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In Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” a salesman named Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a giant beetle. The human-turned-arthropod despairs at his inability to leave bed for work, and he struggles to master his new physique. Though Gregor’s family is dismayed by the event, his parents submit to their son’s fate. Rather than seek a cure for Gregor or wonder at the root of his metamorphosis, they handle the beetle at a distance, doling out empathy until their disbelief turns to anger. Eventually, Gregor’s disgusted father beats back the roaming insect with apples—one of which remains painfully lodged inside Gregor’s shell. By the end of the story, Gregor’s beloved sister insists that the family purge the beetle from their home.
Reading “The Metamorphosis” this summer was my first encounter with Kafka. I was subletting an apartment from a couple who had “The Metamorphosis” on their bookshelf, and I pulled out the novella on a weeknight when the New York humidity left me lazing next to their fan. I was less troubled reading about Gregor’s transformation than about his family’s reaction, which haunted me first in its resignation and then in its cruelty. Why did his parents so helplessly accept their son’s misfortune? How could they not ask questions? Why did their aversion to the beetle override their empathy? I realized that in Kafka’s literary Coliseum—my metaphor for the author’s strange, bleak arena in which surreal events overtake innocent characters—the victim is only half the spectacle. The audience, sitting back and watching the unbelievable unfold, becomes its own unsettling display. I closed the book, but my discomfort lingered.
Later that night, I opened my laptop. My news feed flashed with headlines: “Gunman turns ‘Batman’ screening into real-life ‘horror film.’” “Shooting Rampage at ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Showing in Colorado.” “‘Dark Knight Rises’ shooting ranks among the worst massacres in U.S. history.” I learned that a man named James Holmes had dyed his hair red, claimed to be the Joker, and shot over 60 people in a movie theater screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” at midnight. Dressed in head-to-toe tactical gear, he threw tear gas grenades into the aisles and fired at random as the audience screamed in terror.
Was this reality? I could almost feel Kafka’s Coliseum rising up around Aurora as though summoned from the author’s literary depths. I began to grasp that in our historical moment, a shooter can costume himself as a superhero villain and blast Batman fans with ammunition. The surrealism of the episode sent shudders down my spine. I followed the news as politicians and journalists veered their conversations toward gun control, and I wondered what type of tragic audience we Americans would prove to be.
Kafkaesque events continued to transpire through fall. In October, I watched footage of Hurricane Sandy—the cyclone that meteorologists called “Frankenstorm”—rip front walls from apartment buildings, hurl beach houses into water, repurpose taxis into the likes of yellow minnows, and send 7,000 U.S. citizens into emergency shelters. Barely two months later, I read about the Sandy Hook shootings. First-graders huddled in storage rooms, in bathrooms, and under desks as their friends endured bullets from the murderer’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle. The victims’ bodies were so mutilated that police hesitated to let parents see their shot children.
Each of these incidents left America in shock. It was as if crime and environmental change had morphed into the paranormal. President Obama called for a gun violence task force. New Yorkers debated the prospect of building a sea wall. I started getting daily email requests to sign gun control petitions, and I tracked Facebook updates from volunteers fundraising for hurricane relief.
Through all the chaos, I found myself returning to “The Metamorphosis.” Kafka’s story gave me a touchstone for reflecting on our society’s reaction to these events. Having already thought through the dangers of resignation, I felt proud that so many people were taking action.
At the same time, casting these tragedies in a Kafkaesque light also added nuance to my evaluation. I became more aware of our diverse coping mechanisms. Some of us do resemble Gregor’s family. We turn away from painful situations, accept our powerlessness, or let our resentment grow larger than our will for change. Perhaps these impulses are essentially human. Perhaps they deserve compassion, or perhaps they do not. The question I keep coming back to is: if your child’s life was inexplicably damaged—if he went to the movies and experienced a shooting, or if a storm destroyed his home—how would you try to overcome this fate?
—Columnist Stephanie L. Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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