In a note to his publisher when releasing ‘The Metamorphosis’, Franz Kafka was careful to specify that the cover-art for the story should not depict any specific insect. In the text, Kafka remains vague with regards to describing the insect Gregor becomes, his descriptions limited mostly to ‘his hard, as it were armor-plated, back’, a ‘domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments’, and ‘numerous legs’. While readers may assume Gregor’s appearance, the author refuses to grant the spectacle of confirming these assumptions, rejecting the iconography and symbols that we see so often in gentile and Christian horror. Kafka’s narrative voice therefore rejects the Christian mode of visualising narrative in favour of a Jewish mode, focusing more on description than direct representation.
The an-iconic (as in, rejection of icons) is a specifically Jewish tradition, as it corresponds both with Talmudic opposition to false idols and the social need to obscure Jewish themes and narratives within more mainstream works due to anti-Semitism. Henry Bial argues that Jewish-American artists do not have the privilege of transparency in their works due to their status as a marginalised community, and we can easily apply this to Jewish horror. Bial and Omar Bartov both point to a growing trend in the late 20th century of Jewish identity being normalised on screen through characters and scenarios that feature few overt references to Judaism, but give viewers a vague sense of ‘Jewishness’ (e.g. Seinfeld). Before such depictions were commonplace and in a far more aggressively anti-Semitic environment, the more subtle indicators of Jewishness, such as the an-iconic voice aid in smuggling Jewish undertones into the text and interrogating anti-Semitism in early 1900s Europe. By maintaining this an-iconic voice, Kafka again encourages the reader to sympathise with his unwilling monster: we are unable to discriminate against him in the same way as those who can ‘see’ him within the narrative, and therefore a counter-narrative is offered to his dehumanisation. In addition to this, Kafka is able to circumvent the need for specifically Jewish iconography, and instead establishes Jewish subtext via his use of an an-iconic narrative voice.
What is perhaps less clear, however, is why Kafka does this and what we can infer about Jewish horror from the use of the an-iconic voice. Consider the Catholic iconography of martyrdom: Catholic art of figures such as St Sebastian, the patron saint of holy deaths, focuses on the beauty in suffering, the sacred experience of martyrs whose pain brings them closer to God. Little to no thought is afforded to the realities of such suffering – repulsive bodily fluids, tremendous amounts of pain, and the varied guts and gore one might typically associate with the horror genre. While there are films such as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2009) which explore the physical, political, and emotional complexities of suffering, these are few and far between, and are widely considered too distressing to be within mainstream horror fare. Death and its associated spectacle in mainstream art is rarely explored in terms of the visceral realities: what Julia Kristeva would consider the abject elements of death (the aforementioned bodily fluids, guts, and gore), are rather oddly disregarded in much mainstream modern horror, with deaths made so rote that they are often robbed of their true terror. These operatic, aestheticized, and often even eroticised depictions certainly bear more resemblance to Catholic art, with suffering being elevated to the level of the sacred, and the realities of such suffering being side-lined. Therefore, one might infer the reverse from Kafka’s an-iconic voice. He refuses to provide readers with an explanation for Gregor’s transformation, keeping the magical, mystical, and possibly religious elements of it completely irrelevant to the narrative. Instead, the reader is made to pay attention to the squalor in which Gregor lives (‘he left traces behind him of the sticky stuff on his soles’, ‘his warm room…turned into a naked den’) and to face the abject elements of his slow decay and death. In ‘The Metamorphosis’, Gregor’s suffering is not noble, nor poetic, nor aestheticized; it is simply suffering, and is thus attended with everything that suffering entails.
For more on ‘The Metamorphosis’, check out A Swarm of Flies: Kafka vs Cronenberg, our piece on the king of horror’s iconic film adaptation of the story,.
Or if you want to learn more about Franz Kafka’s unique contributions to the horror genre, read our article on two of his other short stories, ‘A Country Doctor’ and ‘In The Penal Colony’