Bodily Inscriptions in Kafka’s Textual Corpus

Lara Pehar

I have just returned to the German Department after a fruitful year of research at the University of Heidelberg that was supported by generous grants from SSHRC, JIGES, OGS, and the German Department.

My dissertation formulates a theory of how desire functions in the works of Franz Kafka. I begin with Letters to Felice, whose writings seem prefaced on the possibility that desire lives not exclusively in the body, but also in literature, and that letters can replace bodily presence in an intimate relationship. The dissolution of the couple’s engagement weakens Kafka’s hypothesis, however, and when letters fail to function as bodies, Kafka employs bodies to perform as narrative texts, to convey desires and stories of the self he once believed his letters could.

Kafka’s incessant interest in the human body’s communicatory capacity arguably leads him to reflect on the difficulty of staging and reading bodies as narrative texts: The penal colony’s execution machine literally writes a judgment into the body of its victim yet produces only an indecipherable script. Excessive text-production results not in a corporeal narrative, but in its death. False readings and unsuccessful staging of body-texts are found to be detrimental in other stories as well: a country doctor, unable to correctly diagnose his patient, perishes in a world of self-referential meanings his misreadings have produced; the hunger artist, unable to persuade audiences with his art, dies not as a body, but as a text—lacking not food, but a legitimate interpretation.

In The Castle, Kafka locates a path for the flow of desire that lies between human bodies and bodies of writing. Whereas the author himself proffers letters to his lovers as a substitute for his own body, his novel’s protagonist K. accepts substitutes of the unreachable official Klamm. However, these are not letters but women. In a structural inversion of Letters to Felice, Kafka places K. in the role of the recipient, but by offering him women instead of letters, the human body becomes the very place where not only bodily, but also textual negotiations of desire can occur. Standing on the other side of the interpretive spectrum from his counterpart in The Trial, who devotes his life to interpreting his own circumstances, K. instead privileges interpreting those of the people around him.

Keeping with my Kafka-research, I recently reviewed several books on the author. Beyond this project, I am a committed teacher of German, and a passionate learner of Farsi.

top of page

Page updated on November 12, 2012

All contents © The Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Faculty of Arts & Science,
University of Toronto. All rights reserved.
For comments or inquiries please send an email to: german(at)