My rating: 5 of 5 stars
W. H. Auden referred to Kafka as the Dante of the modern age. If he did not solely intend to say that Kafka’s work narrates a journey through hell, he also meant that Kafka sums up—but in concrete images rather than axioms and scholia—modernity’s art and thought. Hence critics’ easy recourse to finding in his fiction crystallizations of Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, just as Dante is supposed to be Aquinas versified. To say this, however, is to denude Kafka of his strangeness. (It is also to denude Dante of his strangeness, but that’s an argument for another day.) Closer to the mark than the Dante comparison is Walter Benjamin’s contention, from the shorter of his two essays on Kafka collected in Illuminations:
Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of the Halakah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it.
Kafka, in other words, wrote parables illustrating a theology that does not exist, that he implies but does not supply. Or, reading the last quoted sentence more strongly, he wrote parables attacking whatever doctrines are extant, parables raising a paw—it would have to be an animal extremity, as we’ll see in a moment—against the whole edifice of Abrahamic anthropocentrism, whose Christian culmination might well be Dante’s final vision in the Paradiso of the human form fitted perfectly into the wheeling godhead.
Kafka demands of readers that we not leap to the allegorical level of his stories too quickly—or at all. In the penultimate chapter of The Trial, the tormented Josef K. visits a cathedral and hears a parable from a priest. The priest then chides K. when he adds to or subtracts from the plain text in trying to interpret the parable’s significance, following which, with comic sententiousness, the priest proceeds to give his own interpretive extrapolation. While this cautionary tale foretells its own inability to deter Kafka’s critics from offering up religious, psychological, and political interpretations of his work—the human mind, Kafka allows, probably can’t be so deterred—the injunction that we accept an allegory with no single key, a fable with no stated moral, itself marks Kafka’s modernity. His most famous, most finished, most polished tale tests the theory.
What is The Metamorphosis (1915) about? It is about a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa who wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect. Because he supports his family after his father’s business failures, his metamorphosis throws the household into chaos. Mother, father, and sister have not only to contend with their disgust at sharing an apartment with a man-sized insect incapable of communication, as well as the de facto loss of their son and brother, but they also have to find alternative means of support. Over the course of a year or two—the time frame, in a third-person narrative restricted to Gregor’s addled perspective, is not quite clear—our insect hero gradually stops eating, wastes away, and dies, as the family members get jobs to support themselves. His father regains stature as the head of the household; his teenaged sister, Grete, comes into her own, blossoming into a capable adult the family looks forward to marrying off. The novella ends on the optimistic note of the family making plans for the future now that the disruptive Gregor creature is gone from their lives.
When summarized so baldly, the story qua story does not clamor for any particular allegorical interpretation. It’s possible, also, to underrate how well The Metamorphosis works as an amusing, grotesque, and suspenseful tale—a page-turner. If it is the strangest of the canonical modernist short novels—stranger than Heart of Darkness or Death in Venice or The Dead or Mrs. Dalloway, none of which ever totally depart from reality; stranger even than The Turn of the Screw, whose ghosts, if ghosts they are, are relatively traditional spirits—it is also the most accessible, straightforwardly narrated in clear language, constantly provoking the question of what will happen next as it makes readers squirm with alternatly comic and pathetic discomfort at the awkwardness of the bug-man’s poignant confinement and alienation. When Kafka writes of Gregor, “He adopted the habit of crawling crisscross over the walls and ceiling,” the image effortlessly comes to mind, and its mingling of the disgusting, the absurd, and even the cute provokes the indescribable frisson that is one of the things we mean by “Kafkaesque.”
Gregor’s “alienation”—a key word early in Kafka’s postwar reception—suggests one way of interpreting the story, one we might associate with Existentialism, with kindred works by Sartre and Camus: Gregor is all of us in the modern era, thrown into a cosmos we did not create and cannot understand, shorn by the Enlightenment of prior religious securities, and so anxious and unsure, so alien to the world and to ourselves, that we might as well be insects. It may allegorize, then, a psychological state particularly prevalent in our time. Considering that Gregor’s transformation most alienates him from his family, particularly as it halts the natural and orderly transfer of authority from father to son, we might emphasize as well the Freudian view: insecthood as hysteria, neurosis, a becoming-stuck at a more helpless developmental stage, unable to surpass the oedipal complex and attain phallic mastery for oneself.
