Kafka’s dung beetle

In their expressed desire to retain contact with me, even as the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department at California Institute of Integral Studies declined my program change request, they invited me to continue to attend classes even if my enrollment ended (and in a ignominious moment of my academic career, I have indeed had to withdraw from CIIS and I will be attending Saybrook beginning this fall). Freed of actually having to do homework, I’m finding what one professor in the program called a “firehose” of reading a little more manageable.

And so for today’s class with Richard Shapiro,[1] I actually was able to do the reading, in part because it consisted of some easily read selections from Franz Kafka (I’ll refrain from referring to them as “light”). One of those readings was “The Metamorphosis.”[2] In this, a young man named Gregor who has been supporting his parents and sister wakes up one morning in the final phases of a metamorphosis to becoming a giant dung beetle. There is no happy ending to this story. Obviously, Gregor cannot return to work, his parents try taking in lodgers, his sister tries bringing food to him, and he ends up dying, apparently from a combination of starvation, injury from a rotten apple in his neck, and an acquiescence to his family’s desire to be rid of him/”it.”

Prior to his metamorphosis, Gregor had been earning a good living in some kind of traveling job. Kafka doesn’t seem to quite make clear what this job was, but one would assume it entailed some kind of sales. Given my predisposition towards capitalism—and in particular towards any kind of marketing[3]—one might well imagine that I saw a dung beetle as the physical manifestation of what Gregor had taken on with the sort of job that I see as being beneath even many forms of so-called “common” crime.

But following Gregor’s death, his family re-entered the capitalist system, becoming (again) what Gregor had been. Based on a recent reading of Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return[4] and on the description of paleolithic humanity in Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness,[5] I saw something cyclical about this and asked Shapiro about it. My idea was poorly formed and Shapiro’s response was along what I’m sure are conventional lines, seeing the time element in this in linear terms. Shapiro saw Gregor’s career and dung beetle phases as an interruption in the family’s working lives.

But as I was driving home the long way, due to traffic on Highway 101, and as I drove along the largely pastoral expanses west on Novato Boulevard, by Stafford Reservoir, and north along Petaluma-Point Reyes Road, I realized the idea deserved further consideration.

Eliade recounts how, for paleolithic humans, time was seen principally in cyclical terms, in a concept not lost on Hannah Arendt, who in The Human Condition, distinguished between work and labor with labor being repetitive and cyclical and producing nothing of any kind of permanence.[6] In a cycle of life, dung beetles function to recycle detritus, that is, what has already died or is decaying—as with the rotten produce Gregor’s sister discovered he preferred. Capitalism, some might say, is rotten to the core. And in Gregor’s metamorphosis, he returned to an infantile state of dependency, not only for physical sustenance but for the love of family (his family instead predictably found him repulsive).

Shapiro noted, and I think he was citing Arendt for this, that Kafka saw infinite hope, but “not for us.” As Western society is now profoundly bound up with capitalism, Gregor thus feeds on the decay of a value system and on the death of the society which has adopted it.

  1. [1]Richard Shapiro, “Secular/Post Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought,” California Institute of Integral Studies [lecture], April 4, 2011
  2. [2]Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, Nahum N. Glatzer, ed. (New York: Schocken, 1976), 89-139.
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Getting it backwards on a right to work,” DisUnitedStates.org, March 13, 2010, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=1563
  4. [4]Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, Willard R. Trask, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1991)
  5. [5]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness(New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  6. [6]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).

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