A Letter Which Did Arrive At Its Destination
Slavoj Zizek

Author’s Bio

In a recent conversation, Hanif Kureishi was telling me about his new novel, whose narrative is different from what he wrote hitherto; I ironically asked him: “But the hero is nonetheless an immigrant with a Pakistani father who is a failed writer…” He replied: “What’s the problem? Do we not all have Pakistani fathers who are failed writers?” He was right—and this is what Hegel meant by singularity elevated into universality: the pathological twist that Kureishi experienced in his father is part of every father, there is no normal father, everybody’s father is a figure who failed to live up to his mandate and thus left to his son the task to settle his symbolic debts. In this sense, again, Kureishi’s Pakistani failed writer is a universal singular, a singular standing in for the universality.

This is what hegemony is about, this short-circuit between the universal and its paradigmatic case (in the precise Kuhnian sense of the term): it is not enough to say that Kureishi’s own case is one in the series of the cases exemplifying the universal fact that father is yet another “impossible profession”—one should make a step further and claim that, precisely, we all have Pakistani fathers who are failed writers… In other words, let us imagine being-a-father as a universal ideal which all empirical fathers endeavor to approach and ultimately fail to do it: what this means is that the true universality is not that of the ideal being-a-father, but that of failure itself.

Therein resides today’s true impasse of paternal authority: in the (biological) father’s growing reluctance to accept the symbolic mandate “father”—this impasse is the secret motif than runs through Steven Spielberg’s films. All his key films—ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List—are variations on this motif. One should remember that the family to whose small boy ET appears was deserted by the father (as we learn in the very beginning), so that ET is ultimately a kind of “vanishing mediator” who provides a new father (the good scientist who, in the film’s last shot, is already seen embracing the mother)—when the new father is here, ET can leave and “go home.”  Empire of the Sun focuses on a boy deserted by his family in the war-torn China and surviving through the help of an ersatz-father (played by John Malkovich). In the very first scene of Jurassic Park, we see the paternal figure (played by Sam Neill) jokingly threatening the two kids with a dinosaur bone—this bone is clearly the tiny object-stain which, later, explodes into gigantic dinosaurs, so that one can risk the hypothesis that, within the film’s fantasmatic universe, the dinosaurs’ destructive fury merely materializes the rage of the paternal superego.  A barely perceptible detail that occurs later, in the middle of the film, confirm this reading.  The pursued group of Neill with two kids take refugee from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the tree, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magic effect—before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and care for them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the three next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind…  Schindler’s List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park (and, if anything, worse than the original), with the Nazis as the dinosaur monsters, Schindler as (at the film’s beginning) the cynical-profiteering and opportunistic parental figure, and the ghetto Jews as threatened children (their infantilization in the film is eye-striking)—the story the film tells is about Schindler’s gradual rediscovery of his paternal duty towards the Jews, and his transformation into a caring and responsible father. And is The War of the Worlds not the last installment of this saga? Tom Cruise plays a divorced working class father who neglects his two children; the invasion of the aliens reawakens in him the proper paternal instincts, and he rediscovers himself as a caring father—no wonder that, in last scene, he finally gets the recognition from his son who, throughout the film, despised him. In the mode of the eighteenth-century stories, the film could thus also have been subtitled “A story on how a working father finally gets reconciled with his son…” One can effectively imagine the film without the blood-thirsty aliens: what remains is in a way “what the film really is about,” the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.  Therein resides the film’s ideology: with regard to the two levels of the story (the Oedipal level of the lost and regained paternal authority; the spectacular level of the conflict with the invading aliens), there is a clear dissymmetry, since the Oedipal level is what the story is “really about,” while the external spectacular is merely its metaphoric extension.  There is a nice detail in the film’s soundtrack which makes clear the predominance of this Oedipal dimension: the alien’s attacks are accompanied by a terrifying one-note, low-trombone sound weirdly resembling the low bass and trumpet sound of the Tibetan Buddhist chant, the voice of the suffering-dying evil father (in clear contrast to the “beautiful” five-tones melodic fragment that identifies the “good” aliens in Spielberg’s Encounters of the Third Kind).

