Essay: “Annihilation,” Part Two

"Just as Kafka seems within reach of his goal...disintegration takes place."

The following is the second and concluding part of Eric Basso’s essay “Annihilation,” as published in his collection of critical writings, Decompositions. The first part can be found here. Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books. — The Editors


There can no longer be any question that, with Proust and Joyce, Franz Kafka endures as one of the towering fig­ures of twentieth-century literature. Of the three, Kafka’s works have commanded the most varied influence, in part because they addressed themselves to fictive conditions which soon after became the realities of a German Europe whose “administrative” efficiency brought the Kafkaesque to life in a manner far exceeding its namesake’s wildest visions. Yet even Kafka has his predecessors; his work devel­ops narrative techniques initiated by Kleist and Flaubert, two writers with whom he holds much in common. One need only read the eight Novellen of Heinrich von Kleist —particularly “Michael Kohlhaas,” that arresting study in futility — to know the measure of Kafka’s debt. As to the influence of Flaubert, it is the search for le mot juste, the ruthless pruning of extraneous material, the care lavished upon minutiæ that lends the Kafka text its haunting sub­stantiality. This detracts not a whit from Kafka’s originality, for no matter how bizarre an author’s work may appear on the surface, if it is of any lasting consequence its roots lie deep. In this regard, the link with Flaubert, whom Kafka saw as the ideal of the dedicated artist, may shed light on the nature of what has sometimes been considered the chief obstacle to an appreciation of his fiction and is, at the same time, the cause of much bewildering and contradictory exegesis.

Today there are at least three distinct schools of Kafka criticism, with twice as many shades of gray between. The fiction, if not the parables and paradoxes, continues to at­tract controversy largely because misreadings of the texts themselves, principally the novels, has led to profound misconceptions of their “meaning,” as though a simple formula sufficed to place Amerika or The Trial within the sphere of religious allegory, Gnosticism, Marxism, Freud­ian psychology, Surrealism, Existentialism, le nouveau roman, etc. The case is further complicated by the fact that there is a grain of validity to all such assertions. We know that Kafka himself was fully aware of the Freudian aspect of his work vis-à-vis the father; his interest in Judaism (especially the mystic wisdom of the hasidim) was sincere, though he makes it plain in the famous “Letter to His Father” (November 1919) and in his other correspondence that he is not in any sense a true believer — it is only toward the end of his life that Kafka becomes an ardent Zionist, probably more from concern with social experiment than out of religious zeal, for in a letter of 1922 he still describes himself as “alienated from the Faith.” All this notwithstanding, there is a pecu­liarly religious tone to the statements Kafka makes about the act of writing. He sees in the creative effort — the process as opposed to the content of a work — a “diabolic element” sustaining the “dark power” that destroys his life and without which, paradoxically, he would be crushed by madness. His is a body of literature emerging from fear and insomnia, a demons’ bridge let down between the hellish tortures of the night and the deceptive calm of daylight where the machinations of a writer’s two familiar fiends, “vanity and sensuality,” can pass unnoticed; its process is the nocturnal quest for nothing less than salvation, which Kafka knows lies forever beyond his reach because, for him, to write is to enact the occasion of his death without dying, to purchase a brief reprieve of amnesia from the inevitable by his refusal to live. Kafka would describe his coming demise to the last intimate detail and, in doing so, achieve the condition of “self-forgetfulness” so indispensable to an author whose own voice must be silenced in order that full expression be given to the dark forces within. Thus, Kafka recedes behind his work, effacing himself until no Kafka is left to suffer the evidence of his imminent annihilation. According to Kafka, the process eats away at the writer’s ego, is proof that “the existence of a writer is an argument against the existence of the soul.” Here Kafka found himself on the horns of a grim personal dilemma: the creative effort had cost him the life he might have lived only at the price of madness; the writing itself, if it forestalled that madness, nevertheless cut him off from life without ever bringing him nearer to salvation — it was “the reward for serving the devil,” and considering his one alternative, he could not have done otherwise, for the gradual detachment of the soul from what he called the ego allowed him to abandon his ego willfully rather than live the anguish of waiting for it to be taken by death. All this Kafka confided to Max Brod in a letter written during the period in which he was feverishly at work on The Castle. It would appear difficult to reconcile these desperate pronouncements with the cool, almost passionless control Kafka exerts over the style of his writing; and, indeed, such has been the case with commentators who have mistakenly applied Kafka’s statements on process to the content of his novels (witness the remarkably nonsensical “Homage” of Thomas Mann to The Castle). This confusion is understandable; the Flauberstian ideal of detachment seems at odds with an unleashing of the inner demons until we recall that Kafka’s surrender to the darkness results in “self-forgetfulness.” Yet there is another, more profound reason for the disconcerting plentitude of “meanings” educed from a novel like The Castle. Consider the labyrinthine basis of its structure, its cause for being: the deliberate subversion of plot and character by a rich construct of ambiguities.

