Kafkaesque. The expression is on everyone’s lips. It brilliantly defines last century’s tragedies and disenchantments; it encompasses all our disillusions, our existential anguish, the erosion of social norms, the loveless eroticism and the individuals’ helplessness and impotence.
The XXth century was Kafkaesque at heart. Mazes have emerged and popped out everywhere: in cities, libraries, factories, public buildings, train stations or airports… All these places where we spend most of our time have undergone an incredible transformation and taken labyrinthine and convoluted shapes; reminding us of Kafka’s nightmarish visions of a world mostly designed to make us feel like we’re always in transit to some other face-less universe. As if life itself, its taste, smell and feel, had absconded and there was no escape from such ever-changing and never-ending mazes.
Kafka’s characters are the symbol of this globalized meaninglessness, both its unwitting intellectual heirs and persecuted lab experiments; too submissive to ever aspire to fulfill or achieve anything, eager to turn the other cheek in the face of adversity or bend the knee in front of the established order. Without a complaint, without a whimper, they carry the weight of the world that comes crashing down on their shoulders. Over a hundred years ago, Kafka had already predicted the absurdity of the bureaucratic system-to-be. But, as we’ve known ever since Cassandra and the Greeks, visionaries are condemned not to be heard. We eagerly consult oracles and promptly ignore their warnings.
The hegemony of work
Work as our waking thought and dying wish: Kafka, who worked all day long at an insurance company and wrote his nightmarish visions during the night, knows this feeling better than anyone.
The most surprising element when reading The Metamorphosis (1915) is Gregor Samsa’s resignation. His mutation per say doesn’t bother him that much: when the poor chap realises, after an “agitated night”, that he appears to have been transformed into an enormous cockroach, what really bugs him is that he won’t be able to get to the office on time. Unrealistic and absurd? Can you really say for certain this won’t be one of your first thoughts if something similar happened to you?
Gregor Samsa has to work to pay back the money his parents owe to his boss. A simple and common-place situation, where a child’s duty turns into a professional responsibility which itself becomes a moral obligation. From the very start, Gregor is doomed, a prisoner of both his family and employer. Between these two activities, an empty void, a great nothingness; his entire life revolves around these two poles of symbolic persecution and veiled imprisonment.
David Cronenberg’s 1986 cult-movie The Fly treats of a similar process and gravitates around a similar obsession. The metamorphosis of the main character gives a bold and crude representation of monstrosity with far-reaching philosophical implications.
Like Kafka’s Gregor, Seth Brundle’s whole life revolves around his job, albeit not for the same reason: a passionate scientific on the verge of recognition, Seth builds two “telepods” to be used as portals for teleportation. When Seth, as any eccentric scientific would do, tests his invention himself, a fly inadvertently goes into the telepod with him and ends up being “absorbed” by Seth in the process. Far from being an escape from the constraints of reality, as it should be, teleportation now rhymes with isolation and withdrawal. Contrary to Gregor’s, Seth’s metamorphosis is gradual and, at least initially, a source of satisfaction and well-being: he becomes more agile, stronger and develops an incredible sexual endurance.
A prison of flesh
After the teleportation, Seth and Veronica, an ambitious journalist looking for a scoop, make love until exhaustion and satisfaction of the young woman’s insatiable lust for his secreted fluids. A long traveling reunites the telepods and the couple’s lovemaking, maliciously linking pleasure to transmutation, organic fusion to sexual prowess; flesh and technology, desire and monstrosity are entangled in a grotesque and yet terrifying metamorphosis.
Sexual appetite is only one of the many variations of bestiality awakened by the flesh. But Seth’s incredible sexual endurance cannot last forever; his body starts to decompose while his ears, nails, and teeth abandon ship like cheap artificial prostheses. As Veronica had eerily predicted, the attraction for flesh quickly turns to insanity while pleasure and excitement are polluted by morbid delusions when we realize Seth keeps his unfaithful body parts like holy relics.
Kafka also skilfully mixes voracity and putrefaction and goes to great lengths to describe Gregor’s habits, meals, and looks; he painfully depicts the suffering caused by the mere act of moving. Meanwhile, his family tries to get rid of the idea that this “enormous brown stain” is actually their own son or brother. To keep him confined to his room, his father enthusiastically throws apples which, after getting stuck in his flesh, will start rotting the same way Gregor rots in his quarantined room.
Gregor’s metamorphosis has an impact on the whole family, but not the one we might expect: his bedridden father can now majestically stand on his feet while Grete, his sister, suddenly becomes a beautiful young girl with voluptuous curves. The blossoming of her girlish body is made possible by the decomposition of her monstrous brother’s decaying flesh. Kafka creates an upsetting rapport between the living and non-living, animate and inanimate words: Gregor’s death heralds his family’s rebirth and rejuvenation.
Flesh and technology, desire and monstrosity are entangled in a grotesque and yet terrifying metamorphosis.
Like Seth, Gregor progressively gets used to his new existence as an insect and loses all human bearings. Monstrosity is a degeneration, a scarring stigma which isolates them from the rest of humankind. Seth and Gregor are now only decayed beings, monsters in flesh, bone, and soul.
The monster’s confinement
Physical decay brings social isolation. Both protagonists were not, far from it, the most sociable beings before their transformation. But following their metamorphosis, Seth and Gregor become completely alienated to the outside world and remain confined to the four walls of their home-made prison.
Cronenberg’s movie or Kafka’s novel were not made for claustrophobics. Gregor spends long hours gazing out the window of his bedroom. But what does he describe? A hospital, located on the other side of the street. Even while dreaming of the outside world, he cannot free himself from visions of imprisonment and sickness.
Hospital windows: the beginning of The Metamorphosis announces the ending of The Fly. In the latter, Seth brutally breaks the window of the hospital where Veronica is about to have an abortion of their child; monstrosity breaks in the very intimacy of the loved one. In both cases, Kafka and Cronenberg chose to oppose two irreconcilable worlds: the isolated beast’s lair and mankind’s community. Monsters are not welcome beyond their own den.
The monster doesn’t have any alternative. The only thing that he can do is to take control of his own retreated world: Seth’s laboratory and Gregor’s bedroom, progressively turned into a dump. The narrator’s neutrality, calmly announcing the end and up-coming death, only resonates stronger with their solitude and destitution from social boundaries.
In both cases, the fantastic genre is used to uncover the real tragedy that lies underneath. The family’s deliquescence for Kafka and a lover’s agony for Cronenberg. One question remains: how should we behave when faced with a loved one’s irreversible illness? We hope for the best, stay by the bedside and finally end up accepting his disease. At the end, Gregor is an “old invalid” whose death will mark a new beginning and who, consumed with guilt, will let himself die slowly; as if, to protect those we care for, we had to resign ourselves to let them go. The Fly goes in the same direction, although in a much more dramatic way: Seth’s final symbolic gesture is nothing less than a suggestion of euthanasia. The only way for the beast to protect its remaining limbs of humanity is to accept his monstrosity and let himself die.
Written by Antoine du Jeu
Born in Paris, Antoine du Jeu studied literature (Sorbonne Nouvelle) and cinema (ESEC graduate, Masters in screenwriting at the Sorbonne Panthéon) in France. He wrote his master’s thesis on the philosophy of revolt while studying at Charles University in Prague. Antoine has also worked for the Cahiers du Cinéma, French radio station France Inter and directed two independent short-films. He is currently working on a third one.