It was already Franz Kafka who articulated this crisis of paternal authority in all its ambiguity; no wonder that the first impression one gets in reading Kafka’s letter to his father is that there is something missing in it—the final twist along the lines of the parable on the Door of the Law (“This door was here only for you…”): the father’s display of terror and rage is here only for you, you are invested in it, sustaining it… One can well imagine the real Herrmann Kafka as a benevolent and nice gentleman, genuinely surprised at the role he played in his son’s imaginary.

So, to put it in Californian, Kafka had a serious attitude-problem with regard to his father. When Kafka identified himself as “Lowy,” assuming his mother’s name, he located himself into a series which comprises Adorno (who also shifted from his father’s name, Wiesengrund, to his mother’s family name), not to mention Hitler (from Schickelgruber)—all uneasy with assuming the role of the bearer of the father’s name. This is why one of the points in the letter to his father is Kafka’s claim that it would have been possible for him to accept (the person of) his father, to establish a non-traumatic relationship with him, if he were his friend, brother, boss, even father-in-law, just not his father…

What bothers Kafka is the over-presence of his father: he is too much alive, too obscenely intrusive. However, this father’s over-presence is not a direct fact: it appears as such only against the background of the suspension of the father’s symbolic function. This father’s “too-muchness” (as Eric Santner would have called it) is ultimately the too-muchness of life itself, the humiliating quality of the father’s excess of vitality which undermines his authority—recall how Kafka’s notices his father’s

‘taste for indecent expressions, which you would produce in the loudest possible voice, laughing about them as though you had said something particularly good, while in point of fact it was only a banal little obscenity (at the same time this again was for me a humiliating manifestation of your vitality).”

Again, one should bear in mind the proper order of causality: it is not that father’s excessive vitality undermines his symbolic authority; it is, rather, the other way round, i.e., the very fact that one is bothered by father’s excessive vitality already presupposes the failure of symbolic authority.

What is the true function of the Name-of-the-Father? It is, precisely, to allow the subject to “symbolically kill” the father, to be able to abandon father (and the closed family circle) and freely set on one’s own path in the world.  No wonder, then, that Kafka’s reluctance to assume the Name-of-the-Father is the very indication of his failure to break with and off from the father: what the letter to the father bears witness to is a subject who was doomed to remain forever in his father’s shadow, caught with him in a libidinal deadlock?  Far from enabling him to elude the father’s grasp, Kafka’s refusal to accept the father’s name is the surest sign of this imprisonment.

Far from being a passive victim of the father’s terror, Kafka was directing the game (recall the words of the Priest that the man from the country was in the superior position and that the guardian of the door was really subordinated to him). The proof? If there ever was a screen-memory, it is the accident from when he was two months old that Kafka reports as the only thing from his childhood of which he has a “direct memory” (and appeals to his father that he should also remember it). It was (re)constructed afterwards, probably from what parents told Franz about it—covering what? Like the primal scene of Wolfman, it is a retroactive fantasy:

 “There is only one episode in the early years of which I have a direct memory. You may remember it, too. One night I kept on whimpering for water, not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself. After several vigorous threats had failed to have any effect, you took me out of bed, carried me out onto the pavlatche (the Czech word for the long balcony in the inner courtyard of old houses in Prague), and left me there alone for a while in my nightshirt, outside the shut door. I am not going to say that this was wrong—perhaps there was really no other way of getting peace and quiet that night—but I mention it as typical of your methods of bringing up a child and their effect on me. I dare say I was quite obedient afterward at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and then the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterward I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the pavlatche, and that consequently I meant absolutely nothing as far as he was concerned.”

The gurgling signifying chain of the child intended to provoke the father is like the obscene soft sounds on the phone line from the Castle, or the US marines marching chants… There is thus a hidden link between the “subversive” pre-symbolic babble of the child and the inaccessible Power that terrorizes the Kafkean hero, between superego and id.  The true underlying reproach to the father is not his power and arrogant display of authority, but, on the contrary, his impotence, his lack of symbolic authority.  Are the father’s terrifying outbursts of rage (Wuten) not so many signs of his basic impotence, signals that his cold and efficient authority failed?  Father himself accounted for his “imperious temperament” as “due to /his/ nervous heart condition”—not exactly a sign of power, but, as it is clear to Kafka himself, a means of cheap manipulation of a weakling:

“the nervous heart condition is a means by which you exert your domination more strongly, since the thought of it necessarily chokes off the least opposition from others.”

