Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

SAMSA: The Plea for Undecidability in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung


By David Prescott-Steed

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

[When Gregor Samsa woke from restless dreams one morning he found that he, in his bed, had transformed into a monstrous vermin.]
(My translation)

Kafka’s Plea

In these, the opening lines of what is arguably the most famous novella by Jewish-Bohemian writer Franz Kafka, the reader is introduced to Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who has just undergone an incredible metamorphosis. Die Verwandlung (1915) thus commences at the climax, albeit an empty one, for the reader is offered no rationale for what has happened. Rather, Kafka forces the reader to focus on the consequences of a seemingly unjustified event, setting Die Verwandlung apart from works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses (ca. AD 8), for instance, throughout which the processes of transformation are described.

The overall absurdity of Die Verwandlung has led to the general agreement, among critics, that the story expresses loneliness, isolation, estrangement and desperation. As Blanchot observes, the story “carries the reader off in a whirl where hope and despair answer each other endlessly” (9). Much has been written in this regard and so, on this occasion, I should like to draw attention to a concern that Kafka raised with his publisher as preparations were being made for Die Verwandlung’s publication. That is, I wish to discuss a matter of visuality that stems from his request that no artwork accompany the book that might, directly or indirectly, represent Samsa’s new form.

At some stage during preparations for the publication of Die Verwandlung G. H. Meyer, manager of Kurt Wolff Verlag, mentioned to Kafka that the very capable Ottomar Starke would be available to draw the cover illustration for the story.1 However, a letter of reply from Prague dated October 25, 1915 shows that, despite Starke’s good reputation, Kafka’s position on the matter was unambiguous (Briefe, 1902-1924 135):

Sehr geehrter Herr!
Sie schrieben letzthin, daß Ottomar Starke ein Titelblatt zur Verwandlung zeichnen wird. Nun habe ich einen kleinen, allerdings so weit ich den Künstler aus “Napoleon” kenne, wahrscheinlich sehr überflüssigen Schrecken bekommen. Es ist mir nämlich, da Starke doch tatsächlich illustriert, eingefallen, er könnte etwa das Insekt selbst zeichnen wollen. Das nicht, bitte das nicht! Ich will seinen Machtkreis nicht einshränken, sondern nur aus meiner natürlicherweise bessern Kenntnis der Geschichte heraus bitten. Das Insekt selbst kann nicht gezeichnet werden. Es kann aber nicht einmal von der Ferne aus gezeigt werden.

[Dear Sir,
You wrote recently that Ottomar Starke will be doing an illustration for the title page of Metamorphosis. Certainly, in so far as I know “Napoleon,” I have received a small and probably very unnecessary fright. It is namely since Starke illustrates well, gauntly, he could possibly want to draw the insect itself. Not that, please not that! I don’t want to restrict him, rather, I only make this request in view of my, naturally, better knowledge of the story. The insect itself cannot be portrayed. It cannot even be shown from far-away.]
(My translation)

De la Durantaye agrees it is clear that “Kafka himself wanted Gregor’s form to remain indistinct” (323). Kafka was concerned that the process of representation would negatively affect his characterisation of the transformed Samsa to the extent that any visualisation of Samsa’s new form would prove problematic for the overall impact of the story. Although Kafka includes a few clues in the narrative, these are “intentionally vague,” likely marking an attempt to maintain the integrity of the horror of Samsa’s physical situation (Gordon 129). For instance, the German word “Ungeziefer” translates into the English “vermin” (740). Thus, in English, it can be taken to mean “reptiles, snakes, or other animals regarded as harmful or objectionable … harmful insects, worms, etc., esp. those which infest or are parasitic on people, animals, and plants” (3565).

It is for this reason that English translations of Die Verwandlung have made mention of huge insects, monstrous bugs and cockroaches, and adaptations for film and stage, such as Metamorphosis (1987), under Jim Goddard’s direction, continue this tradition. However, the English word “vermin” can also be taken to mean “collect. Vile, objectionable, or despicable people…An individual of this type,” those who might be referred to as the dregs of society (3565). In this way, the strategy of deferring Samsa’s visual representation attempts to capitalise on the potential impact that Samsa is conceived to have on the people around him—to help the reader achieve some understanding of the shock felt by family and colleagues when familiarity crosses the threshold into something strangely horrifying, unimaginable and unbelievable. As Cavendish points out, “[w]herever else hell may be, it is in the human mind,” prompting the question of what visual representation could ever do Kafka’s vision justice (111). In this sense, to unveil Samsa by way of his depiction would mean giving the reader a tangible, thus inherently inadequate, point of reference—a fixed image on which the reader might ‘rest his head’ and, in doing so, likely spoil the character.

