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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Six Nov-Dec 2023.
Food for Thought, essay by Elana Wolff.
I first read Franz Kafka’s novella of body-transformation, The Metamorphosis, as a hyper-body-conscious teen. Something in me shifted, even from the first iconic sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Fantastical. Not to be believed. Yet in limpid prose and deft delivery, Kafka achieves, in the descending story of his protagonist, the illusionary feat of great art: The reader suspends disbelief and believes Gregor’s story to be true-to-life, or close-to-life, when in fact the opposite is always true. Life is amorphous, literature formal. It can be transformative too. All those years ago, Kafka’s Samsa changed my way in reading, and The Metamorphosis has not ceased yielding food for thought.
Spoiler alert: Gregor Samsa, loyal son and brother, responsible employee and financial prop of the Samsa household, gradually undergoes a full transformation—from a human-size, thinking, feeling, speaking, self-aware bug—into a dried-up, bug-size carcass that gets disposed of by the help.
Food, as basic bodily need, enters the story off the top. Like anyone who wakes up hungry, or anyone who considers breakfast the most important meal of the day, Gregor woke up wanting, above all, to “eat his breakfast.” And on the morning of his metamorphosis, he was “unusually hungry.” What drew him out of his room was the smell of food: “a basin of fresh milk filled with floating sops of white bread,” prepared by his sister for her newly metamorphosed brother. Although milk had always been his favourite drink, it was “almost with repulsion that he turned away from the basin and crawled back to the middle of his room.”
Gregor was food-finicky. As was Kafka. As am I. Anyone who knows a finicky eater (who doesn’t?) knows that smell and appearance are all-important. If the food looks or smells different, it will be rejected. Gregor wondered if his sister would notice “that he had left the milk standing.” She did, and took it away. Attentive to her brother, but not knowing what food would appeal to his new tastes, she brought a selection: “old half-decayed vegetables, bones from last night’s supper covered with a white sauce; some raisins and almonds; a piece of cheese; a dry roll of bread, a buttered roll, and a roll both buttered and salted.” Mostly vegetarian options.
These days vegetarianism is considered a viable, even preferable health practice. In Kafka’s time (1883-1924), it was far from mainstream. Kafka considered himself mostly vegetarian and his stand-in, Gregor, quickly devoured the cheese, vegetables and sauce that his sister had brought.
I have long been mostly vegetarian, and I’m sensitive to food smells, and I can’t at all stomach garlic or onion. Eating out, or even eating in with family and friends can be problematic. I’ve often had to politely decline dishes prepared with onion and garlic. “But onion and garlic are healthy,” I’ve heard more times than I can count. “You should really try getting used to them, they add such great flavour.”
But food is about more than health, taste or flavour. Even hunger. This is stressed as Gregor’s metamorphosis progresses: “Although Gregor had no idea of what he might care to eat, he made plans for getting into the larder to take the food that was after all his due, even if he were not hungry, even if he would only take a bit of something in his mouth as a pastime, and spit it out.” Food had become bound up with issues of power, entitlement, physical and emotional control.
Food became weaponized too. “Suddenly something flung at Gregor landed close behind him … an apple, a second apple … his father was determined to bombard him … Another piece landed right on his back and sank in.” The apple injury disabled Gregor for more than a month. And the piece of apple “went on sticking in his body as a visible reminder that he was a member of the family, despite his unfortunate and repulsive shape.”
His repulsive shape. Gregor’s shape was, no doubt, related to Kafka’s own body-image disturbance. Kafka was tall, extremely thin, and weight was a lifelong issue. He compared his own spare frame with his father’s large, robust build and always came up stunted. He controlled his diet and practiced a method of healthy eating advocated by American food faddist, Horace Fletcher (1849-1919). ‘Fletcherizing’ involved masticating each bite of food for up to a hundred times before swallowing. This practice repulsed Kafka’s father especially, to no end, and contributed to Kafka’s feelings of alienation, particularly at table in the family home.
Masticating provides the lead-in to one of the key passages in The Metamorphosis: “It seemed remarkable to Gregor that among the various sounds coming from the dining room table”—laden with meat and potatoes—“he could always distinguish the sound of masticating teeth. As if this were a sign that one needed teeth in order to eat, and that with toothless jaws even of the finest make one could do nothing. ‘I’m hungry enough,’ he said sadly to himself, ‘but not for that kind of food.’”
The kind of food that Gregor really craved was not of the caloric kind.
One day, in his decline, Gregor heard his sister playing the violin for their parents and the lodgers. He ventured out of his room, where he’d been barricaded for months. Now emaciated, dust-covered, and still bearing the weight of the apple-piece lodged in his back, he crawled into the light of the living room where his eyes might meet his sister’s. Hearing her play the violin so beautifully, “he felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.” Sustenance of a higher kind; namely, art (of which music, particularly classical music, has been deemed the highest form).
The ‘food angle’ is one of several ways I’ve read The Metamorphosis; Kafka may in fact have had an eating disorder. (He did have serious father issues.) But whether he did or not, in Gregor’s story he shows, potently, that dysmorphia and dietary disturbances are not solely or focally about food. In my early readings of The Metamorphosis, I knew nothing of Kafka’s biography. But biographical insight wasn’t required for me to empathize with his protagonist’s feelings of otherness, of being encased in an ugly body. I felt the mutuality: My own feelings of otherness, body-entrapment and food-angst issues discouraged me daily.
Over the years, I’ve come to better grips with my feelings of otherness and body-image issues. I’ve also acquired an understanding of how Kafka’s inner life and milieu informed his writing. Both his life and his writing continue to provide a rich and inexhaustible spread of food for thought.
© Elana Wolff
Elana Wolff lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario—the ancestral land of the Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat First Nations. Her poems and creative nonfiction pieces have been widely published in Canada and internationally, and have garnered awards. Her recent work is featured in Arc Poetry Magazine, Best Canadian Poetry 2024, FreeFall Magazine, Galaxy Brain, The New Quarterly, Literary Review of Canada, Montréal Serai, The Nashwaak Review, Pinhole Poetry, Prairie Fire, Vallum: contemporary poetry and Yolk Literary. Her sixth collection, Swoon, received the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry. Her cross-genre Kafka-quest work, Faithfully Seeking Franz (Guernica Editions), is now available for preorder and will be officially launched on December 3, at the Supermarket, 269 August Avenue, Toronto.