Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky are the two most likely spiritual mentors of this story. In his Parerga und Paralipomena, Schopenhauer suggested that it might be helpful to look at the world as a penal colony, and Dostoevsky, whom Kafka re-read in 1914, supplied Kafka with many punishment fantasies. It was especially Dostoevsky's preoccupation with the interaction between guilt, suffering, and redemption which fascinated Kafka. In this story, pain is a major precondition for comprehending one's sins: nobody can decipher the Designer's writing except he who has reached the halfway mark of his ordeal. Enlightenment "begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself." This is Kafka at his masochistic best. Yet there is also a philosophical meaning to this cult of pain. Insight and death go hand in hand, and transfiguration is the reward of those undergoing torture.
As for the punishment, or torture, however, even the simplicity and precision with which the remarkable "machine" operates cannot convince us that it is justifiable. Designed to imprint upon a condemned man's back the sin of which he is found guilty, it executes the sentence in the smoothest way possible. Everything is as simple as the "trial" preceding an execution, each cog fulfilling its proper function. But while the machine may enable the condemned person to "see" after the sixth hour, it does not offer him a chance to repent and to survive. He has neither the time nor the strength to do anything but continue suffering. Regardless of the gravity of his offense, capital punishment is the only possible verdict. As so often in Kafka's work, we are confronted with a punishment out of all proportion with the offense; in this case, the condemned man is supposed to fulfill the senseless duty of saluting in front of his captain's door every hour, thus missing the sleep he needs to serve as sentry during the day. The fundamental question is raised and remains unanswered: what logic does it take to condemn a man to death for a mere threat, particularly when he is described as a "stupid-looking creature"? At least, however, this story differs from "The judgment," "The Metamorphosis," and "The Trial"; here, for instance, the source of the punishment and the charges are clear.
The torture machine is ever-present at the center of the story, the first sentence introducing it as "a remarkable piece of apparatus." Lifeless and fatal, the machine reduces the people around it to mere adjuncts who do not even have names of their own. Occupying an entire valley all by itself, it is a strange symbol, carrying out detailed instructions with utmost precision. It performs like the hand of some inexorable power, whose primitive nature is reflected in the stark landscape surrounding it and contrasted with civilization. In keeping with its commanding location, the machine is so high that the officer controlling it has to use a ladder to reach its upper parts. He who has helped construct the monster talks about its efficiency and intricacies with passion, yet it becomes clear that even this officer is the servant of his machine.
The secret of the machine lies in the mystery of the unusual order it sets up, sustains, and symbolizes. The nature of this order is so foreign to any conventional logic, including that of the New Commandant, that it must be assumed to serve a world beyond ours. The incident of the threatened captain is a good case in point: although he reports the incident to his superior, the latter takes it upon himself to sentence the man and put him in chains. He emphasizes that all this "was quite simple," proving that the machine and he belong to one and the same system, namely that of the Old Commandant, whose declared maxim was that "guilt is never to be doubted." This view reflects Kafka's conviction that man, merely by living with others and infringing upon their integrity, is bound to become guilty. Since nobody can claim innocence, it is senseless to collect evidence against an accused person. This argument is carried further in the scene in which the officer claims that to collect evidence against a condemned man would only cause confusion in his mind and that there is no need to explain the sentence; the condemned man will learn it best through his suffering. Unlike Georg in "The judgment" or Joseph K. in The Trial, who both question the inhuman system persecuting them, however, the dull-witted condemned man in this story cannot do this.
The figure of the explorer is ambiguous. Hailing from Europe — that is, the civilized world beyond the sea surrounding the penal colony — he is on tour overseas to learn about foreign customs. Since he has been invited to attend this execution by the New Commandant, there is reason to assume he has been sent to pass judgment on this institution. Although as a guest he is determined to remain strictly neutral, be nevertheless has to admit to himself from the beginning that "the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable." Gradually, he becomes involved with the apparatus for no other reason than that he alone is a foreigner and therefore expected to be neutral. He cannot be neutral; he condemns the institution of the apparatus, displaying the superiority of a man brought up in the spirit of democracy and liberalism.
The result of his condemnation of the apparatus is the collapse of the entire system on which the penal colony is based. Hurt and disappointed by the explorer's stand, the officer frees the prisoner with the ambiguous words "Then the time has come" and takes his place on the Bed of the apparatus himself. What happens is that the inhuman iron monster begins to collapse under the burden of the officer's self-sacrifice: "the machine was obviously going to pieces." What is more significant, the officer lying there with the big spike running through his forehead does not show the slightest trace of the transfiguration which every other dying man experienced under the grueling performance of the Harrow. This means that his self-sacrifice has been rejected by the forces controlling the machine. The words which he had the Designer write on his body, namely "Be Just," signify the end of that justice of which the officer has been the last defender.
