As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous cockroach.
This, the most famous opening sentence of modern literature. And this, the most famous closing sentence of modern thought:
What we cannot speak of, of that we must be silent.
Between the two, there passed a life, Gregor Samsa’s life. It was not the life many suppose — a short life, a filthy life, a gathering of dust, a festering wound, a dessicated death. Franz Kafka knew only what he knew, and his famous 1915 report disclosed all it could. But Kafka’s early death not only deprived us of a gifted writer; it also kept him, and all of us, from knowing the full story of Gregor Samsa, a life stranger than fiction, and worthy of contemplation.
From May of 1943 until July, 1945, Gregor, or G, as he preferred to be known, lived in a refurbished chicken coop behind my bungalow up on the mesa at Los Alamos. Both of us being bachelors, and neither of us involved in the technical demands of the project, we spent many long evenings talking, musing, and finally, plotting G’s path to transcendence.
I use the word advisedly; it was his word, the theme which had emerged for him ever more clearly in three countries, over two world wars, through multiple careers. Together, we nursed his wound (“the unhealing wound”, he called it, “the hidden wound that will not hide” , the “dolorous stroke”. He was referring, of course, to the place in his dorsal carapace, just over his heart, which his father had damaged so long ago with a fiercely hurled apple. It still oozed brown liquid, staining his clothes — causing him much embarrassment.) He understood his mission as a species of quest. The object: the Holy Grail of transformation, a global urging of consciousness from bestial to human. A metamorphosis. Who but he would be better placed to break the spell on those of us wandering in the Waste Land?
The years since his death have not been encouraging. As grail hero, G was an utter failure. But as a person, a human being, if I may dare name him so, he profoundly affected me, and everyone with whom he came into deep contact. I have waited all this while to tell his story because I thought there were surely others more qualified to do so. But more importantly, I hoped that the passage of time would prove G correct, that his sacrifice would help restore the land, and free the waters of human kindness. By now it seems that if we, as a species, are to learn kindness, we will have to learn it from the unkind, in repellent pedagogy.
But of G himself, how many of us were struck by
...that best portion of a good man’s life. His little, nameless, unremembered acts
of kindness and of love.
No matter that that good man was a cockroach.
My name is John Aschenfeld. I am a professor emeritus of History at Princeton, specializing in the History of Science. It was my good fortune to be asked by my friend and colleague, Harry Smyth, to be “present at the creation,” as it were, to be on his team, researching and writing the “Smyth Report: Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” the official History of the Manhattan Project.
Creation? More like Destruction. Had I really been present at the Creation, I would, like Alfonso X, King of Castile, have offered up some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.
I will describe G’s role “on the mesa” at the appropriate time. Let me deal first with the obvious objections of those readers literate enough to remember Franz Kafka’s so-called masterpiece, Die Verwandlung, the Metamorphosis. By using the term “so called,” I in no way mean to impugn this marvelous work, a narrative which shocked a generation, and initiated, even defined, what is fondly remembered as “the modern age” in literature. But an author can write only about what he knows, and as sensitive and insightful as Kafka was, it turns out that he, like many others, was taken in by a scheme more masterful than his own, a plan issuing from the great heart of a transformed Gregor, and effected through a remarkable Putzfrau, whose cleanup was more than professional.
By G’s report, Anna Marie Schleßweg was 63 at the time of his Verwandlung. But for him she might easily have passed for 40 when shoving her way through a crowded market, or for 140 in the swarming shadows of Walpurgisnacht. What kind of a person, he wondered, could open the door of a man’s bedroom, a room she had been cleaning weekly for four years, open the door, not find the room empty as usual, but occupied by a five and a half foot bug, what kind of a person could take in this scene, with the thing rushing about frantically, crashing into furniture, and finally secreting itself under the couch, what kind of a person could merely stand there, calmly, with her arms folded?
Gregor still cherished this early impression of true magnificence.
There is an injunction in the Yi Ging, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes: “the Superior Man sees many things, but lets many things pass.” And its determinant: “The Superior Man displays the highest virtue by embracing all things.”
Anna Marie, G asserted, was a Superior Man. She listened and she watched, but she did not let everything pass. She heard, for instance, how piteously G’s sister Grete wept, and saw Herr and Frau Samsa paralyzed with denial. It was her great wisdom to leave the door to Gregor’s room ajar as much as possible, so that worlds might intermingle, so that an uncanny convection might agitate the air and find some resolution.
