Which Ethics? For Which Individual? Revisiting Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

Gregor Samsa, a salesman, is the main protagonist of this story. After a troubled night of disruptive dreams he suddenly wakes up to the sound of rain hitting the window, only to discover that at some time during the night he had been transformed into a large vermin. He is quite calm about his new body and spends some time in bed reflecting on his life and on his relationships. As the narrative unfolds, we get great insights into Gregor’s personality. He dislikes his job and boss, but cannot quit because his parents owe his boss a great amount of money. Gregor has to work five or six years to pay off the debt, so he is stuck but apparently accepts this situation. After he has finished reflecting on his life, Gregor has a difficult time getting off the bed because of his awkward shape. His many legs seem to have a mind of their own. While facing this dilemma, the chief clerk from Gregory’s office has come to ascertain his absence. Now, Gregor has never been late or absent in all of his 15 years working for the company. Because of this, his parents, who had knocked on his door earlier, thought he was ill. The chief clerk talks to him through the door and uses subtle threats and comments on his work, although no one had ever complained about its quality before. Gregor tries to defend his work, but the sounds he makes are very “unhumanlike”. That's understandable, he is now an insect. Those on the other side of the door are alarmed and Gregor is not able to recognize the new sound of his voice either.

The father sends for a doctor and a locksmith. Gregor, using his mouth and harming himself in the process, finally opens the door. You can imagine the look on everyone’s face when they see him. The trembling chief clerk moves slowly away, the mother is on the floor disappearing into herself and the father weeps. Gregor realizes that he cannot allow the chief clerk to leave now or he will lose his job for sure. His father snaps out of the state he is in and forces Gregor back into the room. His sister Grete is the only one who shows some compassion during the ordeal and brings him some food. But as time goes by they are forced to change their lifestyle, and this fact consumes and wears them down. At a certain point, Grete tells her parents that they should get rid of the monster. Gregor isn’t coming back and that she is tired of living this way. The father agrees with her. Gregor wants to grant their wish but doesn’t know how to leave. During the night, he shrivels and dies. Thus Gregor dies as he lived, always putting his family first. They mourn him, decide to take the day off, and go out together. They take time to ask each other about their work, something they hadn’t done in a long time. They even discuss their finances, and decide to move to a better apartment. Through Gregor’s death, his family is apparently able to reconcile and go on living.

The question of Gregor's identity is central to the story. After the metamorphosis is he still a human being? Or is he only an animal? But, if he were he only an animal, why then would he respond so intensively to Grete's playing the violin? Only humans react to music this way. His identity cannot be established judging solely by more immediate reactions because, even though Gregor is impaired as a human being, he still reacts as such. For instance, when the women in his family clean out his room he resents this as a human being, not as an insect. By the same token, mention of his horrible appearance bothers the human element in him, whereas the animal in him is hurt when he is ignored. The most plausible answer is that, although he is an insect, Gregor nevertheless transcends his animal condition, craving for human and spiritual recognition. Paradoxically, during his existence as a salesman, he certainly had lost both these aspects of life. Man or animal? Maybe the question cannot be answered here or in any of Kafka's works. Despite various interpretations, all of Kafka's animals, like Kafka's human beings, have lost the fixed place which divine creation originally assigned to them. Like all creatures, man or animal, Gregor has lost his previously defined identity without, however, becoming a true insect. Perhaps Gregor is best identified as belonging to the vast realm of the in-between. His (or its) agonizing anxiety reflects his (or its) fate of belonging – nowhere.

Starting from this narrative let us consider three questions contemporary Ethics poses us as Adventists – concerning personal identity.

