The text for the day was from Marx. My students, almost all young females for whom the Cold War was as antique as the Peloponnesian, were sure of two things about Marx. The first was that he had been proved wrong—incontestably, too, "by history." The second was that he is unreadable. I wanted to impress on them the utility of Marx's brand of substructural analysis. I drew a picture of a freighter on the blackboard. Above the waterline I placed the bridge, cranes, forecastle, a funnel; below I sketched in a boiler room, drive shaft and propeller. We applied Marx's simile to the ship: the superstructure was like culture—philosophy, politics, art—the substructure represented what Feuerbach taught Marx to call "material conditions." Pointing to the bridge and cranes, I asked the students if the achievements of the Women's Liberation Movement of the early 1970's were simply a matter of ideas whose time had come or whether we could find contemporaneous changes in material conditions that might have something to do with transforming the social position of women. Like what, they wanted to know. I suggested three things: first, the introduction of the birth-control pill in the 1960's; second, the government's decision to pay for the Vietnam War by printing money rather than raising taxes so that inflation in the 70's made it hard for a middle-class family to maintain its standard of living on only one salary; finally, the change in the nature of work from activities that put a premium on upper-body strength to labor requiring digital and mental dexterity. Women, I suggested, were freed by the Pill, needed to go to work, and could be absorbed by a rapidly de-industrializing economy. Maybe, I suggested, this is what it means to say that an idea's time has come. It was a chicken-and-egg sort of analysis, nothing to do with Bolsheviks or gulags, but nonetheless Marxist. In the end, Marx is not wrong to say that trying to understand the world without taking economics into account produces a false consciousness.
Nowadays scarcely anybody regards a Communist revolution as a gratifying prospect and few disturbed people are steered to psychoanalysis as the most promising path to a cure. The works of Marx and Freud are flowers of the nineteenth century's research project of digging up buried things, à la Victor Frankenstein and Heinrich Schliemann. In the twentieth century their surnames became adjectives and their ideas dogmas. As "isms," both have lost much of their appeal as either revolutionary or therapeutic programs. Such hopes ended even before the twentieth century did. Nevertheless, we cannot dispense with Marx or Freud any more than we can with shovels, flashlights, and x-rays. They have bequeathed us precious tools for penetrating surfaces, for illuminating "the naked structure of happenings." That phrase comes from a 1944 essay on Kafka by Hannah Arendt. Trying to pin down precisely what it is that Kafka uniquely does, Arendt compares his stories to "blueprints" and his writing to "the construction of models" (Arendt, 143). Kafka was certainly neither a Marxist nor a Freudian, but he did once envision a kind of communal utopia of men without private property and, in his Diary, admits thinking of Freud while writing his breakthrough story, "The Judgment." Kafka's work often recalls Marx and Freud in its depiction of the tensions of social and family life. However, Kafka does something different from merely working with what Freud would call the "ideational content" of their work. Even though there is so much autobiography in his fiction, Kafka is never content with what is personal and contingent; he scrapes away at his material, chiseling it down to essences. His fathers and sons are, to be sure, always Hermanns and Franzes, but they are also every father and every son. His chief characters may all be portraits of the artist but they are also universal, Everymen named Georg, Gregor, K. In his work the truth is as little contingent as possible. Kafka frequently reduces his heroes to their economic functions—Land-Surveyor, Officer, Country Doctor, Hunger-Artist. "The Metamorphosis" goes deeper than ordinary psychology or self-portrayal. The story of Gregor Samsa is not about little Franz hearing "vermin" called after him on the streets of Prague, about the ill-luck of a bachelor, about contracting tuberculosis. It is about all experiences of sudden change, from religious conversion to amputation, from beginning to die to losing one's job.
