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The Castle’s Origin
Can Xue
Translated by Rong Cai
When all reasons to “live” are negated, and when one sentences oneself to death—as K does in The Trial—the most central issue one must face is the irrepressible impulse to live that springs from deep within oneself. If man does not give in to death even when caught up in a situation similar to K’s, when his impulse persists, then the contours of the Castle begin to appear before him. Because there is no reason to live, he invents one to fill the void; with purity and vacuity the invented rationale fights the filth and congestion of reality. Actually, the Castle was constructed in the process of the negation, but K remains oblivious. Thus, it seems that the Castle originates with man’s denial of his own reality. In other words, it originates with a trial of oneself. The Trial is all about how K tries in vain to find a reason to justify his dark and vulgar “existence.” His dogged search proves the existence of the powerful law, and this search brings the Castle into existence. When the law triumphs over human beings, the basic construction of the Castle is more or less complete, even though it is still concealed by the clouds, waiting to be discovered by K. Thus, on a snowy night, K, without knowing it, walks directly into this gigantic structure of his own creation, a structure he has created in immeasurable pain, desperation, and horror. He fails to fully recognize it, though it appears vaguely familiar. He assumes the Castle is his enemy but nonetheless tries to derive thence his raison d’être. Just as he once negated his own existence, K now acts in order to negate death. He cheats the Castle and violates its regulations in order to be recognized, thereby reinforcing his connection. If we see the law as a negation of life, then the Castle is K’s justification for existence. Because the K that negated his life is still alive, he needs a reason to validate it. Having found it, K now lives an entirely different life. K and other denizens of the Castle share a similar mentality which is characterized by merciless self-critique as well as a resolve to limit oneself to a confined existence. We can smell the Castle in this mentality, and it reminds us of the secret of its origin. The Castle ushers in life and constrains it simultaneously. Those under its control can only live for it, for the Castle denies other ways of existence. This is because the Castle is yourself. Encountering the Castle, K has two choices: He can either die or stay with the Castle and continue his performance. Once enlightened, K cannot return to ignorance. Did he not fight and struggle for his present state of awakening? Obviously, for K who has completed the spiritual leap from assistant manager in a bank to land surveyor, reality appears clear in its murkiness. It is now even more difficult to act: What one can acquire keeps diminishing; and yet one’s desires expand. The “failure” to satisfy one’s desires heightens one’s impulse to act. An energized K is all the more eager to apply himself. Now that he has freed himself from self-imposed control, no matter how impossible the situation and no matter whom he encounters, he can easily absorb that person into the reality of his Castle and perform a show of life. If in the past he had no alternative but his involvement with the law, he is now on the offensive.

     We can somehow feel the origin of the Castle from each of K’s foils. Each time, it seems like a reenactment of its beginnings on a higher level. The system of the Castle is as indestructible as the law it replaced. Moreover, each time it becomes even more agile (or shall we say that it is K who becomes more agile?), its expression becomes more complex and confusing. The rejection is always a seduction in disguise, and the trial of the self is no longer as deadly, no longer leading to the immediate wish of suffocating one’s past in despair. It always offers a chance for survival. Once he knows this well, K abandons all caution and acts as if he “won’t die anyway.” The character’s cynicism is of the serious kind. It is an extension of the self-trial at a higher level, a self-inspection that triumphs over vulgarity, and thus a continuation and further development of the circumstances under which the Castle has started. If we review how the landlady lectures K, we can easily experience the process of the self-trial as well as the difference between the trials before the law and the Castle. The ambiguity of the landlady’s message is caused by the complexity of the Castle’s mechanism. On the one hand, no matter how impossible, we must continue living. But on the other, no matter how hard we try, we can never reach a state of “pure” existence. In order to create this pure “existence,” K has to live on, for death is not an option. The Castle has already come into being at the end of his life. It has become the precondition for K to continue his existence after his return from death. K can only use his life to enrich the existence of the Castle. Its system now embodies K’s will, a will that refuses to surrender. What is life? Life is a battle with death. The origin of the Castle is the beginning of a new life. Following the course of the Castle, the landlady, step by step, inspires K’s desire for life, strengthening it so that it intensifies even under impossible conditions, opening up space for itself in endless struggles. The woman, who knows every trick of the Castle, no doubt does it very well. K is always behind her in his rationalization. His seemingly voluntary actions simply turn out to have fulfilled the landlady’s expectations. She has the secret of the Castle’s origin in her heart, and whatever K does merely contributes to her cause, i.e., turning the will of the Castle into the reality of his life. In other words, she explains the meaning of K’s actions. The landlady is fat, her charms long since passed. Her past is now all but memories. To rephrase: Her physical existence has turned into a spiritual one. She draws from the inner struggles of her students Frieda and K (a reluctant one) in order to sustain her ideal. Having transcended death, the mode of existence in the Castle is rich, colorful, and yet incomprehensible. But no matter how incomprehensible, this way of life still follows the principle of cell division.

