The Nature of Space in Kafka's The Castle

The Nature of Space in Kafka's The Castle

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The Nature of Space in Kafka's The Castle

 

From the end of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War I,

great developments in technology and knowledge brought about significant

changes in the way man viewed time and space. The necessity of clear train

schedules led to the development of World Standard Time and the plurality

of private time. In regards to space, with which this paper deals, man

moved into other subjective realms beyond the two and three dimensions

described by Euclid. In fact, with Einstein's theory of relativity, the

number of spaces inherent in life increased beyond calculation to equal the

number of moving reference systems of all the matter in the universe. This

theory echoes Nietzche's contemporary philosophical theory of

perspectivism, where space only consists of points of view and

interpretations, not objective facts. Thus, these two doctrines signaled a

breakdown of the old notion that there is a single reality, a single,

absolute space. Space became subjective and relative, man could not be sure

of what it was that actually surrounded him and made up his physical world.

 

Creative artists, painters and novelists, attempted to deal with this new

concept. Attacks were made on traditional notions that there is only one

space and that a single point of view is equal to an understanding.

Writers, specifically, responded with multiple perspectives depicting

different views of the same objects in space in order to demonstrate that

the world is always different as it is perceived by various observers at

varying times. Man had to come to grips with the fact that with such a

plurality of space, he cannot know, understand, or even see the physical

world completely.

 

Thus, it is not surprising that Kafka's final work, The Castle, which

emerged out of the pluralism and confusion of this age, deals with this new

notion of space, this new relativity of the world surrounding man. While

the book can be looked at on a spiritual level, with the castle symbolizing

divinity or the ultimate spiritual meaning of man's existence, in regards

to space, the castle could also symbolize the actual literal, physical

world. Through the nature of K. and his quest, the different ways the

Castle is perceived by K. from various viewpoints along his quest, and the

inability of anyone to know the true nature of the castle officials, Kafka

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demonstrates the inability of man to go beyond relative perceptions in his

views of space and nature in general. K. can never reach the castle.

Constantly bombarded by varying perceptions of it, it becomes a relative

entity, a castle that one cannot understand, nor even see clearly. It

becomes the ambiguity of the space that surrounds man.

 

K. is a land-surveyor. His job is to measure and create boundaries, to

divide up the land, to understand the physical world that surrounds him.

K. states the objective of his quest to reach the castle. "First, I want to

see [Klamm] at close quarters; then I want to hear his voice... but still

the most important thing for me is to be confronted with him." To K., Klamm

comes to represent the castle for once he encounters Klamm, he will be able

"to go beyond him, farther yet, into the Castle." [pg. 145] K. wants to be

confronted with the Castle, to see it, hear it, and thus be able to

understand its physical space, the physical space of the natural world.

Kafka presents K. as the most well-equipped man to achieve such a task.

During his childhood, he was able to scale the wall of a local cemetery.

"Very few boys had managed to climb that wall, and for some time K., too,

had failed.... But one morning... he had succeeded in climbing it with

astonishing ease; at a place where he had already slipped down many a time,

he had clambered with a small flag between his teeth right to the top at

the first attempt." [pg. 38] Able to conquer his own physical nature in the

past, he is now on a quest to conquer the physical nature that surrounds

him. Besides being physically agile, he notices when he first enters a

village house that "he himself was physically the biggest man in the room,"

[pg. 17] he is also mentally equipped. In a village where, according to the

mayor, "the frontiers of our little state are marked out and all officially

recorded," [pg. 77] he holds steadfast to his quest, "thinking of nothing

else at all," [pg. 11] despite the obstacles placed in front of him by the

villagers', their perceptions, and the Castle or natural world itself and

his own perceptions of it. However, it is these very perceptions that

demonstrate the true nature of physical space. It is nothing more than

perceptions.

 

Kafka demonstrates the futileness of K.'s quest through the subjective

nature of K.'s own views or perceptions of the Castle. In the first lines

of the work, Kafka describes K.'s first encounter with the Castle. "It was

late in the evening when K arrived. The village was deep in snow. The

Castle was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a

glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge

leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing

into the illusionary emptiness above him." [pg. 3] Thus, from the onset of

his quest, the fact that the Castle, or the physical world around him, even

exists might only be an illusion, manifested in the mist and darkness of

existence. The next morning, K.'s view of the Castle changes. "Now he could

see the Castle above him, clearly defined in the glittering air, its

outline made still more definite by the thin layer of snow covering

everything." [pg. 11] The fact that he can see the Castle is challenged by

the fact that he can only see its outline. Everything else is covered by a

thin layer of snow. In reality, he is not getting a clear picture of the

Castle. In fact, he observes that "up on the hill everything soared light

and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from below." [pg. 11] His

entire view of the Castle is based only on its appearance from below, a

distant perception of it. He even admits that had he "not known that it was

a castle he might have taken it for a little town. There was only one tower

as far as he could see; whether it belonged to a dwelling-house or a church

he could not determine." [pg. 11] Thus, what he sees is really only a

manifestation of what he knows and of what his land-surveying skills enable

him to make out. It might not even be what actually exists. As he moves

closer to the Castle, he realizes that his initial perceptions where in

fact false. "But on approaching it he was disappointed in the Castle, it

was after all only a wretched-looking town." [pg. 12] At this point, he

almost seems to realize the futility of his quest, when he stops, "as if in

standing still he had more power of judgment." [pg. 12] Standing still

might in fact enable him to see things more clearly. For it is with his

movement closer and closer to the Castle, that he moves farther and farther

from his initial observation that the Castle was "hidden, veiled in mist

and darkness." Even his walk to the Castle illustrates this inability to

reach the true nature of it. "The main street of the village, did not lead

up to the Castle hill; it only made toward it and then, as if deliberately,

turned aside, and though it did not lead away from the Castle, it led no

nearer to it either." [pg. 14] As he walks along on this path that leads

nowhere, he moves farther and farther from a recognition that the true

nature of the Castle, the true nature of physical space will always be

hidden, only to be glimpsed in a scattering of different illusionary

perceptions.