Denied a visual form and, in this way, his commitment to a tangible reality, Samsa’s (inevitably postmetamorphosis) name has the import of a floating (empty) signifier on the page—an unfixed mental concept through which the reader’s capacity for symbolic thought might find space to operate. It is in this context that a responsibility is passed on to the reader who, by drawing from his own values, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, has the task of filling in the gaps in the visual frame so purposefully provided, and defended, by Kafka. Because his instability plays into a range of connotations, Samsa is animated by the reader’s imagination. It is as if his changed form is the creation of the reader—as if the undisclosed reason for his metamorphosis might well be found in the mind of the reader. That is, it is the reader who is responsible for the visible outcome of the metamorphosis. Thus, to the extent that Samsa’s vermin-like appearance is informed and guided by the cultural associations and personal dispositions of the reader, Samsa’s metamorphosis is also his transformation into a veritable Rorschach inkblot test—another empty signifier.

Samsa’s metamorphosis into an unfixed form can also be taken as an appeal to undecidability. He is adverse to visitors, except his sister, who is somehow more understanding of Samsa’s ‘difficult’ condition. Still, without supporting a final decision on his appearance, Samsa alone bears the burden of his status as a threat or, at least, as the animated cause of unease in the home. This unease is encouraged in the reader for, as Collins notes, “[u]ndecidables are threatening. They poison the comforting sense that we inhabit a world governed by decidable categories” (19). Like the zombie, who is neither completely dead nor alive, Samsa finds himself at the centre of a play of undecidability and, as a result, remains in stark contrast to the domestic context in which he continues to exist.

At the Threshold: The Play of Undecidability

The exposure of Samsa’s new form, a point of contention raised clearly by Kafka in his letter to Meyer, seems to be a real-life echo of the struggles that take place in the novella itself—a case of life imitating art. I refer to Samsa’s bedroom doorway and how it becomes the threshold and point of contention as Samsa’s undecidability plays out. Whilst he continues to exist inside the domestic environment, his discomforting form places him outside (and thus challenging to) the limits of human convention and expectation. It marks a rupture in ideology that exists between what is expected of Samsa and what is produced in a material reality. Like Kafka in his letter, Samsa also takes pains to prevent his bedroom door from being opened, from letting outsiders inside in a way that would show everyone present his new identity. Kafka places the reader outside the bedroom door, but symbolic thought finds us working our way through this threshold, this barrier between what is unknown and what is known—between the discomfort of the reader’s ignorance and the creative resolution of this feeling through symbolic thought.

An architectural precedent, the Gothic Cathedral, leads us into this notion of the doorway as a transitional space. One of the key features of Medieval French Gothic Cathedrals (Notre Dame, for instance) is the Westwork. This part of the cathedral is used as an entry point through which everyday people can experience a symbolic transition out of a world in which God is incomprehensible and indeterminable (a transcendental space) and into a sacred space of communion with God (an immanental space). The relationship between the symbolic function of the Westwork and the practical function of Samsa’s bedroom door lies in this movement from incomprehensibility to a glimpse of Samsa. In other words, the doorway is an entry point and threshold between an exterior context of ‘not knowing’ what he is, one that is characterised by ‘the desire to know’ what he is, and an interior context in which Samsa’s form is realised.

To the extent that it frames the threshold, an association has also been made between the structural form of the Westwork and the vulva. The threshold is crossed by moving through the entrance, that is, through the doorway that separates the outside from the inside. The doorway is not the vulva, but a point of transition within it, the hymen. The doorway is a threshold between inside and outside. Derrida uses the notion of ‘hymen’ as a metaphor to help structure his thinking of the threshold, defining the hymen as “an operation that both sows confusion between opposites and stands between the opposites ‘at once.’ What counts here is the between, the in-between-ness of the hymen” (212).

This comparison is useful in providing an additional reference point for our thinking through Kafka’s bedroom doorway. In Die Verwandlung, the door stands in as such a threshold, as an in-between and liminal space. The integrity of the hymen is symbolically preserved when Samsa barricades the doorway—provoking a struggle on the other side, particularly from his boss, who soon arrives to ask why Samsa has not come to work. All the while, Kafka hides Samsa behind the hymen, within his cocoon, for his wellbeing is at stake. The bedroom functions as a literary and surrogate womb that Kafka has constructed for his mutant foetus, for the scene of the miracle of his newborn undecidable.

