I’ve been feeling as if I’ve been undergoing some sort of internal metamorphosis of late, and for some reason was drawn to re-read Kafka’s short story by the same name. I last read this as a senior in high school. Thirty-five years, and a good bit of life experience, lends quite the fresh perspective.
I read the story as an 18-year old as part of an assignment to compare it to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych. I may, yet, have to revisit that tome, as well. But as for the present, I’d like to use (my new favorite term of late) “fresh eyes” to examine Kafka’s work. After a disagreement – more emotional than substantive – with a dear friend earlier in the week on the value of a self-help book, it occurs to me today that one of the things that make great literature just that is its ability to continue to speak to us through different times and different readings. With no attempt at self-help, great literature simply speaks, and the reader uses his or her own filter to listen.
As an 18-year old, I suspect I probably focused superficially on Gregor’s death and casual disregard by his family. As a 53-year old, struggling with bouts of emotional self-doubt, poor self-image, and an intense need to be “seen” and accepted for who I am at my core, my filter in the re-read was somewhat different.
Gregor’s transformation into a cockroach or beetle of epic proportions gave him “fresh eyes” as to how his family viewed him. When he became unable to provide for them unquestioningly, his attractiveness and needs were suddenly suspect. They responded to his “change” with shock and a feeble attempt to meet his most basic needs. It appeared, however, that this response was in the dim hope that he would become his “old self” again, meeting their needs, and placing few, if any, demands on them to return the favor. Even his sister grows weary of her early sensitivity in caring for him, as she becomes more self-sufficient. As their hope for resolution of this calamity wanes, so does their resentment of, and disgust for, Gregor increase.
Even in his most awkward state, Gregor attempts to negate his own discomfort by protecting his family from their own. He hides his unsightliness under the couch, and further, under the drape of a sheet, lest their fear and disgust be intensified. How many of us hide our “unpleasantness” from those around us out of a misguided concern for protection, comfort giving, or some other high minded virtue designed to keep others happy, content, and properly cared for?
The bedroom, the closet, the couch – too many of us withdraw into these for the sake of others, at risk of losing ourselves. A friend shared a Parker Palmer quote with me the other day – “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self.” I’m going to continue to do the hard work addressing my own personal demons and learning to live with myself. If you need company to do the same, come out from under the couch and join me, and perhaps we can accomplish what Gregor found impossible, and try to pick the apple off of one another’s backs.