Kafka's Social Insecurity: "The Metamorphosis" and Worker's Comp

First edition cover  for the reprinted short story, 1916.

First edition cover for the reprinted short story, 1916.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest speculative stories in literature, Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Appearing as “Die Verwandlung” in Die Weißen Blätter in October 1915, “The Metamorphosis” tells the horrifying, tragic, and insanely funny story of Gregor Samsa who, famously, wakes one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin.

Or gigantic insect. Or huge cockroach. Translators tangle over what exactly Gregor changes into—Nabokov, a lepidopterist, insisted Gregor was a three-foot long, flight-capable beetle—and some go so far as to insist Gregor doesn’t metamorphose at all, but only thinks he’s a bug. (His family’s horrified reaction, under this interpretation, is attributed to the disgusting spectacle of a madman screeching and scuttling around like a giant cockroach.) But I’m a traditionalist: cockroach or no, I like my Gregor with rows of cilia-like legs, a hard carapace back, sectioned torso, and terrible, snapping jaws. Naturally, Gregor’s first instinct is to get up and dress, since he’s overslept and missed his train. Gregor’s a traveling salesman, after all, the breadwinner who puts up his elderly parents and little sister in a fine, bourgeois city apartment.

I loved Kafka the first time I read him, in high school. The Castle remains in my top five novels of all time. At the time I encountered Kafka, I tended to overthink things (closeted, fearful, devoutly Catholic), and the way he painted everything ordinary and tedious in life with the intensity of religious dread seemed about right. This, to me, is the heart of that much-abused term, ‘Kafkaesque’: not that a bureaucracy is absurdly complex or frustrating, but that one’s helplessness before an arbitrary, indifferent human system suggests one’s helplessness before an arbitrary, indifferent cosmic system.

Plus, he was totally dreamy. Those eyes! That  hair . ( Franz Kafka , 1917)

Plus, he was totally dreamy. Those eyes! That hair. (Franz Kafka, 1917)

Two years ago, I was in Prague and had my own transformation—into a full, frothing Kafka dork—at the superb and strange Kafka Museum. Full of dramatic, German-expressionist lighting, unsettling noises on looped tracks, and winding, black corridors, the museum has a mimetic ambition that can only fall short, but it’s still appreciated. Among the museum’s collection is a bulky risk assessment report Herr K. wrote for Assicurazioni Generali on industrial accidents; although most Kafka fans know his day job (Brotberuf, literally “bread job”) was for a mind-numbing, soulless corporate insurance firm, I’d never really considered he was quite good at it. As a claims adjuster for Assicurazioni and later, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, Kafka was promoted quickly and his reports excellently received, if not enthusiastically delivered.

When one reads the first section of “The Metamorphosis” with these reports in mind, it’s hard not to think of Gregor as the victim of a nightmarish industrial accident. As Gregor minimizes his ‘injury,’ begs indulgence for his lateness, and pleads with the chief clerk to let him continue to work and support his family (as a giant-bug traveling salesman, mind), one sees the awful vulnerability of a commission-slave in the age before worker’s comp:

I’ll put my clothes on at once, pack up my samples and start off. Will you only let me go? You see, sir, I’m not obstinate, and I’m willing to work; traveling is a hard life, but I couldn’t live without it. Where are you going, sir? To the office? Yes? Will you give a true account of all this? One can be temporarily incapacitated, but that’s just the moment for remembering former services and hearing in mind that later on, when the incapacity has been got over, one will certainly work with all the more industry and concentration. I’m loyally bound to serve the chief, you know that very well. Besides, I have to provide for my parents and my sister. I’m in great difficulties, but I’ll get out of them again. Don’t make things any worse for me than they are. Stand up for me in the firm. Travelers are not popular there, I know. People think they earn sacks of money and just have a good time. A prejudice there’s no particular reason for revising. But you, sir, have a more comprehensive view of affairs than the rest of the staff, yes, let me tell you in confidence, a more comprehensive view than the chief himself, who, being the owner, lets his judgment easily be swayed against one of his employees. And you know very well that the traveler, who is never seen in the office almost the whole year round, can so easily fall a victim to gossip and ill luck and unfounded complaints, which he mostly knows nothing about, except when he comes back exhausted from his rounds, and only then suffers in person from their evil consequences, which he can no longer trace back to the original causes. Sir, sir, don’t go away without a word to me to show that you think me in the right at least to some extent!

The chief clerk hears only unintelligible clicking and screeching, sees only a monstrous vermin tottering and flailing his reedy legs, and retreats in terror. And post-Great Recession, the spectacle of Gregor pleading for his job feels uncannily relevant. With job insecurity so conspicuous in our generation’s lives, we’ve returned, in a way, to the story’s original tragic intensity.

Almost ten years ago, I interned between law-school semesters at a Berkeley non-profit that helps persons with mental illness apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), one of FDR’s social security initiatives. To receive SSI, applicants have to prove a disability that prevents them from working: in practice, this means collecting medical records and work histories, attending one or more medical exams, and submitting to the delays, confusion, and patchy competence of a faceless bureaucracy. For a person with PTSD or depression, the process is truly deserving of the term, ‘Kafkaesque.’ This, at least, is what I decided, when I published the piece linked below. In humble celebration of a master’s timeless work, here’s “Social Security Denies Gregor Samsa’s Disability Claim.”

Yours in uneasy dreams,


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