The classic definition refers to either insect or amphibian and the process they go through from juvenile to adult. The remarkable thing is the complete change of the same creature. A crawling, multi-leg earthbound worm that turns into a winged flying beauty. The amphibian is less dramatic, from slimy fish, to slimy frog.

The word simply means transforming, it doesn’t calculate the amount.

I’ve been thinking about re-reading Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, published in 1915, and usually translated as The Metamorphosis.

Kafka is more widely known as an adjective. “That was so weird and Kafka-like”. “Right out of Kafka!”

The trouble is that most people have never read Kafka, although they are certain that either he, or his stories, were weird.

Unlike my usual practice of reading everything published by my favorite authors, I have only read one short story by Kafka. The story of a man who suddenly metamorphosed into a cockroach.

Well, the original German suggests “vermin”, but cockroach does pretty well, certainly not a charming cricket, or an industrious ant.

The story is short and centers around Gregor (cockroach), his father, his mother, and his sister. Initially, Gregor can’t communicate why he can’t go to work as usual. The family is concerned about how his economic contribution will cause great stress. They don’t yet know that he is an insect, just that he can’t be roused from his room.

Finally Gregor uses his disgusting mouth to open the door. Everyone either screams and runs away in fear, or they faint. Gregor retreats back into the room. His sister begins to periodically clean the room while Gregor hides under the sofa.

We still aren’t sure of Gregor’s size. He could be five feet tall, yet he can effectively hide under the sofa. He also can scurry up the walls while listening to the family discuss the situation.

Gregor is brought food, but he has no interest in some of his favorites. He is slowly dying. He trys once again to come out of the room. He scares the potential boarders that would have helped the finances of the family. The father throws a apple at Gregor which wounds him in the back. Again, Gregor retreats into his room, where he eventually dies.

The cleaning lady disposes of the body, the family now notices that the daughter has grown into a beautiful young lady. They now move into a smaller, but much more affordable place, and everybody is happy.

Yep, it was that weird.

And literally everyone who read it has taken the time to make an analysis and codify the symbology. Most see it as detailing “daddy issues”, or how does a young man grow to adulthood. Some see the sister as truly metamorphosing. Everyone has an opinion.

I have one too. I haven’t seen this as a detailed critique from anyone, but it was the first thing that came to me. Gregor doesn’t realize what has happened to him. He knows that when he speaks they don’t understand. He is aware that he can’t use his hands to open the door, but not because he is aware that he doesn’t have hands. For Gregor, he is still Gregor.

Instead, Gregor is defined by others. One morning everyone silently agreed that Gregor was a useless parasite, a vermin, that was if no use to the family, and even a detriment.

We are what we read, we are what we eat, we are what we do… well, in this case, we are what other people decide we are.

I was reflecting on this with a colleague in the world of academia. She had also just recently retired and was experiencing the transformation.

One obvious shared experience was the lack of involvement in students lives. We have no students. We are not we do, we are barely what we did!

I noted a brief summary of my career. I was once young an inexperienced staff member, I was a Young Turk who suggested actions that had been tried decades ago, but not by me! Then I matured into a team player who worked by consensus, that transformed into a “conscience” that reminded the Young Turks that we had already tried that, further transforming, I got into being the elder, but respected, statesman for a few short years. And finally into the funny, quaint, old guy with the beret. And the ever present question, “are going to retire?”

I was the same creature, in my room the mirror showed only a little age. The world I lived in transformed me into… well, not a cockroach, so I guess I’m thankful.

Note to self: read more Kafka!

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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