The eve of a presidential election is the right time to read Kafka’s The Castle (perhaps we should rename it The White House). This is not just because any time is a good time to read The Castle (“Amalia was so overbearing that she not only applied everything said in her presence to herself, but made you apply it to her of your own free will”) but also because presidential elections are when politicians aim their hardest to descend from their castles and to extend the hand of the franchise to their people. It is a time when politicians strive for inclusiveness against exclusion, for popularity over rejection. It is a time when the nature of public office is at its most diffuse and distorted. When self-interest, extraordinary power and incredible wealth are harnessed by a powerful few to win the right to govern the many. It is a thoroughly disturbing and dissatisfactory process. Democracy is painful and unpleasant. Benign dictatorship may permit the greatest level of self-determination. In Western Anglo-Saxon democracies we satisfy our desire to be ruled, to abrogate personal responsibility, by electing a decision maker.
When voting for the right person to fill an office there are too many criteria on which to judge. Are they well qualified? Are they a good person? Are they married? What are their policies? Do they have children? Have they had to work their way towards success from a position of hardship? Are they driven? Are they greedy? Whose interests will they best represent if not their own?
Perhaps these are some of the questions posed by Kafka’s The Castle. The Castle describes a man attempting to ascend a newly discovered social milieu and discovering in fact that the slope he is climbing is unerringly slippery: beginning as a surveyor he becomes a janitor. So also of elections and their petty requirements: to vote, to pledge allegiance, to be once required and then surplus to requirements once a vote has been cast, the taught potency of the future voter and the slack powerlessness of the voted voter: “K. he added, had acted very churlishly on being woken, questioned and threatened in due form with expulsion from the country, although, as it finally turned out, perhaps with some reason, for he claimed to be a land surveyor and said his lordship the count had sent for him.”
This is us, isn’t it? All of us sent for, all of us called for some higher purpose to which we hope we can attain where others cannot, or will not try during their life times. This hopeful confidence: the desire to strive, to press on, to feel the wind battering the sails and to press on into the weather: this is most of what we should be about as humans if we wish to progress as individuals and societies. Striving, overreaching, pressing on and into the weather. Elections are not this: voters and leaders alike feel needed on the one hand, rejected on the other. Certain on the one hand, unsettled on the other. Proud on the one hand, so insecure on the other. In the current election, billion dollar campaigns have been spent in pursuit of an outer castle, spent by a few people who wish to present themselves as most appealing to a great thronging mass.
We don’t crack the soft shells of our outer castles readily enough by half. We do ourselves and each other a disservice by our own insularity. We find ourselves repelled by each others boundaries, we find ourselves unable to press on. Unable to pretend. Unable to penetrate the impenetrable castle on the hill. This goal, this is the site of vanity. We are in fact, none of us, in the castle. We are on the outside. None of us castellans. Or all of us castellans and the world outside all K, trying without success to enter, to gain access, to belong and us obfuscating – fending them off. That is a theme of The Castle – learning to belong, or at least learning that we do not belong – not naturally and sometimes not by effort.
Kafka’s book stores our discomfort in the world, in this vast stone repository of ambition and insecurity – The Castle. None of us are the castellans we might wish to be and Kafka entices us instead toward humility and self-acceptance – no doubt there are lessons within for electoral candidates, victorious and otherwise. “Hans became more cheerful, freed of the burden of thought, and he chattered away in a childish fashion for a little longer, first with K. and then with Frieda, who had been sitting there for some time with her mind on very different subjects, and who only now began to join in the conversation again. Among other things she asked Hans what he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn’t have to think about that long, but said he wanted to be a man like K. When asked his reasons he wasn’t able to give any, and when asked whether he wanted to be a school janitor [like K] he firmly said no.”