Kafka's afflicted vision: a literary-theological critique.

Author:Panichas, George A.
Position:Franz Kafka


Literary critics often point out that Franz Kafka's posthumous, unfinished novel The Castle (Das Schloss, 1926) tells the story of the novel's main character, simply called K., in pursuit of salvation. The novel's aesthetic and interpretive complexity, it will be seen, underlines the multi-layered meaning of salvation itself, in a modern world in which salvation is not necessarily one of divine grace, of deliverance from sin and damnation, in short, of redemption in the hands of an all-powerful God.

A non-Christian and a German-speaking Jew born in Prague in 1883, Kafka, though intuitively aware of salvation in its metaphysical tensions, relegates those tensions to their modern settings and circumstances, with their inherently existential anxieties, concerns, antinomies. Hence, in The Castle, K. is hardly a protagonist seeking entrance into God's divine kingdom since his aspirations are not essentially soteriological in nature, but are at once more modest and yet consuming in character, and appropriate to the stark, cruel realities of a modern world with its imperium of illusions and. deceptions.

K.'s quest is mundane, insofar as his moral standards are comparably mundane. His is not a "pilgrim's progress" or a titanic spiritual wrestle to save one's soul from a world in which the legion of "devils" is ever on the march, ensnaring human beings by whatever means available. Kafka himself is not at peace with either the God of the Fathers or the Prophetic Faith; indeed his work enfeebles the idea of the holy and the contemplation of the divine. His remarkably constructed and lucid artistic vision remains fixed in and vexed by a world transvalued and transformed by the catastrophic violations of the community and the soul that, in our time, emerged with especial ferocity when the Great War of 1914-1918 ordained the "journey's end" of European man, for whom no future, no possibility of grace, no incarnation of a holy event could exist any longer.

K. seeks official permission to enter the Castle and its environs to engage in his work as a Land-Surveyor. He claims that Count Westwest, the supreme lord of the Castle, is expecting him, along with his assistants. Here K., a man in his thirties, intends to take up his duties, even as a kind of village worker, or simply as someone who has a binding connection with the Castle--as one who, supposedly, has a claim, or a right, or a sanction. From the very beginning of the story, K.'s quest is one steadily besieged by delay and disappointment.

The introductory paragraph of the novel underscores the tenuous nature of K.'s goal once he arrives one late evening for the purpose of assuming his duties as the Count's Land-Surveyor. What he sees before and around him is a village deep in snow, the Castle hill "hidden, veiled in mist and darkness"--a mysterious, eerie scene with no "glimmer of light to show that a castle was there." This immediate scene is a forbidding mixture of strangeness and awe, one blurring reality and unreality: "On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him."

Not only is K. seeking entrance into a particular kingdom, or community, but also an audience with a particular persona, or potentate, at once distant and invisible, both present and not present, who seems to be as inaccessible and shadowy as the Castle territory itself. And throughout K. has to confront and challenge the "authorities" who have the final right to bar or to unbar his way. In any direct or indirect contact with these authorities, K. comes to find, "one needed in everything else the greatest caution and had to look around on every side before one made a single step." In short, we see that K., no matter how beleaguered or befuddled, is striving "to find a place for himself in the scheme of things." (1)

The circumstances surrounding K.'s claim to a position in the Castle are intrinsically ambiguous. One critic, in fact, contends that K. has no legitimate right to expect to have his position, since he never in the first place was appointed to it. Thus, what K. is claiming is part of a "colossal fraud," a "deception," a perpetrated affair. His two churlish "Assistants," Arthur and Jeremiah, whom K. first encounters in the village and thinks of as "snakes," were "assigned" to him by the Castle; they are not necessarily his old assistants who have worked with K. in the past, though they are perhaps part of the subterfuge that K. himself has concocted in his bid to become an official of the Castle.