However, the bedroom is both womb and prison, for to transgress the threshold would be to rupture the doorway and, as a result, induce Samsa’s passage into the confrontational outside world. Samsa’s exposure would facilitate his experience of shame where, as discussed in Kevin Klement’s Lectures: Sartre, shame denotes “the awareness of being objects of experience by others.” We may consider a key explanation of shame, from more recent times than Kafka’s, offered by Sartre. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes the scene of a man peeping through a keyhole into a room, telling of how that man is completely absorbed in his voyeurism. “My consciousness sticks to my acts,” Sartre explains (259). Sartre suggests that it is perhaps at this point that the man feels guilt, but for now, as a voyeur, he remains outside of the scene, unashamed. “But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me!” (260). According to Christian J. Onof’s Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Existentialism, it is now that the voyeur becomes aware that he is “the object of the other’s look” and feels shame.

So long as Samsa remains unseen inside the bedroom, the full impact of the shame of his undecidability—his deviation from the expected, from the norm—is deferred. It would seem that Samsa is better off staying inside of his bedroom, a context for his experience of guilt. Thus, he hides out of general sight, away from prying eyes. Any measure that can be taken to assist him in this mission—the author’s omission of visual determinations, for example—plays into this aspect of the narrative.

Samsa Under Wraps

Kafka’s efforts to keep Samsa under wraps connote an ongoing loyalty to the integrity of the character’s problem as one of psychology, a loyalty to a cause that remains, arguably, beyond material concern. This beyond materiality is coherent with the dying Kafka’s request to Max Brod that Brod burn the writer’s manuscripts. Brod’s well-known and much appreciated failure to fulfil this request, however, did not mean saving forgotten clues as to what Samsa really became on that fictional morning. Of Kafka’s diaries, Gordon makes the point that “[n]o mention was made of Gregor’s true identity in any of these works. In all likelihood, the cryptic main character…represented none other than the estranged and alienated author, who…was tormented by humanity throughout much of his brief life” (130). If Samsa’s new form is equivalent to a Rorschach inkblot test, then it follows that such a test is most accurately telling of its writer, perhaps only deepening Kafka’s sensitivity to the story.

Needless to say, such loyalty and sensitivity have not been shared by a range of publishers and producers that have revisited Die Verwandlung in the century since its initial publication. The inclusion of cover illustrations that either partially of completely disclose Samsa means that his full creative potential as floating signifier and Rorschach test is averted. The promise of undecidability is undermined and, with it, much of what Kafka (through Samsa) had to offer in this story. On this point, I have in mind a wide range of examples, including Waking Lion Press’s edition (2006), whose cover displays an eight legged form with a dreary face sunken into the centre of its black body; Prestwick House Inc. adorns the front cover of their edition (2005) with the close-up image of the underside of a cockroach, complete with a glistening black face and legs; Chelsea House Publications at least maintains a sense of anonymity by filling much of their front cover (2008) with a plain pale duvet and only including hints of insect-like legs visible underneath the bed (though, admittedly, this still goes against Kafka’s insistence that even a distant view of the insect would be problematic). Fortunately, other publishers have taken entirely different approaches. Bantam Classics (1972) uses an image containing caricatures of Samsa’s family members sitting, together with the two visitors, in their cluttered living room space. The Bibliothek Suhrkamp edition, first printed in 1973 by Suhrkamp Verlag, is a white cover showing only the title, Kafka’s name, and that of the publishing company in dark grey lettering.

While these covers function as marketing tools that catch the eyes of potential customers, the push to have imagery accompany the novella impacts the way the reader will experience and understand it. By consenting to a ‘telling’ illustration, Kafka would have symbolically placed himself outside of Samsa’s bedroom—finding, perhaps constituting, yet another antagonist struggling with Samsa’s stubborn door. In the end, Starke did provide a cover illustration but, in keeping with Kafka’s request, depicted a man standing in a dressing gown and slippers with his head in his hands. For Gordon, this is a figure “shielding his face in fear” (129). I, however, disagree with Gordon’s claim; this posture is not coherent with the ‘freeze,’ ‘flee,’ or ‘fight’ responses that Stefan H. Bracha et al.’s Does “Fight or Flight” Need Updating? clinically associates with fear. It is more fitting to suggest that the posture and hand positioning of the drawn figure are indicative of a person who is experiencing shame—an interpretation that is consistent with the psychological tension permeating the novella. The image that Kafka approved for publication is one in which a degree of anonymity is preserved. Ever sensitive to the plight of his characters, Kafka’s letter, his plea, shows at the very least his respect for a little privacy.

1 Starke would later illustrate for such publications as the Deutsche Buch-Gemeinschaft’s 1950 edition of Franz Grillparzer’s Das Kloster von Sendomir (1817) and Phantasus-Verlag Buchenau & Häger’s (1922) edition of Fjodor Dostojewski’s The Gambler (1867).
Works Cited