With my first term at Freie Universität Berlin coming to a close last Friday, I was faced with an obligation-free week to do whatever I wanted until the second term started up on July 15th. My immediate urge was to go traveling, whether within Germany or elsewhere in Europe, and I enlisted the help of my lovely, intelligent, and worldly friends from back home to give me some advice on possible vacation destinations.
Among their helpful suggestions:
“Amsterdam – they have the nicest people…”
“Paris as a city is super cool but the people are total douchers. On second thought, you’d do well in Paris.”
All in all, the general consensus was that Prague was the place to be, a land of milk and honey, but mostly beer, and that Auschwitz is not, and never has been, exactly the best destination for extended stay. After calling my corporate sponsor Law Office of Seth Davidson to confirm that they would be able to fund the trip, I booked a hostel and bus tickets to head over to Prague.
The Franz Kafka Museum
Prague is breathtakingly beautiful, yet what caught my attention immediately as I was overlooking the Charles Bridge in Old Prague was a giant sign that read “The Franz Kafka Museum”. I had completely forgotten that Kafka was actually born and raised in a Jewish, German-speaking neighborhood of Prague, because he was a writer of German novels and short stories,
It’s my personal belief that an author’s biography is completely auxiliary, if not totally unnecessary, when it comes to reading and understanding his or her literary works. Most classes I’ve had make a thorough biographical context of the author a priority before delving into the text, which is like having your waiter at a restaurant tell you about the head chef’s personal life before eating whatever he has cooked for you – it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on your impression of the creation. Literature isn’t about the connection between the author and his work, but between the reader and the work, and whatever meaning and importance the reader personally pulls out of the text. With that being said, Kafka’s stories are, to put it redundantly, Kafkaesque. I trekked to the Kafka Museum with a desire to find out a little bit more about the wonderful and enigmatic world of Kafka.
Waking up as a beetle
According to the museum, Kafka’s life was one of self-loathing, awkward mistrust, and an Oedipus complex toward his cold, dispassionate father, to whom he wrote letters which were never read by the intended recipient – but most of all, it was a fantastic life that produced works through his inner anguish such as “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial, and The Castle. In particular, the queer story of “The Metamorphosis”, in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa one day wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant bug, is strikingly melancholic and upsetting in that Gregor’s importance and standing in his family become diminished to that of a nuisance, a pest, as he dies alone, hated by his parents and his younger sister, and with no explanation as to the circumstance of why this unfortunate fate befalls him. To make things more frustrating, the story ends on a betraying sense of hope, whereby the family comes out feeling stronger for enduring the hardship of dealing with their ungeheures Ungeziefer, and Gregor’s sister herself is described as having transformed into a beautiful, mature woman.
The story ends, the loose ends are left as loose ends, and all that is left is a simple question: what if I wake up one day as a beetle?
You’re probably thinking that that’s a silly question, because it’s an absurd, otherworldly hypothesis that isn’t grounded in reality. Just as no one has come back from the dead, there have been zero medical cases where a person has turned into a beetle. A Beatle, perhaps, but certainly not a beetle. That’s not what I mean, and it’s not some byproduct of me finally losing my mind.
Rather, the question stems from the nagging fear that, as opposed to turning into an actual beetle, I might turn into a beetle of the metaphorical kind. I might wake up one day only to realize that I’m not needed, that I’m hopelessly and utterly insignificant, that what had been true to that point might no longer be the case. All the things I worked hard for, that I cared about, that I valued, might no longer mean anything. All that’s left then is a gap between reality and my erroneous perception of reality.
Even further, what would be left behind of me afterwards? For Gregor, his possessions are removed, his room is turned into a storage room for junk, and all semblance of his existence, his mark, as a human are wiped away. His family, by whom he is survived, moves on, it is implied their life improves, and Gregor’s memory becomes nothing but a relic of the past, a forgettable past. Now, allow me to transpose that onto a possible, and quite typical, life. I graduate, get a job, work my way up, get a house, get married, have kids, they grow up, I grow old, I pass away, and after some time, my memory too become a relic of the past, a forgettable past. At what point did I become a beetle? Would I have recognized that I had become a beetle?
Perhaps this is all very much laughable, that it’s another reason why philosophy majors have been and always will be the worst kind of wankers, and that if we managed to pull our heads out of our asses, we would come to our senses and see that the world in front of us isn’t one that is neither worried nor should be worried about metaphorical beetles.
“Wake up, jackass,” the World would probably say, “there are better things to do then to philosophize about bullshit.” The World has a way with words.
But this fear, this dread, that I may one day wake up transformed into a beetle, is real. It gnaws away at my conscience, and it questions every action of every day.
The museum never talked about why Kafka wrote, and quite frankly, I never find out about why the authors of the books I read wrote their respective books. Countless papers with differing theses have been written on why so-and-so wrote this, what their reasons were, and so forth, mainly because Dostoevsky never left a note on his drawer explaining his exact intentions for picking up writing, and Mark Twain never left a voicemail for future researchers on what it meant for him to write.
Maybe though, just maybe, they wrote because they didn’t want to wake up one day and find themselves as beetles. To struggle through the creative process is to fight against the metamorphosis, and to write, however seemingly trivial and asinine, perhaps prolongs that metamorphosis.
And it doesn’t have to be writing. It could be painting, making music, taking photographs – clawing away at whatever is within reach to leave a mark in this world by creating. The World is right: there are better things to do then to philosophize about bullshit, and I don’t want to wake up as a beetle. The Prague air is cool, but not cold, as I sit outside. I type, type, and keep typing away.