Or, here is another of father’s ritualistic displays of power:

“It was also terrible when you ran around the table, shouting, grabbing at one, obviously not really trying to grab, yet pretending to…”

—a ridiculous, self-undermining, display of power.  Furthermore, what kind of a father feels so threatened by his two month old son that he has to undertake the ridiculously excessive measure of taking him out of the apartment?  A true authority would deal with the problem with a cold gaze… (And, incidentally, is, in the standard patriarchal family which the Kafka family certainly was, the first sign of the lack of authority not already the fact that it was the father, not the mother, who came to answer the child?)  It is no less clear that the description of father’s “intellectual domination”–

“From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinions whatsoever about a matter and as a result every conceivable opinion with respect to the matter was necessarily wrong, without exception. You were capable, for instance, of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, and what is more, not only selectively but in every respect, and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.”

—is sustained by a barely concealed fear that this obvious fake, this semblance of authority, will burst like a balloon, laying bare father’s stupidity… No wonder Kafka’s “exclusive sense of guilt” has been replaced by “insight into our helplessness, yours and mine.”

The Kafkean Law is not prohibitive, not even intruding or imposing: Its repeated message to the subject is “You are free to do whatever you want! Don’t ask me for orders!”—which, of course, is the perfect formula of superego.  No wonder that the message of Kafka’s father to his son was: “Do whatever you like. So far as I’m concerned you have a free hand. You’re of age, I’ve no advice to give you…” The series of father’s “rhetorical methods” as enumerated by Kafka—“abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and -oddly enough – self-pity”—are the most concise rendering of the superego’s ambiguity. Kafka’s father definitely was a luder, if there ever was one, a figure out of which an “orgy of malice and spiteful delight” emanated. (The link here of Kafka with David Lynch: the excessive clownish figures of terrorist authority in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Dune, Lost Highway…)

Superego’s basic trick consists in reproaching the subject for not living up to its high demands, while simultaneously sabotaging the subject’s efforts (or mockingly expressing distrust in the subject’s ability to do it, and then laughing at the subject’s failure). Kafka clearly noticed this paradox apropos of father’s demands that he should become an autonomous person who succeeds on his own:

“But that wasn’t what you wanted at all; the situation had, after all, become quite different as a result of all your efforts, and there was no opportunity to distinguish oneself as you had done. Such an opportunity would first of all have had to be created by violence and revolutions, it would have meant breaking away from home (assuming one had had the resolution and strength to do so and that Mother wouldn’t have worked against it, for her part, with other means). But that was not what you wanted at all, that you termed ingratitude, extravagance, disobedience, treachery, madness. And so, while on the one hand you tempted me to it by means of example, story, and humiliation, on the other hand you forbade it with the utmost severity.”

This is the obscene superego in its contrast to the Name-of-the-Father: the very injunction “be autonomous,” in its mode of operation, sabotages its goal; the very injunction “be free” ties the subject up forever in the vicious circle of dependence.  One can retell in these superego terms even the remark allegedly made by Brecht apropos of the accused at the Moscow show trials in the 1930s: “If they are innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot.” This statement is thoroughly ambiguous—it can be read as the standard assertion of the radical Stalinism (your very insistence on your individual innocence, your refusal to sacrifice yourself for the Cause, bears witness to your guilt which resides in giving preference to your individuality over the larger interests of the Party), or it can be read as its opposite, in a radically anti-Stalinist way: if they were in a position to plot and execute the killing of Stalin and his entourage, and were “innocent” (i.e., did not grasp the opportunity and do it), they effectively deserved to die for failing to rid us of Stalin. The true guilt of the accused is thus that, instead of rejecting the very ideological frame of Stalinism and ruthlessly acting against Stalin, they narcissistically fell in love with their victimization and either protested their innocence or got fascinated by the ultimate sacrifice they delivered to the Party by confessing their non-existent crimes. So the properly dialectical way of grasping the imbrication of these two meanings would have been to start with the first reading, followed by the common sense moralistic reaction to Brecht: “But how can you claim something so ruthless? Can such a logic which demands the blind self-sacrifice for the accusatory whims of the Leader not function only within a terrifying criminal totalitarian universe—far from accepting these rules, it is the duty of every ethical subject to fight such a universe with all means possible, including the physical removal (killing) of the totalitarian leadership?” “So you see how, if the accused were innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot—they effectively were in a position to organize a plot to get us rid of Stalin and his henchmen, and missed this unique opportunity to spare humanity from terrible crimes!” This, again, is the twisted superego logic at its purest: the more you are innocent, the more you are guilty, because your innocence itself (innocence in the eyes of whom? with regard to what? with regard to the obscene criminal power) is the proof of your guilt (of your solidarity with this power)…