     Consequently, no matter how intricate, amazing, and complicated the system of the Castle and its expressions, they appear to be variations of the same theme. Everything is connected with the grim introspection of radical self-negation. The miracle achieved by the will to continue after total negation extends the principle. The bizarre meeting between K and the officers of the Castle is a brutish challenge to the center by a reckless outsider. But it is easily dissolved by Bürgel’s explanation. Bürgel has one point to make to K, that is, the Castle will not tolerate real life. The foul odors of human existence would overwhelm the officials of the Castle. Therefore, the Castle and the village are irreconcilable. Before they even try, human beings are set up for failure. Not an inkling of hope exists for them. This is not different from the introspection in The Trial. The only difference lies in how Bürgel makes his point. He does not drive K away from the inn during his explanation. He retains the man in the guestroom, letting him struggle with his logic in his sleep and thus leading him to experience the pleasure of repudiating it, of overcoming death and creating a miracle. Still, the principle is upheld: K is absolutely denied any direct contact with the Castle. His efforts lead nowhere. But his encounter with a lower-ranking official in the Castle and his behavior in the process reveal to K the invincibility of life in this confrontation. The official, who looks like a god of death, cannot do anything but utter a grotesque scream. Obviously, without the previous death of total negation, there would not have been the miracle of life now. Bürgel has led K to a wonderland where he can experience the joy of being alive in a life and death struggle. Bürgel has maximized K’s inner strength. Having experienced all this, K has almost reached total comprehension, as evidenced by his calm and easygoing manner later in his life. Yet this is not an understanding that leads to detachment, but an understanding of continual confrontation. K seizes every opportunity to attack, getting himself into trouble and fighting himself into a corner. For K, who has already died once, any further development is a miracle. He will forever live in his own fantasies. We can see this core—the origin of life—in all his fantasies.

