Monday, February 6, 2012

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I’ve always loved this story. I first read parts of it in High School. I remember learning that there was something philosophically significant about it, but I liked the grotesque imagery enough to bypass any search for deeper meaning. Now that I’m reading more of the existentialists, this story found its way on my reading list, and I’m glad it did. It is short, but extremely pregnant with meaning.

I was surprised to learn about how autobiographical the plot was. Franz Kafka was a Czech/German/Jew who suffered the alienation from all three groups because of his mixed heritage, especially in the pre-WWII world in which being a Jew had well-known challenges. Not only that, his family also experienced constant friction as his father was a wealth-obsessed tyrant in the home, and his mom, coming from a wealthy upbringing, was constantly dissatisfied with her husband’s failures to rise to the top of their socio-economic class. Kafka’s sister, however, provided Kafka with some comfort, and symbolized for him a place of stability and acceptance. These relationships and his feelings of loneliness, social frustration, and guilt are very clear in The Metamorphosis.

This story is a grueling depiction of the exile of humans by humans. This alienation, crippling to the will, is described by Kafka as being perpetrated, not simply by our enemies, but ultimately by our own community, and often by our own friends and family. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor is segregated from his family by his family, and the worst part to watch is the rationalization and desensitization that the family uses to slowly soothe themselves and finally forget about Gregor. The haunting conclusion is this: we quickly move on from loving one individual, to loving another. In the end, each of us are replaceable in each other’s psychology, and we all would be mortified to know how quickly we may be compensated for by those left behind.

I loved how ordinary the beginning of such an extraordinary tale was rendered. The protagonist was certainly shocked, but he immediately implemented coping mechanisms. He was somehow able to switch mindsets with lightening speed from a human being to a bug, quickly accepting his mutation and assuming that he was in a healthy state of mind. He repeatedly hoped to wake up, but didn’t ever really question his sanity, too quickly adapting to the new world. I suppose that could come in handy for survival scenarios, but if we all abandoned the old world so readily for unconfirmed, undeveloped space, then what would be our chances of ever thriving? Without some trust, and even a degree of commitment to something firm under our feet, we could never build into the clouds. Kafka apparently never was able to reconcile his fear of derelict and floating sense of reality with his longing for progress, not anchored to anything in the so-called absolute or logic. He became a victim to his paranoia of being lonely and drifting in the void of chaotic and dangling sense perceptions.

The entire story was disgusting, and was intended to be so. Kafka cunningly turns us against a person ensconced in a ‘sick’ body, and shows us so clearly how lightly bound we are to one another, barring an aversion of the senses by an uncomely situation. One of the parts of the story that revolted me most was the apple that was thrown by the father to become lodged and rotting in the skin of Gregor’s vermin body. Many critics agree that this is a symbol from Eden, but for me, an apple is a everyday symbol of health, innocence, and purity; and to see it become a projectile of hate and repulsion from one person to another, becoming an agent of inflammation and disease, was sickening. I have to applaud Kafka here for excellence in morbid imagery and piercing symbolism.

I could not believe the family could so easily exchange their sorrow over Gregor’s death for their joy at the prospects of their young, hale daughter. The ending of the story with the sun, and lightheartedness, and celebration was completely forgetful of Gregor’s death, and was evidently even deepened by the loss! Are we so fickle, and is our sorrow over losing a loved one so short-lived? How many of us would hesitate to squash a bug if we knew it was a loved one that could not be restored to our likeness? Are we so driven to a material valuation of each other? Does hunger and egoism really define the firm boundaries of our experience? Is our spirit/consciousness so paper-thin and diluted to nothing by the concerns of the body? Much of my experience seems to corroborate this; but the very fact that I recognize it and long to move beyond mere me—this is hope. And then, there are those stories that give us a glimpse of some kind of higher spiritual life and love.

This story is so meaty and would be awesome fodder for deep discussion about the nature of perspective in logic and relationships, and it could deepen our understanding of the easily confused motives of love and philanthropy. It’s a shame most people stop reading good books after high school or college. This is a great shortcut back to appreciating books that could lead to deeper intellectual activity, and possibly a transformed life. In a good way.

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