Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk

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The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek    53

Yet Hasek's text contains an instance of another legal act—in many re­spects very much like an oath—that by its nature ought to have stopped Svejk's unfettered play with identity. This is the signing of his confession in Chapter 2, "Svejk at Police Headquarters" :

    "Do you confess to everything?"
    Svejk fixed his good blue eyes on the ruthless man and said softly:
    "If you want me to confess, your worship, I shall. It cannot do me any harm. But if you say: 'Svejk, don't confess to anything,' I'll wriggle and wriggle out of it until there isn't a breath left in my body."
    The severe gentleman wrote something on the file and handing Svejk a pen invited him to sign it.
    And Svejk signed Bretschneider's [the arresting plainclothes policeman] deposition with the following addition
    All the above-mentioned accusations against me are based on fact.

Josef Svejk

 

    When he had signed, he turned to the severe gentleman: "Have I got to sign anything else? Or am I to come back in the morning?"
    "In the morning you'll be taken off to the criminal court" was the answer. (58; 22)

What does the signing of a confession represent? In broadest terms, we can speak of the volitional and semiotic ramifications of such an act. If breaking the law manifests a strong preference for competitive values on the part of the criminal, voluntary cooperation with the police (which the signature appended to a confession indicates) clearly marks the willing­ness to move in the opposite direction. An admission of guilt is the first signal to the authorities of an individual's readiness to reenter society, even at the cost of punishment. From a semiotic perspective, the signing of a police deposition is (like an oath) an unrepeatable event tethering the signer to the evidence in a singular, legally binding fashion, one that dis­credits any subsequent renditions of facts. And the evidence is authenti­cated because a signature is the unfalsifiable index of a unique individual which, because of its attachment to a confession itself, implies actual physical contact between the document and the signatory.

This is the normative function that a signature effects in a society, and Svejk, we learn from another scene in the novel, is well aware of it. During his prewar service Svejk is regularly harassed by one of his NCOs, Sergeant-Major Schreiter. The opportunity for revenge occurs when Svejk, on sentry duty, notices on a nearby wall the inscription "Old sweat Schreiter is an oaf." Since this coincides fully with his own sentiments on the subject, he places his signature under it. This does not escape the attention of the hostile NCO, but the investigation he initiates reveals

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