It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate expression of the dehumanizing horror of World War I (at whose outbreak the story was written) than this symbol of self-destructive human ingenuity. Kafka succeeded beautifully with this machine; it combines all the brilliance of technological progress with the unspeakable primitivism of archaic, divine law.
The machine, of course, is also a symbol of the torture Kafka himself was exposed to as a writer. It is not exaggerated to compare the pain of creation with an execution; when he wrote, according to Kafka's own words, he experienced moments of transfiguration just like the condemned man here. Looking at the directions for the Designer, shown to him by the officer, the explorer cannot say much except that "all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them." Prior to his self-execution, the officer shows the words designed to be imprinted on his own body to the explorer, who replies that he "can't make out these scripts." These are Kafka's allusions to his own writing — fascinating hieroglyphics and symbols of a horrible beauty that often bewildered even him. "Labyrinth" is certainly a most fitting name for the unknown regions through which Kafka's figures roam. All the explorer can do is admit that the writing is "very ingenious. " What is self-evident and binding for the officer — that the inscription of the commandment violated by a man should be imprinted upon that man's body — remains unintelligible to the explorer, the outsider. This leads us to the story's other major theme, the officer's affiliation with the Old Commandant, whose "strength of conviction" he still shares.
The explorer is the product of a new system whose commandant, according to the officer, "shirks his duty" and is interested in such "trivial and ridiculous matters" as building harbors. He represents an enlightened and progressive system, which, however, does not meet Kafka's undivided acceptance as a meaningful alternative to the old system, as we shall see later.
The primitive order which the machine represents points to the dawn of civilization, which appears as a kind of Golden Age to the officer; he longs passionately for the restoration of a world dominated by a superhuman power. The outward perfection of the machine does not detract from its primitivism but heightens it through contrast, adding to it the dimension of the brutality of modern technology. Its destruction seems to stand as an indispensable prerequisite for any change toward a more rational and humanitarian system.
Change does not come easily, however, though the Old Commandant, uniting the functions of soldier, judge, mechanic, chemist and draughtsman, died some time ago (Zeichner is the German term for both "draughtsman" and "designer," thus indicating that the apparatus was, in effect, the Old Commandant's right hand). Though Dot the ruler of the colony, the officer carries on and defends the heritage of the Old Commandant against the new one. He is the "sole advocate" of the old method of execution, and he is thoroughly upset when the condemned man "befouls the machine like a pig-sty." As the embodiments of power in so many other Kafka stories recede from those who grope for an explanation of their irreversible fate — Klamm in The Castle, the legal authorities in The Trial, and the chief clerk in "The Metamorphosis" — so the New Commandant, like the old one before him, never appears on the scene personally. From the officer's fears, we gather that the New Commandant is a businessman rather than a supreme judge, that he does not care for the machine and the system it stands for, that he is eager to open the colony to international contacts and to grant it a hitherto unknown degree of liberal administration. In fact, the new regime is so open-minded that the officer takes it for granted that the visitor will be invited to participate in meetings on the future of the machine. Naturally, this strikes the officer as a further threat on the part of the New Commandant against traditional order.
As a result, the officer tries to coax the visitor into taking his side. In doing so, he talks himself into a frenzy, eventually assuming that the visitor has always approved of the old system anyway and only needs to choose the most appropriate language before the assembled administrators to tip the balance toward a revival of the old system. By trying to win the visitor over to his side, the officer clearly betrays the system he represents: without a single scruple, he sets the torture machine in motion whenever a condemned man was brought to him and never considered checking the evidence, much less exercising mercy. Yet he now asks for understanding and help. It is his downfall that the old system of absolute justice, which he represents, does not show human stirrings — even in his case. In keeping with its unbribable, clock-like mechanism, it condemns him to death. Now it is his turn to learn that, raised to the level of absoluteness, even such an ideal as justice becomes inhuman because it serves an abstract concept rather than human beings.
The officer's death, however, does not imply Kafka's wholehearted approval of the emerging new era. He keeps an ambivalent and ironical distance from the New Commandant and his reign. There is much change for the better on the island, as we have seen, but the "new, mild doctrine" has also brought with it much superficiality and degeneracy. Time and again, the officer complains about the great influence of ladies — even he himself "had tucked two fine ladies' handkerchiefs under the collar of his uniform"; these antics add a touch of the ludicrous to the new achievements. What Kafka is saying is that a certain measure of decadence seems to be inevitably a part of civilization and that the "modern" ideals of rationality and liberalism tend to give way too easily to considerations of utility and to the whims of the people.