The Castle presents the reader with a problem of navigation, yet is written so that all attempts at navigation are calculated to founder. Like Flaubert, Kafka refuses to meddle in the action; when he does comment, it is only to further an ambiguity. Statements seemingly straightforward suddenly appear to have been tentative, their accuracy deflected, reduced to nil. Kafka repeatedly deletes passages, often whole scenes, in which his characters tend to reveal strong emotion; he refuses to let them upset the delicate balance he has established between the hypotheses and the realities of life in the village until, with the progress of attrition, reality becomes so dubious that only hypothesis remains. His characters are enigmas to one another, even, one thinks, to themselves. K., his shadowy protagonist, wishes to reach the Castle, to live and work in the Castle village, but why? Why do the Castle officials take such pains with a man whom they would prefer to dismiss? “Why” collapses under an elaborate scaffolding of contradictions, hence the accusation that Kafka is “vague.” This alleged vagueness is precisely what has fostered the divergence of critical opinion cited earlier, enabling Kafka’s flag to tower at half-mast above a number of literary ideologies. But Kafka’s ambiguity, far from being vague, is rigorously controlled by the precision with which it is evoked; there are no idle metaphors, and because everything said about the Castle and its relation to the village is suspect, nothing can be ignored. Every sentence, to the last word, must be taken into account. Since “why” yields only a tissue of qualifying explanations that cancel one another out, we must examine Kafka’s use of ambiguity, asking “how” rather than “why,” if we are to find at least the shade of an answer to his mysterious novel. The ambiguities in The Castle consist of two basic types: image and equivocation.

A man, designated by the lone initial K., arrives late one evening in a snowbound village; thus, The Castle begins. K. stands on a wooden bridge and sees nothing but mist and darkness; no sign of the Castle, only an “illusory emptiness” into which he stares for a long time. It is suggested that K. knows nothing of the Castle’s existence, or that he lies when, at the inn, after being told he will need a permit from the Castle in order to stay in the village, he replies, “What village is this I have wandered into? Is there a castle here?”[i] Immediately after this admission of ignorance K. reverses himself, countering the threats of a young man “with the face of an actor” by assuming his own rôle, claiming to be the Land-Surveyor whom Count Westwest, of the Castle, has been expecting, and whose assistants, unavoid­ably detained, will arrive in the village on the following day with his “apparatus.” When the hectoring young man telephones the Castle for verification, K.’s claim is denied. Just as K. is about to be hounded out of the inn, the Castle suddenly rings back to confirm his story. An odd chain of events, to say the least, made odder by the appearance of K.’s “assistants” on schedule; they are known by name to the villagers, and have come from the direction of the Castle. K. does not recognize the two young men until they identify themselves; then, enthusiastically, he asks if they are not “my old assistants, whom I told to follow me and whom I am expecting,” which fools no one. We learn much later that the assistants have been sent by the Castle to cheer K. up because he “takes everything too seriously.” Accord­ing to the official who dispatched them, K. “has just got to the village and starts off thinking that a great experience, whereas in reality it’s nothing at all,” nothing because, as the Mayor points out, all K.’s contacts with the authorities have been, like the emptiness that shrouds the Castle in the night, “illusory,” and only K.’s ignorance of the Castle bu­reaucracy has led him to believe they were real. The Castle’s strange acceptance of this “nothing” provides K., in turn, with an illusory apparatus.

