| Justin Hunte |
We know the story well—our poor friend Georg Samsa, protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, awakens one morning transformed into an extraordinarily large (specifically human-sized) insect. And this troubled commercial traveler never figures out how or why he undergoes this fantastic metamorphosis, or why everything around him remains unchanged—how his bedroom retains its original décor and the woman depicted in a prized portrait still sports her fur apparel while he, poor he, is no longer equipped with pajamas but a dome-shaped belly and numerous sticky legs that hinder him from rolling out of his bed.
When first reading The Metamorphosis, it is altogether too easy to get caught up on the outward characteristics that burden Georg, and we thereby neglect to identify the enormous debt hovering above Georg and his family. But even if we have a closer look, we might fail to pierce the work’s most compelling question—what or who initiates Georg’s metamorphosis?
Let’s have a peek, shall we? In German, “guilt” or “to feel guilty” is Schulden, which also closely relates to the noun Schuld, which can mean “debt.” If we consult our handy companion text, On the Genealogy of Morals, we see another poor friend called Nietzsche building upon the etymological relationship between Schulden and Schuld. This examination reveals a historic connection between creditor and debtor. Neitzsche, being a very bright young man, concludes that this relationship based on repayment developed our early and thus later forms of administering punishment for guilt. Both works tend to struggle with modern issues of exchange that often end in tragedy. And if we take a quick read of “The Judgment” or “The Trial” we witness how proven or unproven guilt can usher in hardship, isolation, and (yikes) even death. All three of Kafka’s plots ultimately dramatize Nietzsche’s construction of the creditor-debtor relationship. And how we love when our friends work together.
Kafka was not personally acquainted with Nietzsche and thus may not have had Nietzsche’s notion of guilt in mind, but this slight matter should not prevent us from taking a brief detour to one resounding quote from the source (although I sincerely suggest reading On the Genealogy of Morals in its entirety):
“…inspire trust in his promise to repay, to provide a guarantee of the seriousness and sanctity of his promise, to impress repayment as a duty, an obligation upon his own conscience, the debtor made a contract with the creditor and pledged that if he should fail to repay he would substitute something else that he ‘possessed,’ something he had control over; for example, his body, his wife, his freedom, or even his life ”.
Let’s overlook the gross chauvinism so prevalent in the majority of our old friends’ work and note that Georg’s mind, much like Nietzsche’s text, constantly shifts between physical transformation and social obligation. In Georg’s case, his fixation vacillates between his new legs and his determination to catch the next morning train to work. Why so worried about work? Being an upstanding sort, Georg is motivated by an obligation to repay his father’s debt to the chief, for whom Georg works. However, this dutiful son would also like to “have given notice long ago, I’d have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him. That would knock him endways from his desk!” When Georg’s creditor fails to trust him, this much imaginatively-maligned chief immediately sends his clerk to Georg’s home in order investigate Georg’s absence from work.
The clerk reminds Georg of their shared duty to a capitalist ethic; “we men of business—fortunately or unfortunately—very often simply have to ignore slight indisposition, since business must be attended to.” Business obligations always trump personal excuses or even the slightest indisposition: the chief impresses Georg to inspire trust by neglecting his health and holding true to their economic contract. Squirting lemon juice into the wound of magical transfiguration, the chief hints that Georg barricades himself in his room in order to disappear with a stocky handful of the chief’s cash payments.
On one level, Georg loses possession of his body; his sudden metamorphosis turns him into an enormous and entirely unattractive insect. A Marxist I know would probably suggest another level of perdition: that Georg had already lost his human qualities when he became a slave to his labor. This cravat-less Marxist friend of mine would go on to state that the cause of Georg’s transformation is due to the social alienation created by his profession. Another, equally poorly dressed and altogether vulgar Marxist friend would note the essential Nietzschean component to The Metamorphosis: Georg is not only subject to his position/labor. He is also specifically subject to the dominance of his chief. This dominance is shown by incessant and invasive reminders of Georg’s debt.
We all know how social obligations dictate our daily routines and transform the way we choose to interact with others. We sometimes crawl under the recesses of our bed-sheets to avoid the pressures of society. In the case of Georg, his creditor-debtor relationship obliges him to work far from home, adhere to a rigid schedule, and sacrifice any remnants of personal control on the altar of debt. More importantly, this contractual chief-insect relationship causes Georg to exchange his life for the preservation of his family.
Not altogether perversely, Georg finds himself enjoying the solitude of his room once he becomes a bug. Born from the necessity of his fantastic metamorphosis, Georg’s guilt subsumes reason and life until nothing remains but a moral : don’t let economic guilt be the boot that crushes you.