Consider the Castle
The Symbolic Grammar of Cities from Disney World to Bethlehem
Ryan Haecker

April 18, 2023

The castle holds a secret promise. Its walls enclose a towering fortress of last refuge. Yet its power rests not in its walls alone. Rather, the castle is a symbol of hidden authority. In surveying its surroundings, it announces its mastery of the world. And, in upholding this sovereign perspective, it reciprocally shapes the symbolic grammar of cities.

Castles were first constructed as permanent fortresses to defend and police a territory. From the earliest settlements, fortified enclosures were constructed in and beyond the walls of the city.[1] These fortresses later developed from a simple motte and bailey structure to become the administrative and ceremonial centres of Paris, London, and New York. With the emergence of centralized bureaucracies and large professional armies, such older castles gradually fell into disuse, until even the greatest came at last to be rendered obsolete by new weapons, including gunpowder artillery, mechanized warfare, and aerial bombardment. Most historic castles have since been demolished. Yet even amidst their ruins, the image of the castle has remained a potent symbol of a wondrous life in and beyond the world.

The new Romantic or Neo-Medieval castle is radically distinguished from the older Medieval castles by precisely this elevation of symbolic power. It serves no defensive function. It can neither be used to quarter a garrison, nor to project violence, nor to defend a country. Rather, its paramount function is the power of the symbol. It shapes the surrounding countryside with its symbolic grammar. Its walls expressly demarcate the object outside from the subject inside. Yet its towers also draw the object of the outside within the gaze of the subject inside. In gathering the object within the subject, it attributes the object to the subject. And, in attributing all such objects to the subject, it erects a totemic pole for successive regimes of symbolic grammar: first, in Feudalism, as all land outside is attributed as the property of the king; second, in the Revolution, as this singular dominion is dispersed to be attributed to the people; and third, in the Restoration, as this political cycle from the one to the many is collected under the free and sovereign figure of a reconciling genius, in whom – for a fleeting moment – the free and general will of an entire people appears to be objectively personified. Once abandoned, the ruins of old medieval castles could be reimagined as concrete symbols of aesthetic flight and spiritual emancipation.

In the castle, the spirit of art now shines through the political. It crowns the heights of the earth with reminders of a younger age when mountains could be moved by a hope as bold as the break of dawn. As a symbol, the castle remains more potent than any physical barrier. For it is not, as it initially appears, simply an island fortress held apart in lonesome particularity beyond the walls of both the city and the wilderness. Rather, it is the radial axis of creative labour, extending in a chain of spiritual action beyond the horizon of terrestrial domination, and glowing like a candle from within the hidden strength of a single place. It can, in this concentration of symbolic power, reproduce the universal as singular, even as its universal significance erupts like a flash of lightning in ever new symbolic media. The spectacle of the sacred liturgy could thus, for a moment, pass from the cathedral to the castle, such that, as in the Château de Versailles, the power of the king could appear divine through the total-artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) of a house that assumes the shape of the world.

In his essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, Martin Heidegger describes how a bridge “does not just connect banks [of the river] that are already there.”[2] Rather, “The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream.”[3] It is the bridge that establishes a relation, whereas before there was no middle between the extremes. Rather than the castle or the cathedral, he renders the ‘last bridge’ as the place in which dwelling is elementarily open to the “letting-be” of being.[4] Yet, as Heidegger’s allusion to the “saint of the bridge” also suggests, a castle, like a cathedral, is not only a destination, but a ‘building-as-dwelling’, in which, the horizon of death hangs upon its walls, and the bridge of all bridges to every places opens from its gates.[5] A castle can, accordingly, be acknowledged as the concrete symbolic form of the highest middle, from which this transit of bridges radiates in every direction. In a castle, all the elements of urban habitation are seminally preserved and projected outwards. It draws to it the whole attention of the country over which it looks as a radiant oculus – one that is seen by all, and one from which all else can be seen. It lingers over the hills as a totemic power of unseen depths that shines across the countryside. All of its age-worn stones are saturated with symbolic meaning, as much today as ever before.