Gregor then listened carefully at the slightly open door, and heard frequent sobbing. He heard slow, dragging footsteps. He heard his father say, “If he could understand us, then perhaps we might come to some agreement with him. But as it is...” followed by a long silence. And then, sister Grete: “He must go. That’s the only solution, Father. You must try to stop thinking that this is Gregor. That’s the root of all our trouble. How can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he’d have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature. He’d have gone away of his own accord.” So much did she love him. So much did she trust him. So much, in fact, did she know him.
From that moment on, the thought of disappearance became G’s ideé fixe. “Wahnvorstellung”, he called it. His crazy notion. He would simply go of his own accord. He would make it his decision. He would spare them the agony and guilt of such a verdict.
But how to do it? Here his astute Jewish thinking did inform against him. Were he to announce his decision to the family, they would think they had forced him out, and feel searingly guilty. Were he simply to disappear, they would spare no effort to find him, and failing that, he would be a permanent wound in their hearts, even in his father’s heart, the wounded heart of the wounder. Confused, he was. But Anna Marie had an answer to his neurotic debates: after listening to him while sweeping and straightening up his room, she sat her old bones down on the floor, leaned against the wall, and addressed him under his couch.
“ It’s simple,” she said. “Play dead.”
G was amazed he’d never thought of it. “It’s easy,” she explained. You just lie there.”
Here was her initial plan: She would discover him "dead", there would be mourning for a month, a year, then all would be able to get on with their lives. They would not be the only family in Prague to have lost a son, especially since the War.
“But they would bury me,” was G’s obvious objection. I’d suffocate.” And plan "dead" dead-ended there.
But only for a while. For shortly after their discussion, Sebastian Kramar, Bruno Klofac, and Matthias Soukup were allowed to move in as paying guests, Zimmerherren, roomers — an attempt by the family to bring new life into the morbid atmosphere, and to replace Gregor’s salary as the mainstay of the family income.
It did not take long for Anna Marie to see a possibility in the new situation: the three men had been recently let go from the same failed business, all were looking for work, and after two or three months, all would be desperate for money. Would they like to help the Samsas out, and earn some money besides? How could they say no? What else did they have to do? Did they know about the thing in the (now) locked room?
“What thing?” they asked her.
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup reacted as one might expect — with surprise, then horror, then fear. It was only Anna Marie’s calm that kept them frozen in G’s presence. Without explaining the genesis of the situation, she, with Gregor’s assent and support, was able to make a clear and convincing case for action. And G’s behavior was reassuring: he would not hurt them; he needed their help.
As predicted, a combination of empathy and self-interest prevailed, and the following complex plan took shape:
— Gregor would act sicker and sicker, and eventually, convincingly, would play dead.
— But just before T-day, (T for “Tod” — “death” in German), Anna Marie would leave his door open, and Gregor would venture out of his room to the feigned surprise and shock of the roomers.
— Horrified, they would announce their imminent departure, and threaten to sue the Samsas for emotional damages. This, Gregor assured me, would have made his parents wary of pursuing any leads as to their future whereabouts.
— On the next morning, Anna Marie would arrive early, before G’s parents were out of bed, and would announce his death in a simple, if brutal, fashion. Half awake, and thoroughly shaken, the
— Anna Marie would then “dispose” of the body, while the roomers would inappropriately demand breakfast.
— Herr Samsa would in all likelihood throw them out immediately, and they and Gregor would all disappear at the same time, for seemingly unrelated reasons.
Quite the plot! The insect and the Putzfrau were proud of their playwriting. When the parents were out, Anna Marie would move Gregor into a damaged crate left out on the balcony, and would lower it into a waiting wagon borrowed from Klofac’s brother-in-law. From Prague, it was only a day’s journey to Vienna, where a potentially remunerative situation had been rumored.
Well. Hindsight can be arrogant, and as one who has got the story straight from the roach’s mouth, I have little right to pontificate. Still, acute readers of Kafka will be able to judge for themselves where his report is thin and his characters’ motivation doubtful. G’s own story explains the oddities at the end of Kafka’s story: why his door was so often left ajar; why Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup were so united in their behavior; and not as shocked on seeing Gregor “for the first time” as one might expect; why Klofac’s indignant speech to the Samsa’s seemed so prepared, so final, and so calculated to discourage further contact; why Anna Marie’s “discovery” of Gregor occurred so early in the morning, and her presentation was so brusque and almost comedic. These people were not actors; they played their roles with little finesse. Pathetic smiles and unexplained “fits of humility” were the best they could come up with in performance. Rude mechanicals. Yet it was enough to confuse Franz Kafka.
Please forgive my pocket-sized excursion into literary criticism. It is not my field of expertise.