OF BEETLES AND DANDIES
Junger believed ‘the values of the bourgeois world’ to be incompatible with what he called ‘the select embodiments of a powerful masculinity’ and on one occasion he even went so far as to depict combat as ‘the male form of procreation’ (quoted in Huyssen 1993: 10). But by no means every writer who has found himself at odds with modern bourgeois society has regarded it as lacking in masculinity. To the contrary, for some modernist writers it is the crushingly oppressive nature of bourgeois masculinity that led to its symbolic renunciation in the pages of their fiction.
As an extreme example, consider one of the most famous of all twentieth-century texts: Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915) with its abrupt and unforgettable opening: ‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect’ (Kafka 1992: 76). At first sight Kafka’s fable would seem to have little to do with gender, and Gregor Samsa’s downward spiral from rejection by his family to an ignominious death has often been read as a parable of spiritual alienation and martyrdom, a vivid allegory of the human condition. However, recent Kafka scholarship has begun to think much harder about the author’s relationship to the time and place within which he worked, producing a very different picture of these strange, disquieting writings.
In his fascinating book Kafka’s Clothes (1992), Mark M. Anderson portrays the young Kafka as a contradictory figure, a dandyish man about town who was nevertheless deeply critical of the decadence of urban life. Although early photographs show him ‘sporting broad, upturned collars, fancy silk neckties, even a top hat, tuxedo, and gloves’, he was also attending popular lectures on clothing reform and the need for a wholesale return to nature (51). Both of these preoccupations had an impact upon Kafka’s aestheticism for, while he soon ceased to cultivate the stylish air of the snappy dresser, his single-minded pursuit of a life in art led him ruthlessly to strip away each and every diversion or encumbrance, including the possibility of a happy marriage, until he had reached the point where he could describe himself as ‘made of literature’ and ‘nothing else’ (quoted 95). And, of course, Kafka’s purism, like the dandyism which it replaced, was a far cry from the bustling commercial ethos of his father’s affluent fancy-goods store. It provided a way of distinguishing himself from the Jewish milieu into which he was born, distancing him from the world of his parents.
With this cultural context in mind, Anderson reads The Metamorphosis as the difficult incarnation of what he calls ‘a will toward art’ (131), the desire to move into a ‘self-enclosed world of aesthetic play and freedom’ represented by the symmetries of Gregor’s insect form (142). (Notwithstanding his differences from Kafka, it is perhaps worth recalling here that, besides literature and war, one of Ernst Junger’s other great passions was to scour the world in search of rare beetles, discovering species whose teeming variety seemed to offer endless scope for aesthetic contemplation.) Previous interpretations of Kafka’s novella have tended to focus upon the anxieties accompanying Gregor’s transformation and have often failed to take into account the pleasures that his new body evidently brings him. As soon as he is able to place his legs firmly on the ground, for example, Gregor at once begins to experience ‘a sense of physical well-being’, an instinctive ‘joy’ in the discovery of an unexpected capacity for movement; and later he learns to enjoy ‘hanging from the ceiling’, gently swaying to and fro, a delightful manoeuvre that allows him to ‘breathe more freely’ (Kafka 1992: 89, 101). In such brief, bitter-sweet moments he seems finally to have transcended the care-worn routines of the ordinary commercial traveller he once was.
As the story makes clear, in his human phase Gregor had been chained to his family and his job, forced to become the household’s breadwinner after the failure of his father’s business. Both institutions are intensely exploitative. No sooner has the company discovered that Gregor has missed the early morning train than the chief clerk is knocking on the door of the family’s apartment to find out where their employee has got to. But, most sinister of all, Gregor’s father starts to undergo his own monstrous transformation, changing from a semi-invalid apparently defeated by life into a large, vigorous, uniformed patriarch who drives him away with his stick, bombarding Gregor with apples and hastening his death. Indeed, for Anderson, the father’s new uniform, together with other textual details such as the three anonymous bearded men who later become the Samsa family’s lodgers, are signs of a highly regimented form of social existence from which Gregor is permitted to escape. One could argue that Gregor must ultimately die because there is literally no place for him in this soulless, grasping world.
Several commentators have drawn attention to the ways in which the metamorphosed Gregor has also been effectively feminized. He has lost his social position as the real head of the household and consequently is banished from public view. His voice immediately begins to change — Eric Santner describes Gregor’s ‘distressed chirping’ as ‘the mutation of the male voice in the direction of the feminine’ — and as the story develops he becomes increasingly vulnerable and passive (Santner 1996: 206). There even seems to be a curious parallel between Gregor’s newly ‘curved brown belly’ and the image of the ‘harem women’ with which he identifies the other commercial travellers who are far lazier in their habits than he is (Kafka 1992: 76—7). However, it might be more accurate to say, not that Gregor is in the process of taking on female attributes, but rather that he has become unable to continue to live up to the demands of masculinity that have been his lot in life until now. In The Metamorphosis there is a kind of withdrawal from, or divestment of, a conventionally dutiful bourgeois masculinity — a disengagement that is later given a surprising justification when we learn that the Samsa family is not really bankrupt at all. If one implication of The Metamorphosis is that the true artist cannot flourish in such a brazenly commercial world, another no less sobering reflection is surely that the modern codes of masculinity are based upon an illusion. In the Oedipal dramas played out in Kafka’s fictional universe, relations between fathers and sons are always unstable and liable to take unexpected turns for the worse. Once Gregor is gone family morale among the Samsas revives and the story closes with happy thoughts of Gregor’s sister finding ‘a good husband’ (126), a new ‘son’ who will erase all memory of Gregor’s unmanly failings.
Ranging from the aggressiveness of writers like Junger and Carlyle to the retreat from gendered identity in The Metamorphosis, the snapshots assembled in this chapter suggest something of the historical variability in the forms that masculinity has assumed when it has been imagined and explored through different kinds of literary texts. Fashioning masculinities in writing appears as a complex and precarious enterprise, in which any claim to fix upon a core of manly attributes has always had to be placed and justified within a wider field of cultural differences. Indeed, the uncertainties and self-doubts attending Boswell’s struggle to discover exactly what sort of man he most wanted to be indicate just how fluid the regulative ideals of masculinity, not to mention the fantasies underpinning them, could sometimes be. To do full justice to this order of complexity we need, as Christopher Lane has eloquently put it, ‘a less defined and infinitely messier sense of process, of ideas being worked out in texts trying to make clear their own understanding of desire, intimacy, and gender’ (Lane 1999: xxi). Terms like ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ carry an immense amount of cultural baggage, but they can also cover up far more than they reveal. Though conventionally regarded as a set of mutually exclusive binary opposites that constitute the bedrock of experience, it is possible that these categories are too restricted, too simplistic, too crude even to serve as an adequate shorthand for the pleasures of the body, let alone to be taken for granted as cultural or human universals. The next chapter considers some of the recent debates that take this possibility seriously.