorial. It doesn’t have a body, but everyone is sure it exists. It’s such a lynchpin of modern life, this system, that it’s inconceivable to live without it.

From his meditation on history and causality, Tolstoy moves into the questions of free will and determinism. Are we truly free or is freedom just an illusion? Where does intention begin, and personal responsibility? What shapes our choices? Who’s to blame for an execution? The judge, the man who captures him, the man who sentences him, the man who fires the gun, or the greater context, politics, economics, the trickling of little events that, one by one, led Pierre to be in Moscow on that particular day? Do we have any control over out fate? Although no other writer in the 20th century wrote about these questions as well as Franz Kafka did, perhaps it’s also time we start seeing Tolstoy as one of his precursors.  


  1. Very interesting. Sadly, cases like this are not just memories from the past. A few years ago British courts found that a fate very much like Pierre's had fallen upon a certain Brazilian man visiting the country; and nobody was to blame, just the system.

    1. Hello, cleanthess.

      Is that the Brazilian who was shot to death in the subway? That case made a big splash here in Portugal at the time, because of the cultural connection with Brazil. A very unfortunate, terrifying event.

  2. I sometimes think about how large impersonal systems and bureaucracies and long chains of decisions make such muddle of free will, good and evil, morality , etc. When I really think hard about it my mind begins to get twisted! This is indeed a good reason to read this important literature.

  3. Brian, absolutely! It's to think about ideas like this that I read books, this is the kind of way I like having my mind stimulated. And great writers manage to make these ideas entertaining to think about :)