Thursday, 2 June 2016

On the Nature of Identity and the Self in Franz Kafka's "Das Schloß" (1922)

Both immensely allusive and immensely elusive, Kafka’s last great novel Das Schloss is an intricate work that, along with a number of his later short stories, raises haunting questions regarding a person’s sense of self, of their identity. It could be argued that the entire novel, in presenting a man trying in vain to enter a castle he is unable even to approach, is concerned with an individual’s futile search for identity. While the broad parameters of even this rather vague reading may seem difficult to argue with, it is the aspects which do not quite fit which elevate Das Schloss to the profound, intriguing work of insight that it is: the treatment of Other, of the Other’s sense of Self, and the liminal space between them, marks the novel out as perhaps Kafka’s most mature and developed achievement.
Before turning to the text itself, a little digression on selfhood and identity will help us gain what bearings we can: the two terms are close enough that one could be forgiven for thinking of a title referring to both as a tautology, but the nuanced ways in which they are not the same thing are vital to any discussion of them. ‘Selfhood’, that is to say the state of having a developed self, one’s own individuality, or indeed, an ‘identity’, has fewer meanings than the latter word; ‘identity’ may mean ‘the condition of being a certain person or thing’, or ‘the particular characteristics by which a person is recognisable’, or ‘the awareness that an individual person or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity’. These latter three definitions necessitate a relationship with the Other where selfhood does not – or at least, not so strongly. A feeling that one has a developed self may only be possible when set against or alongside the developed selves of others, granted; but the distinctness of identity, the condition of being this particular item in a sequence of items, or referring to the manner in which a person is known or recognisable to other persons, only possesses meaning in a context of manifold identities; one cannot be functionally described as a recognisable individual if no other individuals exist to do the recognising. ‘Identity’ has two further senses which are appropriate here: ‘the fact or condition of being the same as, or of being associated or affiliated with, something/somebody else’ (that is to say, patently the opposite sense from being a distinct individual; after all the word stems from Latin idem, selfsame/same) and ‘information used to establish or prove a person’s individuality’. Identity must be thought of as denoting an understanding of self simultaneously in terms of distinct traits and in terms of shared traits: of one’s being both without and within, expressing the paradox whereby Self is also Other, whereby Self cannot be said to be Self if it is not also Other. This paradox exists in the German Identität, too, meaning as it does both ‘Echtheit einer Person oder Sache’ and ‘Gleichheit’[1].

