Images of Amae in Kafka
—with special reference to Metamorphosis—
Humanities 15, 1980, pp. 66-83 (partly shortened)
Few, if any, modern writers have been discussed so much and from so many different angles by literary critics, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and so on as Franz Kafka. Even Kafka specialists find it difficult to survey the ever increasing number of publications on him. Yet, for the most part, these efforts have not contributed very much to a solution of what has been called the 'Kafka-problem';1) on the contrary, especially in the first decades of Kafka-criticism, they have created additional problems due to misconstructions of Kafka's personality and misinterpretations of his work.2)
1. Kafka and amae. [see also]
[Reference to] the psychology of amae, which has been described by Takeo Doi in his book The Anatomy of Dependence4) and in other publications[, can help to discover important elements in Kafka's text that have as yet not been sufficiently recognized.]
The word amae is the noun form of the verb amaeru, which, according to Doi, means: "to depend and presume upon another's benevolence".5) It has the same root as the adjective amai, which means "sweet". Thus amaeru has a distinct feeling of sweetness and is generally used to describe a child's attitude or behavior toward his parents, particularly his mother. But it can also be used to describe the relationship between two adults, such as the relationship between a husband and a wife or a master and a subordinate. I believe that there is no single word in English equivalent to amaeru, though this does not mean that the psychology of amae is totally alien to the people of English speaking countries."6)
Amae, in children, refers to their feeling of dependence, the desire to be passively loved, the unwillingness to be separated from the warm mother-child circle and confronted with objective reality. But in Japan, to a far greater extent than in the West, amae also shapes the relationship between adults. As John Bester says in the foreword to The Anatomy of Dependence:
On the personal level, this means that within his own most intimate circle, and to diminishing degrees outside that circle, he (i.e. the adult Japanese) seeks relationships that, however binding they may be in their outward aspects, allow him to presume, as it were, on familiarity. For him, the assurance of another person's good will permits a certain degree of self-indulgence, and a corresponding degree of indifference to the claims of the other person as a separate individual. Such a relationship implies a considerable blurring of the distinction between subject and object; as such, it is not necessarily governed by what might be considered strict rational or moral standards, and may often seem selfish to the outsider. Sometimes even, the individual may deliberately act in a way that is childish as a sign to the other that he . . . wishes to be dependent and seeks the other's indulgence.7)
Whereas such an attitude is socially sanctioned in Japan, in adults in the West it is usually regarded as childish and therefore suppressed. It seems to be incompatible with the idea of the self-reliant, free, and responsible personality.
This basic psychological difference between Japan and the West explains why the Japanese language could develop a large vocabulary relating to amaeru by which even subtle differences of the various forms of amaeru or of disappointed amae can be described, whereas modern Western languages have only a few terms to express some, usually negative, aspects of this psychology, and no word for amaeru, the central element in all these emotions.
With regard to Kafka now, it is remarkable what a central role the psychology of amae plays in his world and to what extent it shapes the various human relationships.8) That this is one of the basic problems of Kafka in his own view, we can see from a passage in a letter9) to his fiancé Felice Bauer, which he obviously regarded as so important that he also noted it in his diary and quoted it in a letter to his friend Max Brod, where he even proposes it as his epitaph.10)
From a letter to F., perhaps the last (1 October):
If I closely examine what is my ultimate aim, it turns out that I am not really striving to be good and to fulfil the demands of a Supreme Judgement, but rather very much the contrary: I strive to know the whole human and animal community, to recognize their basic predilections, desires, moral ideals, to reduce these to simple rules and as quickly as possible trim my behaviour to these rules in order that I may find favour in the whole world's eyes ; and, indeed (this is the inconsistency), so much favour that in the end I could openly perpetrate the iniquities within me without alienating the universal love in which I am held—the only sinner who won't be roasted. To sum up, then, my sole concern is the human tribunal, which I wish to deceive, moreover, though without practising any actual deception.11)
The words "closely examine" and "my ultimate aim" (literally: "if I examine myself with regard to my ultimate aim") indicate that what Kafka reveals here is an essential element of his view of life. In the first sentence he obviously denies any highest moral authority and thus any absolute moral values, a tendency which is also characteristic of Japanese culture, especially in the context of amae. Instead Kafka would like to behave in a way that he may find favour in everyone's eyes : a clear expression of amae. One of the central terms of the Japanese vocabulary of amae corresponds to it: toriiru, which means "to get into favour with, to curry favour with, to win another's heart". The psychology of amae is even more obvious in the following "so much favour that in the end I could openly perpetrate the iniquities within me without alienating the universal love in which I am held." Presuming upon everyone's indulgence he wishes to behave ki-mama (as the fancy takes one, fancy free, seif-indulgent) or even waga-mama (wilful, selfish, capricious), both also central notions of the psychology of amae.12) The word "iniquity" in the English translation does not render the exact meaning of the German "Gemeinheiten", which means "mean acts", "dirty tricks" and is sometimes used half ironically, especially with regard to children, implying that one has already half forgiven it or does not take it so seriously. The clause "the only sinner who won't be roasted" ironically refers to the religious concepts of sin and hell and indicates a rejection of the idea of a father-god who mercilessly condemns the sinner. What Kafka longs for instead is the motherly world of amae where even the greatest sinner is embraced by warm, indulgent love ("the universal love in which I am held").
