27 February 2011


The Metamorphosis, Kafka's extraordinary depiction of melancholy, opens as Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find that it's half past six.  For five years he has risen every morning at four to support his parents and sister, trying to make up for the failure of his father’s business.  At first grateful, his father now takes this for granted: he no longer works, has grown monstrously fat, and lingers every morning over a ‘lavish’ breakfast.  Bullied and mistreated at work, Gregor is not free to look for another position: he's working off a debt the family owes to the head of his firm.  Gregor later learns that his father--another of Kafka's inhuman fathers--has actually put aside enough money to keep the family for a year or two, rather than paying down the debt and shortening his servitude.  Perhaps it's no wonder that he “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams...[and] found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

So begins a case study in what was once called “involutional melancholia,” now known unpoetically as “depression with psychotic features.”  In the theory of medicine which interpreted sickness as arising from the action of four bodily ‘humors,’ “black bile” was the one said to be derived from the spleen; those words in Greek give us the term “melancholia.”  The term “involutional” refers to ‘turning inward.’  Most depressed people do not lose touch with reality, but true involutional melancholics abandon the world, with its disappointments and persecution, and retreat into an interior charged with symbolic meaning.  Some, although psychotic, are able to maintain a fragile sense of wholeness through the mechanism of paranoia, that is, by believing that the threat is still outside the curtain wall of their fortress.  Guilt is more manageable if converted into fear.  Others cannot expel their guilty self-hatred beyond the wall: their persecutors are internal. 

For some of these melancholics guilt, even once internalized, remains more or less psychological.  Robert Burton, who tried to cure his own melancholy by writing The Anatomy of Melancholy (published 1621), says of such people that “they are troubled with scruples of conscience, distrusting God’s mercies, think they shall certainly go to hell... [One] must needs make away with himself, for fear of being hanged, and could not be persuaded for three years together, but that he had killed a man.”  For others, guilt takes on increasingly concrete form.  Burton describes “one ‘that had a black man in the likeness of a soldier'... following him wheresoever he was... [Another] fell into such a melancholy fit, that he believed verily he was dead... [and] could not be persuaded... to eat or drink.” 

Others, withdrawing inward still further, experience the body itself as traitorous.  Physical being is experienced symbolically rather than viscerally, and some have lost touch with their bodies to such a degree that they even move clumsily, like badly-designed automata.  Such sufferers are insensitive to some bodily sensations and hypochondriacally oversensitive to others.  They may be convinced something is terribly wrong inside them, in spite of all evidence; others lose the sense of having a human body at all.  Here is Burton again:  “[One] thinks himself so little that he can creep into a mouse-hole; one fears heaven will fall on his head... a baker in Ferrara... thought he was composed of butter and durst not sit in the sun, or come near the fire for fear of being melted.”  Joan of Arc's Dauphin, later Charles VII of France, thought he was made of glass, and dared not sit down for fear of breaking.  More to our purpose, Burton also mentions others who “think they are beasts” and “another that thought he was a case of leather, stuffed with wind.”

In becoming a dung beetle, Gregor Samsa tries to resist the world’s rasp with an exoskeleton, but the form also represents his own self-loathing and inspires loathing in his family.  When his sister ventures to feed him, the only food he can tolerate is garbage: “half-decayed vegetables... a piece of cheese that Gregor would have called uneatable two days ago.”  As to his carapace, far from being truly protective, it is more the representation of a body that no longer moves or feels like his own (I once saw this role unforgettably enacted by Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York).  This supposedly chitinous insect hurts himself badly trying to hurry through too small a door, and when his father drives him back into his room by throwing apples at him, one penetrates his body and rots, leaving a wound that won’t heal.

In his continuing sickness, like many melancholics, Gregor can't make himself go on eating: this dung beetle can no longer go on swallowing dung.  Vacillating between guilt at failing in his responsibilities and rage at being neglected, he becomes a living reproach to his family. They can't bear the sight of him and sequester him in his room, along with whatever other furnishings they can’t fit elsewhere but can’t bear to throw away.  As he hates himself, so they hate him, until he finally decides that he must "disappear" in order to free them.

As Burton points out, melancholics are grandiose too: they “think their melancholy to be most grievous, none so bad as they are, though it be nothing in respect, yet never any man sure was so troubled.”  Dung beetles roll balls of dung, but in ancient Egypt, an especially big one was said to roll the sun across the heavens every day.  Gregor’s suffering revives his family, inspires them to find work, to consider new possibilities, to change their lives.  By the time he takes "the last faint flicker of his breath," his body is “completely flat and dry,” easily pushed aside with a broom.  In the next paragraph it is spring, and as we leave the family thinking about moving to a new apartment a page or two later, Gregor’s parents have just been struck by his sister’s “increasing vivacity” and her “good figure.”  She has fattened on the substance he has lost, just as she did while he was working.  At the end, in this story anyhow, this squashed bug has been elevated into a kind of sacrificial hero.

1 comment:

  1. Insects in the adult stage do not in fact heal. Ifsomething on them gets broken, it remains broken.

    See also Grass's work generally, and particularly From The Diary Of A Snail.