What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself — Kafka’s Diary (January 8, 1914)
I couldn’t read it for its perversity. The human mind isn’t complicated enough.
–Albert Einstein, after returning a Kafka novel loaned to him by Thomas Mann.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 10 AD) celebrates Venus’ power in human affairs. Venus rules in Rome and makes things happen; her dictates, like fire to a dry field, cannot be resisted. We humans are aflame with passion, and can only submit to the force that moves all nature and the gods. Ovid’s transformations are often both horrible and sweet. Arachne, for her arrogance, becomes a spider, and then spins her marvelous webs, to our astonishment, forever. Characters tormented by fate and tricked to perform evil deeds against their will, become graceful birds, flying above the gray travails of mortals. The stories are preposterous, yet we catch more than a hint of reality in them. New husbands can be captivated at a glance by forbidden love; daughters lust for their fathers; artists devote themselves to their works with greater fervor than to their beloveds; jealousies, without an iota of truth, drive husbands and wives to deadly acts; and, kings and paupers lust for wealth and power beyond human measure. These fables are old news for our kind.
Many would despise efforts to explain Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). Kafka might laugh at the attempt. With nothing in common with himself, let alone with us, his private imaginings relate to … nothing at all. But his novella is not a private imagining but of his time, place, and sensibility; and resonates with haunting significance. Einstein may have demurred, but millions read Kafka’s classic and feed upon its ghastly humor and twisted romance.
Metamorphosis is a Freudian nightmare, in two distinct ways. First, Kafka depicts the oedipal conflict between father and son for sexual dominance within the family. However, in a more interesting debt, to Freud and to Sophocles, Gregor both knows and refuses to know what his dream is doing. Who knows better what transpires in his own mind, and who would need more to deny it? The narrative plays hide-and-seek with us. The story’s form is weird and unaccountable, and also oddly familiar. Our consciousness, stressed and misbehaving, works just this way.
Twice we hear that Gregor has broken out, but in his mental process he breaks out in every paragraph. He awakens to find himself a man-sized insect. But even before he is terrified by missing his train, absurd given his perceived condition, his mind fixes on his prized picture, the delicately framed photograph of the woman in furs. We do not need Sacher-Masoch , and his sado-masochistic novel, Woman in Furs, to catch the allure (or that Sacher-Masoch took the name “Gregor” in his submissive role). The picture “showed a lady, sitting upright, dressed in a fur hat and fur boa; her entire forearm had vanished into a thick fur muff which she held out to the viewer” (p. 7).*
Gregor has a special attachment to this secretive and blatant image. His father brags that Gregor, shut up in his room, amuses himself by crafting highly ornamental frames for his pictures. When the family decides to strip his room of furniture and appurtenances, Gregor fights to preserve this particular photograph: “then he saw on the otherwise barren wall opposite him the picture of the lady swathed in furs and quickly scrambled up and pressed himself against the glass, a surface he could stick to and that soothed his heated belly” (pp. 32-33) … in case we missed the point.
Gregor devotes himself to service and selfless love. Though hard-pressed — Middle-Europe’s Willie Loman — he preserves an exalted self-image, his photograph in military dress, “with a carefree smile, his hand on his sword” (p. 17). Though diminished from this manly image, he takes pride in having rescued his family, and that he exhausts himself serving their helplessness, supplying their needs. Diminished and humiliated, he must approach his firm’s director looking upward in supplication to maintain his life of meaningless labors. For all this, Gregor preserves his superiority: he alone treasures the musical promise of his loving sister; he delights in clean and wholesome food; he is sensitive to others’ needs; and expresses his refined sensibilities in delicate wood-working. And, ultimately, he dominates his suffering family, having supplanted his father, who lives in moribund collapse after falling from bourgeois respectability.
Still, Gregor experiences cruel humiliations. His sales have slowed, threatening Gregor’s efforts to retire his father’s debt. Youthful office functionaries outrank him, and he must grovel for their approval. His affectional-sexual opportunities are meager and frustrating, “a sweet and fleeting memory of a chambermaid in one of the rural hotels, a cashier in a milliner’s shop whom he had wooed earnestly but too slowly” (p. 39). The office clerk who arrives to chastise Gregor is a ladies’ man, his power related to masculine prowess. Gregor lives in bleak, hateful, masturbatory misery. His affectional-sexual attachments are to his mother and to his younger sister; both forbidden as a man but not as a beast.