These interpretations do not lack all merit—I believe the story is universally read because it does capture almost primordial anxieties about meaninglessness and powerlessness—but they aren’t specific enough to Kafka’s patiently detailed narrative. More local sociopolitical readings may be more promising. Gregor’s transformation into “vermin,” like other of Kafka’s parables, have been read, by George Steiner, for example, as eerie intimations of the coming Holocaust, as if Kafka’s Jewish double-consciousness—never mind that he explicitly portrays the Samsas as Catholics who celebrate Christmas and pray to the saints—picked up the howls of the catastrophe traveling back through time, as in D. M. Thomas’s White Hotel. I think it’s small-minded to be smugly superior to this supernatural dimension of literary genius, but, all the same, it is also a fanciful departure from the text’s black letter.
More attentive to detail would be an economic reading. Gregor’s first concern upon finding himself metamorphosed is not his physical state per se but its effect on his ability to catch the train, go to work, and continue supporting his family, a concern that recurs, certainly more than any religious anxiety, throughout the story. Gregor reflects on the sorrow of his job, the way its mobility leaves him with “no relationships that last or get more intimate.” He conceals his condition from his family, moreover, because of the distrustful “precaution he had adopted for his business trips, of locking all the doors during the night even at home.” In other words, Gregor never says or thinks about general existential alienation, about post-Darwinian cosmic despair or proto-Freudian hysteria, but does disclose the alienation his labor makes him feel. As the morning wears on, his office manager actually visits the apartment to see why he hasn’t come to work, much to Gregor’s chagrin:
[D]id the manager himself have to come, and did the whole innocent family have to be shown in this way that the investigation of this suspicious affair could be entrusted only to the intellect of the manager?
In this historical moment, a bureaucratic layer of management, acting almost as a new clerisy, monitors and surveils the spiritual state of the workforce, penetrating the worker’s home with its intrusive and normalizing expertise. The manager berates Gregor from behind a closed door, not knowing of his transformation, “now you suddenly seem to want to start strutting about, flaunting strange whims,” and while Gregor finds the accusation unjust, since he never asked to become a bug, we might understand this transformation as a half-wished-for escape from the over-administered world of office and business. The manager declares, “a season for not doing any business, there is no such thing, Mr. Samsa, such a thing cannot be tolerated.” To this totalitarian reduction of the world to so bare an aim, any alternative might be preferable, even if it comes with carapace and antennae.
Gregor also concerns himself with art to a greater degree than customary allegorical interpretations of the story would suggest. Everybody remembers the story’s first paragraph, but this is the second (I quote here and throughout from Stanley Corngold’s translation):
“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human room, only a little on the small side, lay quiet be tween the four familiar walls. Over the table, on which an unpacked line of fabric samples was all spread out—Samsa was a traveling salesman—hung the picture which he had recently cut out of a glossy magazine and lodged in a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared.
Gregor, we later learn, did woodwork as a hobby before becoming an insect, and he made that frame himself. Kafka admired Flaubert, so on the one hand the point here is Gregor’s bad taste, his petit bourgeois affinity for empty tinsel and stereotyped beauty. But Flaubert said he was his tasteless heroine Emma Bovary, meaning that he shared her romanticism in part and could not therefore merely raise himself above her just because he had better learned to discipline and temper his own aesthetic sense. Kafka, I suggest, stands in a similar relation to Gregor. Of more moment in the framed picture than its cheap romanticism is its resonance with the very tale we read: the picture, like the novella that contains it, also suggests the permeability of human and animal as the woman’s arm disappears into the fur.
With Gregor’s loss of a human sharpness of vision, he finds himself involuntarily initiated into avant-garde perception. Anticipating Beckett’s post-apocalyptic Endgame, when he peers with his insect eyes out the window, “he might have believed that he was looking…into a desert where the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably fused.” This anti-humanist, anti-bourgeois vision of universal vastation does not dim his artistic ardor, however. When his mother and sister are clearing things out of his room, he panics at their implied desire to dispose of him along with his possessions and tries to save at least some of the furnishings that still tie him to the human:
[H]e really didn’t know what to salvage first, then he saw hanging conspicuously on the wall, which was otherwise bare already, the picture of the lady all dressed in furs, hurriedly crawled up on it and pressed himself against the glass, which gave a good surface to stick to and soothed his hot belly.
With a poignant and discomforting irony, Kafka evokes the creature-comforts of bad art. The aesthetic, we understand, is a primary need, an autonomous drive. It may even come before, not after, the supposedly primary drives. Evolutionary common sense says we need food, clothing, and shelter before art, but Kafka suggests the reverse: that without aesthetic satisfaction, we will not bestir ourselves even to secure our existences. It is the aesthetic sense that dies last, or next to last, in Gregor.
