On Self-Loathing and Gregor’s Labyrinth

“They will love me for that which destroys me
the sword in my dreams
the dust of my thoughts
the sickness that breeds in the folds of my mind
Every compliment takes a piece of my soul
An expressionist nag
Stalling between two fools
They know nothing –”

Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis

The stereotype of the tortured artist consists in the image of an artist tormented by mental illness, his or her creative process, relationship with society or financial struggles. It is definitely a cliché and a quite detrimental one at that, as it begins a tradition of romanticizing mental illness and perpetuates a negative image of artists. However, it is interesting to think about the essence of this trope, as I think it uncovers a general issue that artists need to overcome every time they create something: self-loathing. For example, as a writer, one is opening up to the world by showing their thoughts and ideas and thus, creating a sort of extension of their identity. This element can make the process of creation quite daunting as it becomes very clear one’s inner world will be open to the scrutiny of the outside world. To me personally, that drives the self-hating thoughts that make it so difficult to start writing and expressing what I’m passionate about.

Self-hatred is one of the most destructive and dangerous coping mechanisms one can inherit from their dysfunctional family or difficult childhood. It’s normal for people to dislike certain aspects of their personality or body, and usually, this drives people to improve their lives. However, it’s not all so pretty when it comes to people with self-loathing tendencies. Self-hatred usually stems from low self-esteem, a negative inner monologue and circular thinking. “Circular thoughts are ideas that appear in our minds that don’t lead to a solution but instead just stay there, going over the same subject over and over again without contributing anything constructive. They are mental traps.” This inner thinking pattern leads to negative consequences in one’s external world: the self-loathing person will engage in activities that damage their health and that can potentially ruin important parts of their lives. These activities include but are not limited to excessive drinking or drug use, physical and emotional self-harm, isolation, extreme religious behaviours like asceticism, etc. 

An artist’s work is centred around expressing their inner world and allowing the public gaze in. I feel like an artist’s ability to be open and vulnerable in front of others is a strength which represents an important step to becoming emotionally mature. However, the exposure that artists deal with may be a trigger for their self-hating mechanisms and may stop them from achieving their creative goals. That is to say, the self-loathing tendencies are usually already there, they are not created by the trigger. It’s also important to make it clear that this problem is not solely experienced by artists, but by any type of person. In this article, I will explore one of my favourite expressions of self-loathing in written form: Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The back of my Pulp! The Classics edition of The Metamorphosis contains the following description:

“Poor old Gregor. One day he’s depressed about his dreary travelling salesman gig, the next, he’s roaching around the apartment and disgusting his family. All that’s left is creeping the walls and eating garbage. How’s his sis ever going to find a sugar daddy with her grotty bro in tow?”

I find that this synopsis perfectly captures the absurdism and humour used by Kafka to embody the most painful of experiences. Of course, its satirical tone is not meant to go deeper into the poignant story of Gregor Samsa’s misery, but it instead criticizes the absurd insensitivity displayed by the world Gregor lives in. The story begins with Gregor waking up as a cockroach, with a multitude of prickly legs and a hard slimy shell of a body. His first reaction looks like denial. He naturally believes he is hallucinating, blaming it on the confusion induced by “waking up early,” and he tries to sleep it off. His plan fails as he begins to think about how late he is and what everybody will think about him missing work or about his current state, as he gets more and more anxious. He soon finds that he also cannot physically get out of bed because of his new round form. Think about a cockroach that has been turned over by an interested cat as it tries desperately to flip over and run for its life but can’t swing itself that way. Not only is he trapped in a body he cannot stand to look at nor control, but the later it gets, the more insistent his parents are with their pleas for him to get out, and soon, the manager from his salesman job comes to check up on him. 

The image of the manager intruding into Samsa’s private life represents the constant torment of a destructive bureaucratic system, which is a common symbol in Kafka’s work, and in Metamorphosis even barges into the protagonist’s home. Gregor’s life is centred around his salesman job, which, despite his prioritization of it, does not offer him a sense of security or happiness. Perhaps Metamorphosis asks us what happens to Gregor once he sheds his travelling salesman persona: he becomes a vermin and a burden to his family, ready to be quite literally exterminated by his father. In a deeper analysis, this would lead to a question on what happens to the subjective and personal within a suppressive bureaucratic system, where is the place of art in a world governed by instrumental rationality? This is a relevant issue that might further pressure artists and cause feelings of inadequacy and fuel self-hate, but for now, I want to discuss the genesis of the self-hatred, which, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as in real life, can generally be found in dysfunctional family dynamics. Yay!

Firstly, Gregor’s reaction to his metamorphosis leads me to believe that the cockroach-form can be read as a symbol for depression. He finds it hard to get out of bed (physically, because of his new body and mentally, being distracted by anxious thoughts). His instinct to isolate shows through as his parents and the manager start knocking at his door and he refuses to let the world see him in his state. The option to yell out for help was always there but he did not want to be exposed as a disgusting cockroach to the outside world, being convinced that they won’t understand and won’t be able to help. The tragedy lies in the fact that he is right to have this instinct. The isolation is reminiscent of the way Kafka perceived his writing, as something deserving of destruction, hatred and not worthy of being finished. It is quite a miracle that we have access to his masterpieces, as he was eager to have it all destroyed after his death.

