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eric helms

 “The picture changes in a way that I find less than comprehensible” (198), these words uttered by K., the central character of Kafka’s The Castle, speak for the succession of encumbrances and obstacles, delays and roundabouts that make up what might best, at least at first glance, be described as a muddled fairy tale; a muddled fairy tale wherein K.’s quest as land surveyor to be 'officially received' by the Castle, or Klamm (the Castle personified) is repeatedly denied. It is a fiction of sheer terror in which identity itself is turned inside out then hanged, drawn, quartered; where time appears to stop until it suddenly rushes forward. Through tenebrous stages of despair, hope, paradox; general outbursts of mix-up and confusion, Kafka portrays how completely life can be rendered senseless by an authoritarian state that administers through the semblance of ferment and disarray. 

The ludicrousness is so relentless and yet rigidly held it takes on a clinical precision: “At eight o’clock in the morning all of them may be traveling on a certain road, half an hour later all are on a different one, ten minutes later on a third, half an hour later back on the first, which they then remain on all day, but at any moment this may change” (217). The further one delves into the tale, the more suspect the village attending the Castle becomes: “everything is idiotic and everything is lost” (291). As if its very absurdities were part of a greater orchestration; its villagers—talking gibberish, outdoing one another with exaggerations and fabrications—merely vessels of the same operation whereby the Castle becomes a living, breathing organism, invisibly feeding upon K.’s willpower and volition. 

The argument can be made that K.’s exchanges and interactions—whether with Hans, Barnabas, Artur, Jeremias, the Village Chairman, Frieda, Olga, the list goes on and on—at some point become so pointless yet surgically drawn-out they are but fragments of the same frivolous interrogation, disrupting not only temporal distinctions but the individual autonomy of perspective itself. It becomes trivial as to which character outwardly is for or against K.’s well-being, as each engagement—rapidly transitioning from one point to another—signifies another roadblock or filibuster further draining his resolve, “depriving him not only of the chance to gain a few easy victories but also of the corresponding satisfaction and the resulting well-founded confidence for other, greater battles” (58). 

Strikingly, the villagers take on a swarm intelligence; while there is no centralized ordinance seemingly governing behavior, their combined exchanges suggest a surgical operation lost to the individual agents. This human swarming runs parallel and can be thought in visual terms to The Castle’s fractal design, a pattern universal to nature, and particularly integral to the theory of chaos, where lopsided shapes replicate at increasingly smaller scales. In the case of K., this unfolding asymmetry is weaponized, used by the Castle’s authority (whether this be Klamm or not) to condition basic freedoms into tinier cells until one’s sense of self becomes minuscule, trifling,


inappreciable. Disturbingly, we enter a world of actoids and bots where to be naturalized means to be neutralized, inducing uncritical conformity to fuel an unseen, all-seeing intelligence. As Olga warns “it’s instilled in you throughout your lives in many different ways and from all sides, and you yourselves help this along as best you can” (182-3). It is only after the complete loss of subjective identity (whereby one loses those traits solely unique to them and consequentially is no longer a threat to the [sic] overall thoughtform) that K. (or any new arrival) can expect not to be reviled, shunned, abhorred as an ink drop in the village’s glass of water. Analogous to the cyber-organisms of Facebook, Google, Amazon,


the more individuals who erratically feed into the Castle’s egregore, the more invasive, all-powerful and monstrous its authority, as thoughtform, becomes. Mirroring our own contemporary troubles for comprehending let alone questioning the unchecked agency of Facebook and other cloud-based poleis , the Castle’s laws can only be guessed at; interpretation itself becomes codified to the extent that officials, lost in their own myopic duties, begin to question if their “offices [are] actually the Castle” (174)?  It is worth mentioning that the term fractal, whether lost to Kafka or not, stems from the Latin, frāctus, meaning ‘broken’ or ‘fractured.’ The genius of this seemingly unfinished novel then revolves, 


revolves around how Kafka’s own form of writing serves as the original instance from which the fractal pattern emerges, replicates, (d)evolves to the extent that try to understand “the tiniest things,” that the Castle may merely be nominal, “and you’ll be busy all your life and never get to the end” (216). As Kafka admitted to Max Brod during the months spent writing Das Schloss (which in German is a homonym referring to a lock): “The movement multiplies itself–it is a regular solar system of vanity […] Such a writer is continually staging such a scene” (LFFE 334).


Like our own friends, colleagues and family members mindlessly posting, searching, sharing, scrolling deeper into the cybernetic minefield of data, which Google, Amazon, Facebook then pit for their capital, it is the lack of distance and limit of scope that ultimately fail K., that keep him from breaching The Castle’s fourth wall, from realizing that outside the village it has none.


And yet who exactly is the malicious genius, the cartesian devil feeding off the shifting [sic] thoughtform of The Castle’s construct? As the saying goes, the devil is in the details and goes by many names. In our case it is by interrogating two characters (one major, one small) that we arrive at that molded “someone who was more than you and me and all the people in the village” (309). Momus, who on the surface appears as merely Klamm’s village secretary, is in fact Klamm; or more accurately Klamm is Momus. This sensitive dependence or quantum entanglement between Momus and Klamm (and then the larger cast of The Castle, itself) becomes the novel’s invisible butterfly that, despite being in Brazil, quietly, absurdly whispers


a hurricane to life. As for any fractal evidence, Olga’s cagey revelation will suffice: “A powerful young gentleman, isn’t he? And so he probably doesn’t look at all like Klamm? And yet you can find people in the village who would swear that Momus is Klamm and none other than he” (181). In line with Kafka’s dark humor, Momus can be traced to the Greek Mōmos, meaning “disgrace, blame, ridicule.” In Greek Mythology, he is the god of satire, mockery and of

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