Photograph by Stephen Jackson
When one encounters a story like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” one cannot help but think to what extent our bond with our families which at times seems to be the most unconditional form of love in the world, is in fact conditioned by our physical being. “Metamorphosis” is essentially a story about the imprisonment of a human being within his animal physicality (isn’t it a universal truth?). It is a sad fact, but stories about sick family members, senior homes, among many sad family stories, tell us precisely that family is after all a worldly union. It comes with all the worldly constraints and conditions which challenge the unconditional love we feel within it. Especially when a family member is deprived of basic capacity of communication, due to illness or old age, it becomes difficult for the familial bond to endure.
We all want love to transcend. The difference of skin color, beauty and ugliness, old age, all those worldly things, to be overcome. But the brutal truth told by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is that Gregor was expelled out of his family because of his physical deformity. As he became an unrelatable monstrous bug, the family bond he took for granted deteriorated. When Gregor, propelled by an urge to respond to his family’s inquiry about his bodily conditions, heard only an incomprehensible squeak coming out of his mouth, there was no transcendent love available to him or to his family.
“Metamorphosis” does not so much explain to us what family is than asks: does what we call family (and familial love) always already conjure up definitive categories of humanity? More specifically, does becoming a family require family members to first of all be human? As in Gregor’s case, his new bug body, something that primarily changed nothing of his subjectivity, seems to have expelled him completely from the context of family, as well as from all other social contexts. The moment of despair resulting from miscommunication was robbed by an existential chaos—Gregor was unable to even affirm his own human nature in front of his family. He could not exonerate himself from the condemnation from his very own family of being less than human.
Maybe we should rethink the whole idea that we were born into our families. Maybe there is nothing that we were born into, apart from our bodies, which grant us part of our humanity. The other part consists in our becoming relatable social beings, establishing relationships with other human beings, and finally, becoming a family or a community. Then when old age or sickness seizes us, it will do nothing more than putting the precious feelings we reared to the test. Maybe love will win. Maybe it won’t. Then it will take us back to the examination of what constitutes human.