Sunday May 18, 2003

Waking Dream

Written in 1912, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka remains a remarkably modern parable for gaining insight into one’s true nature—that is, if you have the guts. While Kafka wasn’t famous in his lifetime, his legacy is rich. 

For how I see the essence of this tale, read Kafka and I: Angst for the Memories inside the main site gallery.

The following excerpt “Gregor Samsa and Modern Spirituality by Martin Greenberg” is from the book Franz Kafka’s the Metamorphosis by Harold Bloom; Chelsea House, 1988.

The mother follow’d, weeping loud,
“0, that I such a fiend should bear!”

—BLAKE

In the Middle Ages it was the temporal which was the inessential in relation to spirituality; in the nineteenth century the opposite occurred: the temporal was primary and the spiritual was the inessential parasite which gnawed away at it and tried to destroy it.

—SARTRE

The Metamorphosis is peculiar as a narrative in having its climax in the very first sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The rest of the novella falls away from this high point of astonishment in one long expiring sigh, punctuated by three subclimaxes (the three eruptions of the bug from the bedroom). How is it possible, one may ask, for a story to start at the climax and then merely subside? What kind of story is that?

The answer to this question is, I think: A story for which the traditional Aristotelian form of narrative (complication and denouement) has lost any intrinsic necessity and which has therefore evolved its own peculiar form out of the very matter it seeks to tell. The Metamorphosis produces its form out of itself. The traditional kind of narrative based on the drama of denouement—on the “unknotting” of complications and the coming to a conclusion—could not serve Kafka because it is just exactly the absence of denouement and conclusions that is his subject matter. His story is about death, but death that is without denouement, death that is merely a spiritually inconclusive petering out.

The first sentence of The Metamorphosis announces Gregor Samsa’s death and the rest of the story is his slow dying. In its movement as an inexorable march toward death it resembles Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. As Ivan Ilyich struggles against the knowledge of his own death, so does Gregor Samsa. But Tolstoy’s work is about death literally and existentially; Kafka’s is about death in life. Until Ivan Ilyich stops defending his life to himself as a good one and recognizes that it has not been what it ought to have been, he cannot accept the knowledge that he is dying; finally he embraces the truth of his life, which is at the same time the truth of death, and discovers spiritual light and life as he dies. Kafka’s protagonist also struggles against “the truths of life and death”; in Gregor Samsa’s case, however, his life is his death and there is no salvation. For a moment, it is true, near the end of his long dying, while listening to his sister play the violin, he feels “as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved”; but the nourishment remains unknown, he is locked into his room for the last time and he expires.

What Gregor awakens to on the morning of his metamorphosis is the truth of his life. His ordinary consciousness has lied to him about himself; the explosive first sentence pitches him out of the lie of his habitual self- understanding into the nightmare of truth. “The dream reveals the reality” of his abasement and self-abasement by a terrible metaphor; he is vermin (Ungeziefer), a disgusting creature (or rather uncreature) shut out from “the human circle.” The poetic of the Kafka story, based on the dream, requires the literal assertion of metaphor; Gregor must literally be vermin. This gives Kafka’s representation of the subjective reality its convincing vividness. Anything less than metaphor, such as a simile comparing Gregor to vermin, would diminish the reality of what he is trying to represent. Gregor’s thinking “What has happened to me? ... It was no dream,” is no contradiction of his metamorphosis being a dream but a literal-ironical confirmation of it. Of course it is no dream—to the dreamer. The dreamer, while he is dreaming, takes his dream as real; Gregor’s thought is therefore literally true to the circumstances in which he finds himself. However, it is also true ironically, since his metamorphosis is indeed no dream (meaning something unreal) but a revelation of the truth.

What, then, is the truth of Gregor’s life?»

For more on Gregor Samsa and Modern Spirituality, visit Questia —the online library for research.

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