The spiritual renovation of the world could thus be carried out under an entirely new design. Musical drama became, in Richard Wagner, for the first time since Attic tragedy, a medium for drawing this chorus of the city to the stage, and shaping the city in an echo of its song. He writes of how the Greeks came to see in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound “the image of themselves, to read the riddle of their own actions, [and] to fuse their own being and their own communion with that of their god.”[6] King Ludwig II similarly conceived of a series of castles, including the swan castle Neuschwanstein, and the grail castle Falkenstein, in which this passing spectacle of musical drama could be performed again upon the political stage.[7] In a 13th May 1868 letter, he wrote to Wagner: “I propose to rebuild the ancient castle ruins of [Vorder]hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Falls, in the genuine style of the old German knights’ castles.”[8] The Neo-Medieval castle was envisioned as a theatre of new art and new politics that would light the hills of Bavaria with monuments to living music. Yet for his quixotic programme, King Ludwig II was deposed, and likely murdered, in a death that to this day remains a mystery.[9] The designs of his unfinished castles rested on the drawing-board until the moment when news arrived of the King’s death.[10] With his passing, the political importance of art in Europe was ceded to the bourgeoisie: first to the Socialists, and later to the Fascists. The building of castles has since come to appear as not only a political, but an aesthetic embarrassment – an intolerably kitsch swansong to the politics of the past.

However, in demolishing one castle of stone, we have lately succeeded in erecting a far more malevolent castle of symbols. Beginning in his studio, Walt Disney gathered the wealth of premodern myths in modern animated films. As the world’s largest media conglomerate, the Walt Disney Company brokers a mercantile emporium of global myths. It is, as Theodor Adorno described, the monopoly producer of the ‘culture industry’, in which the raw materials of human talent are harvested, stories are assembled, and the deep culture of a nation is commercially transacted.[11] No less than the great factories of the gilded age, Disney today industrially produces all the spectacles of song, television, and film that circulate through the vital sinews of our media culture. The operatic castle of Wagner’s Parsifal has been substituted for the animated castle of Disney’s Cinderella.

As a utopian city-state, Disney World is the focal theatre for the manufacture of the American dream. EPCOT had, as Steven Mannheim illustrates, originally been designed by Walt Disney to feature “a radial/organic plan; a 50-acre town centre megastructure enclosed by a dome; a regional mall-sized internationally themed shopping area; a hotel and convention complex of thirty or more stories; office space; a greenbelt; high-density apartments; single-family houses; neighbourhood centers; a satellite community; monorail and PeopleMover systems; and underground automobile and truck tunnels” in a continuous transmutation of material into symbolic production.[12] Like the Vatican, Disney World holds the 100 square-kilometre Reedy Creek Improvement special governing district, with virtual representations among all nations. At its heart, Cinderella’s Castle rises as an international stage designed for pilgrims to capture an immortal image of their lives as witnesses to myths made real. Its magic is thus all the more powerful, as the concentrated stage of the simulated production, consumption, and performance of new myths already packaged for sale.

The Magic Kingdom is, as Jean Baudrillard observes, a utopian “digest of the American way of life, [a] panegyric of American values” and the “perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra.”[13] In its childlike “play of illusions and phantasms”; “its tenderness and warmth of the crowd”; and the “excessive number of gadgets necessary to create [its] multitudinous effects,” it appears as a phantasmagoria of perfect ideology.[14] It is 'no longer anything but an immense scenario' that is simulated in this reality of 'faked phantasms' under the omnipotence of the symbol.[15] It is no longer 'real', but rather, for Baudrillard, 'hyper-real' – more real precisely because as a symbol it is representative of all that can be real. The naïve meaning of reality has thus been elevated to the occult shapes of symbolic forms that shine from behind the surface of things. Yet this drama of illusions only further conceals the fact that Disney World is the real America.[16] If its walls appear nowhere, it is because the castle of our culture is now everywhere.

In this monopoly fortress of the culture industry, we observe the supreme concentration of symbolic production and consumption. The creation of art has come increasingly to be captured by a myriad of conflicting interests beyond the designs of the artist, of shareholder profits, and of an inhuman cybernetic system that would cannibalistically simulate only to consume its own suffocating exhalations. No sovereign artist now directs its grand designs. No singular mind now animates its torturous labours, or longs in the travails of passion to express in visible crafts the hidden springs of its heart. Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ has instead been recapitulated at a higher level in the indistinguishable revivification of long-dead artists.[17] And, in recycling once animated films in live-action remakes, it has unfolded the second into the third dimension of computer-generated imagery, even as it has captured this geometrical transformation under a frame that collapses the depth of the not so distant past for the reproduction of old in new stories.

The Lion King (1994) opens and closes with a repetition of the same royal baptism. All of the animals have assembled in a circle of life at the castle of the animal kingdom to celebrate the birth of the new prince Simba. The central dramatic conflict then results from a palace coup d’etat of the scavenger predators led by the king’s brother Scar, who, with his army of Hyenas, murders Mufasa, exiles Simba, and establishes a necrophiliac tyranny. Yet as soon as Simba is called to ‘remember’ his duty as king, he returns to Pride Rock, deposes his uncle Scar, and, with the blessing of his angelic father, ‘takes his place within the circle of life’ as the rightful king of the holy and reunited animal kingdom. The Lion King (1994) was among the first hand-drawn Disney animated films to be assembled by computer software. However, in attempting to render this representation of the animals in the 1994 animated version seemingly more ‘real', the recent photo-realistic remake of The Lion King (2019) has re-animated the hand-drawn animation of its predecessor in a style that appears less 'real' precisely because it imitates an imitation of life in an infinite representation.

