Song of the Day: ‘I Feel So Smoochie’ by Kurt Elling
“A novella about a man who finds himself transformed into a huge insect, and the effects of this change upon his life.” That was the summary on the back of the copy of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka I recently checked out from the library to read for the purpose of this review. Now with a summary such as that, I can hardly see why one would pick up such a book in the first place. However, I read this book years ago, actually a few months before I read Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Nose, and at the time I was struck by the similarities of both, and was left wondering why two men, a century apart were both fascinated by the idea of a man transforming into something less than human: one into a giant bug, the other reduced to a nose.
Our protagonist, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he’s become a near human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. His reaction is understandable. He is confused, bemused, and thinks that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate.
Gregor, a young travelling salesman, spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange human/insect hybrid existence is, to state the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household – mother, father, sister, maid, cook – is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnameable way, their Gregor. It never occurs them to that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor: they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis.
Is Gregor’s transformation a death sentence or, in some way, a fatal diagnosis? Why does the beetle Gregor not survive? Is it his human brain, depressed, sad and melancholic, that betrays the insect’s basic sturdiness? Is it the brain that defeats the bug’s urge to survive, even to eat? What’s wrong with that beetle? Beetles, the order of the insect called Coleoptera, which means ‘sheathed wings’ (though Gregor never seems to discover his own wings, which are presumably hiding under his hard wing casings), are notably hardy and well adapted for survival; there are more species of beetle than any other order on earth. Well, we learn that Gregor has bad lungs they are “none too reliable” – and so Gregor beetle has bad lungs as well, or at least the insect equivalent, and perhaps that really is his fatal diagnosis; or perhaps it’s his growing inability to eat that kills him, as it did Kafka, who ultimately coughed up blood and died of starvation caused by laryngeal tuberculosis at the age of forty.
Gregor awakes from troubled dreams which are never directly described by Kafka. Did Gregor dream that he was an insect, then awake to find that he was one? “‘What in the world has happened to me?’ he thought.” “It was no dream,” says Kafka, referring to Gregor’s new physical form, but it’s not clear that his troubled dreams were anticipatory insect dreams. Gregor has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.
Anywho, the great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that “if Kafka’s The Metamorphosis strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers”. Far be it for me to quibble with Nabokov. But you could say that Franz Kafka’s story deserves its status as one of the greatest literary works of all time, precisely because it is an awesome work of fantasy. As I mentioned, it is the story about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a gigantic beetle. Gregor’s abrupt and unexplained transformation, along with the story’s juxtaposition of everyday and fantastic elements, gives the story a dream-like quality that is enigmatically compelling.
Perhaps it is because of the story’s dream-like elusiveness that a veritable critical industry has been devoted to figuring out exactly what the story is all about. Some look to Kafka’s biographical and historical context to argue that the story, published in 1915, expresses Kafka’s own sense of self-alienation. Others point to Kafka’s readings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as a way into the complex philosophical themes of this apparently simple tale. Who knows? The man has been dead almost 100 years, and anything said of his intentions, his thoughts, his message, just as can be said about any work of art, is what we impose on it through our inspection, pooling in references from what we ‘assume’ to be that person’s influences. Heavy stuff indeed for a story about a bug who likes to slurp putrid waste and hang upside down from the ceiling, don’t you think? However, the beauty of Kafka’s tale is that it can elicit all of these readings whilst still wiggling an antenna or two for some early earthy entomological hilarity.
As dark as that plot outline may sound, what is often forgotten (or simply ignored) is that The Metamorphosis is, in many ways, a comic masterpiece. Instead of engaging in a lot of portentous philosophising, Kafka tells his bizarre tale in the most deadpan of fashions. Ignoring the temptation to come up with any mystical or scientific explanations, Kafka simply shows us that Gregor has become an insect and explains how the rest of his short life is lived. Kafka’s story is not science fiction; it does not provoke discussion regarding technology and the hubris of scientific investigation, or the use of scientific research for military purposes. Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, it forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend. This detached, amused tone makes the story’s brutal conclusion all the more powerful.
From the brilliant opening lines all the way to its hauntingly deadpan conclusion, The Metamorphosis is a powerful and satirical indictment of the bourgeois condition. Over the past few decades, the term Kafkaesque has been tossed around with a dangerous lack of discretion. It seems any writer who creates an absurd or dark trap for his main character ends up being labelled Kafkaesque. However, as this story especially makes clear, Franz Kafka was more than just an adjective. He was a unique and individual writer whose brilliance cannot be easily duplicated.
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