Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk

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52   The Deserts of Bohemia

Czech lands from Habsburg rule. Svejk is court-martialed, and only a timely telegram from brigade headquarters saves him from being hanged.

As this story illustrates, because it is easily detached from its bearer a uniform is far from an unequivocal sign of group affiliation. It can serve not only as its marker but also as a deceptive disguise. Costume parties and masquerades of all sorts (but not the military) are the socially sanc­tioned forums where we can satisfy our ludic instinct for doubling our ap­pearance. To separate the quotidian from the carnivalesque, however, the state has designed a number of tight semiotic bindings that tether us to a single identity or that make a change of identity difficult. Two that figure most prominently in Hasek's novel are personal IDs and the oath of alle­giance, whose binding power seems always somehow circumvented by the good soldier. Svejk's "Budějovice anabasis," to provide just one ex­ample, is both launched and terminated by the fact that his personal doc­uments are in the possession of his superior officer. Lieutenant Lukas. Without them he is unable to obtain a train ticket (to which every soldier with a military ID is entitled) and thus is forced to walk to his unit, only to be arrested eventually as a Russian spy in an Austrian uniform.

A military oath is perhaps one of the most pronounced semiotic devices for superimposing a unitary identity on disparate subjects, and in this re­spect it is an act utterly inimical to the anarchic free play of the kyniks. It consists of a ritualized ceremony during which men (usually) abjure most of their individual rights, promising loyalty and obedience to an institu­tion that can put them in harm's way, and that they often do not wish to join at all. Even more important, taking an oath is a unique act in the sense that unless the armed force to which the original allegiance is pledged ceases to exist or the oath is revoked by a legal authority, it cannot be re­peated with any other army short of severe punishment. It is, therefore, not entirely accidental that Hasek's text remains quite ambiguous on the issue of Svejk's oath. At a certain moment Lukas recalls that "when the whole battalion took the oath, the good soldier Svejk did not take part, be­cause at that time he was under arrest at the divisional court" (416; 422), and this makes him laugh hysterically. But after being accused of high treason for wearing the Russian uniform, Svejk argues that he could not have committed such a crime because he has "sworn an oath of loyalty to His Imperial Majesty" and, quoting a line from Smetana's famous opera, "in loyalty my vow I have fulfilled" (655; 688). We do not know whether Svejk is referring to his prewar military service, prior to which he most likely had sworn an oath, and we will never know whether his being "cer­tified by an army medical board as an imbecile" has de jure abrogated such a contract.

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