Kafka himself understood his work as embodying a particular relationship between what pertained to him personally and what was universal. "The Metamorphosis" begins with "uneasy dreams"—for the author as well as the protagonist—and their dreams unmask reality more incisively than deliberate reflection can. When his youthful admirer Gustav Janouch tactlessly and sophomorically insisted that "The Metamorphosis" was plainly autobiographical ("The S in the word Samsa has the same position as the K in the word Kafka. The A . . ."), Kafka cut him off. "It is not a cryptogram. Samsa is not merely Kafka, and nothing else, although it is—in a certain sense—an indiscretion." That is, yes, Kafka concedes that the story is about "the bugs in one's own family," but he insists that Gregor's story is no mere novella-à-clef. When Janouch calls the story a "terrible dream" Kafka retorts sharply and in words that sum up his method: "The dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind. That is the horror of life—the terror of art" (Janouch, 32).
To see an x-ray of one's body is to see both oneself but also a fundamental and therefore universal structure. The skeleton's armature underlies soft reality and gives it form. In the work of Kafka, as in the dictionary, the words specific and species share the same root. In a sense, Marx, Freud, and Kafka all generate x-rays that pass right through the accidental to strike the essential. But of course Kafka differs profoundly from Marx and Freud. He does not aspire to be scientific or, like them, to derive laws or formulate theories. They pursue "conception" directly; he elaborates his dreams. Nor, like Marx and Freud, is he an atheistic materialist. Kafka is a sort of athletic agnostic. In an introduction to The Castle, Thomas Mann even called him "a religious humorist" (Castle, xvi). Kafka's work never lacks a spiritual dimension; even at its most faithless, its courts are divine as well as demonic and its Old Commandants sound like Jehovah. Freud and Marx begin with groups and end with laws. Freud did begin with himself and his father but what emerged was a generalized Oedipus complex which Kafka judged too simple (Brod, 20). Marx accounts for the particular conditions of workers with the general idea that they do not own the means of their production. Kafka, on the other hand, elucidates the nature of family and the character of work by turning his dreamlike x-ray machine on his own situation, his own family, his own work, piercing through the soft tissue of his existence to the skeleton beneath.
Marx's flashlight is too useful to be left to the Communists. But a flashlight is an instrument for seeing in the dark, not the thing we wish to look at but a tool by which we are able to see it.
Kafka's delineating of the "naked structure" of Gregor's working life summons up not only Marx on alienation but also his contrast between early or small and late or large-scale capitalism. Where Marx reasons from abstractions like "labor" and "capital," the "urban proletariat" and "industrial bourgeoisie," Kafka begins with the dream and never quite leaves it. So for him the substructure of life is both economic reality and those more subjective facts laid bare in the unconscious.
Similes leave the molecular structure of reality undisturbed, so to speak, putting one thing next to another because they are like each other in some respects. Similes remind us that if they are true in one sense they are false in another. Similes are, so to speak, superstructural. The opening sentence of "The Metamorphosis" is not a simile. Dostoyevsky's Underground Man feels like an insect but Gregor Samsa actually is one, a salesman enmeshed in a metaphor, "carried over" from one state of being to another. That a man should wake up as a bug is a substantial challenge to one's sense of things but what is more astonishing is that it should be treated as a minor inconvenience by Gregor himself. This non-response, at once acceptance and denial, distinguishes Kafka's story from horror tales like The Island of Dr. Moreau or The Fly. Gregor's equability permits Kafka to absorb us in the precision of details, Gregor's furniture, his clock, his many legs. So arresting is the impact of what Gregor doesn't think about that little attention is paid to what he does—his job.