But there is one decisive element in this passage which usually cannot be found in the Japanese world of amae, namely the fact that Kafka sees, as a precondition to finding favour in everyone's eyes, the necessity to first "know the whole human" and even "animal community", which, of course, means that this is impossible. Kafka thus, while expressing his strong wish to be allowed to amaeru, at the same time fully realizes the impossiblity of it. This can apparently not be said of most people in Japan. Bester speaks, with regard to the Japanese, of "a reluctance to do anything, whether in personal relationships or in society, that might disrupt the comfortable tenor of life, a reluctance to carry rationalism to the point where it will make the individual too aware of his separateness in relation to people and things about him."13)
Doi himself offers an example of this reluctance to carry rationalism to a point where the limitations of the world of amae become obvious, when he discusses the Western concept of freedom in his book.14) At first, he is apparently very much impressed by the idea of freedom as something transcending the world of amae, but then he suddenly draws back, his argumentation becomes rather inconsistent and arbitrary, and he finally asks whether the idea of personal freedom of the individual in the West is not, after all, an illusion stating that "all the attempts of modern Western man to deny or sidestep amae have not been enough to transcend it".15)
In a similar way Kafka's protagonists often shrink back from a confrontation with objective reality, like a snail into its shell. A good example of this is Raban in Wedding Preparations in the Country, one of Kafka's earlier stories. Raban intends to go into the country to meet his fiancé, but to avoid the trouble and pressure this, as well as life in general, will involve he imagines :
And besides, can't I do it the way I always used to as a child in matters that were dangerous? I don't even need to go to the country myself, it isn't necessary. I'll send my clothed body. . . . For I myself am meanwhile lying in my bed, smoothly covered over with the yellow-brown blanket, . . . 16)
The word "child" indicates that he knows, of course, that it is childish to remain in his warm bed and to try to evade responsibility in this way.
As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think.
The form of a large beetle, yes. Then I would pretend it was a matter of hibernating, and I would press my little legs to my bulging belly. And I would whisper a small number of words, instructions to my sad body, which stands dose beside me, bent. Soon I shall have done—it bows, it goes swiftly, and it will manage everything efficiently while I rest.17)
The beetle described here resembles the insect into which Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis is transformed, and it gives us a first idea of what the latter's meaning could be.
3. The image of the insect in Metamorphosis (see also).
The central image in Metamorphosis is that of the insect or beetle, into which Gregor Samsa is transformed. The narrative begins with the words :
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.
What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. (89)24)
The transformation is introduced without any further explanations just as a fact which we have to accept. And so does Gregor with the words : "It was no dream". Though later he will again and again try to deny this fact or at least to avoid facing its obvious consequences.
It should be pointed out here that in Metamorphosis we are never given an objective description of reality, but throughout the story we see almost everything only through the eyes of the protagonist, even to some extent at the end of the story when Gregor has already died. Accordingly Kafka no longer uses quotation marks, as he did in his earlier stories,25) to distinguish what Gregor says to himself from the rest of the narrative. Everything is an expression of the subjective consciousness of the protagonist, though this may also include the viewpoints of others which he takes over because he is dependent on them. It would be interesting to compare this feature of Kafka's narratives with similar phenomena in Japanese language and culture, but this would lead too far away from the topic of this paper which concentrates on what is an essential element in both, namely the psychology and vocabulary of amae.
