Metamorphosis and other.., p.21
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
While he was still gazing into the distance, he suddenly saw the grave he wanted to get to right beside him, practically underneath him. He quickly jumped out on to the grass. As the path continued to speed by under his bounding feet, he stumbled and fell to his knees right in front of the grave. Two men were standing behind the grave, holding a gravestone in the air between them; no sooner had K. appeared than they rammed the stone into the earth, and he was trapped, almost walled in. Immediately, out of some bushes appeared a third man, whom K. instinctively identified as an artist. He was wearing only trousers and a half-buttoned shirt; on his head he wore a velvet cap; in his hand he held an ordinary pencil, with which he was writing figures in the air as he approached.
He now applied the pencil to the top of the gravestone; it was a very tall stone, he hardly had to bend down at all, but he had to lean forward, as the mound of earth, on which he didn’t want to step, separated him from the stone. He stood therefore on tiptoe, and braced himself on the stone with the palm of his left hand. By particular dexterity, he was able to write gold letters with his perfectly ordinary pencil; he wrote: ‘Here lies -’ Each letter seemed pure and beautiful, deeply etched and in perfect gold. Once he had written the two words, he turned to look at K.; K., who was intent on what he would inscribe now, hardly bothered about the man, concentrating instead on the stone. The man set himself to write again, but he couldn’t, there was some hindrance, he dropped the pencil and turned round to look at K. again. Now K. did look at the artist and he saw that he was in a quandary, the cause of which he was unable to tell. All the animation he had displayed before had left him. K. for his part was thrown into a quandary as well; the two of them exchanged helpless looks; there was some ugly misunderstanding that neither of them was able to resolve. At this worst possible moment, a little bell from the burial chapel now began to ring, but the artist raised his hand and waved it about, and the ringing promptly stopped. After a little while it began again; very softly this time, and ceasing almost immediately, without being required to; it was as though it was merely checking its own sound. K. was quite inconsolable about the plight of the artist, and started to cry, sobbing for a long time into his hands. The artist waited for K. to calm himself, and then, seeing no other solution, began writing again. The first little stroke he drew was a relief for K., but it was clear that the artist had only been able to draw it in the teeth of intense opposition from within; the writing wasn’t so beautiful, and the gold was thinner, the stroke was pale and uncertain, but the letter was very large. It was a J, and it was almost complete when the artist stamped his foot furiously into the earth mound, sending the earth flying up all around. At last K. understood him; there was no longer time to beg him to change his mind; he dug into the earth with all his fingers, and it yielded very easily; everything seemed to have been prepared; it was only for appearance that a thin crust of earth had been left on top; immediately below was a large hole with steep-sided walls, into which K., spun on to his back by a gentle current, subsided. While he lay there, his head still craning upwards, accepted by the impenetrable depths, up above, his name went racing across the stone with immense flourishes.
Ravished by the aspect, he awoke.
A Report to an Academy
Gentlemen, esteemed academicians!
You do me the honour of inviting me to submit a report to the academy on my previous life as an ape.
I am unfortunately not able to comply with your request as it was put to me. Almost five years separate me from the time of my apedom, not much perhaps in calendar terms, but an eternity to have had to gallop through as I have done, variously helped on my way by persons, advice, applause and orchestra music – all of them excellent – but essentially always alone, because those who helped me, to pursue my metaphor, remained resolutely on the other side of the rails. My achievement would have been impossible if I had selfishly clung to my origins and to memories of my early youth. And it was precisely the renunciation of self that was my project; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this burden. Whatever memories I might have had closed themselves off from me more and more. While a way of return might once have been open to me – had the humans wished it – under the great arch that the heavens create over the earth, this became ever lower and narrower, the more I was driven forward on my course; I felt myself increasingly well and increasingly sheltered in the world of men; the tempest that blew after me from my past abated; until today, it is no more than a mild breeze that cools my heels; and the distant hole from which it comes and through which I myself once came, has become so small that, even if I had sufficient will power and strength to run back so far, I would have to scrape the hide from my body to get through it. To speak plainly – much as I like florid language – to speak plainly: your apehood, gentlemen, inasmuch you have something of the sort behind you, cannot be any remoter from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone who walks the earth feels this little tickle at his heel: from the little chimpanzee to the great Achilles.
But in the most circumscribed sense, I may be able to respond to your invitation, and seek to do so now with great pleasure. The first thing I was taught to do was to shake hands; a handshake betokens frankness; today, at the height of my career, let us have frank words in addition to, and in the spirit of, that first frank handclasp. What I have to say will not be anything substantially new to you, gentlemen, and it will fall far short of what you look to me for, and what, with the best will in the world, I am unable to provide – still, let it be an adumbration of the course on which a onetime ape entered the human world and established himself within it. But even the little that follows I would not be able to articulate, were I not utterly sure of myself, and had my status on the great variety stages of the civilized world not cemented itself to the point of utter unshakeableness:
I come from the Gold Coast. For accounts of my capture I am obliged to refer to the reports of others. A hunting expedition by the Hagenbeck company – with whose leader I have incidentally shared many a fine bottle of claret since – was lying in wait in the scrub by the river bank one evening, just as my companions and I were coming down to drink. Shots were fired; I was the only one hit; and was hit twice.
