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I read Franz Kafka’s metamorphosis last week.
I was a little boy when I read it the first time. And I was fascinated by the story, as many people are when they read Kafka. His writing is described by a word that is derived from his name, Kafkaesque. I don’t go into this further, anybody who knows his work knows what it means.
I want to write about something else, something that I missed when I was a boy and what seems very obvious to me now.
Let me first say a few words about Kafka, the person. According to his biography and all social standards he was quite successful. After school he studied law. Then he worked for 14 years in the insurance industry. He was a dedicated worker, travelled a lot and got promoted, not once, but several times.
In spite of his success he was unhappy with himself, his work, with his relationships (witch never worked out) and with his family, especially his father. He was so troubled, that he destroyed some of his writings. And at the end he wrote a testament, demanding that his work should never be published. But his stories were published eventually, against his will.
In other words, his ego was ok, but his self was troubled.
Kafka, although a deeply sensitive person with a great intellect, lacked empathy for himself.
And this is what you feel when you read his stories.
Let’s have a look at one of his most famous stories, the metamorphosis. The plot is quite simple: One morning a man wakes up to find himself transformed into a huge cockroach. His family, next door, finds out what happened to him, they let him stay in his room and nothing much happens. One day his father throws an apple at him, which causes a wound that leads to his death. End of the story.
What makes the story fascinating is not the plot, but the way he looks at what happens to him. And each page is an illustration of the same problem that he fails to mention. The problem is too much guilt and too little empathy for himself.
Don’t get me wrong. Kafka had plenty of empathy. But always for other people, never for himself.
The protagonist, Samsa (sounds similar to Kafka?) is thinking a lot about his boss, his family members, goes into great detail about what each one of them might think and how uncomfortable his metamorphosis might be for them, but he never does the obvious.
He never asks for help. He never demands that anybody might look at what had happened to him. He never tries to get back to a being a normal human being. He never tries to live his live as a cockroach either. He is hiding under a couch all day long.
His family does not give a shit about him. Instead, they close the door, do not talk to him or to anybody else about him, they hide him away, avoid talking to him, avoid any other personal or physical contact. None of them is doing the least for him. All they do is giving him some food, which they shove through the door, once a day. They treat him exactly like a prisoner, although he never committed any crime.
And instead of getting angry at them at least once, Samsa is busy feeling guilty that he causes so much discomfort to his family. He is hiding, because they might become a little uncomfortable seeing him as a cockroach.
What the fuck!
He should shout and fight and be angry at them, which would be a natural, healthy reaction.
But Kafka simply does not know how to be angry. He simply does not know what a healthy reaction is.
He does not know.
Because he never cared for himself.
Because they never let him.
The great, great, g r e a t Alice Miller described such highly talented and sensitive people in her best-seller „The Drama of the Gifted child.“
She explains how people might loose their self when they are forced to adapt to their parents too much too early on. Which makes them think the thoughts of their parents and feel the feelings of their parents so much, that they never experience their own thoughts and their own feelings. Instead, they live lifes of others, trapped in their own body which seems foreign to them. Later in life they become successful, they act like machines, always the best, always the first, probably with a big ego, but always with a deep lack of understanding of their own inner self, their own feelings, their own identity. Until they can’t go on any more.
If you want to know how this feels, read Kafka!
You will be able to see first hand the experience of a non-self, a victim of society. You will experience first hand the disaster of a destroyed ability to feel.
Feeling (as in the German word „Empfinden“) is not just a nice emotion, or maybe a bad one. It is a land mark that will guide you through life. It is a source of wisdom.
If this source is blocked, orientation is lost. Like with the guy in Kafka’s story „The Trial“.
And reading it, it makes me sad, really really sad. And angry.
Think of all that was lost! Think, for a moment, what kind of stories Kafka would have written, if he had experienced a living, lively self! Imagine Kafka as a forceful, encouraging, inspiring individual. He was a sensitive, intelligent person anyway, according to his biography. So imagine him not as a victim, but a healer. Not as the broken, guilt stricken poor soul that he became, but an emotional, strong individual, living his full talent to it’s best!
What a joy would it have been to read his books!
I would have loved to read his books. I would love to read the unwritten Kafka novels now. The ones that inspire, make you happy, make you believe in yourself and show you how to stand up for yourself, fight for yourself, do justice in an unjust world.
But instead I feel sick when I read his novels. Because it reminds me of a time when I was Samsa. And I have had enough of it.
I know that I am not alone. There are millions of Samsa’s out there. Now. Today. At your work place. On the street. In your family. Maybe you are one of them.
They are there. They look like you and me, but they are bugs, and they feel that way.
So what are you going to do about it?
Are you throwing the apple, close the door, switch off the light, feel uncomfortable, wait until the bug dies so that you can „be happy that it is over“ as Samsa’s family members say to each other at the end of the story?
If so, then you are an asshole. Fuck you!
But if you are the bug, try empathy! Empathy for your-self. For the way you are, however troubled.
And remember that you are not alone.