Karl Marx on Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
[This lecture is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, for any reason, provided the source is acknowledged. This text is a slightly revised version of the original lecture in 1995, revised in November 2002]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
The following text is a lecture given by Ian Johnston, playing the role of Karl Marx, in LBST 402, at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University), on January 24, 1995. The lecture was part of a symposium on The Metamorphosis in which there were three other lectures—Anne Levitt played the role of the cleaning woman, Russell McNeil played the role of Friedrich Nietzsche, and Norm Cameron played the role of Sigmund Freud. The premise was that Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were the three roomers in the Samsa household and thus had first-hand knowledge of the events in Kafka’s story. The speech by Karl Marx was the last one in the series.
Gute Morgan, ladies und gentlemen. My name is Karl Marx und ich bin today hier in front of you all in Liberal Studies standing because I believe you have all been reading that story which is Die Verwandlung (the Metamorphosis) called. This person, this oppressed member of the Lumpenproletariat here, this clearning woman, tells me that you are puzzled by the events in this parable and would like the truth of it to know.
If you want the only truth it is good that you ask me. For two reasons. First, as you know, because you have all my books been reading and studying, you are aware that only through die historische Materialismus, the historical materialistic enquiry, can the truth of any cultural phenomenon be properly kritische understood. This method of historical materialismus, as I have again und again und again in many books pointed out, is true because it is in the empirischen facts of science firmly grounded. I will have about that in a little while more to say.
The other reason why I have the truth of this event is that I was there. Jawohl. As a junge man I spent some time in Prague as a lodger at Charlottestrasse 33, and it was during that time that the young man of the house, a certain Herr Gregor Samsa, became an Ungeziefer (what you call a . . . umm . . . ja, a vermin, a cockroach). So in addition to possessing the only true method of kritische understanding, that is, die historische Materialismus, of which I am the world’s leading authority, you have also my personal verification of the facts.
Now, it is true there were in that place at the time two other young men lodgers living: Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. Und I believe that they too have their versions of the events provided. I must, however, urge you to dismiss what they have had to say.
It nice to see that Siggy und Freddy again. We were in those days three wild and crazy guys. Ja. But they turned out badly. This Siggy, zum Beispiel, he was an okay Mensch as a young man, but he became totally exploited by the bourgeois society which paid him large sums of money to divert people’s attention away from the class struggle.
This Siggy, you see, has spent his entire adult life sticking his dirty little analytical fingers into rich women’s private fantasies und explaining everything that goes on in terms of their imaginary sexual gratifications or frustrations. What kind of a job is that for a real Mensch?
Und as for Freddy, a sad case. He was always erratic, but then he went and put all sorts of crazy theories into books which no one would read. Und after a lifetime of reading them to himself, because somebody had to, he went totally bananas. Ja ganz verruckt, off the verdammte wall. Und that was the first and last reliable critical reaction poor Freddy ever had to anything.
So, don’t listen to them. Attend to the truth which I am going to proclaim. For the events of this story by a Herr Kafka are, as ich shall unmask, a clear warning to you all of what will happen if you do not to my works and my theories sufficient attention pay.
Gregor Samsa is turned into an Ungeziefer, a vermin. Was bedeutet das? What does that mean? The answer is, of course very clear. He becomes a vermin because of his work. The exploitative factors in the disgustingly oppressive bourgeois culture of his world rob him of his humanity, turn him into what is, in effect, a non-thinking and non-feeling machine to the point where he might as well be a vermin because he has long ago ceased to be human.
Zum Beispiel, you notice over and over, how Gregor has interior thoughts und reflections und some feelings, but these, as we see, are constantly buried under the most urgent concerns of meeting the next demand of the clock, the railway schedule, und his bosses. His job is to sell superfluous commodities all over the society, to promote the fetish of the market and thereby to sustain und maximize the profit of the owners. He does nothing in the day but work under the compulsion of others and he therefore has no control over his life, no human freedom. Though he hates he work, he has no option but to continue. He has become a mechanical extension of the bourgeoisie of late capitalism—the verdammte Schwein whose overthrow must be the next priority of die historische Prozess und of the intellectuals and working peoples who recognize that only through the overthrow of this bourgeois production scum can the proletariat be emancipated und die full utopian promise of the Aufklarung realized in the dimensions of historical time. Jawohl.
The family relationships mit Gregor have all been corrupted by the bourgeois mentality. You will remember, of course, what I had to say about that in Die Manifesto der Kommunistische Partei:
the bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil und has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.
We see in the parable how for his parents Gregor is nothing else but a source of money to gratify their consumption of unnecessary goods like newspapers and fancy apartments where they can oppress the members of the classes lower than themselves by hiring maids und so fort. Once Gregor loses his cash value to his parents, well, then he ceases to be of interest to them. They shut the door on him. Und once he is dead, as good bourgeois parents they at once start thinking of the cash value of the remaining child—they want some hard long-term cash for her sexy young body.
Gregor is clearly almost totally verfremdet, alienated: he is powerless, his life is empty of significant meaning, he is socially isolated in a modern populous city und in the midst of his family, und he is self-alienated, radically cut off from his emotional centres. When he body registers these problems through dreams und various aches and pains, he represses that recognition in order to continue to function as a mechanical person.