In the opening pages of the novel, K. gives the impression of a faceless sleeper attempting to direct the action of a dream that threatens to become a nightmare. But he is not dreaming. He seeks to impose his wishes upon others, seen and unseen. In chapters one and two he succeeds to a remarkable degree as the active force in a kind of chess game, bolstered by the Castle’s acceptance of his “challenge.” K. views himself as the aggressor, and Kafka pointedly refers to “the greatness of his enemy and of his ambition.” The Castle officials immediately become K.’s unwitting accomplices, for their “indecision” gives him the early advantage; he has put them on the defensive, laid the burden of proof, so to speak, upon them. Unlike Kafka’s two previous novels in which the protagonist receded, much against his own intentions, an increasingly greater distance from the goal, The Castle presents an intruder, an agent provocateur who has “the hardihood to make the first advances.” K., as initiator, must affect a certain stance with characters who, like him, convey the self-consciousness of actors not so much unsure of what their rôles are as of how they are to be played. On the fragile basis of a look, a gesture, words which may of themselves be wholly innocuous, K. determines his moves in the contest; all explanations of his behavior, by himself and others, are smothered in the unrelenting ambiguity of the text. One might say with equal incertitude that K.’s reactions are those of a paranoiac, or at times schizoid, or that he is merely acting out of caution to mask his hand from villagers upon whose trust he can never allow himself to rely. His motives remain obscure. One senses a gradual erosion of purpose, due more to fatigue than to any faltering of determination, as contradiction piles upon contradiction. This loss of control is evident from the very beginning on the part of the Castle, whose surrounding emptiness never quite solidifies and becomes only less “illusory” after K has asserted himself, in truth or falsehood, as Land-Surveyor. At first glance the Castle simply appears to be another, more distant village; some days later, at dusk, as K. stares beyond the town at the Castle, its contours are “already beginning to dissolve.” As with the novel itself, “the longer he looked, the less he could make out and the deeper everything was lost in the twilight.” A similar ambiguity of image, with something of the dream about it, envelops the figures of Klamm, K.’s reticent superior, and Jeremiah, the second of the zany assistants. When Frieda, the taproom girl, allows K. to peer through the judas into Klamm’s office at the inn, he espies a corpulent gentleman seated at a desk, a somewhat jowly face lit by an incandescent lamp hung low, whose reflection in the lenses of his pince-nez obscures his eyes; when, moments after, Frieda tells K. that the man, though upright and clutching an uncut cigar between his fingers, is asleep and always sleeps thus, it comes as a surprise — K., taking little note of what might lie behind the reflections, has naturally assumed Klamm to be awake. Jeremiah’s case is rather more bizarre: in the interval of a few hours his physical appearance changes so radically that K. fails to recognize him; the obstreperous youth has metamorphosed into an older, wearier man, become a “puppet, which sometimes gave one the impression of not being properly alive.” Jeremiah’s image has been altered to render his character ambiguous; he is almost literally a shadow of his former self, consumed and near delirium with fever toward the close of the novel when he confronts the equally exhausted K. This question of identity-in-metamorphosis returns us to the elusive Klamm.