Although Freud uses three distinct terms for the agency that propels the subject to act ethically—he speaks of ideal ego (Idealich), ego-ideal (Ich-Ideal) and superego (Ueberich) –, he as a rule identified the three [he often uses the expression Ichideal oder Idealich (Ego-Ideal or ideal ego), and the title of the chapter III of his booklet The Ego and the Id] is “Ego and Superego (Ego-Ideal)”. Lacan, however, introduces a precise distinction between these three terms: the “ideal ego” stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me); the Ego-Ideal is the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize; and the superego is this same agency in its revengeful-sadistic, punishing, aspect. The underlying structuring principle of these three terms is clearly Lacan’s triad Imaginary-Symbolic-Real: ideal ego is imaginary, what Lacan calls the “small other,” the idealized double-image of my ego; Ego-Ideal is symbolic, the point of my symbolic identification, the point in the big Other from which I observe (and judge) myself; superego is real, the cruel and insatiable agency which bombards me with impossible demands and which mocks my failed attempts to meet them, the agency in the eyes of which I am all the more guilty, the more I try to suppress my “sinful” strivings and meet its demands—the old cynical Stalinist motto about the accused at the show trials who professed their innocence (“the more they are innocent, the more they deserve to be shot”) is superego at its purest.

So what is superego? Recall the strange fact, regularly evoked by Primo Levi and other holocaust survivors, on how their intimate reaction to their survival was marked by a deep split: consciously, they were fully aware that their survival was a matter of meaningless accident, that they are not in any way guilty for it, that the only guilty perpetrators are their Nazi torturers; at the same time, they were (more than merely) haunted by the “irrational” guilt feeling, as if they survived at the expense of others who died there and are thus somehow responsible for their death—as is well-known, this unbearable guilt-feeling drove many of them to suicide. This guilt-feeling displays the agency of the superego at its purest: the obscene agency which manipulates us into a spiraling movement of self-destruction. For this very reason, there is something irreducibly comical about the superego. Let us turn again to Primo Levi—this is how, in If This is a Man, he describes the dreadful “selekcja,” the survival examination in the camp:

“The Blockaeltester /the elder of the hut/ has closed the connecting-door and has opened the other two which lead from the dormitory and the Tagesraum /daily room/ outside. Here, in front of the two doors, stands the arbiter of our fate, an SSD subaltern. On his right is the Blockaeltester, on his left, the quartermaster of the hut. Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door. The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one’s back and front, judges everyone’s fate, and in turn gives the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us. In three or four minutes a hut of two hundred men is ‘done,’ as is the whole camp of twelve thousand men in the course of the afternoon.”

Right means survival, left means gas chamber. Is there not something properly comic in this, the ridiculous spectacle to appear strong and healthy, to attract for a brief moment the indifferent gaze of the Nazi administrator who presides over life and death—here, comedy and horror coincide: imagine the prisoners practicing their appearance, trying to hold head high and chest forward, walking with a brisk step, pinching their lips to appear less pale, exchanging advices on how to impress the SS man; imagine how a simple momentary confusion of cards or a lack of attention of the SS man can decide my fate…

And is a similar overlapping of horror and humor not a sign of distinction of the specifically Russian grotesque whose first great representative was Gogol?  What is “The Nose,” his most famous short story of a low-level bureaucrat whose nose becomes detached and acquires a life of its own, a grotesque comedy or a horror-story? Indicative here is the reception of Shostakovich’s early “absurdist” short opera (1930) based on this story.  Although it is usually played as a satire or even a frenetic farce, Shostakovich called it “a horrorv story”: “I tried not to make jokes in The Nose. /…/ It’s too cruel.” So when The Opera Group which recently staged it called it, in their production-leaflet, “the funniest opera ever, an operatic version of Monty Python,” this designation should remind us of the underlying nightmarish dimension of the Monty Python comedy. Shostakovich himself experienced this obscene comedy of the superego in his brief encounter with the KGB in 1937:

