THE CASTLE BY FRANZ KAFKA

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Greetings comrades!

Welcome to Learn about the Humanoids 101. My name is Cocky, or Cock for short. Stop sniggering! You’re here, of course, because of the blast. I always knew that this day would come, that the most powerful humanoid government on earth would pick on the wrong country one day – who would have thought it’d be Switzerland? – and the whole planet would go up: kaboom! Nuclear holocaust! Anyway, I want to welcome Keith Richard to the ranks. Hi Keef! I know he’s not a roach, comrades, but, well, there was just no way of getting rid of him; so, please, make him feel at home. I’ve chosen to begin our lessons with a look at one of the humanoids’ favourite authors, Franz Kafka, and in particular his book The Castle. I will also be sharing some complimentary evidence in the form of a diary, written by [P], who ran the excellent book blog books, yo. while he was alive, and was actually reading the book in question at the time of the blast.

So, what does Kafka tell us? Primarily, that being a humanoid was a shitty gig. You know how we watched them for many years, scurrying around, scuttling from home to work to the pub and home and to work again, wasting their time engaged in meaningless activities and concerned with pointless preoccupations? And, you know how they were constantly in anguish because they could never find any satisfaction [yes, yes, Keef, settle down] or peace or recognition? Well, that’s Kafka’s work in a nutshell! The novel The Castle begins with a character, K., arriving in a village to take up a job as a land surveyor. Thing is, the people there claim to have never asked for, nor do they need, a land surveyor. And, so, we see in evidence that humanoid existential conflict: the desire to be needed, to feel appreciated, to be acknowledged, while at the same time being ignored and resented. The locals are hostile towards K. and seemingly want to push him away, which, in classic humanoid fashion, actually increases his desire to stay. Not like us, comrades! We have dignity! We tried to keep out of their way by hiding in the toilet or the shower! I’d like to read from [P]’s diary now, and share his thoughts on the beginning of the book.

May 8th 2014

Started reading The Castle by Franz Kafka. Not sure how I feel about it. K. aimlessly wandering around, and, of course, not actually getting anywhere. Comparison with The Trial? Josef K. had a purpose: to clear his name and to avoid punishment. K. seems almost purposeless, which is a far more depressing take on human existence.

Very insightful words from [P], it’s almost a shame that he was obliterated.

In preparation for this lesson I read numerous old reviews and essays, and it struck me as odd that a significant proportion of them felt that The Castle is cheerier and more optimistic, is less bleak, than The Trial. Josef K exhibits humanoid qualities such as fear and panic and extreme frustration, but his response to his situation is, at least, understandable. Remember that, because it is important. Josef behaves as we would expect him to behave and is, therefore, someone you can, and maybe want to, identify with; he is easy to like and feel for. K., on the other hand, is far more unpleasant, is far less likeable, and more difficult to empathise with and understand. He isn’t caught in a situation beyond his control [he doesn’t, like Josef, wake up to an altered world, in which he is confronted by an oppressive force outside of himself] because it is always possible for him to leave the village. Indeed, the villagers, and his fiancé, actively encourage him to leave. And, yet, he doesn’t. He stays, out of pride or stubbornness or inquisitiveness. And isn’t that a more damning appraisal of humanoid behaviour? They say: you’re not wanted here! You’re not welcome here! You’re not one of us! Look how unhappy and frustrated this is making you! And the reply is: screw you, I’m staying! Two forces butting heads; and for what? With what aim? Isn’t this closer to the humanoids we knew? From [P]’s diary again:

May 9th 2014

Wearying. Like being forced to play the cup-and-ball game for hours, with no ball. K. strikes me as an embodiment of our sense of entitlement. He thinks that he is owed an explanation, owed a job, owed friendly interactions; he is not fighting for a basic human right [like Josef], but is acting out of self-importance.

Ah, those humanoids! How many times did you hear them say: you cannot treat me this way! How many times did we find that phrase on their greasy lips?