To begin with, Kafka establishes a congruence between Gregor's professional and family lives. The source of this identity is certainly personal. The fiercely energetic, endlessly captious Hermann Kafka also dealt in cloth and would have liked his surviving son's assistance with his business. In his recent biography of Kafka, Nicholas Murray takes a firmly autobiographical view of Gregor's professional life, suggesting that the feeling behind Kafka's depiction of it is guilt about not satisfying his father's wishes:
Gregor's conviction that he is responsible for what has happened
to him and that he is letting down his family reflects Kafka's guilt
about his failure to meet his family's expectations—there is even
a reference to the collapse of the father's business which expresses
Kafka's self-reproach at not having been more supportive of the
shop and factory. (Murray, 141)
Unlike Kafka, however, Gregor does, in a sense, go into the family business. In fact, the evidence suggests that Gregor's fate is more likely Kafka's commentary on a path unashamedly not taken. In the Letter to His Father, Kafka writes about the matter without any self-reproach: "I have never taken any interest in the business or your other concerns; I left the factory on your hands and walked off . . ." (Letter, 9). Kafka is laying out one of his father's grievances against him but expresses nothing that could be called regret. The son's relation to the father in the Letter is resistance; in "The Metamorphosis" the relation is one of oppression. Gregor's father and his boss are so closely identified that, in effect, Gregor has to contend not with one but two tyrannizing fathers. The identity is pure Kafka. A later passage in the Letter indicates that as a child he conflated the carping father at home with the proprietor in the shop.
[T]he business and you became one for me . . . things that had at first
been a matter of course for me there now began to torment and shame
me, particularly the way you treated the staff. I don't know, perhaps it
was the same in most businesses . . . in the Assecurazioni Generali, for
instance, in my time it was really similar, and the explanation I gave the
director for my resignation was . . . my not being able to bear the
cursing and swearing . . . . (Letter, 53-55)
His father's cursing of his staff, intimidating and accusing them—all this terrified and shamed Kafka who, as a boy, identified with the employees: "I simply assumed you had as terrible an effect on these people as on me . . . [I]t made the business insufferable to me, reminding me far too much of my relations with you . . ." (Letter, 56-57).
Certainly Gregor's complaints about how he is treated by his firm recall Kafka's father's abuse of his employees, including even his own niece; but "The Metamorphosis" is not a simple rejection of work or private revenge. Kafka conveys a universal ambivalence about work, approach and avoidance, material need to hold on and the reckless urge to escape. This ambivalence is externalized in Gregor's plea to hold on to a job he detests. Kafka may be addressing his father through Gregor, but he speaks for plenty of other people as well:
What a fate, to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest
omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion! Were all
employees in a body nothing but scoundrels, was there not among them
one single loyal devoted man who, had he wasted only an hour or so of the
firm's time in a morning, was so tormented by his conscience as to
be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed?
The hostility of the father cannot be propitiated by retreat nor that of the father by the most scrupulous loyalty.
Exactly what is the nature of the company for which Gregor works? It is not satisfactory to say that Gregor's firm is an exaggerated depiction of the Kafka drapery business simply because the hyper-vigilance and bullying recall Hermann. Nor is it adequate to see the firm as an early draft of the Court in The Trial because it is quick to condemn, full of petty rivalries, and rife with gossip or that it anticipates the invisible bureaucracy of The Castle because the company holds the key to Gregor's place in the world. No doubt Kafka's images of authority all resemble one another, but in 1912 Kafka was not yet thinking of the novels he had yet to write. He was thinking about business. What is business to Kafka?
"The Metamorphosis" was written at an historical moment when large corporations had already emerged—Kafka worked for two big insurance concerns—but when most of the economy was still constituted by small companies, the kind with the owner on the premises and workers who were often relatives. For Marx the distinction between small and large business, patriarchal and bureaucratic, has a moral significance. In his theory, small business characterizes the early stage of industrial development. Here, he says, "private property still coincides with labor" (Marx 176). That is, there is little distance between owner and worker and, in fact, capital and labor are often identical, as in a family restaurant or family farm. Even to Marx, it makes neither political nor ethical sense to "expropriate" such businesses because the workers are not yet alienated. The worker knows the owner; there are as yet no lofty management pyramids, faraway stockholders, nameless boards of directors. What Marx omits to mention, however, is that in such enterprises family tensions and jealousies are bound to be superimposed on the business. In the large corporations of late capitalism, however, "the contradiction between the instrument of production and private property appears for the first time . . . And thus only with big industry does the abolition of private property become possible" (Marx, 176). To Marx, small business is all right, big ones are not.