Klamm’s image, like that of the other Castle gentlemen, is kept alive by rumor but at the same time rendered hopelessly inconsistent because the knowledge we possess of his habits, his comings and goings, his idiosyncratic sexual escapades, and even his physiognomy, rests entirely upon a dislocating sequence of equivocations. Eyewitness accounts of Klamm are conflicting. Barnabas, who must work directly under him as K.’s liaison with the Castle, can never be sure “whether it’s really Klamm he speaks to or not,” for Klamm “is reported as having one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it … he’s almost another person up in the Castle.” Almost, an important qualification when we acknowledge Barnabas and his counterparts as being so preoccupied by the cases they must put to Klamm that they have little time for distraction during their brief, infrequent audiences with him. Klamm may only seem to be a man of many faces; perhaps this confusion of identity has a perfectly natural explanation: none of the so-called eyewitnesses has ever had sufficient opportunity to fix an image of Klamm in his mind. But what of the landlady? Due to some shady former connection with Klamm, she appears to know much more about him than any of the other villagers. If Klamm is one person, if his image remains fixed in the landlady’s mind, her elliptical explanations nevertheless allot him a certain measure of anonymity. He speaks to no one, and not even the landlady professes to be “capable of seeing Klamm as he really is.” In a passage deleted by Kafka, Klamm’s secretary Momus informs K. that Klamm “cannot endure the sight of” him, implying that K.’s insistence on waiting beside Klamm’s sleigh in the Herrenhof courtyard has caused the Castle official to waste two working hours hiding from K. in the inn. Klamm will evidently go out of his way to avoid a confrontation; I say “evidently” because this Eighth Chapter, as it stands, has a more ambiguous ending: the horses are unhitched on Momus’ orders because K. has stubbornly refused to abandon his post, hence Klamm is unable to leave for the Castle. Eventually, all trace of K.’s footprints in the snow is obliterated by the coachman to spare Klamm’s feelings. But just as Klamm’s pathological reticence seems established, further equivocations ensue, first from the landlady, who puts Klamm’s alleged shyness down to the interference of anxious secretaries charged with his protection; of course he “will never speak to anybody whom he doesn’t want to speak to, no matter how much trouble this anybody might take, and no matter how insufferably forward he may be; but that fact alone, that Klamm will never speak to him, never allow him to come into his presence, is enough in itself: why after all should it follow that he isn’t able to endure seeing this anybody?” In a passage deleted from a later chapter, Erlanger confesses to K. that “Klamm, my chief, has been a little uneasy during the last few days, at least it seems so to us who live in his proximity .… that does not mean he is uneasy — how should uneasiness touch him? — but we are uneasy, we around him are uneasy and can hardly conceal it from him any more in our work.” 

This uneasiness of the Castle gentlemen — the driving force behind Kafka’s novel — attains its fullest expression in the crucial Eighteenth Chapter found among the author’s papers and published, with what are now the closing chapters, fragments and variants, in the fourth German edition of The Castle. K., returning sleepless to the Herrenhof in the early hours of the morning for his audience with Erlanger, tries the nearest door and inadvertently awakens the wrong official, one Bürgel, from a fitful doze. An electric lamp burns on a night-table by the bed, suggesting that perhaps Bürgel has not been asleep after all but had only pulled the quilt up over his head upon hearing K.’s quiet knock. He seems afraid, and his form stirs “uneasily” beneath the bedclothes until K. identifies himself; then, apparently satis­fied, Bürgel flings back the quilt, sits up, and launches into an extraordinary discourse on the workings of the Castle bureaucracy. In this deliberately tedious monologue, this masterpiece of equivocation delivered on the pretext that it will have a soporific effect upon Bürgel’s tendency to insomnia, we catch the distinct scent of fear, the gradual erosion of purpose and organization which has begun to overtake the Castle. One learns now that if K. were in full command of his wits, and not half stupefied by the craving for sleep, he might turn the situation to his irreversible advantage. Though aware of the danger, Bürgel cannot refrain from laying bare the “nocturnal weakness of the secretaries” and even seems relieved to do so, in spite of the possible repercussions. He openly admits that because of the necessity for night interrogations “the allegations of the applicants take on more weight than is due to them, the judgment of the case becomes adulterated with quite irrelevant considerations of the rest of the applicants’ situation, their sufferings and anxieties; the necessary barrier between the applicants and the officials, even though externally it may be impeccably maintained, weakens, and where otherwise, as is proper, only questions and answers are exchanged, what sometimes seems to take place is an odd, wholly unsuitable changing of places between the persons.” The forced intimacy of the nocturnal interrogation weighs heavily upon the Castle gentlemen, sometimes leaving them so vulnerable that they grant what, under better conditions, would have been easily deduced as an unjustifiable request. Thus, Bürgel must give voice to the disquieting metamorphoses taking place in his room, by which K., through the indifference of exhaustion, becomes his silent auditor and allows his aporia to run wild. K’s unexpected passivity puts him on the verge of gaining the upper hand at last in a subtle, indefinable way, for Bürgel is clearly at a loss and from this point on, the barrier lowered, his explanation of procedure almost takes the tone of a soliloquy by one of Beckett’s half-demented wanderers. Bürgel and his elusive colleagues must live with the unsettling possibility that an applicant will surprise a secretary other than the one to whom he has been summoned, and that, should this secretary happen to possess a “certain degree of competence” in the case, he will be compelled to work on the applicant’s behalf, regardless of his own feelings. Now, fallen into a species of verbal delirium, Bürgel asks, without waiting or caring for an answer, “You think it cannot happen at all? You are right, it cannot happen at all. But some night — for who can vouch for everything? — it does happen .… what we are concerned with is a matter so rare, actually existing only by way of rumor … that there is, therefore, really no need to be afraid of it. Even if it were really to happen, one can — one would think — positively render it harmless by proving to it … that there is no room for it in this world. In any case it is morbid to be so afraid of it that one hides, say, under the quilt and does not dare to peep out,” precisely Bürgel’s action upon K.’s entrance into the room. He is terrified because the unthinkable has happened; his unspecified but “certain degree of competence,” however slight, compels him to make an offer of his services. He is prepared to follow up on the case. K. has only to ask his aid. At times Bürgel’s imagery becomes improbably romantic; he compares the hypothetical applicant to a “robber … in the forest,” who takes by force what the officials would not otherwise be able to grant him, leaving them to brood over their impotent misuse of power. He even goes so far as to speak of K. in the third person; though not wishing to compromise his position by a direct exchange that might lead K. to make the fatal request for assistance, Bürgel cannot let the matter drop, and, with “the loquacity of those who are happy must explain everything” to his hypothetical applicant, must show K. “how extraordinarily rare and how uniquely great the opportunity is … how the applicant, though he has stumbled into this opportunity in utter helplessness such as no other being is capable of than precisely an applicant, can, however, now, if he wants to … dominate everything and to that end has to do nothing but in some way or other put forward his plea, for which fulfillment is already waiting, which indeed it is already coming to meet, all this one must show; it is the official’s hour of travail,” and Bürgel must reveal all, must, if K. puts the dreaded question to him, accede to whatever he asks, “even if … it positively tears the official organization to shreds,” because to pass the matter over in silence would be a serious breach of his duties. To extend the famous parable from The Trial, Bürgel and his colleagues join K. and all of Kafka’s protagonists as men before the Law. The Law, inexorable even to those who serve the tottering administration that is both its scaffolding and the potential instrument of its demolishment.