It is worth noting that a great many people thought The Castle a religious allegory. That idea appears to have stemmed from Max Brod, the man who refused to destroy the author’s work after his death, and the first English translators, the Muirs. It was Brod who saw in the book a religious angle and so he provided notes and directions for the Muirs, who in turn translated the work along those lines, actually adding things that are not in the original text. And this interpretation of the book appeared to stick, despite later and more accurate translations. [P]:

May 10th 2014

I don’t see a religious allegory in this at all. To label it as such seems almost to do it a disservice, to devalue the work. Ironically, like religion itself, that interpretation serves as a way of making the incomprehensible comprehensible, to make it cuddly and familiar.

Which is not to say that a religious interpretation of the novel does not make some sense; K’s striving towards the castle, to make his way there, could easily be seen as man’s journey towards salvation or the humanoid God. However, I agree with the sadly departed [P], that it does not do the novel justice. K. is essentially amoral, and his journey does not involve self-discovery, or the learning of lessons, so it would make a strange kind of religious allegory. It seems to me to be much more about rationality and logic. K. wants to make sense of what is happening to him, to impose a logical, forward-moving, structure on his time and existence. For example, I was engaged to be a land surveyor in village X, therefore I travelled to village X. This is logical, it makes sense. Yet, then the structure breaks down. The following statement ought to be something like, I completed my work as a land surveyor in village X. But that is not how things turn out. Logic cannot be applied to what happens; his life, his existence, stops moving forward, it comes to a sharp and confusing halt. Similarly, he asks questions and does not get answers, or gets them and they do not make sense, or he makes reasonable pleas or demands which are ignored or dismissed as impossible, as though he is speaking to people bereft of any kind of rational faculty. On the basis of this interpretation one would see the castle itself as knowledge, unattainable knowledge; as understanding. Indeed, that is what K. is ultimately striving for. The castle, he thinks, will answer all of his questions, if only he could get there. But he cannot get there.

While it is not relevant, in terms of improving our understanding of humanoids, it is perhaps of interest to note what [P] wrote in terms of the style of The Castle, which differs from Kafka’s other work:

The conversations are long and often laborious and repetitive; and the novel is made up almost entirely of conversations. I, at times, feel like a melancholy dog watching a washing machine go round and round in circles. Is the book meant to be tedious? Thomas Bernhard is often compared to Kafka, but previously I had paid that comparison no mind. This is the first time I have seen echoes of his style in one of Kafka’s works. Is the book deliberately the way it is, is it a style choice? Or is that, the style, merely a consequence of its unfinished nature? Are those conversations, for example, the sign of poor editing, or a lack of editing, or are they intentionally the way they are, are they that way for effect? Similarly, the grammar here is, well, odd. There are commas where there ought to be full-stops, commas where they aren’t needed at all, and full-stops where one would expect a comma. Do I love this book or hate it?

In a book like this, comrades, with the history it has, with the circumstances surrounding its composition and its publication, it is near impossible to apply judgements as one would with other [completed] works. In any case, the lesson has finished for today. Now, I expect you all to have read the book for your seminars next week; and I look forward to hearing your opinions in detail. The last words for today ought, I think, go to poor dead [P]:

May 11th 2014

This book is making me feel crazy. Am I crazy? Initially I found it disappointing and yet at some point its maddening style got under my skin, so much so that I now feel like it is the work of a genius, a dour comedic genius. It both distresses and amuses me in equal measure. I feel as though it has somehow invaded me.

Ah, there is the bell. See you next week, comrades!

 

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2 comments

  1. I liked this book,although definitely not to the same extent as The Trial.
    You’re totally right when you say that much unlike Josef K, Franz K is purposeless.I think that is what makes The Trial more tonic and more horrifying than The Castle!

    After finishing the book,I read an introduction by John Sutherland and he mentioned Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a lot.I reckon The Castle is a book that addresses existentialism and will make more sense after we’ve read other works exploring the same subject.

    1. I think that the purposelessness is what, in the end, i love about the book. As I said in my review, The Trial is pretty straightforward, in terms of character motivation; K in The Castle is far harder to figure out. I like that about it; I think Kafka taps into something more humane, albeit more depressing.

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