Once in the cheek; a scratch; but it left a bald red scar that got me the disgusting, and wholly unsuitable sobriquet – really, it might have been invented by an ape – Red Peter, as if that red mark on the cheek were all that distinguished me from the recently deceased, uncertainly celebrated, trained ape known as Peter. This by the by.
The second shot hit me below the hip. That was a more serious injury, as a result of which I still walk with a slight limp today. Not long ago, I read an article by one of the ten thousand bloodhounds who follow me through the press, to the effect that my apish nature has not been altogether suppressed; the proof of which was that when I receive visitors, I still like to take down my trousers to show them my wound. The fellow deserves to have the fingers of his scribbling hand shot off one after the other. I, I may take off my trousers before whomsoever I please; there is nothing there beyond a well- groomed coat of fur, and the scar left following – let me here choose a certain word for a certain purpose, which I don’t want to be mistaken – the scar left following a criminal assault. Everything is in the open; there is nothing to hide; where it’s a matter of the truth, any high-minded nature will drop the refinements of behaviour. Now on the other hand, if that scribbler were to pull down his pants in front of a visitor, that would have quite another aspect, and no doubt it is much to his credit that he refrains from doing so. But in return, let him kindly spare me his fastidiousness!
Following those shots, I came round – and it is at this point that my own memories gradually take over – in a cage in the steerage of the Hagenbeck steamship. It was not a four-sided mesh cage; rather, three of its sides were made fast to a wooden crate; the crate thereby constituted the fourth wall. The whole thing was too low for me to stand up in, and too small for me to sit. I therefore squatted with k
But back then I didn’t think of that. For the first time in my life, I had no way out; at least none in front of me; because in front of me was the crate, its boards stoutly nailed together. There was admittedly a crack running between them, which, the moment I first saw it, I greeted with a blissful howl of incomprehension, but that crack wasn’t enough to push a tail through, and it was beyond an ape’s strength to make it any wider.
Observers have subsequently told me I made unusually little noise, leading them to conclude that either I did not have long to live, or else, if I succeeded in surviving the critical first phase, I might turn out to be exceptionally responsive to training. I survived the first phase. Dull sobbing, painful flea-hunting, desultory sucking on a coconut, banging my head against the crate in front of me, putting out my tongue when approached by anyone – those were my diversions, early on in the new life. And in everything the feeling: no way out. I know that what I felt at the time as an ape I can only describe in human words and so I do, but even if I am unable to reach the precision of the old ape truth, it is broadly correct, there is no doubt about that.
I had had in my previous life so many ways out, and now I had none at all. I was run to a standstill. If I’d been nailed down, my liberty could not have been more attenuated. Why that? Why you have an itch between your toes, you won’t know a wherefore for that. Press yourself against a bar behind you till it almost slices you in half, you won’t find a reason for that either. I had no way out, but I had to find one, for without it I wouldn’t be able to live. Pressed against the wall of that crate – it would inevitably have been the end for me. But at Hagenbeck’s, the place for apes is against crate walls – well, and so I quite simply ceased being an ape. A clear, a beautiful thought that I must have conceived in my belly, because apes think with their bellies.
I worry lest my hearers fail to understand what I mean by way out. I use the term in its ordinary and fullest sense. I quite deliberately do not say freedom. I don’t mean the great feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape I may have known such a feeling, and I have met people who yearn to have it. As for me, I demanded freedom neither then nor now. And, incidentally: freedom is all too often self-deception among people. Just as freedom is among the most exalted of feelings, so the corresponding deception is among the most exalted of deceptions. Often in variety shows, before my own appearance, I have watched couples practising on the trapeze. They swung, they climbed, they leapt, they floated into one another’s arms, one gripped the other by the hair with his teeth. ‘All that too is human freedom,’ I thought, ‘self-delighting movement.’ The travesty of sainted nature! I tell you, gentlemen, apes would set up such a gale of laughter at the sight, no building could withstand it.
No, it wasn’t freedom I was after. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever it might be; I put no further demands; even if the way out proved illusory; my demand was modest, the disappointment could be no greater. To progress, to progress! Anything but stopping still with raised arms, pressed against a crate wall.
Today I can clearly see: without the greatest inner calm, I could never have managed to escape. Quite possibly I owe everything I subsequently became to the calm that came over me after those first few days on board ship. And my calm in turn I owe to the people on the ship.