Kafka's depiction of the "victory of fiction over reality" must be seen as an integral element in the novel's plot. Simply put, K. is to be viewed as a "stranger," with a strange past, who now appears on the scene. His motives are obscure, perhaps even illegitimate, suspicious, or at most baseless, insofar as the original order regarding his appointment does not exist. K.'s "endless journey" is the result of a "misunderstanding," or some "trifling miscalculation," a "possible error" in the bureaucratic process on the part of the "Central authorities." Still another critic sees K. as "the combination of Faust and Ulysses in the heart of our century." (2)

There is then one "remaining conclusion" regarding K.'s plan as a summoned land-surveyor, in the face of official rejections of his demands for recognition and a place in the Castle. The document supporting K.'s belief in his right to his position is genuine and yet not genuine, since the authorities, as the Mayor of the Village explains, view the letter to K. with reference to his claim as being "in no sense an official communication, but only a private letter." He also explains to K. that the letter in question "means nothing more than that Klamm [a high functionary] intends to take a personal interest in you if you should be taken into the state service."

K.'s appeal to the Mayor has a curious significance since it lacks the kind of definitive validity that officialdom generally expects it to have. Yes and No, Yes ... but, hence characterize what is perceived as K.'s "illusory" expectations. Even K.'s telephone inquiry to the Castle, he learns, is not authentic in its claim; is nothing more than sheer "hymning and singing," because "There's no fixed connection with the Castle, no central exchange that transmits our calls farther." As K. himself declares, "the only remaining conclusion ... is that everything is very uncertain and insoluble, including my being thrown out."

Clearly, K.'s declaration of his rights is part of the deception (or fate) he has spawned, and a deception with which the Castle itself is playing its own game, by indulging K.'s arguments. What we find throughout the novel, especially in K.'s encounters with the Castle's authorities, is mutual deceit being played to the hilt, though, too, there is this one administrative certainty: "... the Castle always has the advantage."

Ostensibly, Kafka's novel, as such discerning commentators as Edwin Muir and Thomas Mann have suggested, deals with the undulant life of the cosmos, the ceaseless search for God, and "the possibilities of salvation." (3) It could be said, too, that Kafka's vision as a whole conveys a fearful religious problem and, in turn, challenges both his readers and his exegetes to reflect on his meaning, or meanings. No less than Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he considered "one of my true blood-relations," Kafka was troubled by the "everlastingly accursed questions," in their depth and magnitude: their moral perplexity, antinomies, enigmas, paradoxes; but, above all, by the "incommensurability" of divine law and human law, which constitutes an important facet of The Castle.

K. is seeking salvation in any variant form that he can find and that will somehow earn him a sense of inclusion, belonging, accomplishment. His search, according to some well-meaning interpreters, adumbrates an excruciating effort to "work out [one's] own salvation with fear and trembling." (Phil. 2:12) K. testifies to Kafka's often-quoted assertion that "Man cannot live without an enduring faith in something indestructible within him." His actual fate, however, as it pitilessly unfolds in The Castle, is a repudiation of this affirmation and attests to "the futility of resistance" and to the invincible power of the absurdity of living. K. himself is representative of "the condemned man" who is powerless before the ineradicable condition of despair, non-meaning, exclusion, isolation. For him there is no road to human dignity, no release from a sentence of death, even as "enduring faith" is a platitude in a world that dictates extinction in a "small stone quarry, deserted and desolate," as suffered by Kafka's protagonist, the bank clerk Joseph K., in The Trial.

The fleeting thought of escaping from a "desolate country" is one that K. refuses to entertain, even when Frieda, his mistress, "a plain, oldish, skinny girl with short, thin hair," begs him at one point to escape to France or Spain, where the two of them would find some peace, some lesser tension and pressures of existence. What we come to see in K. is the depiction of what, as Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod regarding the nature of his creative work, constitutes "a descent to the dark powers, an unchaining of spirits whose natural state is to be bound servants." Indeed, K.'s life-story discloses his inability either to accept the condition of a "bound servant" or to undergo the inner travails of "the dark night of the soul" that lead to a purified and sanctified state of release beyond guilt and punishment--and beyond moral paralysis.

In essence, K.'s quest for salvation can be described as being dubious and abstract, to the extent that for him salvation entails fictitious contexts and untenable aims and polar directions; that, finally, it is synchronous with self-interest and self-preservation insofar as he must achieve inherently subjective purposes, intimately...

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