Living in the claustrophobic familial apartment, Gregor fixes upon the dress and undress of mother and sister. If they rush to him, he knows it from the “rustling of skirts” (15). When first seeing Gregor, the mother (Kafka employs generic descriptors) collapses “amid her billowing skirts, her face sinking out of sight onto her breast” (16-17). Coming to feed him in early morning, the sister is “nearly fully dressed” (23). In a primal scene nightmare, Gregor witnesses: “the mother tearing out of her chemise, because when she fainted the sister had undressed her to let her breathe more freely. He saw the mother run to the father, stumbling over her loosened petticoats as they slipped to the floor one by one, and press herself against him, uniting them in her embrace “(p. 36). As Gregor’s hopes wither, he fantasizes winning Grete’s love and standing with her against the world: “She would sit beside him on the sofa, she would lean down and listen as he confided how he intended to send her to the Conservatory … After this declaration the sister would burst into emotional tears and Gregor would raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her neck, which she kept bare since she started working, wearing no ribbon or collar” (p. 44). The fantasy is ghastly, but the coda concerning her bare neck fits the system of stray noticings portraying his obsessions. In Gregor’s last visit with his family, his mother again falls back, “her legs outstretched but squeezed together” (p. 47). When the charwoman comes to deliver the news of Gregor’s death, “Herr and Frau Samsa sat up in their matrimonial bed … Then they each clambered quickly out of bed from either side … Frau Samsa came out in her nightgown” (48-49). Kafka insists upon these furtive glimpses of female bodies and their covering and exposure. Perhaps Metamorphosis is less about insects than incest.
In a story focusing on masturbation, the constant secretions are horrifying. Coffee spills, and brown tracks streak Gregor’s walls from his vertiginous wanderings. Like so much else, these stains are dream-like, furtive and blatant. There it is; you know what it means … what does it mean? That these appear to be fecal emissions makes the fantasy all the more disturbing. Kafka spares us little. Gregor’s hideous imaginings paint his obsessions in repellent colors.
Gregor’s father completes the oedipal structure, hidden and obvious. Once a wealthy and independent merchant, the father is now torpid and weak. His son’s rise in the family has left him powerless and pathetic. But as Gregor recedes into his transformation, the father reclaims his power and force. At Gregor’s first appearance, the father “seized in his right hand the chief clerk’s walking stick” (p. 19). The father “hissing like a savage” drives Gregor through his bedroom doorway, injuring him severely. Gregor is left “bleeding profusely” (p. 20). The father has injured Gregor’s “one little leg,” which now “dragged behind him lifelessly” (p. 21). In Freud’s “family romance,” sons who would replace their fathers risk emasculation. While mother and daughter exhibit concern, his father shows nothing but the élan of his revival. Gregor puzzles over this metamorphosis: “… could this indeed still be the father?” Before, “bundled in his old overcoat and carefully plodding forward by meticulously placing his cane”… now “he held himself erect, dressed in a tight new uniform with gold buttons, like that of a bank manager” (pp. 34-35). The father, no sentimentalist, preserved some money without telling his son, now driven mad needlessly by his labors. Gregor clings to his lyrical rescue fantasies, his route to power; his realist father looks after himself. Once Gregor had a sword, now the father has family dominance and can stamp – with gigantic boot soles (p. 35) –upon his son’s devious and deviant aggressions. The oedipal fantasy turns on itself – revered fathers must be destroyed, but the guilt exacted in this assassination plot cripples victorious sons. Oedipal rebels are damned in winning or destroyed if they lose.
This programmatic Freudian account, however, fails to account for the story’s many metamorphoses. Gregor is transformed, but so are all the others; as he devolves, each family member evolves. I would suggest that these transformations are not confined to the Samsa family but register an historic cultural shift, unraveling the ethic that protects the failing fortunes of the middle classes. No story persists as Metamorphosis has if it is does not implicate us all.
The mother transforms also from shabby matron, hands wrung in worry, to working woman supporting her family. She tumbles from the lower rungs of bourgeois respectability into the working class, taking in sewing, in propitiatory service to undistinguished customers. The father, too, for all his household dominance runs errands for bank assistants. His uniform masks his servile position. Still, elder Samsas are invigorated and reclaim their connection to the world.
