Few knew better than Franz Kafka that life, if nothing else, is an inexplicably cruel joke. Seemingly orchestrated by an invisible sadist (sometimes called God). That the very term “Kafkaesque” is designed to connote a nightmarish tableau in which all signs of logic and reason have vanished in favor of convoluted blether is telling of his impact on our lives. Our lives in which dealing with the trivialities of the day-to-day become tantamount to both herculean and Sisyphean tasks. Perhaps most succinctly illustrated in 1915’s The Metamorphosis, in which the doomed main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a “monstrous vermin.” Or rather, a huge insect.
To be sure, this was how Kafka saw himself in his human form, self-hating as he was (a self-hatred his own father, who is very clearly referenced in the story via Mr. Samsa, did not do much to assuage). And as such, a true writer. But for him to manifest his self-perception into a story that transcends decades and centuries–for it applies more than ever now–was a testament to his ability to cut to the core of humankind and all of its ostensibly implausible travails.
With the advent of COVID-19, the irrevocable and inexplicable transformation all of our lives have undergone (unless, that is, you’re a rich person) seem oddly reminiscent of the confined existence Gregor himself must live in the wake of “the change.” One that, though never “officially” explained, can be interpreted to stem from several potential causes, including Gregor’s total reduction to an instrument of financial gain for society and, more personally, his family. As a head-down worker bee (an insect that would have been perhaps too obvious to mutate into), the weight put upon Gregor in an unfeeling and unsympathetic world is what renders him into this monster. A mere reflection of the anti-intellectual materialists that surround him. Kafka, in his own life, was well-versed in the plight, relegated to working as an insurance claims adjuster in between fighting violently to carve out enough time in the day for his writing.
But oh, how time is all that Gregor (and we) have now. As there seems to be no solution to the problem of his new incarnation. One that will, as coronavirus, likely never really “reverse” itself. The malevolent danger having been unleashed from the box by an unseen Pandora. A box that has opened Gregor’s eyes to the reality that you’re only as wanted as you are useful in this world. Accordingly, after scaring away his work supervisor, who came all the way to the house to scold him for his unwarned of absence, Gregor’s realm grows increasingly smaller as his family isolates him in the room. Not only because it makes them uncomfortable and repulsed to see him, but because, simply, that’s what people do with “problems” they do not know how to solve–just shut the door on them and hope it all goes away magically and mysteriously. His father appears to be the most upset between Mrs. Samsa and Gregor’s younger sister, Grete, for he is the one forced to go back to work again, taking his aggression over this out on Gregor by lobbing apples at him, one of which gets stuck in his back, injuring and weakening him. The apple, of course, often feels like a pointed symbol in any work of literature, conjuring associations with both knowledge and the forbidden. Gregor’s own revelations over the duration of the aftermath of his “conversion” seem to mirror the benefits and disadvantages of enlightenment. For, on the one hand, realizing that his family was using him all along with no real love for him as a person, nor any respect for what he might want out of his life makes it easier to let go of said unwanted former life. On the other, Gregor surely has to ask what the point of living is at all if he’s been rejected by his own flesh and blood.
A rejection that intensifies as the only person willing to take care of him by providing him with food, Grete, begins to recoil more regularly from the room he’s been locked in. When the family takes in three tenants to make ends meet, Gregor’s neglect intensifies all the more as he’s kept hidden in the room so as not to disgust them. Indeed, it is an all too resonant mirror held up to our own self-quarantine as we’re mandated to cordon ourselves off–especially those who are infected, or those who have been “contact traced” to prevent the potential spread of infection–from others. To be kept away from those who are “essential,” or “healthy” (though these two terms are not necessarily synonymous).
Gregor, through his lifelong self-abasement, has at long last come to this fate. And though it might not appear as though the majority of humanity traffics in overt abasement, the very nature of how we’re expected to function in society confirms that this is merely an enforced characteristic within us all. To that end, the fact that COVID-19 has effectively forced the world to stop and truly examine itself–often in an extremely harsh light–speaks to Gregor’s own imposed exile from the outside.
Coming to terms with the reality that his entire existence has been lived senselessly and without the kind of rumination required in order to make sense of it, Gregor is, in so many ways, just like the average person at this moment in time wrestling with the notion that, for most of their lives, all they’ve been doing is plodding along at a breakneck speed solely for the purpose of keeping their head above water. With this fast-paced, unrelenting monotony stripped away in favor of a starker, more sobering one, a great many people have been forced to recognize the meaninglessness of their existence. Particularly those who never wielded art as a coping mechanism. For what is the purpose of life if it isn’t running yourself into the ground to make money and bolster the economy? That’s all you were ever conditioned to do, and now it’s virtually impossible to do it. Like Gregor, you have been rendered as a “do-nothing,” capable only of remaining in your room. Until, at last, someone–maybe even the person closest to you, or maybe the government itself by sheer non-virtue of inaction–decides to put you out to pasture. Starting gradually, as Gregor’s family does, once they “had gotten into the habit of putting in his room things for which they could not find any other place.”
Sensing his unwantedness and unable to communicate any longer in a language that humans can understand, Gregor eventually starves himself, with the charwoman announcing his death, to which Mrs. Samsa replies, “Dead?” She confirms, “That’s what I said’… and to prove it she gave Gregor’s body another shove with the broom, sending it sideways across the floor. Mrs. Samsa made a movement as if she wanted to hold back the broom, but did not complete it. ‘Now then,’ said Mr. Samsa, ‘let’s give thanks to God for that.’” And just like that, society has one less useless mouth to feed, much to its relief (just think of all the pensions Italy will no longer have to pay to the old people that died as a result of corona’s tear-through of the country). That is what the sick and unemployed are, after all: a collective open mouth.
As Sartre is to hell is other people (the ultimate coronavirus mantra), Kafka is to embodying how Gregor Samsa is everyone in lockdown: deflated, downtrodden and seeming to have no grasp of what their new function in this life is.