The Castle

Franz Kafka, The Castle
translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Penguin Books, 1976)
First published: 1926

In the castle the telephone works beautifully of course, I’ve been told it’s going there all the time, that naturally speeds up the work a great deal. We can hear this continuing telephoning in our telephones down here as a humming and singing, you must have heard it too. Now this humming and singing transmitted by our telephones is the only real and reliable thing you’ll ever here, everything else is deceptive.

This short excerpt invites us to think about the telephone in a number of ways. It fits well with the modernist agenda of speed and efficiency. There’s a Fordist idea behind improving the rate of work and, in the context of the Castle, the administrative processes. There is a vision of beauty in the way it communicates so effortlessly. The telephone and telephoning is going on all the time just as industrial processes do. But the communication does not involve words, just musical sounds, humming and singing, soothing on the one hand but meaningless on the other. Only these sounds are real (although they are not real) and ominously, only they are reliable. Anything that is said—the whole point of a telephone—is deceptive. Far from being an instrument of efficiency and clarity, the telephone is subsumed into an unpredictable and manipulative world. This discussion of the telephone by the Superintendent, one voice of a shadowy and illusive authority, contributes to Kafka’s sense of the isolated individual in The Castle.

by Tony Kent