Academic journal article German Quarterly

Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, death, and rebirth in "The Metamorphosis"

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, death, and rebirth in "The Metamorphosis"

Article excerpt

The variety of suffering which plagued the life of Franz Kafka is well documented. The illness which hounded him, relegating him to a life of fitful coughs and extended stays at various sanitariums, is clearly not the least of them. Before dying in Kierling of tuberculosis, Kafka would constantly suffer the most destructive form of reproach a person can endure-his own. Max Brod terms Kafka's disposition as one of "deep pessimism" (48). Such a disposition might be viewed in part responsible for his haunting tales. Considering "Die Verwandlung," William Kluback writes, "we wander into a world of violence, of frightful laughter, and terror" (92). Similarly, Franz Kempf notes the view that "Das Urteil" ("The Judgment") and "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis") depict the "mercilessness of the world" (11). Probing which methods) Kafka may have employed to communicate torment (metaphor, analogy, parable) is of considerable importance. Scholars nevertheless might agree that regardless of method, Kafka's writing does indulge pain and suffering.

The apparent misery in Kafka's writing is perhaps what precipitated scholars to compare his works with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Erich Heller, for instance, believes Kafka's aphorisms to "read like marginal glosses ... [of] a text by Schopenhauer" (24). T.J. Reed concurs: "the contents of his notes offer sufficient proof that he was intensively occupied with Schopenhauer" (168). This warrants further investigation into the nature of Schopenhauer's pessimism and its possible influences) on Kafka.

For Arthur Schopenhauer, life is what eastern religious philosophy calls Samsara: this life of birth, suffering, sickness, lust, craving, old age, death and rebirth. Stanley Corngold, considering the phrase "ungeheueres Ungeziefer," reminds us that "Kafka-reader of etymologies-- knew what depth of unbeing underlies this phrase" (32).1 Perhaps, too, Franz Kafka knew the profundity Samsara offered. Like the phrase "ungeheueres Ungeziefer," it presents the opportunity to torture his character(s) not only with circumstance, but with their own etymology. While discussing "Die Verwandlung" Kafka declares, "Samsa is not merely Kafka, and nothing else" (Janouch 32). Hence, Samsara is very possibly the root word for the family name Samsa in "Die Verwandlung." It is the purpose of this essay to explore that possibility. To do so I will first discuss the concept of Samsara, and then consider the possible mediators that may have inspired Kafka's use of the name Samsa in "Die Verwandlung." This will be followed by a new interpretation of "Die Verwandlung."

The term Samsara appears for the first time in the Upanishads; by circa 600 B.C. it is a primary tenet of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Samsara (also pronounced and written Sansara) is this world of craving, lust, suffering, death, rebirth, and disease. Indeed, anything that could be considered objectionable in our lives is a part of Samsara. Deliverance from this Samsaric world is the responsibility of the individual. This deliverance is contingent upon one's Karma, a moral causality, which helps the spiritual-minded justify his own plight. One's situation is a matter of past and present deeds. It is fatalistic in a manner of speaking, yet it is the opposite of fatalism; each individual has the opportunity to shape his own destiny. One can perform deeds which will secure salvation or at least a higher state of existence. Samsara has three common translations: wander,journey, and bondage (which is more a translation of the Sanskrit term's effect rather than the word itself). This endless wandering and its effect of bondage, a pessimistic view which the West has difficulty accepting, strongly influenced the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer works, in part, from the Oupnekhat, a Latin translation of the Upanishads. Throughout his Samtliche Werke, both in text and footnote, one sees the term Sansara, as for example in the following passage:

Nirwana, das Gegenteil von S a n s a r a, welches die Welt der steten Wiedergeburten, des Gehistes and Verlangens, der Sinnentauschung and wandelbaren Formen, des Geborenwerdens, Alterns, Erkrankens and Sterbens ist. …

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