The most revealing transformation, however, is Grete’s. Grete also suffers from dependency. Anxious, and weak, she endures tense concern for her brother. She is burdened by her family’s exalted hopes for her meager musical talents. Grete appears as the romantic artist – sensitive and neurasthenic, a higher soul; frail and depressed, a great spirit resides within. Gregor plans to finance her Conservatory tuition, a gift better suited to his fantasies than to her talents.
Some associate Kafka (1883-1924) with Nietzsche (1844-1900) and with Thomas Mann (1875-1955). Nietzsche mined Greek mythology for his analysis of the ills of modern life. The Birth of Tragedy (1872) pits the rational, Apollonian forces of the psyche against the dark Dionysian forces, a confrontation creating hypocrisy, confusion and spiritual torment. Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) follows a writer famous for high moral standards, stern work habits, and spare yet elegant style. Gustav von Aschenbach comes from a long line of purse-lipped and respectable servants of convention, but his mother introduces dark passion to his Nordic blood. Late in life, attracted to a sojourn to the South, this passion erupts. Smitten with the appearance of a beautiful boy, von Aschenbach allows the “Stranger god” (Dionysus) to lead him into lustful dreams and ultimately a willed suicide. By the end, von Aschenbach, once a figure of restrained comportment has dyed his hair, rouged his cheeks, and wears the ridiculous straw-hat-with-ribbon of a youth. Mann embroiders his story with spectral figures, compulsions, and dream fantasies; it could be entitled “The Metamorphosis.”
However, Kafka’s story has different aims. Von Aschenbach — famous artist and aristocrat — lives above the social fray. The Samsas experience a social class transformation from the muddled sentimentality of the petty-bourgeoisie to the hard realism of the working class. Kafka tracks the collapse of sentiments that held the Nineteenth-century middle-class compromise in place. The Samsas, once freed from Gregor’s ordeal, abandon their suffocating urban apartment for the bright spring budding of the country-side. They surrender their illusions, the sentiments we like to think make us richly human. No longer sickly and pale, young Grete “had blossomed into a pretty and voluptuous young woman” (p. 51); and at the end, “jumped to her feet and stretched her young body” (p. 52). All the rest — the plangent lyricism of Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms; the longing of Siegfried and Brunhilde, the yearning of Pre-Raphaelites painters – are, like Gregor, swept away to welcome the new day of good health, self-sufficiency, and steady employment.
Gregor’s artistic devotion is more than suspect. His dream-goddess is obscene, and humorously so since he cannot recognize the nature of this phantom pleasure. Gregor is too tortured to be a “ladies’ man.” He is, instead, a lyrically romantic masturbatory boy. His self-image, glorifying his sacrifices for his family, covers only thinly his wish to dominate his family. His transcendental delight in his sister’s violin performances is not much more than incestuous fantasy, imagining his kisses where her violin is held and fingered most lovingly. The mother’s sensitive swoons all end in postures of rape for the son’s imaginings. A twisted Eros commands the hearth of Middel-Europe’s “Kultur”.
Gregor palate had been fastidious. Now fresh food nauseates him. He chooses rotten vegetables over fresh ones, and can stomach only the offal in his food dish. He finds fresh milk particularly distasteful and enjoys only the souring sauces ready for the garbage bin: “half-rotten vegetables, bones covered with congealed white sauce from supper the night before … a cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before …” (p. 23). When he selects only foods ready for the garbage, he asks himself “Have I become less sensitive?” (p. 24). But the innocence of milk and apples is no longer for Gregor as he descends further into his loathed self. Elaborating his tainted romance with the sister and her music, Gregor muses “Was he a beast if music could move him so?” (p. 44), but he is worse than a beast, a dung-beetle covered with the dust and muck of his tainted moralism.
Metamorphosis exposes the false lyricism of petty-bourgeois life, the life most readers and many writers share. The next step, as human culture unfolds its anti-Hegelian logic, frees us from lyrical illusions and exalts a sun-bright physicality. In place of noble aspirations, work to express the self, and service to others, we have jobs for cash to buy things. The frisson of sex and desire give way to healthy sex, as alluring as calisthenics. In the redeemed family, everyone works at something meaningless, in equality and forgetfulness. We can cross-reference Kafka with Freud and Marx, but he anticipates Adorno and Marcuse, the philosophers of the new culture of tamed desire and commodification, serving the state. Kafka’s happy ending is this nightmare’s grimmest feature.
* All quotations are from The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, (Trans. Donna Fried), Barnes and Noble Classic, 2003.