To be sure, the explorer is interested in seeing the old system crumble. Yet he is extremely well-versed in abstaining from definite commitments, a trait which explains his reaction to the officer's description of the machine: "he already felt a dawning interest in the machine." Later on, when the apparatus is tried out, he completely forgets its deadly function and only complains that the noise of its wheels kept him from enjoying it all the more. When he finally realizes that the machine produces only horrendous results, he decides to make a compromise. Although opposing the system it serves, he is impressed by the officer's honest conviction. Not even when the latter places himself under the Harrow does the explorer lift a finger to stop the madness. Instead, he proclaims that he can "neither help nor hinder" the officer because "interference is always touchy."
The explorer shies away from committing himself because he has no binding standards. He expresses his disgust with the old system, but his humaneness is little more than a cover for his basic relativism. Especially at the end of the story, he reveals his true nature: already in the boat that is to take him to the steamer, he "lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened the freed prisoner and the soldier guarding him with it and thus prevented them from leaping." His animosity is all the more surprising since he has played the decisive, though accidental, part in their liberation. It would therefore be only logical that he should show some concern for their future, should translate his theoretical condemnation of the old system into a concrete act of humaneness. By remaining unmoved, and therefore uncommitted, he displays cruelty which we may regard to be of a baser kind than the one shown by the Old Commandant, whom he condemned. Even the human element within the freed man does not really interest him. Reconsidering the story, we realize, as so often in Kafka's pieces, that the value judgment with which we may have identified ourselves in the course of our reading collapses under later evidence. In this case, evidence has accumulated that he who represents the "enlightened" ideals of tolerance and liberalism is not automatically superior to the Old Commandant and his admittedly outmoded and cruel system.
Kafka touches upon fundamental philosophical and political issues here. Ever since the time of the Greek political writer Polybius, human society has been confronted with the complex questions revolving around the apparently perennial alternation between tyranny and anarchy. From all evidence compiled over two thousand years, man, as a "political animal," has had to struggle to walk the thin tightrope between totalitarianism and the sometimes chaos which we have come to call democracy. Like a pendulum between two extremes, man's collective fate seems to swing back and forth between these two poles, symbolized in our story by the old and the new systems. On its way from one extreme to the other, the pendulum only briefly stays in the temperate zones — that is, democratic conditions are the result of a rather temporary constellation of forces. This is why the old system has had to give way to the new one, at least for the time being, but this is also why the Old Commandant will rise again when the new system will have worn itself out. Ultimately, neither system can last because neither can meet all of man's needs by itself.
On his way to the coastline, which is rather like an escape from the lingering spirit of the disintegrated machine, the explorer reaches the teahouse. It impresses him as being "a historic tradition of some kind." Upon his request, he is shown the grave of the Old Commandant, located under a stone plate. If there are indeed religious allusions in the story, they are most prominent here because the teahouse does resemble a holy place of some kind. The people gathered here are "humble creatures," wearing "full black beards" — Kafka's way of saying they are disciples of some quasi-religious mission. The inscription on the grave tells us that the Old Commandant's followers, now in the underground, will reconquer the colony after his resurrection and that they should be faithful and wait. Also, the explorer kneels down before the grave, and if he does so merely to be able to decipher the epitaph, he nevertheless goes through the motions of paying reverence in a religious manner.
Yet a total Christian interpretation is out of the question simply because the faith the old system rests on is one of sheer brutality. We have no reason whatever to assume that the predicted reconquering of the island will come about in a way other than through outright terror. This likelihood permits us to read the story, at least on one level, as a nightmarish vision of the annihilation camps of the Nazis. The story is religious only in the sense that the archaic system of the Old Commandant still prevails, though hardened into purely mechanical routine. Punishment by terror, which once meant purification and therefore was the focus of the colony's greatest festival, is considered nothing but a ridiculous remnant by the new regime. The machine still executes people (until it falls apart), but the motivation is gone and moral codes are imposed which lost their power when people lost faith in the divinity that once instituted them.
As in every one of Kafka's stories, a basic ambiguity remains, last but not least regarding Kafka's own feelings about it. While it is true that he condemned the old system for intellectual and humanitarian reasons, it is no less true that he lived with the uneasy awareness that the old system expresses a deep truth about human nature: suffering is part and parcel of man's nature, and the choice he has is not between accepting and rejecting it, but only between bestowing meaning to it or dragging it along as a stigma of the absurd.