“I was given a [security] pass and went to the [NKVD] office. The investigator got up when I came in and greeted me. He was very friendly and asked me to sit down. He started asking questions about my health, my family, the work I was doing—all kinds of questions. He spoke in a very friendly, welcoming and polite way. Then suddenly he asked me: ‘So, tell me. Do you know Tukhachevsky?’ I said yes, and he said ‘How?’ So then I said: ‘At one of my concerts. After the concert, Tukhachevsky came backstage to congratulate me. He said he liked my music, that he was an admirer. He said he’d like to meet me when he came to Leningrad to talk about music. He said it would be a pleasure to discuss music with me. He said if I came to Moscow he’d be happy to see me.’ ‘And how often did you meet?’ ‘Only when Tukhachevsky came here. He usually invited me for dinner.’—‘Who else was at the table?’ ‘Just his family. His family and relatives.’—‘And what did you discuss?’ ‘Mostly music.’—‘Not politics?’ ‘No, we never talked politics. I knew how things were.’—‘Dmitri Dmitryevich, this is very serious. You must remember. Today is Saturday. I’ll sign your pass and you can go home. But on Monday noon, you must be here. Don’t forget now. This is very serious, very important.’ I understood this was the end. Those two days until Monday were a nightmare. I told my wife I probably wouldn’t return. She even prepared a bag for me—the kind prepared for people who were taken away. She put in warm underwear. She knew I wouldn’t be back. I went back there at noon [on Monday] and reported to reception. There was a soldier there. I gave him my [internal] passport. I told him I’d been summoned. He looked for my name: first, second, third list. He said: ‘Who summoned you?’ I said: ‘Inspector Zakovsky.’ He said: ‘He won’t be able to see you today. Go home. We’ll notify you.’ He returned my passport and I went home. It was only later that evening that I learned that the inspector had been arrested.”

This is the superego comedy at its purest—if there ever was a carnival in which today you are a king and tomorrow a beggar, this was it! A common sense reproach nonetheless imposes itself here: is there not a rather obvious fundamental difference between the carnival proper and the Stalinist purges? In the first case, the entire social hierarchy is momentarily suspended, those who were up are down and vice versa, while, in the case of Stalinism, the unexpected and “irrational” change of fortunes affects only those who are subjected to power—far from being threatened, far from its power being even symbolically suspended, the Communist nomenklatura uses the “irrational” shifts of arbitrary terror to fortify its rule… There are, however, moments of paroxysm in which revolutionary terror effectively reaches carnivalesque dimensions, i.e., in which, like the proverbial snake, the ruling Party starts to eat itself, gradually swallowing its own tail. The surprising fact that “the most dangerous place to be was close to the centres of power” clearly distinguishes Stalinism from Fascist regimes—here are the results of the mere two years of yezhovshchina: “Five of Stalin’s Politburo colleagues were killed, and 98 out of 139 Central Committee members. Of the Central Committee of the Ukraine Republic only three out of 200 survived; 72 of the 93 members of the Komsomol organization Central Committee perished. Out of 1,996 party leaders at the Seventeenth Congress in 1934, 1,108 were imprisoned or murdered. In the provinces 319 out of 385 regional party secretaries and 2,210 out of 2,750 district secretaries died.”  This self-devouring frenzy renders problematic the theory of Stalinist nomenklatura as the New Class.