In "The Metamorphosis," Kafka contrives a remarkable effect. He depicts Gregor's firm as both small and large and, from both perspectives, in the worst sense for Gregor. That is, Gregor suffers from having a personal relationship with his chief but is also the victim of a cold corporate structure saturated with anxiety, sycophancy, and insecurity. This simultaneously personal yet distant relationship of Gregor with his employer is captured in an arresting image when Gregor indulges the universal fantasy of quitting:
If I didn't have to hold my hand because of my parents I'd have
given notice long ago, I'd have gone to the chief and told him exactly
what I think of him . . . . It's a queer way of doing, too, this sitting
on high at a desk and talking down to employees . . . (68-69)
That is, Gregor's chief is accessible, knows the Samsas, squats in the center of the office like a queen bee; but he sits "on high," is hard of hearing, deaf to protests though also close by and quick to condemn.
Marx's writing becomes almost Dickensian when he denounces the conditions of factory workers. While he seems almost nostalgic about pre-industrial commerce and craftsmanship, he is ferocious about what happens when labor is, as he says, "externalized." Now the workers are degraded—so many insects, more or less. His description of the proletariat's plight, like his appropriation of Hegel's word "alienation," expands as he writes. What begins as an account of the condition of hired labor under laissez-faire industrial capitalism swells to describe a whole existential condition.
Labor is exterior to the worker, that is, it does not belong to his
essence. Therefore he does not confirm himself in his work, he
denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free
physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins
his mind. Thus the worker feels a stranger. He is at home when he
is not working and when he works he is not at home. (Marx, 80)
While the last sentence seems to apply well to a commercial traveler like Gregor, he is not really "at home" in his home. He is as alienated in the family apartment as in his railway hotels. In both, he always locks his door. So fused are his job and his family that Gregor lacks even the pitiful advantages of the proletarian; neither home nor work provides a respite from the other.
At the beginning of the story Gregor is obsessed by his clock. Despite having turned into an insect, he is still fixed in working time, absorbed by schedules, anxious that even if he somehow could manage to catch the seven o'clock train he would still be in trouble. The firm's porter "would have been waiting for the five o'clock train and would long since have reported his failure to turn up." This precise, minute-by-minute telling off of time recalls Marx's observation about how industrial work transforms the worker's "lifetime into working time" (Marx, 482). Modern work is not governed by sun or season—neither of which can even be glimpsed out of Gregor's opaque urban window—but by clock and timetable. Therefore, a telling sign of Gregor's departure from the world of work, from "the human circle," is the dissolution of time in Parts Two and Three. It is almost as if the clock were holding its breath, waiting for the instant of Gregor's death before restarting and signaling that it is precisely three in the morning.
In some respects Gregor's metamorphosis appears to bear out what Marx has to say about how work blurs the line between animal and human. Marx believes an alienated worker "feels himself freely active in his animal functions . . . and feels himself an animal in his human functions" (Marx, 81). To him, our distinctively human function is work simply because, unlike other species, we create our own subsistence. For Kafka, the matter is more ambiguous. As an animal Gregor is excluded from "the human circle," and yet that circle is shown to be constituted by parasitic relatives, backbiting colleagues, and exploitative bosses. What is most truly "human" to Kafka is spiritual rather than economic activity. Only as a bug does Gregor sense through music "the unknown nourishment" he needs. In other words, as a bug Gregor goes both up and down on the scale of being. Both movements are true. Work can be bestial, unemployment human and vice versa. To write in one's room one must crawl away from the family circle and so look to them peculiar, unintelligible, parasitic.
