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Fall 12-22-2022





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This article discusses The Third Policeman through the lens of a dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment that is firmly anchored in the history of anthropological discourse on bureaucracy (Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, Tambiah, Herzfeld, Graeber, Jones). From this angle, Flann O’Brien’s novel is examined as an aesthetic illustration of an essentially anthropological argument: although bureaucracy has been described as an eminently rational form of social systematisation, regulation, and control (since Weber), it also functions, paradoxically, as a symbolic site for irrationality and supernatural occurrences, haunted by madness, mystery, and delusion. The novel is intriguing partly due to its nonchalant, humorous entwining of seemingly incompatible imageries (in this case, magic and officialdom) – a strategy that proves effective not only for creating fantastic ambiguity, but also for reworking a predilect theme of bureaucratic fiction: the coexistence of rational and irrational modes of thinking, in an infinite circling around the absurd oddities of an incomprehensible Law and the impenetrable opacity of its higher powers.


The article has been developed from a presentation created for the virtual workshop Bureaucratic Poetics: Brian O’Nolan and the Irish Civil Service co-organized by Jonathan Foster (University of Stockholm) and Elliott Mills (Trinity College, Dublin) in 26-27 November 2020.

Presented at the colloquium of the Anglophone Studies Department, University Duisburg-Essen, Germany, on November 22, 2022.

The author wishes to thank Jonathan Foster, without whom this article would not have been written. Additional credit for significant editorial support and bibliographical suggestions is due to Paul Fagan and Ruben Borg.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

Citation of this paper:

Alexandra Irimia, ‘Bureaucratic Sorceries in The Third Policeman: Anthropological Perspectives on Magic and Officialdom,’ The Parish Review: Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies 6, no. 2 (Fall 2022): 1–21. Available at:

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