Previously on Reading Kafka with Lacan, we have dealt with how the ‘external’ law machine and ‘internal’ configurations of Kafka’s characters play out in Franz Kafka’s major works, The Castle (1926) and The Trial (1925).1 In the following however, rather than attempt such a broad analysis of Kafka’s major themes, I will be focussing on his short story “Unmasking of a Confidence Trickster,” from his first collection of stories Meditation (1913). Here we will see not only how Kafka’s story is wonderfully duplicitous, but also get a glimpse of the genesis of his later works and perhaps a key to understanding them.
The Confidence Trickster
In “Unmasking of a Confidence Trickster”, an unnamed hero recounts how he was accosted by a man, whom he barely knows, and hinders the narrator’s entrance (sound familiar?) to “the fine house where” he “was invited to spend the evening.”2 This man, “who had […] thrust himself unasked upon” our hapless narrator, had marched him “for two long hours around the streets.”3 A strange magnetism emanates from the man hindering the narrator’s entrance to his evening in the fine house.
The narrator’s attraction to the the strange man finally collapses as, standing before the fine house, they are enveloped by an overwhelming silence, which expands as a slow smile appears on the man’s face. It is the man’s smile that breaks the spell, for the narrator “[does] not want to see the end of that smile, for shame had suddenly caught hold [of him].”4 It is this smile that somehow provides the narrator with an ‘epistemological’ break, bestowing unto him the power to confidently “know that the man was a confidence trickster, nothing else.”5 Thus the narrator, having successfully ‘unmasked’ the trickster, taps him lightly on the shoulder and says “‘Caught in the act!’” and runs into the house.6
And yet, as the narrator explains, it is strange that so late in the game he should, to come to the conclusion that the man was in fact a confidence trickster. For he tells of how he, for many months, had become acquainted with these tricksters: “And yet I had been months in the town and thought I knew all about confidence tricksters.”7 Still he is duped. The question is why.
Thus the subjective position of the narrator, the frame of his gaze, is delusional, paranoid, always-already interpreting the man as confidence trickster.
Who’s Duping Who?
We can easily discern two levels of deception at work in the short story: On the first level of analysis, the narrator, deceived by the trickster, manages to break the ‘illusion’. On the second level of analysis, however, it is the narrator himself, who, by believing he sees through the ‘illusion,’ deceives himself (and the reader) without knowing it, thus becoming a confidence trickster.
In the first instance of deception, we might hold that the story explores the socio-historical relations of the gullible country man, who, for the first time, meets the cynical city slicker. Thus outlining the seeming dichotomy of being included or excluded in urban rituals. This interpretation, however, immediately disintegrates for at least three reasons. Firstly, as already mentioned, the narrator notes his prior experience of the “ruthless hardness” of the tricksters, which he then begins to internalize: “I was even beginning to feel it [the ruthless hardness] in myself.”8 Ostensibly, the narrator should know better. Nonetheless, this doesn’t eradicate the suspicion that one can always be conned (as is one of the journalist Maria Konnikova’s discoveries in her book about con-artists The Confidence Game )
A second point arises in the fact that the short story, foreshadowing Kafka’s later work, destabilizes the hierarchy of inclusion and exclusion. For example, upon entering his purposed destination, the narrator details his delight at becoming a ‘master’: “the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat. I looked at them all, one after another, while they took my greatcoat off and wiped my shoes clean.”9 If we add to this another example, we could ask the question; is there not also delight in the judgement of the man as trickster? The question of master-servant is not as clear cut as it may first appear.
Leading us to the final point: What evidence is there to support the idea of the man as a confidence trickster? The narratological technique of the novella can be classified as a heterodiegetic, intradiegetic style. In other words, everything that happens passes through the subjective lens of the narrator and we can therefore only consider the narrator’s subjective position. This is Kafka’s trick, that which unsettles us.
There is, however, ultimately no such thing as ‘unmasking,’ for, paradoxically, it is the very idea that things can be unmasked that sustains the performative power and illusion of the masks themselves.