For Marx, what matters is not the value that labor has but to whom this value accrues. Therefore, he fixes the source of the worker's misery not in the nature of but the ownership of his labor.
The external character of labor for the worker shows itself in the
fact that it is not his own but someone else's, that it does not
belong to him, that he does not belong to himself in his labor, but
to someone else. (Marx, 81)
Except for his hobby of fretwork—a good image of Kafka's nocturnal worrying and writing—Gregor's labor belongs to his chief but also to his father, whose debt he is paying off. His working life is a kind of indentured servitude. In his long speech accusing Gregor of malingering, the chief clerk confirms this by reminding Gregor that he is speaking for both "your parents and your chief." Gregor's complaints about his job are therefore continuous with the Oedipal contest in the story. He is the victim equally of the patriarchal and bureaucratic business models; the economic and psychological both zero in on him. Kafka finds a physical symbol for the correlations of father/boss and family/work. After the chief clerk has backed out of the apartment in horror, Gregor's father "seized in his right hand the walking stick which the chief clerk had left behind on a chair." Mr. Samsa then turns this appropriated symbol of business authority into one of paternal hostility, driving Gregor back into his room while "hissing" at him, reminding us that the vermin in this family are plural, as are the metamorphoses. When Mr. Samsa slams the door on Gregor it is pointedly done "with the stick."
Father and son are like two funicular cars so that as Gregor sinks in a worldly, economic sense, he pulls his father up. To Marx, the only relations considered valid under capitalism are those of exploitation; to Kafka both family and business life are perverted by mutual parasitism, "the bugs in one's family." The trajectory of "The Metamorphosis" is identical to that of "The Judgment," written two months earlier, in which a weakened father comes back to life to condemn his son. In the earlier story there is an abstract quality to the action, but in "The Metamorphosis" it is given a firmer foundation in family and professional life. Mr. Samsa, demoralized by business reverses, had passed his paternal domination over to his creditor, Gregor's chief. With the son's transformation the father begins to recapture his throne, putting on a uniform, becoming again the focus of his wife's and daughter's attention simply because his son is no longer in a position to win the family bread. Mr. Samsa's resuscitation is complete only when Gregor disappears entirely. Now he is so powerful that he can drive off the lodgers, so secure that he can take a day off. In the meantime, Mr. Samsa eagerly grabs at any instrument of power to use against the son, from a stick to a biblical apple.
Gregor's life is a bind, a trap. He curses his job yet pleads to keep it, resents his family's dependence but is proud of providing an easy life for them, loathes his chief yet is loyal and fanatically diligent. It is hard not to conclude that Gregor would have done better to run from both firm and family and matriculate in the Conservatory himself—perhaps then he would have escaped into art, as Kafka did, if only conditions permitted. As it is, though, Gregor works at a miserable job imposed on him and for an inhumane chief who distrusts and traduces him. He sells things and, professionally, is a thing himself, a mere unit of labor. Marx provides a formula which succinctly describes the degradation of work in a world where things displace humanity: "The depreciation of the human world progresses in direct proportion to the increase in the value of the world of things" (Marx, 78). Gregor can extricate himself from this devalued world of commodities only at the price of devolving into a thing: "'Oh,' said the charwoman . . . 'you don't need to bother about how to get rid of the thing next door. It's been seen to already'"( Metamorphosis, 131).
Gregor's fate is a comment on the nature of the working world, the truth of which Kafka discloses by his dreamlike methods of exaggeration and compression, through his symbols and dramatic metaphors. His depiction of what has never happened to anyone reveals what happens to everyone. "The Metamorphosis" is indeed what Kafka told Janouch it was, a dream that outstrips reflection.
