Alienation and the Alien Other

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

kafka

(Kafka’s bug)

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was born to a Jewish, German (possibly Yiddish as well) speaking family in the city of Prague in the present day Czech Republic. In that time, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the majority of people spoke Czech, which Kafka could speak, but he was nonetheless marked as an outside by his Jewish German heritage.

Thus, we can see from his biography some of the themes that come up in his writing. His sense of ethnic and cultural otherness lad him to understand how modern life in the urban world could be alienating the individuals who felt like outsiders. For Kafka, urban life was impersonal, new government bureaucracies treated individuals like numbers instead of people, and companies treated workers like commodities instead of human laborers.

The impersonal character of life in the modern world comes up in the majority of Kafka’s works. For example, in his novel The Trial, a man is put on trial but he is not allowed to know what his crime was. Kafka’s popularity has grown over time because many feel that his depiction of business, government, and urban life was prophetic, that modern life has become more and more “Kafkaesque”. The word “Kafkaesque” is often used in literary criticism to describe situations that are eerie and disturbing when an individual is stripped of power and rights by a shadowy, unaccountable and unapproachable source of power like a government or bureaucracy. Even dictionary.com has an entry for it, “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.” (dictionary.com) Think about the recent controversy over the NSA, Edward Snowden, and the ability of companies like Google and Apple to track our activity online. In this article from The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen uses Kafka’s The Trial to illustrate the unsettling aspects of the ability of the NSA to collect data on citizens without notification. (The Atlantic)

For a more light hearted take on Kafka’s idea of alienation, check out The Onion’s video below about “Franz Kafka International Airport”

The satire here is that the experience of flying, including going through security, being inspected by suspicious employees, winding through the long labyrinthine corridors of an airport, and being crammed in like cattle into a seat feels like you are in a Kafka novel.

Kafka’s own father was a manipulative and greedy businessman who tried to discourage his son’s literary ambitions. Kafka was forced to work in insurance, a job he hated because it took away all his time for writing. Consider these details when you analyze Gregor’s work as a salesman and his relationship with his father in the story. How does Kafka characterize Gregor’s boss and Gregor’s father? What might he be saying about fathers and business?

To understand alienation in Kafka’s work, we need to start with the idea of how modernity, the new culture of society brought on by advances in technology, industry, and urban living, created the kind of alienation epitomized in Gregor Samsa. The philosopher Karl Marx (yes the father of communism, but that’s another matter entirely) argued that capitalist production alienated the individual from his own labor.

Scholar Jorn Bramman explains Marx’s theory of alienation thusly:

“In a nutshell Marx’s Theory of Alienation is the contention that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense. Under pre-capitalist conditions a blacksmith, e.g., or a shoemaker would own his own shop, set his own hours, determine his own working conditions, shape his own product, and have some say in how his product is bartered or sold. His relationships with the people with whom he worked and dealt had a more or less personal character.

Under the conditions of modern factory production, by contrast, the average worker is not much more than a replaceable cog in a gigantic and impersonal production apparatus. Where armies of hired operatives perform monotonous and closely supervised tasks, workers have essentially lost control over the process of production, over the products which they produce, and over the relationships they have with each other. As a consequence they have become estranged from their very human nature, which Marx understood to be free and productive activity.” (Branman)

Although Gregor Samsa is not an assembly line worker, we can see that in his labor, he is viewed by his boss as nothing more than a worker (he doesn’t care that Gregor is ill) and as the sole breadwinner in the household, Gregor is treated simply as a source of money. Thus, Gregor is an example of the alienated labor Marx talks about. His humanity is disregarded and he is defined solely by his productivity and monetary value.

As you read the text, think about the metaphor of the insect. Why does Kafka decide to demonstrate alienation through this metamorphosis into an insect? Is Gregor still human throughout the story? And if so or not, who holds this opinion and who does not? What are the consequences for that character and for Gregor?

Fuinally, I ask, “Whose metamorphosis is it anyway?” Usually, the title is seen in reference to the transformation of Gregor into the insect, but notice that there is another metamorphosis in the text; that of his sister Grete. She matures from a girl into a young woman, so much so that the final image is of her mature womanly body and the thought among her parents that it is time for her to find a husband. Thus, I pose to you the question, “Is the metamorphosis in the title actually about Grete?” Could this story, if told from a different perspective, be another narrative of girlhood like last week’s stories in which a young girl comes of age amidst difficult circumstances? Compare Grete’s story to those of Atwood and Tan.

For no reason at all, here’s Charlie Brown as Gregor Samsa

gregorbrown

(Good ole Gregor Brown)

Once you finish reading Kafka, you will be able to take the Tuesday Quiz.

