As Celine mentioned in her post, we left our conversation last Monday thinking about the nature of law and power in Kafka’s The Trial. While there are many layers to this reading, Glen is aiming to discern the nature of law as it appears in The Trial. His ultimate conclusion is that the “appearance of law in Kafka’s work is a function of the necessity of punishment” (26).

As he unpacks the essence of law in The Trial,  Glen finds that the contents of the law are an “empty norm,” meaning that the law is essentially essence-less. (41). As Glen notes, the law only exists as a relation, “it cannot be defined…It is known only as a verbal construct and is designated to come and go, in relation with a concrete object” (generally people) (41).

Once the law has been reified (making something that is not “real” become more “real”), it has the power to permeate all bodies of authority. We see this in the warders who arrest K. in how they “represent a formalism born of the reification of the legal system.” They don’t question the legitimacy of their orders to watch over K., “but go about their task blindly, keeping him under their eyes for the required ten hours daily and then drawing their pay for the job” (59).

Glen argues that K.’s unwillingness to enter this system of law where he would essentially play the part of the accused is what ultimately leads to his death. His reluctance to submit to the machine is what purges his from the system entirely.

When thinking about the essence of the law in The Trial, can you think of any other particular examples where characters reify the law through their actions? Thinking outside of the text, how do we reify our laws? What are laws even meant to do? What do you think is the difference between laws and justice?

As always, if you see something else in the text that strikes your fancy, bring it up in the comments!

“The Legend of the Doorkeeper and Its Significance for Kafka’s Trial,” by Ingeborg Henel: Questions

Last week’s discussion of The Trial primarily revolved around the concepts of ambiguity and diversion and how this connects to an understanding of Josef K.’s paranoiac behaviors. Still keeping these conversations in mind, this week Emily and I wanted to shift the focus a bit and examine the nature of law, power, and guilt in the novel.

The reading I’ve asked you to take a look at covers a lot of ground: Henel discusses the nature of a parable and illuminates the similarities between “The Legend of the Doorkeeper” and Josef K.’s situation, examines the function of “the officials” in the novel, and looks the idea of the “law of the individual,” among other things.

While these concepts are all intertwined, I was especially interested in Henel’s discussion of guilt, responsibility, and “self-justification” in The Trial. Take a look, in particular, at the concept of “motivation” Henel includes from pages 46-48 (explicitly explained on those pages, but it is helpful to read beyond that section to gain a full appreciation for what Henel is getting at).

What do you think Josef K. is guilty of, if anything? What is your understanding of guilt in the novel? What do you make of Josef K.’s statement on page 213 of The Trial (“How can any person in general be guilty?”) as well as the priest’s response? Is this simply a display of Josef K.’s inability to confess his guilt, or is there something more here? After reading the novel as well as Henel’s interpretation, how would you answer the string of questions Henel poses at the beginning of the essay: What kind of reality does Kafka portray in his works?

Lastly, if there was anything else in Henel’s reading that you were particularly drawn to, feel free to address that.

The Ubiquitous Flogger (or, diverting and consuming K.’s attention)

Celine DeSantis

Though chapter five, “The Flogger,” is a difficult and rather startling chapter to read, I believe it can be helpful to consider when thinking about how the officials both divert and consume K.’s attention — diverting his attention away from discovering the truth behind the nature of his arrest, but also psychologically consuming his attention so as to render him incapable of escaping the power structure he has become a victim of.

“The Flogger” takes place in the bank where our main character is employed. Working late one night, he walks past the junk room in the bank, where he hears groaning coming from the inside. Opening the doors, he finds a leather-clad flogger preparing to whip two of the guards, whom K. recognizes as the men who arrested him a couple of weeks prior. K.’s attempts to bribe the flogger prove to be ultimately futile, and K. has to hear and see the two men suffer as they are beaten, which deeply upsets him. The next day K. returns to the junk room out of curiosity to see if anything (anyone) is still there. Much to his dismay, he finds the three men still in the room and notices that “everything was unchanged, just as he had found it in the previous evening when he opened the door” (86) — a moment so temporally odd in that it suggests a “time travel” of sorts.

While there is much to dissect in this scene, I immediately thought back to the initial scenes of The Trial. Going back to the beginning of the story when K. is asking about the nature of his arrest, he is assured that “you’re under arrest, certainly, but that’s not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life” (17). To this K. responds, “Then being under arrest isn’t so bad” (17).