The expert on the relationship between dreams and reality is Freud, who famously said that happiness lies in being able to love and work at the same time. Freud's own work is chiefly preoccupied with the many varieties of love. Work itself he discusses comparatively little; however, he does take it up directly in the second chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, a discourse on quivers and the arrows we can put in them. As a psychological hedonist Freud finds it axiomatic that we are pre-programmed with the Pleasure Principle so that our primary object in life is to be happy. However, Freud is equally certain that we are bound to fail in this aim, that nature will rain on us, that our bodies will sicken and decay, and, worst of all, that other people will afflict us with all sorts of humiliations and betrayals. As he sees it, the human condition is that we have to play but we can't win. What, then, is to be done?
Freud enumerates the range of palliatives and compensations available to human beings, from alcohol to religion, yoga to romance, good drugs to bad art. It is revealing that, while doing so, he abandons his lofty neutrality to offer a value judgment. Since Freud believes the worst of our unhappiness has its source in other people it is fitting that, in a passage preceding his examination of work as a technique for "fending off suffering," he should reflect on the Epicurean solution of social withdrawal and psychological entrenchment:
Against the suffering which may come upon one from human
relationships the readiest safeguard is voluntary isolation,
keeping oneself aloof from other people. (Freud, 27)
One thinks not only of Gregor locked away in his room, sawing a fussy frame for the magazine picture of a fantasy female swathed in furs, but also of Kafka's daydream of an ascetic basement room furnished with nothing but a writing desk. Freud condemns this way of life in the same terms as the Stoics did Epicureanism, as ignoble and meaningless, saying "[T]here is, indeed, another and better path: that of becoming a member of the human community. . ." (Freud, 27). Freud himself was industrious and evidently found his own work satisfying; after all, it was freely chosen and involved him with patients, colleagues, audiences, and correspondents all over the world. So his encomium to the utility and purposefulness of work is to be expected. Nevertheless, he is aware of Marx's distinction between fulfilling work and the kind that alienates. Freud knows very well that jobs of the first sort are rare and open to few, while work of the second sort is the fate of most of humanity. But, for Freud, who owns the factory is irrelevant. He extends the psycho-social benefits of work to any variety of job.
No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual
so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least
gives him a secure place in . . . the human community. (Freud, 30)
The particular therapeutic virtue of creative work, as Freud sees it, is "that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world." The artist, he says, can give "his phantasies body" and the scientist can relish "solving problems or discovering truths . . ." (Freud, 30). Kafka knew that he could not support himself by literary work, that his writing and his job were bound to conflict: "Now these two professions can never be reconciled with one another and admit a common fortune" (Diaries, I, 58). His professional work depresses him; writing is his salvation. He confesses in his journal that, "Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it" (Ibid., 300). He even lists the inability to write as one of the considerations against marrying. Kafka found satisfaction in literary composition, as Gregor finds it in his "fretwork," and perhaps even a respite from certain frustrations of life, though his writing is, so to say, devoted to these frustrations. But writing was not Kafka's job, nor sawing Gregor's.
Kafka had little love for the insurance work he did. He once hired a lawyer to whom he could then lose a case; he wrote reports on the injuries done to workers by machines and sympathized with those who came begging for compensation, wondering why these supplicants did not assault people like him and tear the building to pieces. In his letters, Kafka refers to "the office" as to a prison cell; it is always something to "be free" of—and yet he also writes of how he would beg not to be fired. Given his emphasis on Gregor's anxiety, isolation and resentment, Kafka would probably smile wryly at Freud's bland confidence that all kinds of work can afford "a secure place in the human community." Gregor's position, like his class status, is anything but secure; nevertheless, his job really does "at least" afford him a place and so he is, for a time, as distressed as Othello when his "occupation's gone." The pathos of Gregor's case is that, while Othello laments the loss of a career he cherishes, a fulfilling career like Freud's, Gregor cleaves pathetically to what he detests, and lies about his feelings to the chief clerk: ". . . traveling is a hard life, but I couldn't live without it . . ." (Metamorphosis, 79).