So, back to Lacan, what follows from these precise distinctions is that superego “has nothing to do with moral conscience as far as its most obligatory demands are concerned”: superego is, on the contrary, the anti-ethical agency, the stigmatization of our ethical betrayal. So which one of the other two is the proper ethical agency? Should we—as some American psychoanalysts proposed—set up the “good” (rational-moderate, caring) Ego-Ideal against the “bad” (irrational-excessive, cruel, anxiety-provoking) superego, trying to lead the patient to get rid of the “bad” superego and follow the “good” Ego-Ideal? Lacan opposes this easy way out—for him, the only proper agency is the fourth one missing in Freud’s list of the three, the one sometimes referred to by Lacan as “the law of desire,” the agency which tells you to act in conformity with your desire. The gap between this “law of desire” and Ego-Ideal (the network of social-symbolic norms and ideal that the subject internalizes in the course of his or her education) is crucial here. For Lacan, the Ego-Ideal, this seemingly benevolent agency which leads us to moral growth and maturity, forces us to betray the “law of desire” by way of adopting the “reasonable” demands of the existing socio-symbolic order. The superego, with its excessive feeling of guilt, is merely the necessary obverse of the Ego-Ideal: it exerts its unbearable pressure upon us on behalf of our betrayal of the “law of desire.” In short, for Lacan, the guilt we experience under the superego pressure is not illusory but actual—“the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire,” and the superego pressure demonstrates that we effectively are guilty of betraying our desire.  Back to Kafka, he formulates this same insight apropos the father’s reactions to his attempts to marry:

“The fundamental thought behind both attempts at marriage was quite sound: to set up house, to become independent. An idea that does appeal to you, only in reality it always turns out like the children’s game in which one holds and even grips the other’s hand, calling out: ‘Oh, go away, go away, why don’t you go away?’”

What the father was thus prevented is Kafka’s marriage: in his case, the father didn’t act as the guarantee of marriage, as the agent of symbolic authority (see Lacan’s thesis that a harmonious sexual relationship can only take place within the cover of the Name-of-the-Father), but as its superego obstacle. The paradox here is that freedom from father equals assuming father’s name, which puts me on the same level as him:

“Marriage certainly is the pledge of the most acute form of self-liberation and independence. I would have a family, in my opinion the highest one can achieve, and so too the highest you have achieved.”

The choice Kafka confronted was the one between the two ways to escape father, two modes of independences: marriage or writing, le père ou pire, father or the “almost nothing” of writing:

“…in my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me. Nevertheless it is my duty or, rather, the essence of my life, to watch over them, to let no danger that I can avert, indeed no ­possibility of such a danger, approach them. Marriage bears the possibility of such a danger…”


“…the final outcome is certain: I must renounce. The simile of the bird in the hand and the two in the bush has only a fiery remote application here. In my hand I have nothing, in the bush is everything, and yet – so it is decided by the conditions of battle and the exigency of life – I must choose the nothing.”

[So what about figures like odradek, a partial object along the lines of Beckett’s later “unnameable,” who is also defined as “father’s shame?”  In a parenthesis in his letter to the father, Kafka identifies himself with Josef K. from The Trial: “I had lost my self-confidence where you were concerned, and in its place had developed a boundless sense of guilt. (In recollection of this boundlessness I once wrote of someone, accurately: ‘He is afraid the shame will outlive him.’).” However, in “Odradek,” the shame is father’s, and it is odradek itself which outlives the father as the latter’s shame objectivized.]

Kafka’s self-humiliation which goes up to his excremental identification (“And so if the world consisted only of me and you, a notion I was much inclined to have, then this purity of the world came to an end with you and, by virtue of your advice, the filth began with me.”) is thus profoundly deceiving: it is easy to discern in Kafka’s claim that he is “the result of your upbringing and of my obedience” the stratagem of denying one’s own libidinal involvement in one’s sad fate. The strategy is clear here: I willingly assume my filth in order for my father to remain pure. This becomes especially clear when one bears in mind when, precisely, this self-identification with “filth” occurs: at a precise (and most traumatic) point of the letter, when Kafka reports on the (rare) moments when father offered him “realistic”/obscene advice on how to deal with sexual contacts (do it discreetly, have your fun, don’t take things too seriously, do not fall for the first girl who offers herself do you, remember they are all the same whores, just use them and move on…). For example, Kafka recalls a “brief discussion” that followed:

“the announcement of my latest marriage plans. You said to me something like this: ‘She probably put on a fancy blouse, something these Prague Jewesses are good at, and right away, of course, you decided to marry her. And that as fast as possible, in a week, tomorrow, today. I can’t understand you: after all, you’re a grown man, you live in the city, and you don’t know what to do but marry the first girl who comes along. Isn’t there anything else you can do? If you’re frightened, I’ll go with you.’ You put it in more detail and more plainly, but I can no longer recall the details, perhaps too things became a little vague before my eyes, I paid almost more attention to Mother who, though in complete agreement with you, took something from the table and left the room with it. / You have hardly ever humiliated me more deeply with words and shown me your contempt more clearly.”