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“To Serve Man” By Damon Knight

(The Kanamits, as envisioned by Justin McElroy)

Ethical Questions Raised by this Story

1. Is such a thing as altruism, a completely selfless act, possible?

2. Is global peace and prosperity for all possible, or will any system that guarantee this have its own negative consequences?

3. Why is man suspicious of “others” and under what circumstances should he repress or indulge this instinct?

Damon Knight’s short story “To Serve Man” originally appeared in the November 1950 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction. It achieved widespread popularity when it was adapted into a famous episode of the television show, The Twilight Zone:

After airing, “To Serve Man” has been referenced and parodied several times in popular culture, including an episode of The Simpsons in which the family is abducted by seemingly benevolent aliens. Lisa is initially distrustful of the altruistic aliens and when she finds a copy of a book called “How to Cook Humans”, she believes they plan to eat them (which would explain why they were delighted with Homer’s weight and gluttony). However, it is revealed that there was dust on the cover and the title was “How to Cook for Forty Humans”, and as punishment for Lisa’s distrust, the family is beamed back to Springfield, having been kicked out of what truly was an altruistic alien utopia.

(Two Simpsons references in this class! Seriously, watching The Simpsons will give you a pretty good literary education)

While the twist in The Simpsons parody is that the aliens truly wanted to “serve man” as in benefiting mankind, in the original story the idea of “serving man” meant to serve him as dinner.

The Theme of Altruism

In the story, Grigori, the Urkranian delegate to the UN remains the only individual to maintain distrust of the Kanamits. While discussing this with the narrator he explains, “there is no such thing as a completely disinterested altruism. In one way or another, they have something to gain.” First off, let’s define the term “altruism.” Altruism is:

“the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others  (opposed to egoism )” (Dictionary.com)

In in animal kingdom, altruism is practiced by animals who act in ways that may harm themself, but will lead to the preservation and propagation of their species. As an ethical ideal, altruism is the idea that in order to act ethically, man must divorce himself from his self interests and do only what benefits man kind as a whole.

When Grigori states that he believes that there is no such thing as disinterested altruism, he sounds a bit cynical. We all like to think we are capable of selfless acts that benefit others. We think this is one of the hallmarks of being a good, ethical person. Yet, he raises a serious ethical dilemma: are any of our actions truly selfless? Can we act without our own self interests as part of our motivation? Even when we do charitable work, couldn’t one argue that we do it because it makes us feel good about ourselves? Or, when we do the right thing, but it is painful and hurt our self interest, couldn’t one say that we did it so as not to feel bad about doing the wrong thing?

Political and Historical Context

Consider Grigori’s nationality. He is a Ukrainian, meaning that in 1950 when this story takes place, he was part of the Soviet Union and thus a representative of a Communist government. Considering what we know about Communism as a political theory and system, why might Knight have made the one skeptic of altruism someone who comes from a Communist background?

One may argue that there is a criticism of Soviet Communism in this story. Perhaps Grigori understands that altruism is not possible because Communism makes the same claims about abandoning self interest for the sake of the community as a whole. While this is a possibly admirable ideal, when totalitarians like Stalin (who ruled the Soviets at the time) take charge, it is clear that they use the language of altruism and communism to hide their true, self-interested motives.

Consider also that this story takes place during the Cold War, the period directly after WWII when the US and the USSR developed a deep distrust for one another. This was a clash of political ideology (Capitalism v. Communism) as well as an arms race during the dawn of the Atomic Age. In Knight’s story, the Cold War seemingly comes to an end with the arrival of the Kanamits whose technology promises to end war and hunger. Mankind’s national divisions are over, the UN has dissolved, and all mankind is living in supposed equality. Yet, man’s peace will shortly end as it is clear that at the end of the story, the new enemy is the Kanamits. This is a common trope in Science Fiction alien stories. Mankind’s seemingly insurmountable racial and class divisions suddenly dissolve when we must band together against aliens. This illustrates how arbitrary our social divisions truly are

Clearly altruism was not the Kanamits’ motivation. What would we then say is the moral to this story? Should we be inherently distrustful of anyone who claims to be altruistic and have no self interest? Should we always be skeptical of charity?

Becoming the Alien

At first, it is the Kanamit who strike us as the alien “other.” They look and act differently from humans and on Earth, they are by definition the “aliens.” Yet, by the end of the story, it is the human race that becomes alien. Humans stay as the same species, but their role in society changes. Instead of being the dominant species, they become a weaker species. They become livestock for the Kanamit. Humans become alienated from their own humanity, not because of any change in being a biological human, but because of a change in the power hierarchy in their society. What then does this say about our humanity? How does the human’s position on Earth play a role in defining our humanity?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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