Freud has his own ambivalence about work, even the most privileged and gratifying kind, but this is because its satisfactions are "mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses . . ." (Freud, 30). It might be argued that Gregor derives more intense pleasure from being an insect than he did from being a salesman, in mastering the use of his legs, eating, pressing himself against the cool glass covering the photograph of the woman in furs. For Marx, physical pleasure is degrading, while for Freud physical pleasure is our original and deepest aim. In this at least, Kafka seems nearer to Marx. Gregor's gratifications as a bug are portrayed as shameful. In Kafka's work sex always yields more punishment than delight. When Gregor's mother collapses on seeing him stuck to that picture, it is as if an adolescent had been discovered masturbating. So, is he better or worse off as an insect? Kafka suggests both. Gregor is degraded in the scale of being and yet also elevated in a spiritual sense. "That was no human voice," says the chief clerk decisively after Gregor twitters his abject appeal; yet it is as an unemployed beetle that Gregor learns to love music and to long for the sublime sustenance to which it seems to "open a way." The effect is profoundly paradoxical. Gregor the bug is, among other things, Kafka the writer whose "uneasy dreams" often seem less than easily intelligible but which nonetheless go to the heart of the human predicament. If the "human circles" of family and work are shown up as inhumane, parasitic and unfeeling, then perhaps the deepest humanity is to be found beyond their boundaries, as a bug on a wall or a writer in a basement.
Freud is at his most Freudian when specifying the psychological benefits of work.The possibility it offers of displacing a large amount of libidinal
components, whether narcissistic, aggressive, or even erotic, on
to professional work and to the human relations connected with
it lends it a value by no means second to what it enjoys as something
indispensable to the preservation and justification of existence in
society. (Freud, 30)
Kafka is aware of these advantages of the workplace; however, Gregor's opportunities for "displacement" are limited by his being, as he puts it, "never seen in the office almost the whole year round." Alone in trains and hotels, forming ties neither to his customers nor fellow travelers, he is like those telecommuters who find they miss the human contact of the office. Gregor is shut out of "the human circle" of the family but, professionally too, he is out of the loop. The only displacements available to him are unhealthy—fretwork and fantasy.
Freud writes only of the benefits to the individual doing the displacing, not of the consequences for those on to whom the "libidinal components" are displaced. Kafka does not neglect them. Gregor suffers from the "narcissistic" and "aggressive" tendencies of his colleagues and managers. The exaggerated strictness of his supervisors offers the best example, the chief clerk showing up at his home moments after he misses a train, the boss scrutinizing his order forms. No one grasped the modern bureaucratic disposition better than Kafka, but he knew it even before becoming an insurance lawyer. He had already observed its exacting severity in his father's shop where he learned to conceive the essential relations between employer and employee as tyranny and suspicion on the one side, resentment and fear on the other. In "The Metamorphosis," as in Kafka's father's shop, superiors displace their drives on their subordinates. It would be just as apt to say that what they exercise is the Nietzschean Will-to-Power, which, for Kafka, is always the will of a father. As for the "erotic," taken in Freud's broad, non-sexual sense of binding people together through affection, loyalty, and common purpose, Kafka shows that such feelings may arise but that the business world nullifies them. He manages this with a single word. When the chief clerk divulges the boss's suspicion that Gregor has embezzled money, he adds, ". . . I almost pledged my solemn word of honor that this could not be so . . ." (Metamorphosis, 77). Almost must surely be one of Kafka's favorite words, the qualifier that snatches back what the rest of a sentence gives. In the commercial world to run a risk for another, to assert the solidarity of Eros against the dissolution of Thanatos, is simply unbusinesslike.
Denied the choice of where and for whom to work, cut off from the compensating displacements of the office and the human relations that can soften business's ferocious competition, constantly insecure in his place, all that remains for Gregor to be "proud of" is what he earns for his family. His salary alone had justified his existence to his father and, after a time, Grete as well. Only his mother holds out against their condemnation but, at last, even she succumbs. Gregor is swept away by all three women in the story, maiden, matron, and crone. As for his erotic life, it has been bottled up and deformed. Gregor's libido is twisted into masochism. That precious picture of the woman in furs is an allusion to another Gregor, the protagonist of Sacher-Masoch's most notorious underground bestseller Venus in Furs. Pleasure is punishment, punishment pleasure. Human is animal, animal human.