Near the end of the tale, and provoking its finale, his sister Grete plays on her violin for the family’s boarders. Gregor had always admired her talent—though we know from the picture on the wall that we can’t trust his taste—and had hoped to earn enough money to send her to the conservatory. By this point in the story, he has almost entirely stopped eating and remains concealed from the boarders in his locked bedroom. But the boarders’ disrespectful lack of interest in her music, and his own admiration for it, lures Gregor into sight during Grete’s performance:
“I’m hungry enough,” Gregor said to himself, full of grief, “but not for these things. Look how these roomers are gorging themselves, and I’m dying!”
And yet his sister was playing so beautifully. Her face was inclined to one side, sadly and probingly her eyes followed the lines of music. Gregor crawled forward a little farther, holding his head close to the floor. so that it might be possible to catch her eye. Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.
Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Gregor starves for lack not of material food but of the spiritual food that would make the material food worth eating. In his sister’s music, he hears a stirring of this spiritual revelation. “Was he an animal, that this music could move him so?” suggests that this aesthetic need—even if the aesthetic, as in Plato, only exists to foreshadow the divine—is a wholly human endowment, but, since he is an animal, Kafka evidently means to extend it to all sentient life. I grant that the sentence might also be read simply as satire, as implying that the lower middle class with its bad taste is little more than vermin; but Kafka’s quality of self-implicating irony, of comic self-accusation, to my mind rules out such hauteur.
The aesthetic dies next to last in Gregor, I said. What dies last is the ethical, for he gives himself for his family. Once the boarders have spied him, he essentially wills himself to die, wishing to spare his family, especially his beloved sister, more trouble. He has no illusions about Grete. She at first attends to him after his transformation, alone in the family, overcoming her disgust to feed him, and Gregor thinks warmly of “the goodness of her heart.” But he soon begins to suspect, in Nietzschean fashion, that her morality conceals a desire for self-aggrandizement, since she retains her self-appointed charge over his well-being even as any tenderness drops from her attendance:
Perhaps, however, the romantic enthusiasm of girls her age, which seeks to indulge itself at every opportunity, played a part, by tempting her to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying in order that she might do even more for him.
But this resentful suspicion—its hint of Munchausen-by-proxy making the story available for a reading that emphasizes the story as one of illness and disability in family life—does not finally cause Gregor to love her any less. The greatest poets, as opposed to great philosophers like Nietzsche, don’t fear either the most brutal and nihilistic insights or our ineradicably tender sentiments, since all make up the whole of experience—hence, by the way, the superiority of poetry to philosophy.
When Gregor dies, his father exclaims, “now we can thank God!” I first studied this novella in a college class on Literature and Psychoanalysis. The professor proposed that most of us indulge vindictive suicide fantasies from time to time, perhaps especially in adolescence, perhaps especially directed at our families. We think, “They’ll miss me when I’m gone!” Whereas, said the professor, Kafka thought, “They probably won’t.” Gregor’s transformation happens in a rainy autumn; he dies at the end of March. After the uncouth maid cleans up Gregor’s deflated husk, the family takes a trip “into the open country.” When they arrive on the train, “their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.” Not only has Grete absorbed Gregor’s aborted bildung, nature itself seems redeemed, since we now encounter it not in the form of a gross insect but of spring flowers and (implicitly) sexual awakening.
But the whole drift of Kafka’s literary imagination is to “raise a paw” against this easy hierarchy that runs from “open country” and “young body” at the top to “vermin” on the bottom, as we see when we compare The Metamorphosis with Kafka’s later animal tales like “A Report to an Academy,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine the Singer, or, The Mouse Folk,” even if these sometimes prolix late stories are more abstract and less immediately appealing than the earlier Metamorphosis.
Kafka does not transvalue these human-animal values in the spirit of today’s technocrats—e.g., Benjamin Bratton—who, whatever their stated “progressive” goals, obviously want to reduce humanity to the level of vermin before the gods of the machine. (In this, they side not with Gregor Samsa but with the intrusive manager of his office, from whom one cannot get a moment’s respite.) Kafka makes the reverse move, positing the anxiety, despair, comic self-awareness, and drive for knowledge and transcendence of humanity as a universal endowment of sentient life, whether embodied in the seriocomic limitations of canine philosophical inquiry in “Investigations of a Dog” or the neurotic and hypochondriacal quest for total safety pursued by the inhabitant of the titular burrow or the ambiguously valuable artistry of “Josephine the Singer.”
The educated ape of “A Report to an Academy” explains to his academic hearers that he had to imitate humans, and thereby save himself from being enslaved by them, not because he needed “freedom,” which he views as a uniquely human conceit and form of masochistic self-restraint, but simply because he sought a “way out, left or right, in any direction,” a way out of the cage where humans had imprisoned him. (All of Kazuo Ishiguro comes out of this story, by the way, as surely as all of J. M. Coetzee descends from “In the Penal Colony.”)
