From the mouthpiece came a humming, the likes of which K. had never heard on the telephone before. It was as though the humming of countless childlike voices—but it wasn’t humming either, it was singing, the singing of the most distant, of the most utterly distant, voices—as though a single, high-pitched yet strong voice had emerged out of this humming in some quite impossible way and now drummed against one’s ears as if demanding to penetrate more deeply into something other than one’s wretched hearing. K. listened without telephoning, with his left arm propped on the telephone stand he listened thus.
He had no idea how long, not until the landlord tugged at his coat, saying that a messenger had come for him. “Go,” shouted K., beside himself, perhaps into the telephone, for now someone answered. (20, emphasis added)
Someone was able to answer the phone even if K. never dialed a number in the first place. What principle is operating here? Dream logic? The unconscious? Magical realism? Science fiction? Or is it simply a well calculated joke? From humming to singing, from children’s voices to distant singing, from listening to waiting, from static to a definite reply: there’s an apparent breach of the fundamental laws of nature here. Or is there only error in observable dimensions? A warping of spacetime, “in some quite impossible way”. But as suggested in one of the previous quoted passages, no errors ever occur; if one does occur, who can say that it is an error?
The Castle is a palpable example of spontaneous realism, a tendency in writing characterized by shifts in narrative direction. The scene shifts may be dreamlike or not, they may be logical or not, and magical or not. Whatever the case, a spontaneous realist novel is a record of transformations: of characters, scenes, and details. The changes in the appearance and attitudes of characters may be gradual or sudden—without due warning, without being prefigured—and irrevocable.
Frieda’s disposition changes from a resolute lover to a wronged woman. Jeremias, one of the assistants, suddenly changes appearance from a youthful person to an old, infirm man “whose flesh sometimes gave one the impression that it wasn’t quite alive” (237). Some major changes are explained in flashback stories of the villagers, where a family’s economic standing suddenly plummets, their vigor turning into wretchedness, and their health deteriorating to a pitiable state. The witness to all these instabilities is tenacious K. whose search for work and recognition is rebuffed by the Count’s authorities.
“We are not your guardian angels and don’t have to follow you every single byway. Well, all right. The chairman thinks differently. Of course the actual decision, which is handled by the Count’s authorities, is not something he can speed up. But within his sphere of influence he seems to want to arrive at a truly generous temporary settlement, which you are free to accept or to reject, he is offering you temporarily the post of school janitor.” (90-91)
To be more precise, K. was reprieved from unemployment and was now faced with underemployment. He was offered a temporary job as a school janitor. For someone trained in a technical job as a land surveyor, this was an absurd proposition. K. refused the offer. But consistent with the novel’s spontaneous absurdity, he was later made to accept the job. By the end of the book, the landlady fancied another job for him, a plausible job but utterly incompatible to his skills as surveyor. Given the serious comedy of what came before, the kind of job he was offered by the landlady adds laughter to injury.
For all the ridiculous tangles K. found himself in, his uncompleted journey to the Castle can be read as a heroic effort.
Certainly, I am ignorant, that at least is true, sadly enough for me, but the advantage here is that those who are ignorant take greater risks, and so I’ll gladly put up with my deficient knowledge and its undoubtedly serious consequences for a little while, for as long as my energy holds out. (55)
The irony is that K.’s journey also represents a missed opportunity. At the moment when he stumbled on a Castle authority, someone who could assist him in his troubles, he was not able (the author will not let him) to seize the day. Kafka presented a possible way out for K. but he did not allow him to even consider it. At the precise moment when a light is proferred K., he collapsed in exhaustion. Whatever K. (a person, a cog in the wheel) does is answerable to the built system in place. He elected to go through the motions even if there’s a stronger and stronger indication that all his efforts are doomed.
Thus the novel is destined to be an open metaphor, concerned as it is with the collapse of meaning and representation. Its cathartic encounters and transformations tend to emphasize the tragic comedy of human existence. It is a deeply religious text in the hermeneutic sense as it takes as its object the naked individual in the face of societal (and authorial) manipulations, in the face of machinations by an inscrutable power structure. But as a secular text, the novel is more open to inquiry, more robust in its possibilities. For example, the Castle can be seen as a metaphor for metaphors, a projection of all of man's yearnings and desires.
How suicidal happiness can be! (269)
A metaphor for happiness, if you will. Metaphors are worth pursuing. Interpreting then becomes an exercise of freedom, even if the same appears as elusive and illusory as a hulking structure enclosed in fog.
“It isn’t easy to understand exactly what she is saying, for one doesn’t know whether she is speaking ironically or seriously, it’s mostly serious, but sounds ironic.” “Stop interpreting everything!” said K. (205)
You said it, K.
(Note: This is my last post on the novel. All quotes are from Mark Harman’s translation of The Castle (Schocken Books, 1998).)