Friday, June 08, 2007

Torturing hope: Kafka's Metamorphosis

On the new translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, I'm with the Literary Saloon concerning the use of the word "cockroach". But why do I think it's wrong (even if usually I won't hear a word against Michael Hofmann)? It's a long story. A lot of unnecessary space is taken up in the comments on the Guardian's book blog with interpretation of the word describing Gregor Samsa in his woken state – Ungeziefer having the literal meaning of "vermin". As he must have known, Nabokov's zoological points are irrelevant. One has to read the word as it is before our eyes: vague and open to interpretation. Openness is everything. There's no need to make these detours into etymology. Yes, Walter Sokol makes a good case for "cockroach" by highlighting how it is nauseating and parasitical yet also defenceless and pathetic - which is certainly how Gregor appears to everyone - but "insect", as the Muirs had it, does all that too and retains the vagueness of Kafka's word. More to the point is Lee's assertion that "Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual". The insect is both real and symbolic, unreal and unsymbolic. However, even if we knew Kafka had intended that, it wouldn't tell the whole story. Gregor is marginalised and detested not only because he has become an insect but also because he is no longer the reliable salesman keeping his family afloat. He has been transformed into a threat to the family's petit-bourgeois world. How terrible is the banging on his bedroom door when he fails to leave for work, how sickening when his boss visits the flat to investigate a single lost day? It is, as we know still today, a world of fierce taboos resisting the forces of change, of decay, illness and death. Gregor has, in effect, died but not left the building. His death stains the parents' starched clothing, stinks out the flat. This is how he might be read from a Marxist perspective: Gregor is the harbinger of the social problems inherent to early modern capitalism. But change also afflicts Marxists. The hope of political redemption is soon also faced by despair. 

Blanchot says Gregor's story "carries the reader off in a whirl where hope and despair answer each other endlessly". This might explain the extraordinary longevity of the story, of all great modern stories. We can never choose between hope or despair. This indecision and the impatience of philistines is mirrored in the story. The disgusting insect body scuttles around in the floor dust and its sister tries to maintain the love for her undeparted brother by leaving bowls of milk. She retains the romantic ideal of a soul behind the relationship of convenience. The father is more pragmatic of course and soon disowns his useless son. Gregor himself holds out hope and continues to be the selfless person he was before. This is what I find most upsetting in the story: this pathetic hope. He dies without abandoning it. Blanchot, on the other hand, thinks the most horrifying moment comes after Gregor has died and his family goes on a celebratory picnic. The family foresee a bright future. The hope of eternal petit-bourgeois life has been retained: "at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet and stretched her young body." For Blanchot, this is "the curse and it is revival, hope, for the girl wants to live, when to live is just to escape the inevitable." Kafka's stories "are among the darkest in literature, the most rooted in absolute disaster" because they "torture hope the most tragically, not because hope is condemned but because it does not succeed in being condemned." 

So, to come back to why the word "cockroach" betrays the story right at the start. A cockroach is a cockroach. We know what it looks like, we can picture it in our minds. It won't change. We can accommodate it in our world. But Kafka pursues what we cannot accommodate, what life cannot contain. He does not wish literature to contain it either. Before the story was published, he wrote to the publisher:

Dear Sir, You recently mentioned that Ottomar Starke is going to do a drawing for the title pages of Metamorphosis. Insofar as I know the artist's style … this prospect has given me a minor and perhaps unnecessary fright. It struck me that Starke, as an illustator, might want to draw the insect itself. Not that, please not that! I do not want to restrict him, but only to make this plea out of my deeper knowledge of the story. The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.
This is why I think I was right, despite single-word opposition, when, a couple of months ago, I speculated about the impact on the story of the Czech term for nightmares: nocni moucha, night moths. Kafka wrote with tenacious weakness within the insufficiency and the deceit of human dreams, of imaginative literature, realms of unchanging hope. The vermin is perhaps the literalised metaphor of our dreams. We cannot make dreams come true. We're always thrown back into reality. Blanchot again:
Gregor's state is the state of the being who cannot depart from existence; for him, to exist is to be condemned to falling continuously back into existence. Turned into vermin, he continues to live at the level of his degeneration, he sinks into animal solitude, he comes close to the absurdity and impossibility of living. But what happens? He goes on living. [...] And then he dies: an unbearable death, abandoned and alone – and yet almost a happy death by the feeling of deliverance it represents, by the new hope of an end that is final for now. But soon this last hope is also stripped away; it is not true, there is no end, life goes on.    (Translated by Charlotte Mandell)


  1. Anonymous10:44 am

    Magisterial, Steve. Absolutely spot-on.

  2. Anonymous4:40 pm


    It was a pleasure to read this; really, it was.

    We cannot escape the insect anymore, which I find irksome. I just feel Hofmann knew he couldn't escape it either; so he uses a word that, in modern vernacular, may denote something of the rotten stench Kafka was trying to convey, as well as placating all those who find the insect valid and real.

    But you know, as well as I do, that Kafka wasn't concerned with the insect; just his readers are.

    It's funny that people turn to Nabokov and not Blanchot to help elucidate their views - probably why they can't escape that insect.

    Thanks for this post,

    Lee Rourke.

  3. Anonymous1:12 pm

    I am with you on this one Steve. There is nothing better than a dispute about translation, not because it is an academic issue, since you can always look at a dictionary, but it usually gets to the heart of the story or translation - cockroach too definite

    Will Large

  4. Anonymous9:39 pm

    Would ladybird be misleading?

  5. Anonymous10:58 pm

    "ladybird" - Aw, that's cute, Patrick.

    I like ladybirds.

    Lee Rourke.

  6. Anonymous9:34 am

    He might have got some of the affection he so dearly needed, Lee. Everybody loves ladybirds.

  7. Steve, my dissent is too long for a comments box, so it's here:

  8. Anonymous7:17 pm

    "The insect itself cannot be depicted."

    It sounds as if this letter throws some light on Kafka's conception of the insect/bug/vermin/thing. What was the word here translated as 'insect'?

    It's a tough one; I don't think there is an 'insect' word which has the overtones of Ungeziefer, but I agree that 'cockroach' is too specific (despite having the right overtones). I've seen a persuasive argument for 'bug', but it was the now obsolete BritEng usage which specifically implies 'bedbug' (and hence carries overtones of contamination and disgust) rather than the much broader AmEng usage. 'Louse' maybe?

  9. Dear Steve,
    I really liked your article, however I would like to pick up on one point.

    I am slovak, and my language is really close to checz, I speak it fluently.
    I have never heard the term 'nocni moucha' before. We use 'nocni mora', that literally means nightmare.

  10. Phil, I also happen to believe that Kafka intended the "vermin" to be a bed bug, not a cockroach. Round, flat body: check. Foul odor: check. Stains left on linen: check. None of these descriptions apply to cockroaches. And bed bugs were common in Kafka's time. (Ironically, they are becoming more and more common in the US today.) The unspecified insect as metaphor theory is fine, but if you read the text again armed with a bit of familiarity with bedbugs, I think you will find it's undoubtably Kaftka's vermin.

    Amahl Scheppach
    University of Colorado at Boulder



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