2 – The Metamorphosis at 100
BSSB.BE jacobinmag.com 05.11.2015
What, however, is actually being expressed? It is frankly easy to leave it at “alienation” and move on. This is not so much untrue as unsatisfactory. Alienation can be a concept in and of itself but for the purpose of The Metamorphosis, there is far more going on, far more illustrated and captured. What more is Kafka telling us here?
To answer this question is also to answer why Kafka borrows from the supernatural. After all, he isn’t merely telling us about Gregor Samsa, the man who woke up one day with a bad case of ennui. He is telling us about Gregor Samsa, the former human being transformed into a filthy, nasty, giant bug. At its core, The Metamorphosis is a story about a monster. And, says China Mieville:
I think what’s going on here is that there’s something about modernity and capitalism that you simply can’t think about it in “realistic” ways. Instead it keeps coming back as the “return of the repressed” — you can’t conceive of it except in monstrous form.
Mieville’s specific mention of modernity is telling. Kafka’s world was one in which what we might call “the modern experience” had gained unprecedented steam and become near hegemonic on the European continent. His own father had been swept up from the stasis of the small and relatively homogenous towns of the Austro-Hungarian empire and dropped into the bewildering and exciting metropolitanism of Prague. This was a life in which the accepted logic of cause and effect could only hold on by an ever-thinner thread.
Kafka himself seems to have grappled with the slippery nature of identity in this context. In contrast to his father’s assimilationist aspirations, Franz sought to recapture a kind of Jewish shtetl mysticism and integrate it into the cosmopolitan experience.
Though we would be ill-advised to reduce his political radicalism to his attempt at forging identity, it seems plausible that both were rooted in a desire to reconcile and harness the contradictory potential of modern life. What is far more certain is that he was keenly aware of the Faustian bargain that this potential offered to its participants: in order to find this new identity, one must be willing to have it destroyed and perverted beyond all human recognition.
Monsters and Monstering
True to form, The Metamorphosis isn’t just a monster tale, but a tale about “monstering.” Prior to Kafka, plenty of authors had told all manner of tales where humans were literally transformed. The Eastern European literary canon in particular is full of stories of witchcraft and supernatural schemes exacted on people, robbing them of their human form and turning them into some filthy animal or grotesque creature.
But these stories normally doubled as morality tales or played some kind of cautionary role. If a person was transformed into a rat, it was because they had enacted some wrong against somebody else. Or if the transformed one was innocent, then there was likely some other actor in the story whose role it was to either ensure that they get changed back or that the one doing the transforming saw their comeuppance. There was normally a great sense of either justice or injustice that came with the transformation itself.
In The Metamorphosis, there is neither. We certainly feel sympathy with Gregor and fright over what he has become, but there isn’t any discussion about right or wrong. His metamorphosis is ultimately amoral in character. The only metric we have against which to measure the actions of the story for most of its duration is Gregor’s emotions.
The story certainly possesses a totality, however. At least, there is a totality that can be constructed from the experiences of Gregor and his family, though it is far beyond their grasp. And there is plenty of reason to believe that this same agglomeration of experiences is in fact behind Gregor’s plight.
Many analyses have pointed to Gregor’s job as the culprit. There is surely something to this. The first several pages of the story describe two things in relative detail: his new insectoid form, and the physical and emotional demands of his employment as a traveling salesman. This was no doubt deliberate on Kafka’s part. One is reminded of the way in which work is described as a monstrous transformative elsewhere in literature. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example.
Kafka’s method here is markedly different from Sinclair’s in countless obvious ways. While Jurgis and his coworkers at the Union Stockyards are metaphorically monstered — their bodies broken and abused until they are reduced to something that less resembles human — Gregor’s transformation is literal.
And, unlike the fairy tales that came before, Gregor’s transformation isn’t a plot twist coming later in the story. It is the plot. Gregor continues to feel himself change throughout the book. The discovery that he cannot talk, his realization that he now prefers rotting garbage as food, his fading ability to feel certain emotions even as he continues to struggle with a sense of isolation and loneliness. If the physical change comes before the book’s opening pages, then the titular metamorphosis is that of Gregor’s internal life.
The most salient difference here, however, is that in The Metamorphosis the connection between work and dehumanization is never made explicit. It is merely hinted at. From the first two pages of the story:
“Oh, God,” he thought, “what a strenuous career it is I’ve chosen! Travelling day in and day out. Doing business like this takes much more effort than doing your own business at home, and on top of that there’s the curse of travelling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them. It can all go to Hell!”
He felt a slight itch up on his belly; pushed himself slowly up on his back towards the headboard so that he could lift his head better; found where the itch was, and saw that it was covered with little white spots which he didn’t know what to make of; and when he tried to feel the place with one of his legs he drew it quickly back because as soon as he touched it he was overcome by a cold shudder.
Insofar as there is a link, it is at best strongly hinted at. It is impersonal, detached, and nondescript. Kafka’s employ of a narrative voice that we would today describe as magical realist or slipstream is instructive here: that which we call absurd is related with the same tone as the recognizable and everyday, the fantastical becomes mundane and vice versa. Displaying the kind of anti-positivism that characterized Expressionism, the causality between Gregor’s exhaustion and his transformation is ineffable. It is but it isn’t, and insofar as it is, there are broader forces animating it.
It is stated outright that Gregor is only working such a demanding and exhausting job because his parents are in great financial debt. Throughout the story, we hear his family attempt to find ways to compensate for the loss of income: letting the maid go, renting out a room in their flat.
In fact, it is these same renters who help precipitate Gregor’s death. When the three tenants come out of their room to hear his sister Grete play her violin, Gregor attempts to sneak through the door so that he might listen better leads to his being found out by one of them. They balk, panic, and move out immediately after threatening legal action against Gregor’s father. His family, desperate and ashamed, despondently contemplate — in front of Gregor — how they will get rid of him. He has become an emotional burden and, finally, a financial liability.
Grete, who prior to this had been Gregor’s lone defender, the one who brought him his putrid food and pleaded with their father to spare her brother’s life, now refers to him as “it”: “It’s got to go . . . that’s the only way, Father. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it’s not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will.”
Author: Alexander Billet is a writer, poet, and cultural critic. He is a founding editor at Red Wedge, where this article first appeared.
*This is the second part of the article about Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis speaks to the banality of terror in a world dominated by capital. More information You will find in the first and third parts of the article
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