     The Amalia incident proves the same truth. It reenacts the contradiction in the origin of the Castle; at the same time, it is a manifestation of the further development of the contradiction. In the eyes of others, Amalia, having seen it all, appears to be disillusioned with the human world. A person like her should not harbor any illusions. But all sorts of strange things happen in the Castle, for it has a magic power to turn the impossible into reality. That is why Amalia not only has dreams that are at odds with her personality but why she has also realized her dreams. She stands there, proud and silent, in the horrible reality created from her dream, a dream she will not let go. The silent and transparent dream is the only weapon she can use to fight the reality she loathes. We can say that Amalia has completely abandoned hope. But this abandonment is different from renouncement. It is a stubborn persistence, a sober and consistent one. Amalia lives through the suffering and the experience of her ideals. She is forever young at heart. As such, Amalia is the most amazing creature in the Castle. It is hard to imagine that anyone could live like her. Her being is fragmented into two parts that are completely separated from each other. Her presence is a work of genius. In her exciting love affair, we can see the truth of the so-called reconciliation between poet and reality. This is a “reconciliation” that does not concede, a gesture of an unflinching fighter. Even though this fighter is no longer on the offensive, she has turned into a statue, her zeal and will to fight having transformed into ice capable of emitting sparkles. The moment the soul fragments, the person begins to bear the burden. The more thorough the fragmentation, the heavier the burden. The image of Amalia points to the extent of human beings’ forbearance. They can endure anything. That is to say that the fragmentation of the soul will not shatter the being as a whole. In other words, even though the link between the fragmented parts is indiscernible, the connection is still within the being. In the territory of the Castle, once the fragmentation starts, there is no stopping it. The moment Amalia sees Sordini, her inner struggle begins. She is fully aware of all the developments and their climax, and she has to endure the pain of fragmentation. The experiences of Amalia and her family epitomize the Castle’s beginning and growth. They prove that the Castle rises out of the need of the fragmentation of the human soul. Only a split soul is a living soul, a soul that can develop. After her encounter with the Castle (that is, Sordini), Amalia, now full of youthful vigor, behaves just like K after he has ventured into the village. Both have made the Castle their destiny. Everything they do afterwards is for the sake of experiencing the Castle, pursuing it and making it part of their existence. The characters’ apparent indifference toward the Castle only brings about more frequent and ever closer contact with it. The truth can be frightening. The eyes that see the truth are bestowed by the Castle. Once the Castle has imparted its vision to its denizens, it retreats into obscurity. It draws energy from its inhabitants’ frustration and inner struggles. It reappears ever stronger and more lucid with each episode. Its power is felt even in its absence. Sordini disappears after leaving Amalia, yet he and Amalia share something in common. One lives by denying life, the other manipulates through his absence. As the two sides of the conflict, the man in the Castle on the hill and the girl huddling in the dim cabin can never be separated. Now we realize that they are simply two parts of the same being. Amalia provides life-force for the pale and prematurely aging Sordini while the latter is a source of light for the dark-minded Amalia. In this instance, the principle again repeats itself: Those who have chosen the Castle will never escape it.

     Why is it that the inhabitants of the Castle cannot live their lives without self-inflicted worries and pains? The reason resides again in the secret of the Castle’s origin. The trial of the self, and this alone is the characters’ motive force for existence. It is a self-produced force that has nothing to do with the outside world. For instance, every minute of her life the landlady masochistically tests her loyalty to Klamm; the chairman makes himself sick with his crazy endeavors; the precocious Hans loses his mind in his games of paradoxical logic, behaving not at all like an innocent child; Frieda obtains her goal by giving up, creating an existence for herself from her delicious pain; K makes a total mess of his life, rushing about wasting his energies. Not to mention the Barnabas’s, a family of masochists. What would have become of these people if they were to give up their self-trial and resolve their inner struggles? If the energy and vigor they deliver in their endeavors vanish, will the Castle still exist? Precisely because of their inconceivable devotion to the Castle, these people make their own lives difficult, achieving their sense of being by waging war with their own souls. If we look deep into the soul of any one of them, we will find ourselves hopelessly entangled in insolvable contradictions that resemble interlocking rings. Though different in form, they all start in the same way. When he is about to enter the Castle, K says naively, “I may not be able to adjust to life in the Castle. I want always to be free.” The landlord reminds him, “You don’t understand the Castle.” The freedom imagined by the ignorant K is completely opposite to the freedom in the Castle. The freedom that there is a freedom for you to pursue what you can never obtain, a freedom to torture yourself, as demonstrated by the experience of K waiting for Klamm in a snowy night and Barnabas’s search for Klamm. But the landlord also means something else. He is referring to the fact that once you are absorbed into the way of life in the Castle, you will never be “free,” as this word is commonly understood. You will start a new and rigid life devoid of human compassion. Under the mounting pressure, you will never enjoy any real peace of mind in this kind of life. For the temporary lulls are only preludes to more sinister conspiracies with which you must always combat. But this is what K wants without fully realizing it himself. By nature, no human being is willing to endure endless, self-imposed pain. Avoiding it is a human instinct. The magic power of the Castle makes K live and suffer in it willingly. As long as K does not leave the Castle, the pains will always return, newer and more acute. Every time he survives, a heavier blow awaits him. What attraction does this kind of terrible life hold for K? To understand it, we have to track the character’s experience of life. K’s present endeavors are shaped by his past. He cannot change himself, because his transformation is now complete. Sensitive and warm, K aspired to become a noble man in his life since childhood. When he realized that he could never become what he wished to be and that he could only be an insignificant, petty man, he was overcome by shame and turned to self-condemnation that was tantamount to a spiritual death sentence. Since K cannot let go of the lofty goal, ideal and reality must pursue separate paths. The ideal is elevated to become a fantasized “Castle,” suspended in mid-air at a great distance from his pursuit. In moments like this, we realize that human existence is to live the pain from this division. Like K, people are committing “bad acts” everyday, enduring the pain caused by their actions while dreaming about the “Castle” and about perfection. Thus, the Castle originates from the inner division of the human soul, a sort of materialized split. The struggles K goes through in the Castle are a continuation of those he experienced in the past. The K who commits bad acts in the Castle is much more cool-headed than the K in The Trial. He has now convinced himself that to live one has to commit bad acts and since everything bad he does is associated with the Castle, he has no choice but to continue. Though K still feels the pain, it is no longer fatal. He can now endure any misery. The thought that the holy land on the mountain still belongs to him is enough to help him withstand any suffering. This is the magical force of the Castle that K cannot function without. The Castle is his destination, his true homeland. He has traveled a long journey to be part of a myth, a myth he worked long and hard to create, an idol of his love and devotion. 