When we recall “the greatness of [K.’s] enemy and of his ambition,” his combativeness in the face of bureaucratic evasions, and the administrative error that is reported to have led the Castle to recognize, at least provisionally, his unsubstantiated claim to be Land-Surveyor — an error which, once committed, cannot be undone, because the Law in such an instance provides for the applicant’s pro­tection — it is small wonder the officials have something to fear. K. need no longer prove his case. The obligatory concession to his request by a vulnerable secretary such as Bürgel, who under the regulations is powerless to refuse him, will almost surely bring the Castle edifice to its knees; therefore, when K. remains in the deserted passage after Erlanger’s departure, an uproar ensues: one of the officials, reluctant to leave his cubicle, begins to ring his electric bell, and the others chime in until the landlord and his wife come to remove K., who is then informed that he had no right to linger there after concluding his business, “for the delicacy of the gentlemen was limitless .… during the period of K.’s presence they were probably trembling with agitation and the morning, their favorite time, was being ruined for them. Instead of taking any steps against K., they preferred to suffer …” It has been said too often that K. wishes only to legitimize his claim and be accepted into the village society by those who sit in judgment upon him. But one cannot, after all, believe K. would rest content with anything less than possession of the Castle. “You see,” Kafka wrote to Max Brod a year before he began The Castle, “it is as if my life task had consisted in taking possession of a house.” Kafka refers to his fear of love and what he viewed as the awesome responsibilities of family life. For K., how­ever, the motive remains obscured; his attention wavers at precisely the moment when the goal lies within his reach. Bürgel’s logorrhea deadens K.’s already weary conscious­ness into insensibility. K. sleeps, hears nothing, and thus will be unable to put forth the fearful request, while Bürgel, with jesuitical hypocrisy, fulfills the duties of his office to the letter and manages, by the sheer luck of K.’s fatigue, to evade the dire consequences. There is no judge, no accuser, only a complicated series of veiled maneuvers by two parties equally in the dark. K. has had the advantage of being the aggressor and he will continue the assault, in a gradually more deliberate yet circuitous fashion, past his loss of consciousness in Bürgel’s room; the Castle gentlemen will continue to live in fear of him. ­­No allegory here, it is nightmarishly real; which is to say, no single satisfactory “meaning” can be culled from this immense welter of contradictions, half-truths and outright lies that has fed the mutual, ultimately futile deception of two enemies. The emptiness of the night obliterates all trace of the Castle and is illusory, hence the Castle is real even if its architectural properties appear to be inexplicably altered from time to time; K., though a man of solid flesh and bone, becomes the illusory Land-Surveyor, the specter of an administrative error committed years before, come back to haunt the Castle gentlemen. In the end, one is completely at a loss to say whether design or chance has triggered the chain of events recounted in The Castle. One is no longer concerned with meaning — the work is far too equivocal to be leveled, its foundation far too fluid — but with a process, with how that process comes to annihilate itself in ambiguity so as to occasion the failure of K., the failure of the Castle gentlemen who will never be rid of him, and the failure of all ­­critical interpretations of the novel itself.

