A short story by Franz Kafka that has recently been adapted into an opera by Philip Glass. I had the dubious honor of viewing one of its world premiere performances in Chicago.

The Philip Glass score was a disappointment to the extent that I did not feel his music has progressed beyond the work he did in Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha in the 1970s. The vocal parts in particular were nothing exciting.

But perhaps the problem I had is that I am used to listening to Glass in a less distracting setting. I consider Glass a minimalist, and probably the best way to listen to his work is in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed while you're thinking about something else.

Glass and his director, Joanne Akalaitis made a hash of the Kafka short story. First offense: they decided that Kafka needed to be a part of the story. My first response to this decision was positive. In particular it was interesting to consider the relationship between the author and his characters. But as time wore on, it became clear that Kafka was never going to be more than a distraction from the story that was being told. Some things that the Kafka character interrupted the story to do: scrub the floor, dip his head in the bucket and fling it back, eat a drawing made of the machine, lay on his bed and stare at the ceiling while talking out loud, undress the officer before he got into the machine. After a while, it became clear that he was merely a distraction from the story that he supposedly so lovingly wrote.

Second offense: the ending. They decided to have the traveler leave the stage with his suitcase (Kafka hands it to him!) at the end, with the words, "I'm going to miss my boat." (?!) In the short story, he has to fight the prisoner and soldier off in order to get on the boat. This significantly changes the meaning of the story in some ways. What is the penal colony supposed to be if in the end some people like living there?

So overall a negative review. Which is sad, since up until now Philip Glass has been one of my heroes. But this was really overly pretentious trash. Not true to the spirit of Kafka's work at all.

Kafka's In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony) is yet another text in which Kafka's obsession with language, semantics, and the trope of literary absence is a central figure.

The story is situated within a long conversation between an explorer and an officer native to the land in which the story takes place. Central to the story is a torture device cherished by the officer, about which the explorer is somewhat curious, though less curious than the officer would hope.

What is significant about the torture device is that it slowly kills the victim by imprinting the name of the crime on the victims body. The victim, in a sense, becomes the name of their crime, dying in so becoming such a crime.

The explorer is of course troubled by the inhumanity of the device. At the end of the story, he stands by as the officer straps himself to the machine, and commits suicide, by inscribing his crime onto his body, inscribing himself on himself. As the officer is being imprinted with his crime, the machine malfunctions, and the officer is killed outright, before the explorer's eyes. He dies before he becomes his crime, he dies before signifier turns into signified, before the name becomes that which it stands for, before he can reveal to the outsider (who, confused by a lack of understanding of the local language) that a sign does not have a meaning, but is rather inscribed with a meaning by difference.

At the climax of the story, right before the officer submits himself to the torture device, he asks the explorer to read what the creator of the device wrote on the device's plans. The explorer is unable to read the words, as they look like nothing but "a maze of cris-crossing lines" to him. The officer then reads the words for him: "Be just" he says.

I think that this is the most significant moment in the entire story. I think that incomprehensible plans are symbolic of the paradoxical difficulty of being truly "just." It is this paradox that drives the officer to commit suicide upon the machine; he is tormented by the requirement to "be just" placed upon him by his mentor, the creator of the machine.

It is my opinion that the words to be engraved on the officer were "be just." The machine self-destructed because the officer was a part the machine itself. It destroyed itself as a symbol of the paradox of capital punishment- capital punishment is murder, which is a crime, which, in the penal colony's justice system, merits capital punishment. Murder is murder, however you slice it.

I think that the machine's creator is symbolic of man's most savage need for justice, even if it is really revenge. The officer and machine symbolize, as I've said, the paradox of capital punishment. The story's brutality serves as a starting point for a real-life discussion of crime and punishment.

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