“Please get in touch,” his bank’s message said. “Otherwise we might have to close your account.” He called the bank. The person on the other end of the call wanted to ask “some security questions.” The customer thought that, to the contrary, he should be asking the questions, “because you know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.” The response? “You need to answer some security questions.” So they went on through the questions, the customer finally balking at giving his mother-in-law’s maiden name. “How will knowing my mother-in-law’s maiden name help you combat money-laundering?” The reply? “You need to tell us your mother-in-law’s maiden name.”
This was in a review of Franz Kafka’s diaries; the reviewer was explaining Kafka’s prescient intuitions about modern life. To be caught in this kind of situation is exactly what Kafka understood; it’s why our world is rightly described as Kafkaesque.
I was recently canceling a rental car reservation, made online. There was a vague threat that there might be a penalty for canceling a reservation, even if it was the pay-at-the-counter type. I clicked on the link for “cancellation” under “terms and conditions.” There opened before me a multi-paragraph document that was only vaguely in English. Without much punctuation and missing many verbs, it ran to thirty-three (33) screens in length, all in small print. I worried that there might be a fee hidden in there, but I had neither patience nor time to find it.
One condition of the modern (Kafkaesque) world is that we can never know all the rules that are binding upon us. Brooding over us is the threat that no matter what we do we may be breaking some rule somewhere. Our world has “an alien feeling, a suspicion that one [is] being manipulated. . . . the world [has] become absurd and even menacing.”
This is just one more aspect of how technology has changed our relationship to the world. How long has it been, dear reader, since you clicked on a box saying you have reviewed and are willing to be bound by “terms and conditions”? A day? An hour? Did you actually read them? Of course not—life is too short! And we can hardly use our computers, phones, etc., etc., etc., without checking these boxes! Yet we know that at any point we may find ourselves caught by something that we have signed off on without understanding. Other examples are legion: the laws passed by Congress and our other legislatures are more complex than any one person can understand—meaning any of us are vulnerable to breaking a law we were ignorant of. Or: we posted something on F-book long ago that is picked up, taken out of context, and so forth.
An analogy of sorts is found in Christianity. We believe that every single person has sinned: no matter how good or well-intentioned we are, we have broken some law of God somewhere. But technology, in this, is a perversion of Christian understanding. First: God has not given the law in order to say “gotcha!” but rather to guide and help us; the law, in essence, is God’s own self. The Torah is God’s self-giving. Second, even more important: God, unlike Kafkaesque modern technology, is in the forgiveness business.
An interesting book to re-read in 2023 is Kafka’s classic, The Trial, first published in German in 1925. But for hope and strengthening in true reality, we have to turn to the parables.
Out & About. This Sunday (May 21) at 5 p.m. (and running for 90 minutes), I will lead a discussion of War in Heaven by Charles Williams. As I write, I have just finished re-reading this amazing novel, published in 1930, which features the “Graal,” the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper which, in the novel, has been quietly lying in England unnoticed until some people with an interest (and more than an interest) in the occult identify it. The Graal is attacked by means physical and spiritual. People die—even the corpse of the first page seems connected to this. It’s worth your time, and whether you read it or not you are welcome to the seminar: in the education building of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas. (If you read the book, you’re welcome also to talk.)
On the Web. The review I quote above is by Theodore Dalrymple and appears in the current, June/July First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2023/06/kafkas-trials