Franz Kafka’s well known Metamorphosis is well known for good reason. It is as much impactful as it is grotesque. Metamorphosis follows the pitiable character, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesmen who supports his parents and sister. One is given the impression that prior to his metamorphosis he already carries self-loathing and central to his character is his strained relationship with his father. And his transformation into an Ungezeifer is an obvious illustration of his self-image. Apart from its autobiographical nature of Kafka’s own self-loathing and strained paternal relationship and the many psychological ideas to be drawn (of which you can find many commentaries), Metamorphosis carries an interesting ontological concept, particularly in the word Ungezeifer and Kafka’s own refusal to name or illustrate the particular kind of creature Gregor has been transformed into. Though the description and general consensus of Gregor’s new transformation is something of a beetle or cockroach, Kafka wanted to be clear that while Gregor is an insect he is to remain unidentifiable and should be recognized largely as repulsive. The direct English translation of Ungezeifer is illuminating as it literally means: unclean animal, not suitable for sacrifice. This idea of uncleanness or repulsiveness, with its clear ties to religion, particularly Judaism, is at the heart of Kafka’s psyche, a central characteristic of his novels, and it is perhaps the most intriguing idea in his writing.
Kafka seems to hold a dichotomy of ideas within himself. Like his own heritage he seems to strain against old and new, tradition and progress. As a young man with Jewish heritage living in Czechoslavokia on the cusp of the 19th century he held many of the typical progress-of-man ideals that came into being alongside evolution, and Nietzche’s idea of the death of God and the ushering of science as the faith of the 19th century; yet he still harbored a general pessimism of humankind’s positive progression, and his translation of these concepts was a fear of the arbitrariness that humanism offered, and its lack of answers in regard to the certainty of human’s progression toward improvement.
Kafka embraced and defended evolution, and Nietzsche’s ideas of a new religion birthed in science, and yet the promises of humanism seemed to have left an emptiness within him, a bleak outlook on the human condition and ultimately a hopelessness in view of his own life that was so full of self-loathing and insecurity. Kafka’s writing seems to be a long stream of tragedy, a self-awareness of his own pitiable state of childhood insecurity, and yet he is trapped there, he is self-aware but he can do nothing about the discrepancies he is able to identify.
In a particularly illuminating comment in Metamorphosis, in a scene in which the household and the head clerk from Gregor’s place of employment have discovered his transformation into a grotesque human-sized insect, Gregor pleads for them to give him time to make things right, and to be permitted to keep his job, it is punctuated as follows:
I’m in a quandary, but I shall work my way out of it.
-Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
And this comment seems to be the heart of Kafka, and the heart of humanity in general.
We are in a quandary: we know the state of ourselves if we allow any sort of introspection. If we turn off our music, our television, put down our smart phones, and set aside our beer, or think between sexual escapades. We know that we are in a predicament. We are full of self-loathing, insecurity, a sort of lostness, pain, and weakness. And like Gregor we say we can just work our way out of it. Which is absurd for Gregor to say, he is a human-sized insect, with no knowledge of how or why he transformed in the first place.
Gregor’s statement that he will work his way out of it is a pathetic utterance, within a sentence of pitiable pleadings. That ultimately fall on deaf ears as his own voice is incapable of communicating through its now insect-like quality.
And it is no different when we utter the same.
We cannot work our way out of our human problem any more than Gregor can work his way out of his Ungeziefer problem.
Gregor’s entire transformation is one of failure, arbitrary and hopeless. And this is the promise of humanism. Of science as the new god that Nietzsche promised, it is a promise that ultimately fails us.
We all have a niggling recognition of ourselves as Ungezeifer, a sort of unworthiness, a lack, an emptiness. And we try to work ourselves away from our uncleanness, to undo it. But we can’t.
Humans cannot reverse the metamorphosis of sin that began with a whisper in a garden.
But God entered humanity to solve the human problem, and unlike Gregor, who died a useless, tragic death that accomplished nothing, Jesus died a successful, glorious death that changed everything.
The mistake of humanism and a religious science is an altogether inappropriate expectation of science and philosophy. Science can only explain that which is observable, and the metaphysic realm is unobservable. Likewise, philosophy is man-created and directed and as such it is ultimately trapped within itself, no more capable of explaining that which is beyond itself than any other human-made doctrine. As Kierkegaard much more aptly puts (under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio)
Philosophy cannot and should not give us an account of faith, but should understand itself and know just what it has indeed to offer, without taking anything away, least of all cheating people out of something by making them think it is nothing. (Fear and Trembling)
Humanism seeks to address the human problem with human ideas speaking beyond what science and philosophy are capable of explaining, and it offers no more hope than any other human-centered principle. Within humanism, God is dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, and with him all hope is dead too.
Nietzsche was right: God did die, but death didn’t keep him. Instead, he defeated death and the human problem in one triumphant sweep. And he offers what mere humanism never can: hope, redemption, and the promise of being made new. Humanism can’t promise that we will progress on a linear trajectory toward improvement, as Kafka feared, there is no reason to believe that we won’t change into something more grotesque and less humanlike as time passes, with humanism we may be fated to a grotesqueness akin to Gregor. But with Jesus we are made more human, we are recreated into the type of creature we were destined for at the dawn of time. With God, we are made into that which our heart longs for in the darkest moments of self-loathing.
God is not dead, and he offers a metamorphic change to the heart that humanism can neither offer nor explain.
Gregor could do nothing for his insect condition. Likewise, humans can do nothing for the human condition. The human problem can only be solved by the God who created us and recreates us in Christ.