"Do You Want To Live?": Law, Freedom, and Psychosis in the Modernist Novel
Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Towards the end of Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. comes to the realization that laws are ultimately “Lies… made into a universal system.” This point is frequently drawn upon to make a critique of legal systems and their attached bureaucracy as being inherently corrupt, figuring Kafka as an anarchic thinker and theorist. Kafka uses this theoretical framework as a starting point to discuss the psychic ramifications of such a system, and thus, paranoia, alienation, and guilt become the dominant themes of his work. But this theory of law is insufficient, especially considering Hegelian definitions of freedom and the state. For Kafka, laws imposed a psychosis on the subject, whereas according to Hegel, laws are precisely that which prevents our going into psychosis. In this piece, I reconcile Hegel’s conception of law with Kafka’s, and elucidate a Hegelian theory of paranoia that I use to re-conceptualize modernist literature. I unite Hegel and Kafka by situating The Trial’s mise en scène as a world in which anarchy functions under the guise of order. I argue that modernist texts are inherently preoccupied with the psychic ramifications of a legal system that fails to account for the Hegelian necessity of law. This failure, which dominated the major political projects of the 20th century, in turn creates the Kafkaesque, rather than the laws or bureaucracies’ in-themselves. Thus, subsequent 20th century late-modernist authors—such as Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon—are left to grapple with this failure, and take up the same themes. Using this theoretical tactic, I posit that texts from the latter half of the 20th century—Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—are working through the ghosts of the obstacles set out for them at the start the century.
Number of Pages
Pomykaj, Edward, ""Do You Want To Live?": Law, Freedom, and Psychosis in the Modernist Novel" (2020). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1238.