Powell, in discussing Kafka’s animal stories such as Ein Bericht für eine Akademie, explores Kafka’s use of the grotesque, of a world ‘eerily reminiscent of our own, yet not our own’, in the light of this ‘ontology of Otherness’, the gap between Self and Other, a demarcation that is essential to maintaining all notion of selfhood[2]. This label is applied to the way in which Ein Bericht für eine Akademie presents Rotpeter shedding the Unself of apehood and becoming Self, now desiring not to become Unself again; as one of Kafka’s named animal protagonists – which differentiates him from the narrator of Josefine, die Sängerin for instance, or that of Forschungen eines Hundes – Rotpeter can claim to some pretence of identity at the very least, and indeed presents his Unself as being further removed in the past than that of the gentlemen of the academy (‘Ihr Affentum, meine Herren, soferne Sie etwas Derartiges hinter sich haben, kann Ihnen nicht ferner sein als mir das meine’). Another of Kafka’s animal protagonists, the unnamed narrator of Josefine, die Sängerin oder das Volk der Mäuse, is a good focal point for questions about individuals within a plural identity, as Robertson’s illuminating study of the story’s personal pronouns suggests[3]. The story’s very title displays a conflict between the individual Josefine and the community of mice, as though we must choose between them; the opening word of the story is ‘unser’ and we can find constant references to ‘Geschlecht’ or ‘Volk’; at the start, the story’s narrator (its ‘ich’) is very much the subset of a ‘wir’. This changes to reflect the narrator’s individual interests (‘ich habe oft darüber nachgedacht’), fragmenting the ‘wir’, the ‘ich’ still within it but now questioning it, thus both within and without. The narrator seems loath, however, to commit to any given position (‘diese Opposition, zu der auch ich halb gehöre’) and by the story’s end the ‘Volk’ has once again asserted its ‘primacy’[4] over the ‘ich’. Thus by way of preliminary, we find these questions of selfhood and identity – the struggle between identity as distinctness and identity as sameness – appearing not just in Das Schloß but in Kafka’s short fiction.
The most obvious starting point for Das Schloß itself in terms of selfhood and identity is also where we would begin with both classical and Romantic drama, or indeed the Bildungsroman that had become so common in the last two centuries: the selfhood of the protagonist, the identity of the major player who is granted the greatest part. In this respect, we are likely to find K. an almost bland disappointment. The truncation of Kafka’s protagonists’ names here reaches its natural conclusion: from Karl to Josef K. to simply ‘K’. He is an emigrant like Karl Rossmann, a stranger and an outsider in an unfamiliar world he has never before visited. We learn little about his past, his family: he says, ‘wenn man, wie ich, so weit von Frau und Kind reist, dann will man auch etwas heimbringen’, but otherwise – and particularly in his marriage to Frieda – this wife and child seem very hastily forgotten (and it is worth noting the ambiguous, quasi-impersonal phrasing: ‘wenn man, wie ich’). K’s sense of self does not seem to come from his time before arriving in the village; we never learn where it is that he has come from. Boa’s examination of Das Schloss in terms of Heimat is instructive in this regard; discussing how the German word bears a range of associations that the English ‘home’ or ‘homeland’ does not quite cover (both a physical and a social space), she suggests that K., as ‘modern subject’, a wanderer trying to make his fortune just like Karl in Der Verschollene, tries to ‘underpin his sense of self through integration in a local community’[5].
Yet this new world in which he finds himself, in Kafka’s usual tradition, is both far more concrete and far less concrete than he would like. On occasion the narrative’s focalisation or Einsinnigkeit gives us a solipsistic K. for whom nothing else is real or concrete, only his Self. ‘K. stand wie im Wolken’, we read at one point, as though the very earth of this new locale is somehow too insubstantial to bear him. He defines the Other as pivoting around himself, as though their definitions of Selfhood can change in his hands at will, as in his statement to Artur and Jeremias, ‘ich bin hier ein Fremder, und wenn ihr meine alten Gehilfen seid, dann seid auch ihr Fremde’; later, he can scarcely believe that Jeremias is even alive (‘dieses Fleisch, das manchmal den Eindruck machte, als sei es nicht recht lebendig’). Perhaps most lyrically of all, during his long night listening to Bürgel, we find the following thought: ‘selbst Gespenster verschwinden gegen Morgen, aber K. sei dort geblieben’. He is too concrete to vanish like a mere spirit or ghost – and it is not unlikely that he has such inaccessible figures as Klamm, Erlanger or Galater in mind at this point, those who, if they have selves, do not seem to relate to his Self in any way, but to remain permanently, invisibly Other. He remains indisputably real even in the face of dreamlike unrealities.
But we are less likely to remember these moments as we are his chronic sense of Unself, of having been forcibly Othered. As above, K. is a ‘Fremder’, an outsider, and the village does not let him forget this: ‘Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloß, sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, sie sind nichts...ein Fremder, einer, der überzählig und überall im Weg ist’, Gardena tells him, and he himself admits moments later that ‘ich bin vor Klamm ein Nichts’. Boa contrasts this ‘modern subject’ (K.) with the quasi-feudal, quasi-atavistic world in which he finds himself[6]; it is as though he has wandered in from the pages of a different type of story and has thus lost the meaning which that context would grant him. He is denied an identity in other ways, too, returning us to the sense of ‘identity’ as ‘information used to establish or prove an individual’s identity’. This is most obvious in his status as having been summoned as Landvermesser by a castle department, and yet finding upon arrival that this summons – or offer of work – has limited worth to it at best. The village mayor tells K. that ‘Sie sind als Landvermesser aufgenommen, wie Sie sagen; aber leider, wir brauchen keinen Landvermesser. Es wäre nicht die geringste Arbeit für ihn da’. On a similar note, his old assistants do not turn up and his equipment never materialises – as though he had never had either. Can a land surveyor who has no land surveying to do, and not the slightest need for any land surveying in the future, really be described as a land surveyor? Is the term purely ornamental, then, rather than a part of who he is? In this way his job title, his mechanical function, his purpose, his ‘Aufgabe’, is stripped from him, though – humorously – it remains how he is addressed (‘Herr Landvermesser’) throughout. It remains nominally a part of K.’s Self even as it becomes essentially meaningless; it is both within him and without him. There seems little doubt that this is a constant matter of frustration for K.: ‘es handelte sich um meine Existenz!’, he exclaims. Left to his own devices, back where he came from, he could perhaps continue to identify part of his Self as a Landvermesser. But in Kafka’s universe, as Powell argues, ‘strangeness [and/or being estranged] does not issue from the self, but from…the discrepancy between world and self’[7]. It is his status here, now, in this context, which causes this loss of identity.