While I don’t believe it takes Kafka until page 80 to show K.’s naïveté inherent within the above statement, I think “The Flogger” explicitly (though perhaps unsurprisingly) contradicts the promises made by the officials regarding the simplicity and ease of K.’s arrest: the psychological, emotional, physical effects of K.’s arrest are now totally inescapable. Through this insertion of officials into K.’s workplace, the idea of K. being able to continue living an “ordinary life” is now completely ruptured. Seeing the flogger in the junk room thus perpetuates the idea that the violence and power inherent within the system that punishes K. is everywhere. I do have some hesitations as to whether or not the flogging actually occurred, though. Given that the second time K. walks into the junk room the scene he comes across appears to be a sort of “looped version” or repetition of the scene from the night before, this does make me wonder if K. was just hallucinating the event. Perhaps that would even make for a more powerful reading, as it would contribute to the paranoiac behavior K. has already been seen (as many of my classmates have pointed out) to exhibit thus far.

“Come closer, reread, question”


Malcolm has touched upon Derrida’s critique of Lacan’s omission of the narrator in his two triangular scenes. The narrative style employed in a piece of literature has a direct and significant impact on how a reader experiences the story. It holds the ability to limit, manipulate, and control what components of a work are emphasized and the extent to which they inform a particular interpretation. Likewise, discerning the purpose and reliability of a certain narrative style can result in a fuller comprehension of a work’s innermost dynamics. Consequently, I was particularly interested in the larger implications of such omission, particularly on the ways this influences how we come to understand the supposed ‘truth’ inherent within “The Purloined Letter.”

What difference does it make if Lacan neutralizes the narrator? In “The Purveyor of Truth,” Derrida contends that the narrator is not the neutral reporter Lacan attempts to posit him as:

The narrator is not effaced as the ‘general narrator,’ or rather in effacing himself within the homogeneous generality, he puts himself forward as a very singular character within the narrated narration, within the enframed. He constitutes agency, a ‘position’ with which the triangle, though intermediary of Dupin…maintains a very determined, very invested relation. By framing in this violent way, by cutting the narrated figure itself from a fourth side in order to see only triangles, one evades perhaps a certain complication, perhaps of the Oedipal structure, which is announced in the scene of writing. (181)

From the moment of meeting Dupin, the narrator not only intervenes in the scenes of the story, always acting as a fourth character in these “triangular scenes” as described by Lacan, but he also serves as a stage director of sorts. Such an insertion, involvement, etc., disrupts the triangles, the “magical, Oedipal figure that explains the function of human desire” (221), as Johnson puts it. Without delving too deeply into Johnson’s arithmetic acrobatics of three equalling four or one equalling two (an analysis I believe warrants an entirely separate discussion), I think her point that Derrida believes that “the elimination of the narrator is a blatant and highly revealing result of the way that psychoanalysis does violence to literature in order to find its own schemes” (222) is worth noting. Because so much of Lacan’s interpretation rests on how the Oedipal triangles fit into the two scenes of “The Purloined Letter,” questioning the extent to which it is a tenable model is undoubtedly a necessary task.

“The Letter…Does Not Forget Him”

Celine DeSantis:

I will admit that it was the drama and poeticism of the above line that initially lead me to linger on this passage; nonetheless, Lacan’s explication of the relationship between the letter (or the “signifying chain”), the unconscious, and intersubjectivity is certainly worth mentioning. On page 47 of Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’’” Lacan spends some time discussing the letter and the unconscious:

“Like the man who withdraws to an island to forget, what? He forgot — so the Minister, through not making use of the letter, comes to forget. As is expressed by the persistence of his conduct. But the letter, no more than the neurotic’s unconscious, does not forget him. It forgets him so little that it transforms him more and more in the image of her who offered it to his capture, so that he will now surrender it, following her example, to a similar capture.”

Thus we learn of the eternal, perhaps indestructible nature of the unconscious mind, and in this case, the letter — it cannot forget. Lacan likens this to the Freudian notion of the “return of the repressed” (47). As hinted in the above passage, Lacan uses this idea to demonstrate how the Minister takes the position of the Queen, perhaps even becoming ‘feminized’ in the process: the Minister, like the Queen at the beginning of the story, hides the letter in plain sight, both foiling the police and mirroring her behavior. The new address that the Minister inscribes on the letter, “will appear in an extremely delicate feminine script” (47).

I’m not too sure about this, but perhaps you can even connect this to Lacan’s explanation of the three “glances,” discussed on page 32. The second glace, one “which sees that the first sees nothing and deludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides.” This glance is held by first the Queen, then the Minister. Turning to Muller and Richardson’s Overview of the “Purloined Letter” may help here. On page 63, they write that the letter, even if he forgets it, does not forget him, and consequently “‘transforms’ him, unbeknown to himself, into the ‘image’ of the Queen, placing him as it does in the position of the seer unaware of being seen.”