In the end, even Freud acknowledges that, notwithstanding all he says in favor of making work the center of one's life, people do not value it.
[A]s a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men. They
do not strive after it as they do other possibilities of satisfaction.
The great majority of people only work under the stress of necessity,
and this natural human aversion to work raises most difficult social
problems. (Freud, 30)
Gregor's "uneasy dreams" could well include one about escaping from his job, his family, the inhumane "human circle" itself.
Kafka is closer to Freud than Marx in one significant respect. The latter does not believe in a fixed human nature. What we call "human nature" is, for Marx, only an adjustment to an historically contingent set of social and economic conditions. In other words, capitalism breeds greed, not vice versa. Marx does not contend that human nature is morally good but that a more rational economic and social system could do away with evils we believe are innate. Freud, on the other hand, not only believed in a human nature but devoted his life to ferreting out its fixed laws. His appraisal of the Marxists' dream of a world in which everyone will be everyone else's comrade is blunt: "[I]am able to recognize the psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion" (Freud, 71). There is no hope. Human destructiveness and aggression, all the negative but vital tropisms he came to designate "Thanatos," are inexorable; stop up one outlet and another will be found. Kafka too is pessimistic about easy political or economic solutions to the problems of work, let alone of life. The story offers no way out for Gregor, neither a revolution in the conduct of the business world, whose fundamental truths are scarcity and competition, nor a reformation of the family, where, in the no less competitive Oedipal and sibling rivalries, he is vanquished by his father and sister. Nor is there any hope in trying to return to what he was, becoming again like the interchangeable lodgers who are symbols of his former self. This is why his debasement is also a kind of individuality, a promotion. Normality loses its appeal. For Gregor's family, however, it is otherwise. Grete is like the young panther who replaces the hunger-artist. It is as much a proof of the remaining Samsas' vitality as their insensitivity that they should regard their jobs so differently from how Gregor viewed his. After the son and brother is swept out with the trash:
Father, mother, and daughter go into the countryside by tram,
and talk animatedly about the future. The prospects are attractive:
the three jobs are very promising . . . (Citati, 73)
The pointless rotations of the story, Gregor revolving the key in the lock or chased by his father around the dinner table, imply something about the "human circle." Gregor's professional and family lives are treadmills. What hope Kafka finds in a world of jobs and fathers lies outside of family and work; yet to leave either really is to be banished, to forfeit Freud's "attachment to reality," to become other than human. If there is any hope at all for Gregor Samsa, oppressed son and alienated worker, it is that "unknown nourishment" for the lack of which hunger-artists and salesmen starve. Kafka's x-rays, his models and blueprints, preserve everything essential in his experience while burning away the merely parochial—the cobblestones of Prague, his father's drapery shop, the three sisters, the everyday anti-Semitism. Through dreams and economic analysis, which in the story are inextricable, Kafka forces us to see not only life's bridges and cranes but likewise the boiler room beneath the waterline.
Arendt, Hannah. "Franz Kafka: A Revaluation." Partisan Review, Fall 1944. Reprinted in Story and Critic, ed. Myron Matlaw and Leonard Lief. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. 141-144.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. New York: Schocken, 1963.
Citati, Pietro. Kafka. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
Janouch, Gustav. Conversations with Kafka. London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. New York: Schocken, 1966.
-------. "The Metamorphosis." In The Penal Colony. New York: Schocken, 1961.
-------. Diaries, Volume I. New York: Schocken, 1965.
Mann, Thomas. "Homage." Introduction to The Castle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Murray, Nicholas. Kafka. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.