There is, finally, the matter of K’s own deceptions, of those instances where he actively toys with the idea that his identity (and that of others) is a fluid thing. ‘Wie soll ich euch denn unterschieden?’, he asks his two assistants, ‘...ihr unterscheidet euch nur durch die Namen, sonst seid ihr einander ähnlich wie Schlangen’. In this way he denies Artur and Jeremias their identity (and, indeed, their humanity, comparing them as he does to snakes), despite the fact that others such as Frieda seem perfectly able to distinguish between them (later, K. seems completely unable to recognise Jeremias; ‘du siehst aber ganz anders aus’, he offers in his defence). His toying with his own Self emerges, too, when he fails to identify himself properly over the phone to one of the castle employees, calling himself Josef and claiming to be a ‘Gehilfe’; he hides behind his inferiors and those of lower rank, just as Klamm or Graf Westwest do.
Das Schloß, however, is not exclusively the story of K. the land surveyor, not in the same way that Josef K. dominates Der Proceß. One arguably gains more of a sense of the individuality and personhood of Frieda, Amalia, Olga, Barnabas, and Gardena than any character in Der Proceß save Josef K.; even Leni remains an inscrutable mystery, and most of the other characters do not even have names. Josef K. is our only guide; without him we are blind; he is a lone wanderer to whom we helplessly cling as he goes from encounter to encounter, finding the world impossible to understand in the wake of each. While K. in Das Schloß may start similarly as our entrance-point into this unknown land, here Kafka does not in the same way focus on the protagonist at the exclusion of all else. What he does instead is potentially far more interesting: he fleshes out the men and women of the Dorf, gives them their own Selves, by giving them power over the narrative. The plethora and insistence of these other voices (mostly women) is unusual in Kafka.
It is also the core of the most moving element of the narrative: the relationship between K. and Frieda. Erratic, contradictory, fiercely intense then full of languor, these passages are nonetheless unique in tone, and the text’s clearest expression of that space between Self and Other. The first time they make love is in the grime and squalor of the puddles on the floor of the pub; at first there seems to be unification, as though the divide between them can be crossed (‘dort vergingen Stunden, Stunden gemeinsamen Atems, gemeinsamen Herzschlags’) but over time it sours and becomes suffocating (‘in der man vor Fremdheit ersticken müsse und in deren unsinnigen Verlockungen man doch nichts tun könne als weiter gehen, weiter sich verirren’). In the following chapter we read that the lovers are seeking something in each other ‘wie Hunden verzweifelt im Boden scharren…hilflos, enttäuscht’, hunting confirmation or affirmation of one’s Self, each trying to burrow into that elusive ‘space’ between them where they may find themselves. As the story develops and we become more familiar with K.’s egotism – his trying to define Frieda as either ‘Klamms Geliebte’ or ‘meine Frau’ (she is not permitted simply to be Frieda and Frieda as Self) – we might be inclined to wonder whether our focus should really be on K., who is as controlling and deceitful as the elusive authorities seem to be. Toward the end of the story, perhaps, K. himself is starting to realise this, concerned that he is actually a minor character in Frieda’s story (‘es ist fast, als sei er Friedas dritter Gehilfe’; and later, ‘es sah ja aus, als habe er erst durch die Berührung mit Frieda seine tatsächliche Nichtigkeit entdeckt, wolle sich Friedas würdig machen’). Duttlinger writes of K. losing ‘him-self’ in an unknown territory[8], that female “dark continent”[9] which, for all its initial familiar comfort of ‘Heimatluft’, nonetheless ends up terrifying him, because of what it means about himself. ‘Wie brauche ich deine Nähe’, she tells him in the text’s most extraordinary, tender moment; Frieda and K. find themselves both within and without in terms of how they relate to each other, their selves both fulfilled and denied.
It is not just Frieda who threatens K.’s sense of K.-as-protagonist, threatens his sense of Self. The long sequence in the fifteenth chapter sees Olga become – in effect – a second narrator, a role denied even K., speaking of her family’s various past difficulties, of her sister Amalia’s rejection of a castle official’s advances, and of their general status as pariahs. As Robertson notes, the Castle itself has not actively punished them for Amalia’s actions[10]; it was rather assumptions and beliefs on the part of the other villagers that led to the family’s identity as participants in village life, as members of the village, being denied. And yet for all her rejection of the Castle, Amalia is in some sense the character who comes closest to it (Hoffmann 1981[11]). We may note that this is represented linguistically (Amalia locked herself away or ‘schloss sich’; in response to the castle messenger she ‘schloss das Fenster’; we hear she ‘hat mit Sortini abgeschlossen’; finally, ‘ihre Beweggründe hält Amalia in ihrer Brust verschlossen, niemand wird sie ihr entreissen’, all my italics), but it is also of interest – and typical of Politzer’s emphasis on Kafka’s use of paradox[12] – that for all her distance from the Castle, she may symbolically already be there. She has withdrawn, has explicitly made her Self into Other. How damning for K., then, that for all his striving he cannot reach whatever it is that Amalia has already found.
In its first appearance, the Castle, too, is defined by what it is not: its Other. K. sees it as neither ‘eine alte Ritterburg’ or ‘ein neuer Prunkbau’; that is to say, he tells us what the forms of its Other would look like, rather than properly sketching out the Castle ‘it-self’. It is constantly visible, looming over the village, yet constantly invisible, for we never see inside it. Paths run towards it without deviating or turning away from it, yet somehow never reach it either. The village houses and rooms in which we see the castle’s many officials alternate between being inviting and claustrophobic – a constant interplay between their inner and outer forms. We never see anyone entering the Castle – but we do know of plenty who come out of it (the Gehilfe; ‘ein Mädchen aus dem Schloss’; officials who come down to the village). If we see the Castle, as Fromm does, as the ‘zentrale Unbestimmtheit im Roman’[13] (a term sufficiently vague and general that it is hard to find many who would disagree with it), could it then be the case that its Unbestimmtheit radiates outwards? Could it spread out geographically affecting the people of the village, affecting K., but also temporally, which might explain the lacunae in his past? The Castle itself seems to be a personification of lack-of-personhood, its very identity identitylessness, its primary interpretation its refusal to be interpreted. Perhaps the uncertainty which it – for want of a better word – generates in its surroundings is what hangs in the space between Self and Other, retarding communication and impeding rational investigation. It is not so much that the Castle annihilates all meaning as that it shrouds itself in ‘Nebel und Finsternis’: it obscures the meaning that is there, the identity of the novel, leaving us with an imperfect picture. An imperfect picture, however, is better than no picture, and like K. we can still see the Castle, feel its effects, meet its representatives… can be, in some sense, both without and within.