They are good people, in spite of everything. I still like to recall the sound of their heavy footfalls, as they used to echo in my half-sleep. They were in the habit of doing everything extremely slowly. If someone wanted to rub his eyes, he raised his hand as if it had a weight attached to it. Their jests were crude but not unkind. Their laughter always tipped over into a nasty-sounding but finally insignificant cough. They always had something in their mouth that they had to spit out, and they didn’t care where they spat it out. They were forever complaining of catching fleas from me; but they didn’t take it out on me; they understood that fleas prospered in my fur, and that it is in the nature of fleas to jump; and they got on with it. When they were off work, a few of them would often gather in front of me in a semi-circle; barely speaking, but grunting to one another; smoked their pipes, stretched out on crates; smacked their thighs whenever I made the least movement; and every so often one of them would pick up a stick, and scratch me where I liked it. If I were to receive an invitation today to travel on this ship again, I’m sure I would refuse, but I’m equally sure that I would have not only unpleasant memories if I betook myself to the steerage again.
The calm I learned in that circle of people above all had the effect of keeping me from making any attempt to escape. From the vantage point of today, it seems to me I at least sensed that I had to find a way out if I were to remain alive, but that this way out was not at all the same thing as escape. I don’t know if escape would have been possible, but I imagine it would; an ape is probably always able to flee. With the state of my teeth today, I have to be careful even when cracking a perfectly ordinary filbert, but back then, over time, I’m sure I could have gnawed through the padlock on the door. I did not do so. What would have been the benefit, in any case? As soon as I poked my head out of the door, I would have been caught, and locked away in an even worse cage; or I might have been able to flee unnoticed to some of the other animals in the vicinity, for example the giant snakes, and breathed my last in their coils; or I might even have been able to steal up on deck, and jump overboard, in which case I would have bobbed about on the ocean wave for a little while, and then drowned. Acts of sheer desperation. I did not calculate in the human way but, under the influence of my surroundings, I behaved just as if I did.
As I say, I was not calculating, but I did observe calmly. I saw these people going back and forth, the same faces, the same movements; often I had the sense it was all just one man. So he or they could walk in peace. A lofty goal shimmered in front of me. No one promised me that if I were to become as they, my bars would be pulled away in front of me. Promises are not made on seemingly impossible conditions. But if one satisfies the conditions, then the promises appear, as it were retrospectively, and in exactly the place where one had earlier looked for them in vain. Now there was nothing intrinsically attractive to me about these people. Had I been a devotee of the just-described freedom, I should certainly have thrown myself upon the ocean wave as my way out rather than the unappealing prospect of these people. In any case, I had been observing them for a long time before my thoughts turned on such matters, yes, in fact, I think it was the pressure of my observations that pointed me in that direction.
It was so easy to copy them. I could spit within a very few days. Then we would spit in each other’s faces; the only difference being that I would then lick mine clean, while they didn’t bother. Before long I could smoke a pipe like any old- timer; and if I tamped at the bowl with my thumb, then the whole of the steerage would yelp with delight; only it took me a long time to grasp the difference between a filled and an empty pipe.
I had the most trouble with the rum bottle. The smell tormented me; I did everything to force myself; but still weeks passed before I overcame myself. Oddly, it was these inner struggles that the people seemed to take more seriously than anything else about me. My memory doesn’t distinguish among the people I knew, but there was one who kept coming back to me, either alone or with comrades, at all times of day and night; he would stand in front of me with the bottle, and give me lessons. He didn’t understand me, he wanted to solve the riddle of my existence. He slowly drew the cork out of the bottle and then looked at me to see whether I had understood; I admit, I looked at him with wild, exaggerated attentiveness; no human teacher anywhere in the world will be able to find a human pupil as I was; after he had taken the cork out, he raised the
Only now does the practical part begin. Am I not exhausted, following so much theory? It’s true, I am absolutely drained. Such is my lot in life. And, nevertheless, I reach out my hand as well as I am able, in the direction of the proffered bottle; tremblingly I draw the cork; fresh strength comes to me following the success of these initial moves; I raise the bottle, barely distinguishable from the original; put it to my mouth – and with revulsion, yes, with revulsion, I hurl it to the floor, even though it’s quite empty, and contains no more than the smell of its previous contents. To the chagrin of my teacher, to my own, even greater chagrin; nor do I make him or myself feel any better by not forgetting, having thrown the bottle away, to rub my belly and grin in the most exemplary fashion.
All too often, this was how our lessons went. And to the credit of my teacher: he did not lose his temper with me; of course, he would sometimes hold his burning pipe against my skin till it started smoldering in some place that I found hard to get to, but then he would put it out again with his giant kindly hand; he wasn’t angry with me, because he could see that we were both fighting on the same side against the ape characteristics, and that the brunt of it, in any case, was for me to bear.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes