Last night I finished re-reading Franz Kafka 's novella The Metamorphosis. This has been one of my favorite stories for some time, largely because I find something new about it each time. The first couple times I read it, I took the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a bug quite literally. By the way, depending on the translation, Gregor becomes a "bug," a "cockroach," or "vermin." I have no idea which word is most accurate. I prefer, at this writing, the latter, because of the reading I am now discussing and it's broad application. Anyway, as a story of fantasy or science-fiction (pardon my ignorance of such genres), the idea of one turning into a vermin works and makes for a fascinating study on how the world reacts to those who are different.
But as I read the story yesterday, informed by Jason Baker's introduction, I could not help but look at the story differently. Well, a little differently. The literal reading makes me angry at the family, lazy and inept, who turn on their son and brother after all the work he has done for them, and all the sacrifices he had made for them. Now, it is difficult for me to not also see the transformation from hard working human to burdensome vermin as a metaphor for a the nervous breakdown. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, I did notice that Kafka's own life, particularly his relationship with his father, bears this reading out somewhat.
What many think of a nervous breakdown is when someone is so overwhelmed by life or stressed by unusual emotional circumstances that one acts in an irrational manner. But often that "act" is really to stop acting altogether. We have seen those who just, for no clear reason, stop moving, appearing to stare straight ahead, no longer reacting to those who are around them. The person many seem to be in a catatonic state, appearing to be awake, but not responding to anything or anyone around them. Without going into details, and noting I am no expert on psychology, I know more of this condition than I care to. The person may well be aware of what is happening around him, but feels paralyzed, unable to move. The person may sometimes think she is moving, is reacting or speaking, but that no one around her understands what she is saying or doing.
Gregor Samsa has worked tirelessly, sometimes cheerfully, on behalf of his family for years, and one can say his body colluded with his mind while he was asleep, during the only rest and happiness he ever had, to just say no to the world upon waking. No to demanding bosses. No to ungrateful parents and sister. No to conventions that require one person to labor without reward as others grow more and more rooted to the couch.
At this time of year, people make many resolutions, but do they really want change? I don't think so. They want to be changed. Sure, many of work to change ourselves (lose weight, quit smoking, etc.), and many of those changes fail for a variety of reasons. But given the opportunity, we would rather have the change come upon us, as if we could wake up one day and be different in ways we desire, with none of the attendant complications.
We also forget, and The Metamorphosis reminds us, that change does not affect only us, but also those around us. Ironically, when Gregor suddenly cannot work, we not only see the selfish sides of his family and the heartlessness of the rest of the world, we see his family forced to get out of the house, to work, to be something. Previously, they were just, for lack of a better way to say it, slugs. The tragedy is that Gregor does not get to choose his life and when his body/mind changes for him he does not reap any of the benefits.
A pastor once told me that in difficult times, the body and mind may conspire not against us, but for us to momentarily bring us a needed mental vacation. Perhaps the difficulty lie in recognizing this need and learning how to care for (not about) ourselves before we are paralyzed or transformed into something we have less control over than the people in our own lives.