As Lacan reminds us: even if a boyfriend’s paranoid and delusional suspicions of his unfaithful girlfriend turn out to be justified, the boyfriend can nevertheless be classified as pathologically paranoid and delusional. Though he, the boyfriend is right, his subjective position is still ‘wrong.’ So we may ask, in Kafka’s story, what is it that convinces the narrator that the man is a confidence trickster? The smile of course. That small unsettling je nais se quois or the what Lacan calls the objet petit a. There is no logic or empirical validity in determining a ‘certain’ smile = confidence trickster. There is a ‘something’ in the man, in this case the smile, that causes the narrator to see him as trickster. The Objet petit a allows the narrator to see ‘something’ where there is empirically nothing; just as the nazis were able to ‘see’ something “monstrous” in the Jews that of course wasn’t there. Thus the subjective position of the narrator, the frame of his gaze, is delusional, paranoid, always-already interpreting the man as confidence trickster. To paraphrase Zizek and Hegel, the epistemological shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ontological shift in the object itself.10 There is a fundamental difference here between learning from observation and seeing something where there is nothing, and this relates to the subjective position (the state of a subject’s fantasy caused by myriad things) which changes the ontological nature of the object as seen by the gaze.
He Does Not Know It, But He is Doing It
We have thus finally arrived at our second level of analysis. By ‘unmasking’ the confidence trickster, the narrator reveals more of himself than the man. There is, however, ultimately no such thing as ‘unmasking,’ for, paradoxically, it is the very idea that things can be unmasked that sustains the performative power and illusion of the masks themselves. In other words, the objet petit a retains its power precisely because the narrator believes to have ‘broken through’ its illusion.
Still, Kafka has one more trick for us and this trick that proves he read Lacan, before Lacan had uttered a word. To understand this, let us take into consideration what one Kafka commentator has written on “Unmasking a Confidence Trickster:” “This is the rare Kafka text in which the narrator actually reaches his aim.”11 It is true that the narrator, unlike most Kafka characters, gains access to his final destination. However, this reading though, moves too quickly and its analysis remains too literal. For Kafka, the question is never why can the eternally subjugated person A not get access to place B, rather the question is how can person A become inscribed in the rituals of place B. Put differently, at what point is person A accepted into the social. Though our narrator is let in the fine house he is still, ultimately, left out.
Of course, this is immediately proof of Kafka’s having read Lacan, since the novella rests entirely on how the subject is, so to speak, already in the object.
To return to the early dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion, we can claim that firstly, the narrator’s ‘recognition’ of the man as trickster includes him in the urban scene (he knows how the city people work). On the other hand, the narrator’s paranoid misrecognition of the man as trickster excludes him from the urban scene (the paranoid country man believes all city people to be crooks and so on). Finally, the narrator is inclusively excluded unconsciously qua his paranoia of confidence tricksters and reproducing the confidence tricksters game by confidently judging the man before him.
In other words, the narrator stands precisely on that paradoxical brink between in and out, which can only be fully revealed to us the readers through the subjective gaze. The novella fundamentally revolves around the unmasking not of a confidence trickster but of the paradoxical problem of inclusion and exclusion as determined by desire. Of course, this is immediately proof of Kafka’s having read Lacan, since the novella rests entirely on how the subject is, so to speak, already in the object. How the narrator is, unconsciously, ‘in’ the alleged trickster, a blind spot that gazes back. This paradox as seen in “Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” is the genesis of Kafka’s later works The Castle and The Trial, which, while revolving around the same issues, are notably written in the third person, creating in themselves, the illusory mask of confidence tricksters that has sparked debate among scholars for decades.
Rabaté, Jean-Michel. “Kafka’s Anti-Epiphanies.” Kafka and the Universal. By Arthur Cools, Vivian Liska, et al.. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016. 215-37.
Kafka, Franz. “Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” Collected Stories. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993. 8-10.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge (MA): MIT, 2009.
- I put external and internal in scare quotes because in Lacanian theory the relation of the subject to externalities (or vice versa) is never a simple divide between the two. The subject is always inscribed, as it were, in the external world as the external world is inscribed in the subject. To account for this paradoxical topology, Lacan coined the word extimacy (roughly external intimacy). ↩
- Franz Kafka, “Unmasking a Confidence Man,” Collected Stories, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993), 8. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- ibid., 9. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- ibid., 10. ↩
- ibid., 9. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- ibid., 10. ↩
- Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2009), 17. ↩
- Jean-Michel Rabaté, “Kafka’s Anti-Epiphanies,” Kafka and the Universal, by Arthur Cools, Vivial Liska, et al., (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 227. ↩