This minimal need for room to maneuver—precisely what the administrators, technocrats, and transhumanists of today would refuse us—is the ethical heart of Kafka’s work, and the warmth of the aesthetic, even in such bad art as glossy magazine pictures and Grete’s pathetic violin scraping, its most reliable intimation on this earth. Hence the need to experience the stories word for word and image for image and not to explain them away as allegorical emissaries of some otherworldly realm. They only work as such emissaries if they are not so explained.
Such a minimal authorial desire disturbs some critics, and I, in some moods, am one of them. At the conclusion of my essay on Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, considering Philip Roth’s contrast of Bellow’s abundance with Kafka’s poverty, I gently joined the underground tradition of Kafkaclasm with the suggestion that the literary world today suffers an excess of Kafkaisme. In Marxist criticism, this was, of course, an aboveground, veritably official tradition, whose main spokesman in the west, Georg Lukács, famously accused Kafka of betraying his great gift for realist description by pledging it to reactionary nihilism in his essay “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” (the latter being the right answer). But even Brecht was no less severe, saying to Benjamin in “Conversations with Brecht”:
Now what would be the correct way of tackling the problem of Kafka? The correct way would be to ask: what does he do? how does he behave? And, at the start, to consider the general rather than the particular. It would then transpire that Kafka lived in Prague, in an unhealthy milieu of journalists, of self-important literati; in that world, literature was the principal reality, if not the only one. Kafka’s strengths and weaknesses were bound up with this way of seeing the world—his artistic value, but also his feebleness in many respects. He was a Jew boy—one could just as well coin the term “Aryan boy”—a sorry, dismal creature, a mere bubble on the glittering quagmire of Prague cultural life, nothing more. Yet there were also some very interesting sides to him. One could bring these out. One might imagine a conversation between Lao Tzu and his disciple Kafka. Lao Tzu says: “And so, Disciple Kafka, you have conceived a horror of the organizations, property relations and economic forms within which you live?”—“Yes.”—“You can’t find your way about them any more?”—“No.”—“A share certificate fills you with dread?”—“Yes.”—“And so now you’re looking for a leader you can hold on to, Disciple Kafka.” “Of course such an attitude won’t do,” says Brecht. “I don’t accept Kafka, you know.”
For Brecht, insightful as is the comparison with Lao Tzu, Kafka’s work was symptomatic of the kind of lower-middle-class resentment that empowers fascism; his only merit, on this theory, was to stop short of the desire for a caesar, since he was so preoccupied with philosophical questioning. The erstwhile American Marxist Edmund Wilson offered a similar thesis in his essay, “A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka”:
One realizes that it is not merely a question of appreciating Kafka as a poet who gives expression for the intellectuals to their emotions of helplessness and self-contempt but of building him up as a theologian and a saint who can somehow also justify for them—or help them accept without justification—the ways of a banal, bureaucratic and incomprehensible God to sensitive and anxious men. […] To compare Kafka…with Joyce and Proust and even with Dante, great naturalists personality, great organizers of human experience, is obviously quite absurd. […] “One must not cheat anybody,” says Kafka in an aphorism which has been much applauded, “not even the world of its triumph.” But what are we writers here for if it is not to cheat the world of its triumph?
There is something to this, as I hinted in my own endorsement of Bellow. Kafka’s worldview does threaten to curdle into the mere self-congratulation of the intelligentsia, their lauding of their superficial powerlessness, playing the world’s victim even as they go about the business of bureaucratic governance, with what I’ve called Kafka’s minimal ethic, rather than anything more heroic, as their alibi. Even Auden, who hailed Kafka as our Dante, concurred in this. In his essay on Kafka, “The I Without a Self” (collected in The Dyer’s Hand), he both recognized Kafka’s minimal ethic and pronounced it spiritually dangerous for the unprepared, who are liable to turn it into a “gnostic-manichean” excuse for a do-nothing contempt of the world:
I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.
To end where we began, however, Kafka spares us the embarrassment of using him as a warrant for bathetic and high-handed inertia, just as he refuses the blandishments of posthuman administration, despite his superficially similar demotion of the human from nature’s pinnacle. By writing parables for a theology not yet realized, by giving us allegories with no prefabricated significance, Kafka calls for an answering intelligence, a co-creation of the incompleteable text, that rouses us from the bed cradling our carapace and summons us forth, on however unstable legs, to move in the music.