The conceit of this infinite representation is clearly exposed when the baboon-priest Rafiki draws an image of prince Simba. His drawing of Simba within a hand-drawn animation communicates to the audience that the art of figure drawing is indigenous to the Pride Lands, to Africa, and, indeed, to any free creative act of self-representation. As in G.W.F. Hegel’s ‘Spiritual Animal World’ (Geistige Tierwelt), the naïve reality of consciousness that has returned into itself as self-consciousness must become real through the active projection of its own representation.[18] However, the live-action remake has dramatically reversed the significance of this drawing: for where in the 1994 original, Rafiki draws within a drawing; in the 2019 remake, Rafiki now draws within a photo. By framing this drawing within a photo, the live-action remake interrupts the rhetorical epizeuxis that would add new meaning by its repetition. It no longer calls upon the indigenous self-representation of the animal to authorize the infinite representation of the machine. Rather, it cancels this autonomous self-animation of the characters, and, instead, captures the drama of their resistance under the photorealistic and documentary gaze of a colonial simulation.

This nostalgic reproduction of the past carries untold political ramifications. For as a royalist political theology of the animal kingdom, The Lion King ironically performs a symbolic resistance against its abject reproduction under a colonial simulation. As a character with an English name who speaks French, Scar usurps the true king Mufasa. Like Bambi in imitation of Hamlet, prince Simba is then called to emancipate the animal kingdom from the vampiric assimilation of the Circle of Life into a colonial economy of symbolic production and consumption.[19] When, thereafter, Simba hears the call of Mufasa's voice, he remembers his ancestral duty to challenge the tyranny of Scar, the colonial economy, and, ultimately, the accelerating engine of cultural alienation. The story of this challenge has itself been manufactured as a symbolic commodity. Nevertheless, its narrative trajectory resists the mechanics of commercial exchange. The 1989-1999 ‘Disney Renaissance' had thus culminated in a metatextual conflict between the authentic and the fabricated mythos of symbolic production that would afterwards threaten to destroy the House of Mouse.

The future of the city now awaits to be decided by this choice between two castles: the earthly castle that holds the real captive in a commercial theatre of representations; and the heavenly castle that emancipates this flight of representation in the event of becoming real. In the earthly castle, the commerce of symbolic commodities produces a paradox of mimesis, in which, as in Plato’s critique of the poets, the mime or imitator is both like and unlike the imitated object that it can only imperfectly represent.20 Like the ancient Sophists, Baudrillard attempts to suppress this paradox under the hyperreal simulacrum. He wagers “that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum.”21 Since, however, Baudrillard’s hyperreal simulacrum is a sphere of infinite representations that suppresses the real, an infinite representation is an infinite negation that is not the real, and no infinite negation can be the ground of true representations, he ultimately reproduces this paradox as a fissure within every symbol. This alchemical transmutation of physical into animated castles, of material into symbolic commodity production, and of the real into an infinite representation, thus terminates in a nihilistic reflection of naked forms – a shattered hall of mirrors that reflects from the abyss nothing but the ghostly mirages of its vanishing media.

The heavenly castle is, on the contrary, the home of an ascending grammar of cities. As the ‘House of the Lord’, it is the universal place of all places, no place at all, because it is every place all at once.22 It is, for Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, shown, from the “heights of [the Lord’s] holy places”, in an ascending series of hyperbolic or hyper-negations, in which, from its principal source, every negation, contradiction, and paradox is annulled – including the paradox of mimesis.23 This negative way or via negativa to knowledge of God is internally mediated by the way of analogy, the via analogiae, as the dark rays of divine light shine through the proportions of every place.24 The elevation of the castle above the country thus signals a hyperbolic arc of symbolic grammar, not as a bridge that ushers a flat transit from one place to the next, but as the gateway of the universal of place that is elevated above all particular places to singularly radiate across the analogical grammar of the land. After its untimely evacuation by the flight of the symbol, the castle reconstitutes the axial centre of sovereign authority, the precondition of political economy, and the discursive matrix of civic space. With a voice that carries the weight of stone upon stone, it answers the deceitful commerce of this fabricated mythos with the revelation of a newborn child.

