Die Verwandlung

Naturally, having read Benjamin’s Illuminations last week, I had to read Kafka’s Metamorphosis this week. An appropriate read during a pandemic, but not for reasons that you might imagine. Consider, for example, how the Samsas, following their initial shock, barely take notice of Gregore, who, to be sure, occupies nearly all of their waking hours and one entire bedroom, but whose meaning they nearly completely ignore. Or consider how his departure brings the Samsas not so much, again, to consider their condition, but to think about relocating and marrying off their daughter Greta.

Much like the Samsas, we — if not the world, certainly the world’s policy makers — are biding our time “until this is all over,” until Gregore departs, until we develop a vaccine or cheap daily test or whatever; not unlike the Samsas, wouldn’t you say? There is, in any case, no thought (except among experts) that somehow we brought this upon ourselves; that we should wake up and pay attention; that perhaps the disappearance of all other large mammals during the anthropocene, or climate change, or the mass industrial production of food for a population swelling for no particular reason, and any number of other catastrophic signals — such as the fact that our brother and son has become a large grotesque vermin — might cause us a moment’s pause to reflect.

Instead, I think I will throw a pan onto the floor, or an apple. Or perhaps I will lock the door; unless, of course, Gregore requires food. Ok. I’ll feed “him,” “it,” “whatever.”

In fact, what is so shocking about Die Verwandlung is how terribly normal is the world Kafka portrays. Even Gregore himself does not really shed his deferential, obsequious, self-effacing salesman persona. He changes only insofar, but no further, than his new condition requires.

Only Greta undergoes a true Verwandlung in any meaningful sense; though, interestingly enough, she is for the most part voiceless, in spite of — because of? — her enchanting connection to the universe, music, the violin, etc. It is a voice that goes unheard, until it is heard, which, of course, leads to Gregore’s departure and to her immanent departure, to be a man’s wife.

In this sense, Die Verwandlung is the preeminent bourgeois novella, a slice of Americana during periods of crisis, during the interminable crisis that has characterized the post-war epoch. That Kafka so keenly saw this in 1917 is nothing short of astonishing. What would happen if fascists actually did come to dominate most of Europe, authoritarian dictators much of Asia, atomic and fire bombs devastated densely populated cities, and six million Jews were systematically murdered? Surely that would change everything. Surely that would give rise to eine Verwandlung. Right?

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