1. Which Anthropology?

Understanding what we are as human beings is not easy to articulate. It never has been. Particularly in our times, due to a double revolution. The first one is well known – the “cosmological revolution” of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, who broke down the old Ptolemaic system which reigned undisputed for centuries. They provoked and facilitated passage from a “Geocentric” (Earth-centered) to a “Heliocentric” (Sun-centered) understanding of the Universe. The second one is less known. It is the “anthropological turn” that strongly pushes and conditions us today to no longer understand humanity from a “cosmocentric” perspective, but instead from an unusual and radical “anthropocentric” perspective. And the confusion starts here because both revolutions have an enormous impact in the definition and articulation of personal identity. The paradox consists in the fact that while “Earth” (Man included) was “de-centered” (undervalued) with the first revolution, in the second revolution, one element of Earth – “Man”– is made instead “Absolute” (overvalued). This is the primordial anthropological paradox implicit in contemporary Ethics, that Kafka masterfully described in the life of Gregor Samsa.

But let’s closely consider some implications of this “anthropological turn”. Charles Taylor describes it as the passage from a pre-modern sense of self that he calls “porous self” to a modern one he calls “buffered self”. The “porous self” stems from the social imagery of an enchanted world; its primary trait is an openness toward the world as a causal matrix filled with other humans, spirits, demons, and cosmic forces that produce meaning. Think of a slate tile that remains porous and thus can absorb water and other elements. For a “porous self”, the meaning of things unfold in a middle space in which the self “absorbs” meanings that already exist in the external world. Meaning, then, is prior to the self.

The “buffered self” instead is a mind-centered self in which a clear boundary between the interior and exterior world is now in place. Instead of a porous tile, think of a tile that has been sealed by some chemical process so it now resists water rather than absorbs it. The mind and the world remain distinct spaces and thus agency is primarily, if not exclusively, mental. The demonic becomes a manifestation of some psychological disorder and cosmic agency is reduced to internal agency. What Taylor means here is a loss of the idea that there is meaning in the external world that exists prior to the person. Humans make meaning in contact with the external world rather than receive meaning in communion with that world. This is the new secularized social imaginary of the “buffered self”, closed off to an enchanted world at a fundamental level. Here the boundaries between self and other, as well as between mind and body, are much more evident and firm.

But the hidden continuity between “porous self” and “buffered self” is the search for a rational and stable personal identity, even while starting from very different perspectives. Still more, the “buffered self” paradoxically has become even more rational because it is deprived of an enchanted cosmos that gave the “porous self” a kind of mystery.

2. Which Adventist Anthropology?

One of the jewels of Adventism is its holistic anthropology. But the problem resides precisely here because we have not developed it in relation to a “theological cosmology” that, in Adventism, is almost non-existent beyond our exclusive and foreclosing interest in “cosmic conflict” or “cosmic dating”. With the result that our anthropology is not really holistic and our pretended holism is only anthropological and, for this reason, essentially articulates a poor holism.

Thus Adventist anthropology has ended up looking very similar to modern anthropology in its rational vocation. In fact, Adventist anthropology is the typical anthropology of a stable personal identity. That is visible in the current Adventist understanding of homosexuality but also in the understanding of more transversal themes like sex and gender. Our reductive view on personal identity emerges in the difficulty we still have in ensuring “gender historicity” and “gender equality” among us. That is blatantly visible in the poor conclusions we have reached on “women pastor ordination”.

3. Which individual?

It is not only our current societies (as discussed in my column last month) that have become irreversibly diversified. This has also happened – as seen in Kafka’s novel – with personal identity. It has become structurally heterogeneous and there is no way back. Formerly this heterogeneity was immediately synonymous with moral failure and duplicity. Today, at a certain level at least, it is just a sign of the structural complexity of our personal identity.

For this reason the classical praise of “coherence” as primary ethical category, while still remaining partially valid and necessary, certainly has become insufficient as the main moral tool. It is unable to recognize the heterogeneity embedded in what personal identity and responsible choice means today.