This secret meaning of the castle is recalled in the season of Christmas. In search of a wandering star, the Three Kings offer the astral wealth of the Orient to be reborn from within a manger. In doing so, they initiate a counter-spectacle, in which the commercial economy of symbols is offered in service to the heavenly economy of the gift. The spectacle of symbolic production and consumption thus triply recapitulates the gift of Saint Nicholas, the Three Kings, and, greatest of all, of a child, whose shelter was a stable, and whose cradle was a stall. In this highest leap that hangs from above, the absolute bursts forth in the event of its becoming real. Were the economy of the castle to consist only in a commerce of glory, it would appear utterly useless. Its heroic lives of princes, knights, and noble ladies would be lamented as a sheer loss, bereft of the value of all contractual recompense. Yet if the final security of a nation cannot be purchased, but can only be held as a gift that must be given again, its elevation above the economy of commodities must be secured by a gift that is absolutely free.25 For such a sacrificial gift to escape the circuit of commercial domination, it must be given as an immortal example of unrequited love: the absolute gift of God become flesh; who suffered death; in a story not of the world; but for its saving finale.26 The castle of heaven that hangs above the clouds holds this saving promise in the deep winter night.

At the conclusion of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Wotan looks to Valhalla:

“Vollendet das ewige Werk!

auf Berges Gipfel die Götterburg;

prächtig prahlt der prangende Bau!

Wie im Traum ich ihn trug;

wie mein Wille ihn wies, stark und schön.

Steht er zur Schau; hehrer, herrlicher Bau!

“Completed is the immortal work!

There on the mountain top stands the citadel of the gods;

gloriously gleams the glittering buildings!

In a dream I conceived it;

my will called it into being.

Strong and fair it stands, a fortress proud and peerless!”

We may save the world from the spectacle of its consumption. We can envisage a counter-spectacle that escapes capture within the theatre of domination. We can build homes to celebrate our highest ideals by once again raising to heaven a tower – not of the sword, but of a symbol of peace. And we should begin now by building the castles of tomorrow.

1 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1961), pp. 65-66.

2 Martin Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” (Bauen, Wohnen, Denken), in Alfred Hofstadter ed., Poetry, Language, Thought (New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001), pp. 141-159, esp. 150.

3 Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, p. 150.

4 Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, p. 150.

5 Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, p. 151.

6 Richard Wagner, “Art and Revolution” (Die Kunst und die Revolution), trans. William Ashton Ellis, in The Art-Work of the Future: Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol 1 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1895), pp. 32-36, esp. p.34.

7 Wilfrid Blunt, The Dream King; Ludwig II of Bavaria (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 137-156, 229-254; Frances Gerard, The Romance of King Ludwig II. of Bavaria; His Relations with Wagner and His Bavarian Fairy Palaces. 3d ed. (London: Jarrold & Sons, 1901), pp. 185-214; Heinrich Kreisel, The Castles of Ludwig II of Bavaria (Die Schlosser Ludwigs II. Von Beyern), trans. Margarete Senft-Howie (Schneekluth, Darmstadt, 1955), pp. 73-74.

8 Blunt, The Dream King; Ludwig II of Bavaria, p. 138.

9 Blunt, The Dream King; Ludwig II of Bavaria, pp. 203-228, esp. pp. 227-228; Gerard, The Romance of King Ludwig II. of Bavaria; His Relations with Wagner and His Bavarian Fairy Palaces, pp. 236-268.

10 Blunt, The Dream King; Ludwig II of Bavaria, p. 238.

11 Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 94-136.

12 Steve Mannheim, Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. xiv.

13 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Press, 1995), pp. 12-14, esp. 12.

14 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 12.

15 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 13.

16 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 12.

17 Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author", trans. Stephen Heath (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1977), pp. 142-148.

18 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pars. 394-399, pp. 226-229.

19 Rosemarie Gavin, “"The Lion King" and "Hamlet": A Homecoming for the Exiled Child”, The English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 3, The Universe of Literature (March 1996), pp. 55-57.

20 Plato, Ion, 532d-540a, esp. 537a. See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur), trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

21 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, pp. 3-7, p. 4.

22 Ps. 23:6, 27: 4, 112:1

23 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, trans. Clarence E. Rolt (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007), The Mystical Theology, 1., p. 194; The Divine Names, 6.14., 12.3.

24 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, trans. Clarence E. Rolt (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007), The Mystical Theology, 4-5., pp. 199-201; The Divine Names, 2.5-9.

25 John Milbank, “Can a Gift be Given? A Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic”, Modern Theology, 11:1 (January 1995), pp. 119-161, esp. pp. 150-154.

26 Gospel of John, 1:14.

27 Blunt, The Dream King; Ludwig II of Bavaria, p. 142.