30 September 2009

We are In the Penal Colony

Kafka's story, "In the Penal Colony," is a remarkable parallel to our modern day and the conservative pundits.

This story, like most of Kafka's work, has an underlying theme of futility and despair. A Traveller is visiting a penal colony, and is instructed on the method of execution they use by an impassioned Officer, while an attendant Soldier holds a chained Condemned Man. As is Kafka's modus operandi, the place and people are named generically, to make them facelessly threatening and generic. The Officer raves about the efficacy of the monstrous method of execution and the system of justice, which he learned as an acolyte of the Old Commandant. The Old Commandant, who assumes the aspect of legend in the breathless awes of the Officer, is being superceded by a New Commandant. The Officer considers the New Commandant to be petty and obviously wrong-headed.

How like the Officer are our modern conservative pundits, with Limbaugh and Beck and Savage all yearning for the Old Reagan? And of course, they imagine that everyone is secretly on their side. In the story, the Officer believes that all the other soldiers secretly support the executions and the Old Commandant.
“This process and this execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have at present no more open supporters in our colony. I am its single defender and at the same time the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process—I’m using all my powers to maintain what there is at present. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of his supporters. I have something of the Old Commandant’s persuasiveness, but I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding. There are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it."

The same attitude abounds among the pundits. All real Americans are conservatives who oppose health care reform, even if statistics say resoundingly the opposite. They are just in hiding, in fear of the New Commandant. But they really honor Reagan's legacy and all real Americans want to go back to that. No matter the facts.

The Traveller, for his part, listens and watches with what appears to be both intellectual interest and vague disgust. The environment is oppressively hot and bizarre, but he feels bound to listen to the fevered explanations and haranguing of the Officer. He is courteous and tolerant - even to a fault, feeling he has no right to step in even though he admits he is opposed to the entire process. How like a Democrat, unwilling to step in in the clutch!
The Traveller bit his lip and said nothing. For he was aware what would happen, but he had no right to hinder the Officer in any way. If the judicial process to which the Officer clung was really so close to the point of being cancelled—possibly as a result of the intervention of the Traveller, something to which he for his part felt duty-bound—then the Officer was now acting in a completely correct manner. In his place, the Traveller would not have acted any differently.

The part of the story that made me laugh the most when this rough analogy occurred to me was the end. The Traveller wishes to see the grave of the revered Old Commandant.
They pushed one of the tables aside, under which there was a real grave stone. It was a simple stone, low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription in very small letters. In order to read it the Traveller had to kneel down. It read, “Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There exists a prophecy that the Commandant will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony. Have faith and wait!” When the Traveller had read it and got up, he saw the men standing around him and smiling, as if they had read the inscription with him, found it ridiculous, and were asking him to share their opinion.

They wait for Reagan to return, while others laugh.

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