The only act which Gregor freely chooses to do each day is to lock the door of his room at home or in a cheap hotel and to cut out and frame silly pictures of girlies from the magazines. If he is Samsa, then that is his Delilah—just one more commodity fetish on display for sale to the alienated people of the oppressed working class. Like Samson, Samsa is blind, and the Philistines have made sure that he will trouble them no more. They do not need some sexy real woman to cut off his hair and his strength, because the forces of production and advertising have lobotomized him. As a result of all this, Gregor’s consciousness has been from the outside colonized by the guardians of the restless pursuit of bourgeois industrial capitalistische Profit.
I have, as you know, extensively on this same Prozess in my books written. Let me the enormous pleasure of reading Karl Marx once again for you provide:
. . . but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.
So traumatish is this appropriation of Gregor’s consciousness that his only hope in coming to terms with his transformation is that somehow the experts of the society—the doctor and the locksmith will somehow restore his humanity. Aber he has long since lost whatever possibilities for rich human life were available. Society has seen to it that he has no time, no inclination, and no financial stake in doing anything other than routine meaningless mechanical work.
So Gregor is clearly a victim of social oppression, of die historische circumstances of his culture und his transformation into a vermin a symbol of the radical dehumanization of life in modern capitalistische work.
This point becomes, ja, sebstverstandlich klar in many places. For instance, on the first morning when Gregor as a cockroach wakes up, he thinks as follows: “He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (p. 5). I want here on that word “tool” to focus for bit.
Now, when Siggy sees a word like “tool” you know what he does? He thinks at once about nothing but dirty sex. Ja, ist wahr. So for Siggy, the “tool” is a reference to Gregor’s little dickey bird. You see, for Siggy all the troubles of life come from the dicky bird—you can play too much with your dicky bird or maybe you are not playing enough with the dicky bird. Or maybe all your difficulties come about, according to Siggy, because someone else has been playing with your dicky bird or maybe because someone has not been playing with your dicky bird.
With Siggy it’s all dicky bird stuff, because you can make a dicky bird sing whatever tune you want—you can get Mozart on your dicky bird or Beethoven or maybe AC/DC on your dicky bird. Of course, so long as you are paying Siggy to sort out the way you feel about your little dicky bird, you will never get any Handel on your little troublemaker.
In Trier, where I was born, we call this sort of stuff a case of psychic adickydiction. Und poor Siggy is an extreme case, ein ultraadickydictischer Mensch.
And Freddy, of course, is just as verruckt (crazy). He thinks that the “tool,” whether it is a dicky bird or not, just needs to be redescribed with a fancy new metaphor (like a canary) and then Gregor can declare himself an Ubermensch and set off to invade Poland, all by himself to the musik of Wagner on his Tyrolean Walkman.
Both Siggy and Freddy, you see, want us all to take our minds off the historische material facts of life out of which human sufferings arise. They wish to divert our minds away from the social revolution, which, as I have conclusively shown, is inevitable, into the realms of personal adjustment. They want you to believe that the personal is the political, so that if you wake up tomorrow transformed into a vermin, well, that’s somehow the fault of your inner adjustment and has no connection to your materialistische circumstances or social oppression.
It will be obvious to you all that the “tool” which really matters is not the dicky bird but the shovel or some other piece of machinery which determines the nature of our work und therefore that nature of our lives und our thinking.
Last weekend my wife Jenny (that’s Frau Marx) und ich, we were watching a video film. Sie heisst Taxi Driver. Oh ja, we have Rogers Cable up in that place there. Anyway, in that film there is an actor called Joe Boyle und at one point he says to the hero de Niro: “You do a thing and that’s what you are.” He was a fan of mine, you see, and had read all my books, so he had learned the truth about life: you are what you do.
To understand the story by Herr Kafka, then, all we have to attend to is the klar links between what Gregor does as an unkritikal prole in the society in which he lives and his transformation. His death therefore, which comes from starvation, is a willed denial of his humanity. There is lots of food to eat, but without any spiritual or emotional fulfilment, Gregor has no reason to eat und so he simply starves himself into an empty exoskeleton.
The story is, in my view, which is, as I explained, the only truth supported by the empirische facts of the case, a warning to you to recognize the ways in which your consciousness und your humanitat are being taken over by the capitalistische forces of the bourgeois market place.
So, in closing, let me remind you of those words I wrote in Die Manifesto der kommunistischen Partei, which indicate the moral of Herr Kafka’s little parable: “Workers of the world unite: because if you don’t bug the bourgeoisie, then it’s gonna bug you. Und, of all the parties available to you, die kommunistische Partei is best—it is the in sect.”
Just before I leave, I have a little poem which Herr T. S. Eliot gave to me at lunch yesterday. I would like to read Herr Eliot’s work to remind you of everything I have here today spoke.
Love Song of Samsa and Delilah
Gregor Samsa woke one grey day
To find himself changed in a way.
He lay in bed squirming
Turned into a vermin
So he said: “Off to work, no delay.”
His case, it is clear, had no hope
His life had become one cruel joke
His full consciousness
An entomological mess
So he died in a heap with a poke.
To avoid such a full transformation
You must change all bourgeois exploitation.
So to Siggy und Freddy
Say, “Piss off! I’m ready
For Karl und the true realization.”
Thank you very much. Auf wiedersehen.