Ovular Logic

In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of The Trial, a suddenly awakened and apparently under arrest Mr. K. (Anthony Perkins) responds to the oblique requests of police inspectors. One inspector begins to document the evidence in the room by writing in a notebook. This writing, we learn in several ways, is a flawed record, subject to the errors of the observer and observed and also embedded within a greater logic of accusation which imbues each “fact” with the suggestion of an already-settled narrative. Anticipating that the inspectors may be looking for pornography, for example, K. mistakenly refers to his record player as his “pornograph.” The inspector taking notes writes this down, and this “finding” comes up later. Is K. concealing something? Is he lying?


One inspector comes upon a shape on K’s floor, describes it as “circular” but then corrects himself, saying instead that it is an “ovular” shape. K’s response—“ovular isn’t even a word”—occludes any defense he might have for why the shape is there. “Do you deny that there’s an ovular shape under this rug?” He does explain the shape (a dentist’s chair had once been bolted to that spot), but the conversation hinges on his resistance to the choice of words describing the scene. His later disgust with the inspector’s term “inabusive” (rather than “unobtrusive”) only compounds the problems with language that impinge on K’s case while also casting K. in the role of the uncooperative witness. “None of this is going to show up very well on the record, Mr. K. My men say you even tried to stop them from putting this down.”

My layman’s knowledge of Kafka and my more recent viewing of the Welles film suggest that this is less a story of willful domination by a reckless and expanding power than it is an engagement with pressures to speak when asked to give an account.1 Perkins plays this with humor, more annoyed at the inconvenience of it all than at the threat of imprisonment or death. His animated exploration of the formulations still available to him keeps the film moving forward, despite its Wellesian excess.2 We see in K. an energy of response rather than a longing for freedom.

I don’t see a simple lesson for teachers in my brief reading of The Trial, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we’re all variations of inspector or accused. But I do see a kind of “ovular logic” in the ways that teaching is often presented. If we are too insistent that our courses have precise outcomes, narratives of previous success that now must be mapped onto the present or rubrics that decide, in August, what will be most meaningful or “successful” in November, we put undue constraints on students to “measure up” and we close off opportunities for something more. We also presume too much about our own forecasting abilities. Like Kafka, I harbor no illusions that the alternative to this kind of discursive confinement is freedom. But I think we can emphasize play, improvisation, parody, and “off the record” writing and conversation, too. Especially in September, when final grades are a long way off (if not quite the “indefinite deferment” that K. seeks), it seems more essential to explore possibilities than to make a case.

  1. Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, a book with its own Kafka fascinations, informs my choice of words here. I hope to have more to say about Butler’s take on writing in a later post.
  2. Welles, always pompous and grandiose, is best approached as a (perhaps unwitting) humorist. Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, and Mr. Arkadin are “serious” films which, like The Trial, explore epistemological limits and dangerous misreading, but all—especially Arkadin—make more sense as parody.