Returning now to the first sentences of the story we can find there already an indication of the double-meaning of Gregor's transformation: the hard, armor-plated back and the stiff, arched segments of his domelike belly contrast with his pitifully thin, helplessly waving legs. The weakness and helplessness of the protagonist indicated by the latter is emphasized throughout the story. As an insect he can now, like a baby, no longer be responsible for his own life, the family has to take care of him and must feed him. That this corresponds to his inner wish to amaeru, to presume on others, to be cared for, is illustrated by many instances in the story. When, for instance, he tries hard to get out of bed (14) and has finally rocked himself into a position where it is very easy to get out just by letting himself fall he is suddenly struck by the idea of how nice it would be if his family came and would lift him out of bed like a baby.
In the Letter to his Father Kafka has his father argue against him by saying : "Why should it bother you that you are unfit for life, since I have the responsibility for it, while you calmly stretch out and let yourself be hauled through life, physically and mentally by me."26)
Whenever Gregor's family fails to care for him sufficiently, as he sees it, he complains about it in a form which is typical of disappointed amae. Once when his sister has brought him food which he does not like he thinks: " . . . would she bring in some other kind of food more to his taste? If she did not do it of her own accord, he would rather starve than draw her attention to the fact, although he felt a wild impulse to dart out from under the sofa, throw himself at her feet and beg her for something to eat." (28) This attitude of, on the one side, being willing to starve and, on the other, feeling a wild impulse to implore his sister for something to eat would be paradoxical or absurd if he were only interested in the food, but what he obviously really longs for is his sister's care, and this he expresses in two different forms of amae. In Japanese the former could be called hinekureru (to behave in a distorted way), which according to Doi means "feigning indifference to the other instead of showing amae. Under the surface one is, in fact, concerned with the other's reaction."27) The latter, in Japanese, can be called tanomu (to ask, to beg, to implore, to rely on), which according to Doi is also a form of amae.28) The reference to the vocabulary of amae thus makes it clear that both seemingly inconsistent attitudes are actually only two different forms of one basic attitude, namely amae. The phrase "throw himself at her feet" ironically corresponds to what Gregor already expresses by his low body, which is always 'at the feet' of others ; it expresses submissiveness, another feature of amae. In this way Gregor looks up to his mother calling her name in a low voice (24) and similarly even before his transformation he had looked up to his chief (10).
The German word to describe Gregor's movements as an insect is kriechen which means "to creep, to crawl", but also "to cringe, to crawl on all fours before a person". Again Gregor's physical appear-ance and actions express his mental attitude which we notice especially when he speaks to the chief clerk (21 f.).
In this way his insect-body and its 'gestures' are an expression of amae, but at the same time the very fact that he has been transformed into an insect means that he is excluded from human community and therefore also from the world of amae. The image of the insect thus, on the one side, expresses Gregor's strong wish to be allowed to amaeru, and, on the other side, it shows the impossibility of amae. Furthermore it also demonstrates different forms of disappointed amae.
As a beetle Gregor turns his back—which moreover is armor-plated—on other people, thus indicating that he would like to keep them away from him ; he has hardened in his relation to other people. This also corresponds to the fact that he has the habit of locking the three doors to the rooms of his parents and his sister during the night. In the vocabulary of amae this attitude is described as kodawaru (to obstruct, to oppose, to stick to), futekusareru (to become sulky) or suneru (to be sulky). The latter attitude Gregor expresses also when, after his room has once been cleaned against his will, he demonstrates his anger through what one might call a 'gesture' of his body lying "widespread, sulky and motionless on the sofa" (48). Several times in the text Gregor is called "obstinate" (e.g. 16), which corresponds to the Japanese kodawaru. The German word is hartnäckig which literally means "hard-necked" and thus again corresponds to his physical appearance.
A typical expression of disappointed amae in Japan is the so-called higaisha ishiki (sense of being victimized).29) Gregor demonstrates by his flat body how much he is weighed down by the heavy burden he has to carry for his family, and even after his death his "completely flat and dry" body (60) expresses this higaisha ishiki.
Closely related to the psychology of amae is the feeling of shame, which, similarly to what Ruth Benedict30) has pointed out with regard to Japanese culture, plays a very important role in Kafka. This corresponds to Gregor's instincts as an insect which make him hide under the sofa whenever someone enters the room.