Perhaps Gregor Samsa used to wake up as a cockroach on a daily basis, look at his body in disgust and try to escape his miserable reality by going back to sleep. Perhaps eventually he would throw himself off his back and force himself into his travelling salesman suit, focusing on the fact that he must provide for his family and pay his debt. Perhaps today it was just too much, or maybe he just stopped caring, or he internally got fed up with trying to please everyone around. Gregor finally snapped and stopped being a functional but miserable member of society. I see the story of Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis as the story of mental breakdown. In their video on “The importance of a breakdown,” The School of Life defines a breakdown as “not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction. It’s a very real, albeit very inarticulate bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development, which it has, hitherto, refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it’s an attempt to jumpstart the process of getting well — properly well — through a stage of falling very ill.” I am personally very keen on this portrayal of mental breakdown and find that such an outlook can play a large part in one’s process of healing in the darkest of times. 

Unfortunately, Gregor Samsa is not able to view his breakdown in this way or choose to save his own life and alter his tragic destiny. If one takes a deeper look into Gregor’s environment and his relationship with his parents, which poignantly resembles Kafka’s, it becomes impossible not to ask “who could blame him?!” The first clue to uncovering Gregor’s role in the family can be found in the way his pre-metamorphosis day to day life is described: When trying to appease the insistent Manager, Gregor’s father emphasizes Gregor’s quiet lifestyle and his preoccupation with his job. “He sits there with us at the table and reads the newspaper quietly or studies his travel schedule.” From his father’s description and Gregor’s inner monologue we find that he leads quite a dull existence in silence and solitude, not really bothering anyone. He seems more like a household appliance than an actual person, which is why I would label his pre-change stage as the Invisible Child phase. In this article about childhood neglect and being raised by struggling parents, Jonice Webb PhD presents the issue in the following way: “The surprising thing about growing up with your feelings unseen is that it’s impossible to grow up this way without feeling, in some heartfelt and profound way, that you, as a child and a person, are also unseen. You are invisible.” Usually, these children grow into adults “who not only often feel invisible in the outside world but, even more tragically, continue to treat themselves as if they are invisible.”

However, the moment of the metamorphosis marks a switch in Gregor’s life, be it unwanted. He has begun to outwardly manifest his inner pain through his appearance but he can’t yet accept to see himself as a victim and leave his abusive environment, and he continues to regard himself as a burden and cannot even mentally conceive an escape. How is Gregor Samsa a victim? If we look at other characters’ reactions to his metamorphosis, we see the outside world reflected in the Manager: initial awe, as Gregor had been an excellent employee, turned to suspicions and accusations founded on nothing in a matter of minutes. Kafka imagines a world where society seems super eager to spit you out and turn against you as soon as you’re not considered valuable anymore, ironically, that being the moment when you’re most vulnerable. Sounds familiar? The internal dysfunctional ecosystem Gregor called his family was not much different, eventually choosing to lock him in out of shame, let him die and be relieved to discard his body so they can finally enjoy their life without him. His father is initially quick to lose his temper, and his reaction to Gregor’s new form is to run after him, repeatedly striking him with a rolled newspaper, pushing him through the door of his room until he bleeds and shutting the door behind him. His mother faints after seeing his appearance and is useless in defending him against his raging father. His sister feels like a tiny glimmer of hope that eventually dies out: she is initially fearful but still brings him food, showing mercy towards him in front of their parents, but soon she decides he is hindering their life. 

The scenes of his family and society turning against Gregor perhaps show the moment when Gregor, the invisible child, becomes the scapegoat. Kafka created the perfect outcome of a usual what-if scenario: What if I shed this functional member of society masque and show my raw, pained form, the most vulnerable spot in my mind? The tragedy and absurdity in Metamorphosis lie in the fact that this outcome is often reality. This story seems uncanny to the black sheep of families, that occupy the role of the scapegoat: triggering the adult’s self-image and shame, and being forced to carry the label of everything that’s wrong with this family is exactly what being the scapegoat in a dysfunctional family feels like. If you haven’t become too depressed until this point, consider the fact that Gregor goes through his life with an abusive father and a mother too weak to protect him, not once blaming or hating them, but always turning all his blame inwards and subscribing to how others unfairly see him. 

Kafka’s work is riddled with maze-like structures one cannot escape, and in Gregor, we find the labyrinth of a fragmented mind. But what if he would’ve managed to find the way out? He could have walked out the door and realized there are people out there who will empathize with his pain and show him that cockroaches don’t need to have the disgusting factor humans assign to them, that being turned into a cockroach was maybe the best thing that could happen to him. Or that he is released of all his denigrating human responsibilities. What I am trying to say is that, if you are struggling with self-loathing, Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an eye-opening story. It can teach you the hard-hitting truth that sometimes you need to have your own back and not crave constant external validation. That you can reclaim your right to live and try as hard as you can to love yourself, not by putting a functioning member of society mask on, but by healing.


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