One last equivocation. In January 1922, shortly before he began The Castle, Kafka suffered what he describes in his diary as a “breakdown.” His writing of The Castle was abruptly terminated by a second breakdown in August 1922. The novel, then, is delimited by two states of nervous collapse and remains, like its antecedents Amerika and The Trial, unfinished. There is every reason to believe that, had his health improved, Kafka would have completed The Cas­tle. This presents us with an unforeseen critical dilemma. Kafka’s minor lapses of attention, which would normally have been corrected, are left standing, though we cannot know what they may have been because even a minute inconsistency is rigorously consistent with the ambiguity of his text. This, in effect, is the second level on which the novel operates, an irony richly to be savored by the con­noisseur. It is indeed fitting that a writer whose work has engendered at least three contradictory schools of criticism should, by neglect, leave behind an unfinished novel of such intricately-woven depths of exclusion that it becomes impossible for even the most “textual” of critics to distin­guish an intended blind spot from an unintended one. No metaphysics can ever hope to circumscribe The Castle, just as no fully coherent explication suffices to lessen its fatal mystery. Kafka’s diary entry for May 8, 1922, written at a time when he must have been giving serious thought to Bürgel’s monologue, warns off all interpreters: “Would you call it a conversation if the other person is silent and, to keep up the appearance of a conversation, you try to sub­stitute for him, and so imitate him, and so parody him, and so parody yourself.” What could be more Kafkaesque?


According to Michel Carrouges, Kafka’s attempt to evoke an indestructible realm beyond the tangibility of mortal things foredoomed his novels to incompletion and drove him up against “the sheer wall of the unexplored and the inexpressible.” Just as Kafka seems within reach of his goal the disintegration takes place; the closer his words come to the sheer wall, the thinner they become, until the distance to be crossed is less than microscopic and at the same time untraversable: ambiguity, so essential to the approach, destroys the possibility of arrival. This critical impossibil­ity of the thing that obliterates the object it completes is at the source of Daumal’s anguish before the geometric spectacle of his annihilation and in the denudation of the senses described by Vankirk under hypnosis, in Nicholas of Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites” and Mallarmé’s collision with absence in a small Venetian mirror; as the dissected arm of a criminal in Rembrandt’s painting it becomes an almost tactile emblem of disequilibrium, neutralizing the traditional implications of the punitive anatomy in much the same way way that John Kovacs’ existence is neutral­ized when rain eradicates the sole surviving letter of his name on an old receipt. The words and the images shatter. Our modern art lies rooted in a tradition that begins with Sterne and Rabelais, passes from Flaubert, the Symbolists and Kafka to Joyce and Beckett, and continues on. The sense of imminent textual collapse, of words suspended over an abyss of time, matter and memory, is present to a high degree in such diverse masterpieces as Ulysses, Nightwood, To the Lighthouse and Under the Volcano. All return to stillness. The stillness of death.

And death is inconceivable. Aeons after our annihilation the cosmos will have dwindled to an aphotic mass or exploded into infinity.


[i] Alain Robbe-Grillet appears to have been the first to notice this.