4. Other instances of amae in Metamorphosis.
In the following I shall try to illustrate what has been discussed above by further examples of amae in Metamorphosis. At the beginning of the story there is a situation where Gregor, in a desperate attempt to retain his job, is trying to open the door of his room in order to attend to business, and while doing so "he was eager to find out what the others, after all their insistence, would say at the sight of him." (98) This sentence shows that he still refuses to analyse his own situation objectively, for in that case he should know, of course, what the others would say at the sight of him. Instead, he makes his own evaluation of the situation completely dependent on their reaction. The word "insistence " does not well render the meaning of the German "nach ihm verlangen", which can either mean "to long for him" or "to ask for him, to demand that he should appear". The latter obviously expresses their real attitude (and in this sense the translation is correct), but Gregor, as for instance the following passage in the text shows, is apparently inclined to believe that the others long for him and so respond to his amaeru.
If they were horrified then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet. But if they took it calmly, then he had no reason either to be upset, and could really get to the station for the eight o'clock train if he hurried. (98)
This seemingly rational reflection is, of course, absurd if taken as such. It only demonstrates the uselessness of this kind of thought. From the point of view of amae, however, it is quite consistent. If the others are horrified, that means if they consider him an insect, then he has no more responsibility, like a baby, and they have to care for him.31) But if they take it calmly then—so much is he dependent on their opinion —he thinks he can continue to live as before.
The reaction of his family is, of course, that they are horrified ; they seem to realize that "some great misfortune" (99) must have happened. His mother calls for the doctor, his father for the locksmith to open the door to Gregor's room. Gregor's reaction corresponds to what he has said before: they have taken over the responsibility, and so he is calm, inspite of his desperate situation:
Yet at any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him. The positive certainty with which these first measures had been taken comforted him. He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle and hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the lock-smith, without really distinguishing precisely between them. (99)
The last sentence ironically shows what kind of irrational hopes Gregor has once he feels himself drawn into the warm world of amae.
Throughout the story we find many examples of two typical ways of expressing disappointed amae,32) namely higaisha ishiki (sense of being a victim, consciousness of having been wronged).33) and higaiteki ni uketoru (to take something—often mistakenly—as an attack on or criticism of oneself). Related to these there is an abundance of ex-pressions in Japanese to indicate the concrete fact of higai, of receiving harm. The Japanese language even possesses a specific grammatical mode, the so-called passive, to express the higaisha ishiki, for instance if one says asobiba ni ie o taterarete shimatta (someone—to our dismay—went and built a house on our playground).
Examples of this mentality are particularly abundant in a passage (118 f.) where Gregor's reaction is described when his mother and sister begin to remove the furniture from his room. At first, it seems that he has no objections to it, but then he becomes more and more irritated and obviously can no longer control his feelings.
. . . he soon had to admit that all this trotting to and fro of the two women, their little ejaculations, and the scraping of furniture along the floor affected him like a vast disturbance coming from all sides at once, and however much he tucked in his head and legs and cowered to the very floor he was bound to confess that he would not be able to stand it for long. (118)
Almost physically he feels what they are doing to him by "Clearing his room out; taking away everything he loved" (118). They even try to remove his writing desk "which had almost sunk into the floor" (118), literally: "which was already firmly buried / dug into the ground / floor" (German : "schon im Boden fest eingegraben"). This expression is typical of Kafka's style. It is, of course, not an objective description, but an expression of Gregor's feelings. It shows how much he clings to the desk and how much it hurts him when they violently, as he sees it, try to remove it.
So he rushes out and, not knowing what to rescue first, finally clings to a picture of a lady in fur. "This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody". (118) This attitude can be characterized in the Japanese vocabulary of amae by the verb kodawaru (to obstruct, to oppose, to stick to).
When his mother and sister come back "Grete had twined her arm around her mother and was almost supporting her". (118) What Gregor expects from his sister she is instead showing to his mother, namely tender care and affection. She is almost "carrying" (German : "tragen") her as Gregor had wished his family to do with him. How much he is frustrated by the fact that he is excluded from this warm human relationship, is expressed in the next sentences:
Her intentions were clear enough to Gregor, she wanted to be-stow her mother in safety and then chase him down from the wall. Well, just let her try it! He clung to his picture and would not give it up. He would rather fly in Grete's face. (119)
His kodawaru, his clinging to the picture, and his determination to oppose any attempt to take it away from him, combines with shunen (evil attachment, spite, vindictive feelings). The latter is, according to Doi, often accompanied by delusions of persecution as well as grandeur, demonstrated here by Gregor's belief that his sister will "chase him down from the wall" and, on the other hand, by his threat to rather fly in her face than to let the picture go.