The “real meaning” of this advice was clear to Kafka: “what you advised me to do was in your opinion and even more in my opinion at that time, the filthiest thing possible.” For Kafka, this displacement of “filth” on the son was part of the father’s strategy to keep himself pure—and it is at this point that Kafka’s own identification with “filth” occurs:

“Thus you became still purer, rose still higher. The thought that you might have given yourself similar advice before your marriage was to me utterly unthinkable. So there was hardly any smudge of earthly filth on you at all. And it was you who pushed me down into this filth—just as though I were predestined to it with a few frank words. And so, if the world consisted only of me and you (a notion I was much inclined to have), then this purity of the world came to an end with you and, by virtue of your advice, the filth began with me.”

Again, it is here that Kafka cheats: it is not his father’s, but his own, desperate striving to keep the father pure—it is for Kafka himself that any notion of his father following a similar advice (and, consequently, dwelling in “filth”) is “utterly unthinkable,” which means: totally catastrophic, foreclosed from his universe.

Weird but crucial conclusion: father’s prosopopea, ­imagined answer. In the father’s reply imagined by Kafka, father imputes to Kafka that whatever he would have done (support or oppose Kafka’s plan to marriage), it would have backfired and be twisted by Kafka into obstacle. Father evokes here the standard logic of the (paternal) prohibition and its transgression:

“My aversion to your marriage would not have prevented it; on the contrary, it would have been an added incentive for you to marry the girl, for it would have made the ‘attempt at escape,’ as you put it, complete.”

One has to be very precise here and avoid confusing this entanglement of the law and its transgression (the law sustained by a hidden call for its own transgression) with superego proper as its (almost) symmetrically opposite. On the one hand, it is the hidden (non-articulated) injunction “Enjoy! Violate the law!” that reverberates in the explicit prohibition; on the other (much more interesting and uneasy) hand, it is the hidden (non-articulated) injunction to fail that reverberates in the explicit permissive call “Be free! Enjoy!”.

The last paragraph does break the vicious cycle of mutual accusations and is thus hesitantly “optimistic,” opening up a minimal space of truce and symbolic pact.

“My answer to this is that, after all, this whole rejoinder—which can partly also be turned against you—does not come from you, but from me. Not even your mistrust of others is as great as my self-mistrust, which you have bred in me. I do not deny a certain justification for this rejoinder, which in itself contributes new material to the characterization of our relationship. Naturally things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder—a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail—in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.”

What we get here is effectively a kind of (self-)analysis punctuated by the father’s (analyst’s) imagined intervention which brings about the conclusion: it is as if Kafka’s long rambling finally provokes the analyst’s intervention, as a reaction to which Kafka (the analysant) finally enacts the shift in his subjective position, signaled by the obvious but no less weird claim that “this whole rejoinder—which can partly also be turned against you—does not come from you, but from me.” The parallel is clear with the conclusion of the parable on the Door of the Law, when the man from the country is told that “this door was here only for you”: here, also, Kafka learns that all the spectacle of father’s outbursts etc. “was here only for him.” So the letter to father did arrive at its destination—because the true addressee was the writer himself…

In this way, Kafka’s subjective identification shifts—minimally, but in a way which changes everything—from the “almost nothing” of being (father’s) filth to “nothing at all”: if all of it “comes from me,” my nullity can no longer be (other’s) filth. The move that concludes the letter is thus the one from death to sublimation: Kafka’s choice of nothing as one’s place, the reduction of his existence to the minimum where “nothing but the place takes place,” to paraphrase Mallarmé, creates the space for creative sublimation (literature). To paraphrase yet again Brecht’s motto from The Beggar’s Opera, what is the filth of engaging in small sexual transgressions compared to the filthy purity of writing, of literature as “litturaterre” (Lacan’s pun), as the litter defiling the surface of earth?
this piece originally appeared in lacanian ink 28, which is now sold out

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