A case of burnout – reading Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (Die Verwandlung)

Kafka’s third book, The Metamorphosis. The first edition, 1916. The cover illustration is a lithograph by Ottomar Starke. (www.kafka-franz.com)


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) in 1912 wrote his story “Die Verwandlung” (The transformation or, as it has become known in the English speaking world: “The Metamorphosis”). The story is conventionally read as a story about an overworked young sales representative who one morning waking up finds himself unable to continue with his usual stressful activities because his body has turned into an insect, a beetle. He or it remains confined to a room in his/its parent’s home where he/it eventually after some weeks dies of exhaustion. However, the story, macabre as it might appear as one begins to read, is as much about the struggle of a meta-morphed human being to make himself heard, as it is about his family and the impact their son’s “metamorphosis” has on them. In the end they are liberated by his death and free to get on with their lives in a transformed way.

The German title – Die Verwandlung – transformation – gives the story less of a directive twist than the English “metamorphosis” which too obviously refers to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The story however, is not about a particular transformation but about transformation as such and the impact it has on the individual and the people around him.
This point is highlighted by Kafka himself:
“When Kafka learned that Starke was to do an illustration, he wrote: ‘The insect itself must not be illustrated by a drawing. It cannot be shown at all, not even from a distance.'” (www.kafka-com). Therein lies the clue.

And now – why am I writing about Kafka and his beetle story?
We have a dear friend who within a few months after he had been visiting with us, inexorably fell into an illness which, after endless testing and failed treatments, was tentatively diagnosed as a case of severe burnout with elements of depression thrown in.  All our friend wanted at the time was to be “disposed of” (in German: entsorgt werden). Eventually all he could do was lie at home on a couch all day looking into the void. Nothing, no treatment including electroshock sessions, brought about any change. Going into the third year, the family was at its wits end.

Now we hear of his almost miraculous recovery. Willingly he had agreed to undergo a serious operation and during the rehabilitation process he apparently is beginning to step out of his illness – leaving his deformed life behind.
When we heard about this, Kafka’s Metamorphosis story came to mind.  A case study of a burnout with depression and the impact it has on the family. In the case of our friend he seems to be stepping out of it as we speak, leaving the carcass of his transformation behind. Kafka’s story stops short of the son’s return.
This is wonderful news for us all. It is also a new angle on a story that has puzzled many a reader and literary scholar. Now, we no longer need to to go into deep psychology or into speculating what on earth Kafka’s beetle represents.
It represents the otherness of a being that has fallen into a state of burnout and depression from where there often is no return.
It does, of course, also refer to a state of otherness in Kafka’s own life about which we shall write more elsewhere.

With much happiness about our friend and his family –
Colleen and Walter
Betty’s Bay, May 24, 2012