 

These illusionary perceptions are further illustrated in the inability of

anyone to fully grasp the nature of the Castle officials, who all, like

Klamm, represent the Castle, or the nature of the physical world. At the

beginning of his quest, K. observes a picture of a Castle official on the

inn wall. "He had already observed it from his couch by the stove, but from

that distance had not been able to distinguish any details and had thought

that it was only a plain black frame." [pg. 10] Upon moving closer, "it was

a picture after all, as now appeared, the bust portrait of a man about

fifty. His head was sunk so low upon his breast that his eyes were scarcely

visible." [pg. 10] Like with the Castle, moving closer only illuminates

more ambiguity. He should have been content with a plain black frame that

represents the darkness and inability to comprehend these officials.

However, upon closer inspection, all that is made clear to him is a figure

whose eyes, where the key to an individual is manifested, are hidden, a

figure whose true nature is hidden. This same portrait symbol is found

again in the landlady's portrait of Klamm's messenger, where the

messenger's "mouth is open, his eyes tightly shut." [pg. 101] It takes K. a

while to discern who is portrayed and upon doing so, all that is visible is

a figure with eyes shut. Again we have an image of such an official with

K.'s own actual view of Klamm through Frieda's peephole. "His face was

smooth, but his cheeks were already somewhat flabby with age. His black

mustache had long points, his eyes were hidden behind glittering pince-nez

that sat awry." [pg. 47] Again, the eyes, or true nature of the official

space, are hidden upon closer inspection. As the landlady tells K., "You're

not even capable of seeing Klamm as he really is; that's not merely an

exaggeration, for I myself am not capable of it either." [pg. 64] No one

is capable of seeing the Castle officials as they really are. Olga tells

K.,

 

out of glimpses and rumors through various distorting factors an image of

Klamm has been constructed which is certainly true in fundamentals. But

only in fundamentals. In detail it fluctuates, and yet perhaps not so much

as Klamm's real appearance. For he's reported as having one appearance when

he comes into the village and another on leaving it, after having his beer

he looks different from what he does before it, when he's awake he's

different from when he's asleep, when he's alone he's different from when

he's talking to people, and- what is comprehensible after all that- he's

almost another person up in the Castle. And even within the village there

are considerable accounts given of him. [pg. 231]

 

 

Thus, Olga truly describes the subjective nature of Klamm's appearance. She

even explains why this is so. "Now of course all these differences aren't

the result of magic, but can easily explained; they depend on the mood of

the observer, on the degree of his excitement, on the countless gradations

of hope or despair which are possible for him when he sees Klamm." [pg.

231] Olga recognizes that the true nature of Klamm is relative, based only

on the perceptions of different individuals. If Klamm is representative of

the Castle, then the true nature of the Castle, or the physical world, is

based on just as many different perceptions as there exist for Klamm's

appearance. One man's notion of space, depending on his mood, can, and

does, vary significantly from that of another, and thus, there is no

objective real space.

 

In the last physical description of the Castle found in the novel, K.

observes that "the Castle, whose contours were already beginning to

dissolve, lay silent as ever.... the gaze of the observer could not remain

concentrated there, but slid away. " [pg. 128] Through the nature of K.,

his quest, and perceptions of both the Castle and its officials, Kafka

comments on the nature of physical space. He demonstrates that like the

Castle, the true nature of space will always lay silent, even to those who

dedicate their lives to searching for it. It is hid in a layer of snow or

in the blackness of a picture. It follows "the behest of incomprehensible

laws and which only for instants were visible," [pg. 151] under "the

pressure of the imperceptible influences of every moment," [pg. 32] of

every different perception that different people make at different times.

As K. points out, "the only remaining conclusion... is that everything is

very uncertain and insoluble." [pg. 95] The new perception of space offered

to man by the theories of relativity and perceptivism creates a physical

world where everything is subjective. One can never know what really is out

there and must be content with the knowledge that everything is uncertain.

 

The student may wish to begin the essay with the quotes below:

 

"There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective "knowing"; and the

more effects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different

eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our

'concept' of this thing, our 'objectivity.'"

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals [pg. 119]

 

"There is an infinite number of spaces, which are in motion with respect to

each other."

Albert Einstein, Relativity [pg. 9]


Works Cited and Consulted

Arneson, Richard J. "Power and Space in The Castle." Mosaic, 12, No. 4 (1999), 71-82.

Grimes, Margaret. "Kafka’s Use of Space in The Castle." The Centennial Review, 18 (1984), 211-20.

Kafka, Franz. (1926). The castle (Mark Harman, Trans.). New York: Schocken Books. (1998).

Karl, Frederick R. "Space, Time, and Enclosure in The Trial and The Castle." Journal of Modern Literature, 6 (1977): 389 - 397.

Sebald, W. G. "Discovering the Undiscovered in Kafka’s Castle." Journal of European Studies, 2 (1982), 22-34.
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