Argument
An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kafka Would Impeach Trump

Everything about the Mueller report is ambiguous—except its ultimate moral meaning.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
Franz Kafka and the Kafkaesque Robert Mueller.
Franz Kafka and the Kafkaesque Robert Mueller.
Franz Kafka and the Kafkaesque Robert Mueller. Foreign Policy illustration/Ullstein Bild/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/istockphoto

Scarcely a week old, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s report has achieved the status of a parable. And, as with any parable worth our wait despite bold redactions, Mueller’s tale has launched a thousand interpretations. As one columnist wryly noted, the report’s release turned Twitter into “a parody of Talmudic scholarship.” In their hurry to tease out meaning from the report, the horde of hermeneuticians has mostly confused rather than clarified matters for the rest of us.

Scarcely a week old, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s report has achieved the status of a parable. And, as with any parable worth our wait despite bold redactions, Mueller’s tale has launched a thousand interpretations. As one columnist wryly noted, the report’s release turned Twitter into “a parody of Talmudic scholarship.” In their hurry to tease out meaning from the report, the horde of hermeneuticians has mostly confused rather than clarified matters for the rest of us.

For readers of Franz Kafka, this confusion is a familiar sensation. When we think of the Kafkaesque, we tend to think of those sequences of events that are eerily dreamlike yet appallingly real. We think of Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to discover he is a giant insect, or of Josef K., who wakes one morning to find, in a manner no less confounding yet convincing, that an unknown court has found him guilty of an unnamed crime. In a similar fashion, we can think of America—or Amerika, to use the title of another Kafka novel—on Nov. 9, 2016, when the country woke to find its president-elect was a reality TV star whose business career was littered with bankruptcies and scandals.

The Mueller report, in its account of Trump and his administration’s subsequent activities, seems to smack more of the Keystone Kops than Kafka. (It is worth recalling, though, that Kafka would laugh aloud as he read the draft of The Trial to his friends.) Yet the report, and our response to it, also has a parablelike character that Kafka would have admired. He was a writer of parables—elusive and elliptical works that must be treated, the critic Walter Benjamin warned, “circumspectly, cautiously, and warily.”

This advice applies, in particular, to Kafka’s greatest parable, “Before the Law.” One of the rare works Kafka published during his short life, it first appeared as a stand-alone piece. It then reappears embedded in the penultimate chapter of The Trial, the unfinished novel in which Josef K. ends his equally unfinished life in an abandoned rock quarry, executed by two emissaries of the court.

Shortly before the execution, a priest recounts the parable to Josef K. in the city cathedral. He tells the story of a man from the country who, wishing to behold the Law, approaches an open door, glowing with radiance, that leads to it. He asks the doorkeeper permission to enter, but the latter refuses his request “at least for now.” He adds that there are yet other doors after this one, kept by even more fearsome keepers. Struck by the doorkeeper’s words, the man from the country acquiesces. Given a stool, he sits “for days and years” by the open door, waiting for the permission that never comes. Finally, in his dying moments, he asks the doorkeeper why no one else has ever sought to enter the door and behold the Law. After all, all of us would want to behold such a sight. The doorkeeper replies: “Because the door was for you alone, and now I am shutting it.”

Rarely have so many scholars said so much about so few words. Depending on your commentator, the parable reflects the byzantine character of either the Habsburg bureaucracy under which Kafka lived or the insurance company for which he worked; it distills the hopeless nature of Kafka’s engagement to his fiancée Felice Bauer or his hapless quest for metaphysical meaning.

But the parable also carries a less hapless and more hopeful lesson, one applicable to the Mueller report and the dilemma the United States now faces as a nation of laws. As most everyone not asleep since last Thursday knows, a legion of legal experts has dubbed Mueller’s report a “road map”—a term acquired by the 55-page summary that, more than 40 years ago, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s office provided to Congress. Rather than offer a series of analyses or even conclusions, each page of this map listed a short factual statement followed by references to relevant documents. It was less a personalized itinerary meant to entice than it was an impersonal list meant to inform those still mulling over possible itineraries.

The same is also true of both Kafka’s and Mueller’s presentations. As descriptions, they are unambiguous and—notwithstanding protestations by Josef K. and Donald Trump—unalterable. In a word, the texts abide. At the same time, their interpretations abound. In the case of Kafka’s parable, the priest surveys the wide range of interpretations it inspired. Observing that commentators believe a “correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are not mutually exclusive,” the priest concludes that most interpretations are “only an expression of despair” over the parable.

In a similar fashion, Mueller’s parable comes packed with its own commentary. This is especially the case with the already legendary obstruction section, whose wording has spurred many expressions of despair over its intended meaning. Of course, this is how Kafka, and any self-respecting democracy, would want it. The priest insists that Josef K. draw a lesson from the parable. In fact, before he relates the parable, the concerned cleric castigates Josef K., who, even at this fateful moment, seems as unaware of his situation as he seems unwilling to act. From his pulpit, he shouts: “Can’t you see two steps in front of you?” While Mueller is not the sort to shout, he has clearly invited U.S. representatives to see at least two steps in front of themselves. As the legal scholar Samuel Moyn suggests, Mueller’s approach is “to leave the country to work it out, or live with the sad result.” Just as the priest could not impose a course of action on Josef K., the special counsel cannot impose a course of action on U.S. representatives.

For Josef K., the sad result, and the novel’s unspeakably sad and unsettling climax, takes place in a darkened stone quarry. In effect, the parable makes the darkness visible. Like the man from the country, Josef K. failed to walk through a door. By heeding the doorkeeper’s warning, and thus ceding his claim on his humanity, the man from the country anticipates Josef K.’s own failure to walk through open doors (or, for that matter, demand that closed doors be opened). It may well be that the Mueller report is an open door. No doubt other doors will follow, but if U.S. democracy sits and waits at the first door, the fault will lie with us, not the teller of the parable.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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