Comparing Utopia: Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Huxley’s Pleasure

By Craig Wright | 03 Nov 2022 | Philosophy

The concept of transformation and dehumanisation (Kafka) is analogous to the concept of civilisation as “auto-intoxication” (Huxley). Huxley defines the role of pleasure to mean something more than simple enjoyment (Shiach). In each allegorical tale, Huxley and Kafka demonstrate a re-envisioned classical concept of the fates and the lack of human control over purpose. Despite the rejection of many concepts of European culture, “we cannot speak of early Modernism as rejecting antiquity” (Farrell 58). Rather, “[m]any Modernist authors including Joyce demonstrate a strong affinity and nostalgia for classical Greek culture” (Farrell 60). While seeking to abandon the classics, such authors “essentially […] agree on the fundamental importance of classical Greek and Latin authors as part of our cultural heritage” (Hickman and Kozak, xvi).

            Like Ulysses (Gifford and Seidman), Kafka takes a classical Greek story and transforms it to represent the modern. In using the title The Metamorphosis, Kafka reinterprets the work of Ovid. The Metamorphoses (Ovidius Naso et al.) represents a story of the transformation of bodies. Just as Ulysses (Joyce and Rose) embodies The Odyssey (Homer et al.), Kafka reimagined the classical work of Ovid. In each instance, there is a theme of transformation and exile.

            Ovid invokes a deus ex machina with the interactions of the gods to investigate the themes and effects of love and exile. Each iteration of the Metamorphoses encapsulates abandonment and, finally, death. For Ovid, there is a question of the transformation of gender and identity. “With all his learned arts could he make me into a boy from a girl? Or could he change you, Ianthe?” (Ovid & Goold, 57). And equally, the death of Julius Caesar comes to represent both change and exile. “This son of thine, goddess of Gythera, for whom thou grievest, has fulfilled his allotted time, and his years are finished which he owed to earth. As a god, he may enter heaven and have his place in temples on the earth, thou shalt accomplish, thou and his son” (Ovid & Goold, 422–23).

            Kafka represents exile and change in the form of an allegorical transformation where “Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he has been changed into a monstrous verminous bug” (Kafka, 1). While Ovid uses love, exile, and themes of fate through an ever-changing or constant transformation of characters and even the gods (Hardie et al.), Kafka incorporates modern concepts of psychological change based on the ideas of Freud (Hartocollis; Martens; Kohon). The transformation of the mind or psyche is encapsulated in Gregor’s inability to communicate and the limited ability to make sounds that transmit no information.

            In reflecting the modern concept of change, Kafka also reflects the classical concept of the fates. “At first, he wanted to get off the bed with the lower part of the body, but this lower (which he incidentally had not yet looked at and which he also couldn’t picture clearly) proved itself too difficult to move” (Kafka, 4). Despite the individual’s will, the gods and the universe continue to set boundaries of what can be altered. Even Apollo, despite being one of the Olympian gods, could not avoid fate and destiny (Ovidius Naso et al., 34–35). Additionally, as Kafka demonstrates, change can occur without warning. Gregor awoke to be transformed. It was not a partial transformation or one over time, but a transformation without warning (Kafka, 1).

            Huxley approaches transformation in a different way than Kafka. In each instance, both Kafka and Huxley seek to provide warnings against the “menaces to our civilization” (Huxley). Huxley represents the poisons to modern civilisation in the constant pursuit of pleasure that differs from an Aristotelian concept of happiness (Annas and Wang). As explained by researchers such as Shiach (210), “[b]y ‘pleasure’, Huxley here clearly meant something other than simple enjoyment”.

            As with both Joyce and Kafka, here we see Huxley ascribing a classical concept (Broadie and Broadie) as against the enlightenment concepts (Robertson) and the subsequent metamorphosis in culture, where the “Enlightenment’s promise of human happiness on earth spread gradually outward” (McMahon 13). We see such European authors finding the fountainhead and origins of European civilisation with their “continental roots in Hellas” (Jusdanis 39). As “Aristophanes and Aristotle viewed the Platonic ideal as exceeding the limits of credibility” (Matter 147), Huxley argued that the pursuit of vicarious pleasure resulted in a condition where “[s]elf-poisoned in this fashion, civilization looks as though it might easily decline into a kind of premature senility”.

            In reimagining the classics, Huxley reminds us of the decay of “the Romans who, like us, lived on ready-made entertainments in which they had no participation”. The pleasure obtained in reading Ovid imbues an explanation of “the existence of a world apt for human life with a story” (Schmidt 418). It is the transformation of “the old pleasures demanding intelligence and personal initiative” (Huxley) that Kafka argues will transform the modern worker into a mere insect. One with “distractions which demand from pleasure-seekers no personal participation and no intellectual effort of any sort” (Huxley).

            It is this Freudian “psychoanalytic understanding of estrangement” that led to the “uncanny and Nachträglichkeit” (Kohon 2), which Kafka represents as one that presents “the opportunity to test the strength of [our] decisions” (Kafka 20). Yet, the choices made by the majority mirror those of Gregor, ending up “less sensitive than [we] used to be” (Kafka 20). As Huxley notes, we had moved from “a time when people indulged themselves with distractions requiring the expense of a certain intellectual effort” into a state of avoidance where each individual is “filled with simple rage about the lack of attention” shown to them (Kafka 85), with no willingness “to make any other effort than to move the eyes down the printed column” (Huxley).

            The early modernist writers seek to remind us that European culture was developed in a society where “Even the uneducated vulgar delighted in pleasures requiring the exercise of a certain intelligence, individuality and personal initiative. They listened, for example, to Othello, King Lear and Hamlet” (Huxley). It was a time where “pleasures were intelligent and alive” (Huxley), a state that would demonstrate to be in contrast to the pleasure exhibited by Gregor’s family, whose (effortless and egocentric) “ultimate motive was pleasure – pleasure of not seeing the hideous insect” (Kadirova Nargiza Arivovna 25).


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