Kafka’s novel, “The Metamorphosis” reminds us that an exclusive Adventist anthropological model of an homogeneous and definitive personal identity, perfectly transferable into compact and coherent actions, is an illusion. It doesn’t correspond to how we live today. It reminds us that, between actions and personal identity, there must certainly be a relationship of stability and rootedness. But this relationship is neither mechanical nor exhaustive. It is mediated by changes, surprises and paradoxes that open up our identity toward the future. And a healthy identity, individual or corporate, is one which has learned to welcome, with trust and hope, this intrinsic fluidity.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7872
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Our hymnology perpetuates the insect analogy. I.e. (For such a worm as I)

At the cross we become, sons and daughters of the King of Kings. We cry Abba Father! A Chrtan like Paul --Know in Whom we have believed – Thus we treat our neighbors as kin not worms. Our anthropology is defined by the Christ event. TZ

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What a lucid analysis of our situation. I thank Hans heartily for it. Of course, it presupposes, correctly, that we do not live in a vacuum. We are historical beings within a concrete culture.And the culture in which we live is one that makes us inconsistent, and with internal contradictions. Still, integrity is a desideratum.


It is a joy to observe the upper limits of the products (Thinking/ideas) of the human brain as displayed in say philosophy, science, and music among other things. I thank Hanz for this article. However, the more I think about matters on a cosmic scale, about overarching matters, the more i am convinced that we have, nor can have, no real understanding of the universe of which we are a miniscule part. The feeble geo/heliocentric foci of creation in Genesis and implausible 144 hour biological productio of living things, only serve to illustrate our willingness to accept primitive explanations of cosmic-scale phenomena. In the New Testament we are still at the level of belief in blood rituals(Jesus’ brutal death for e.g.) to compensate for our behaviours. The problem is humans do not as yet understand how to understand our inner drives(instincts) and how to use these to live productively in large scale or even tribal sized or even family sized congregations/societies. So in my opinion it is well nigh impossible for us to survive unless helped by the Elohim, our creators. Here is where I think Yahweh(God ) Is worthy of praise and worship. We have within us the reactions to stimuli which along with longevity and solutions to besetting ailments , such as disease and age-related deterioration, can assist us is creating a paradise on earth, even as the Elohim made for themselves whereever their planet is located. As already noted, we have the products of the brain such as music, creative thinking development of science, the arts , and we were blessed with chemicals which when activated engender the exquisite feelings of lust, love and romance. God and the Elohim are hoping that we reach a state of paradise , before we destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. WHAT A WASTE that would be. Another species bites the dust as countless others may have done throughout timeless eternity.I believe that NO ONE knows the extent or origin of the so-called universe. We have a word for it …INFINITY, not even the Elohim, But no need for worry, paradise is good enough to keep us happy and smiling for a VERY LONG TIME.

Running in parallel tracks, C.S.Lewis addresses some of the issues here. Most, if not all of his writings carry the theme of “unmet ‘desire’” as allegorized in his Pilgrim’s Regress. According to Lewis, like Kafka’s Gregor, we live in the “nowhere”, getting only glimpses of a land we can only desire, but never belong to. The desire gets transposed into imaginary destinations like the “hillside in the distance”, but once attained, doesn’t fulfill; or, the nostalgia for a past experience that never did satisfy, but one we remember desiring. The magic is in the desire - a desire that speaks of another land we belong to, but can never be satisfied by the realities in our life.

Instead of speaking of the Adventist identity, we would perhaps broaden it to a Christian anthropology. Lewis sees us belonging to a cosmic identity, which we have shed, but which keeps popping up in our desires, but never getting satisfied. Like Gregor, our true selves keep surfacing into our alien selves which sin has created, while we long for another place we don’t even recognize in the now.

Another aspect to consider is the quantum level of existence. In some respects, reality on the quantum level depends on there being an observer - the observer determines the physical reality - whether the electron has a definite location, or does it have a definite motion. When an atom isn’t being observed at all, it lapses into a ghostlike state with no real location or motion. Not until there is an observer, trying to measure one or the other, does the atom become real in some sense. In other words, the observer seems to create the reality. “Does this translate into the larger universe”, is the big question. Does God, our Creator give us identity by continually having us in His “mind”; and is “who we are” in His “mind” create a dissonance with what we have become. Is our basic desire to return to our intended state? (Perhaps answered by the Christian experience of atonement?)

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