Kafka, Franz, Das Schloß, Insel Taschenbuch, 2010.
Kafka, Franz, Sämtliche Erzählungen (ed. Paul Raabe), Fischer, 1970.

Secondary literature:
  1. Alt, Peter-André, Kafka: Der ewige Sohn, Beck, 2005.
  2. Beicken, Peter U., Franz Kafka: Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung, Athenäum Fischer Taschenbuch, 1974.
  3. Boa, Elizabeth, “The Castle”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  4. Caldwell Jnr., Roy Chandler, “The Interplay of Fiction and Interpretation in Kafka’s Castle”, in South Central Review, Vol 3 No 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
  5. Duttlinger, Carolin, The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  6. Fromm, Walter, “Das Schloss”, in Kafka-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung (eds. Manfred Engel & Bernd Auerochs), Metzler, 2010.
  7. Harman, Mark, “Approaching K.’s Castle,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol 105 No 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  8. Heller, Erich, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters (ed. Frank Kermode), Fontana/Collins, 1974.
  9. Heller, Peter, “On Not Understanding Kafka”, in The German Quarterly, Vol 47 No 3, Wiley, 1974.
  10. Hoffmann, Anne Golumb, “Plotting the Landscapes: Stories and Storytelling in The Castle”, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 27 No 3, Hofstra University, 1981.
  11. Politzer, Heinz, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell University Press, 1966.
  12. Powell, Matthew T., “Bestial Representations of Otherness: Kafka’s Animal Stories”, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 32 No 1, Indiana University Press, 2008.
  13. Reed, Eugene E., “Kafka: Possession and Being”, in Monatshefte, Vol 50 No 7, University of Wisconsin Press, 1958.
  14. Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  15. Robertson, Ritchie and Engel, Manfred, Kafka und die kleine Prosa der Moderne, Königshausen & Neumann, 2010.
  16. Winkelman, John, “An Interpretation of Kafka’s Das Schloss”, in Monatshefte, Vol 64 No 2, University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

[1]All definitions taken from Duden-Wörterbuch and/or The Free Dictionary; retrieved online.
[2]Powell, Matthew T., “Bestial Representations of Otherness: Kafka’s Animal Stories”, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 32 No 1, Indiana University Press, 2008.
[3]Robertson, Ritchie, “»Ich« and »wir«: Singular and Collective Narrators in Kafka‘s Short Prose”, in Kafka und die kleine Prosa der Moderne (ed. Robertson with Manfred Engel), Königshausen & Neumann, 2010.
[5]Boa, Elizabeth, “The Castle”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[7]Powell, Matthew T., “Bestial Representations of Otherness: Kafka’s Animal Stories”, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 32 No 1, Indiana University Press, 2008.
[8]Duttlinger, Carolin, The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
[9]Cixous, Hélène, The Laugh of the Medusa (translated by Keith & Paula Cohen), Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1976.
[10]Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[11]Hoffmann, Anne Golumb, “Plotting the Landscapes: Stories and Storytelling in The Castle”, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 27 No 3, Hofstra University, 1981.
[12]Politzer, Heinz, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell University Press, 1966.
[13]Fromm, Walter, “Das Schloss”, in Kafka-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung (eds. Manfred Engel & Bernd Auerochs), Metzler, 2010.

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