     When we reflect on the origin of the Castle, we realize that the former K and the present K are actually acting in the same way, that is, he is trying to reach his dream of perfection with his crippled existence. The man is now keenly aware of his incompetence and disability, but he has overcome his vanity. He is no longer ashamed; for he knows that shame can not help. His priority is to do what he can. He has from the beginning split himself into two; he has never accepted common explanations of his inner world and has always wished to seek the innate substance of issues affecting the human soul. K must now continue his struggle with the Castle. This is the essence of a human being. The intricate mechanism of the Castle is not formed in only a day or two. It is a product of K’s history. It is his shackle as well as his life’s stage. Seeing K’s hopeless attacks against the Castle, we may be surprised that, once released, human spirit can develop such a complicated, incomprehensible, and independent world as that of the Castle. It is amazing that this Castle is so powerful and that it pulsates in unison with K’s being. It pretends to treat K as a stranger but in reality it harbors a desire to retain him. It is so successful that K has to resist it desperately so as to win its acceptance. Paradoxically, this acceptance is manifested in its rejection of K that leads him to maintain his resistance. Resistance to the Castle is a form of self-negation. This basic movement is endless and multifarious. And the Castle develops in this process. The object of K’s resistance is exactly what he loves and desires. As long as the absolute love is there, he will continue the fight. The love-hate relationship between K and the Castle, between K and Frieda, and between the character and everyone in the village is simply the manifestation of this total and pure love. The masochistic fragmentation gives K a chance to experience his dream of perfection. This dream is part of his very being. 

     The Castle originates with human beings and it fits human nature. It is a fable of human nature. Through the Castle, lost souls blissfully find spiritual salvation.
—February 9, 1998 

Now living in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, Can Xue has been at the forefront of experimental writing in China since 1983. Can Xue was short-listed for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature for 2016 and received the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover (Yale University Press); her Love in the New Millennium (Yale University Press, 2018) was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Her most recent two books to appear in English translation are I Live in the Slums (Yale UP) and Purple Perilla (Common Era Books). Yale will publish her novel The Barefoot Doctor in 2022.