Similar instances of disappointed amae we find in a passage near the end of the story (128 ff.) where Gregor observes how the three lodgers who are now living with them are treated by the family in a way he had always wished to be treated. Whereas he is excluded now from family life, they have taken his place. Everything his parents and sister do to them seems to him a rejection of his own wish to amaeru. The detailed description of their (in Gregor's view) exaggerated obligingness and submissiveness shows his growing irritation. Thus what is described here is again not an objective account but an expression of Gregor's feelings, his higamu (to become jaundiced, prejudiced, feel oneself unfairly treated) and even uramu (to show resentment or hatred as a result of disappointed amae). This is mixed with a feeling of shame at the fact that his family has to behave in this submissive way because he no longer supports them.
It seemed remarkable to Gregor that among the various noises coming from the table he could always distinguish the sound of their masticating teeth, as if this were a sign to Gregor that one needed teeth in order to eat, and that with toothless jaws even of the finest make one could do nothing. (129)
This is a good example of higaiteki ni uketoru (to take something—often mistakenly—as an attack on or criticism of oneself) mentioned already above as an expression of disappointed amae.35) The lodgers do not know of his existence, so it is clearly only in his own Imagination, as an expression of his feeling of disappointed amae, that they seem to demonstrate the efficiency of their masticating teeth to him.
The climax of Gregor's frustration is reached when the lodgers invite his sister, who had remained closest to him in the family, to their room to play the violin there, whereas Gregor is left alone in his room full of junk. At this point he flees into wishful, sentimental and fairy-tale like dreams, hoping that his sister will agree to live with him in his room. He imagines that music could be the common bond between them, though it had been clearly stated before that, unlike his sister, he did not love music (111). Turning away from reality where he can no longer find the fulfilment of his wish to amaeru he clings to irrational hopes of a kind of redemption through music: "He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved." (130 f.) His delusions of persecution as well as grandeur are demonstrated by his intention "to watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders", like a dragon using his "frightful appearance"(131) to deter them. Finally, completely neglecting the fact that he is an insect now he imagines a sentimental and romantic scene where his sister, sitting beside him on the sofa, "would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck." (131)
These illusions are abruptly destroyed when he is discovered by the lodgers. He is now finally excluded from the world of human beings and has to realize that there is only one possibility left to return to the world of amae, the same possibility that is also offered in Japan in a similar desperate situation, namely to die for the sake of the family or group and in this way to be re-united with them, though it means to give up any claim to an individual existence. Thus Gregor, the night before his death, resigning himself to his fate, feels "relatively comfortable", though his whole body is aching (135). He thinks of his family with "tenderness and love" (135), although they have excluded him from their circle and caused his death. He completely agrees with them and, in this sense, is now re-united with them, though this means that he has to accept his own death. "The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible." (135)
- Cf. A. Flores (ed.), The Kafka Problem, (New York, 1975).
- Cf. P. U. Beicken, Franz Kafka. Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung, (Frankfurt / Main, 1974).
- T. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, (Tokyo-New York-San Francisco, 1973), translation of: Amae no kōzō, (Tokyo, 1971).
- T. Doi, Amae, A Key Concept for Understanding Japanese Personality Structure, in: Japanese Culture, Its development and characteristics, ed. R. J. Smith and R. K. Beards-ley, (Chicago, 1962), p. 132.
- Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, p. 8.
- Cf. G. Schepers, Zu Kafkas Erzählung „Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse", in : Doitsu Bungaku 58, (Tokyo, 1977), pp. 79-88.
- F. Kafka, Letters to Felice, (New York, 1973), p. 545
- F. Kafka, Briefe, (Frankfurt, 1975), p. 178.
- The Diaries of Franz Kafka, (Penguin, 1972), p. 387.
- Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- Ibid., pp. 84-95.
- Ibid., p. 95.
- F. Kafka, The Complete Stories, (New York, 1971), pp. 55f.
- Ibid., p. 56.
24. Numbers in parentheses in the text are page numbers of Kafka, The Complete Stories.
25. Cf. the quotation pp. 71 f. above.
26. F. Kafka, Letter to his Father, (New York, 81974), p. 123.
27. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, p. 29.
28. Ibid., p. 30.
29. Cf. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, pp. 127 f.
30. Cf. R. Benedict, The Chusanthemum and the Snord, (Tokyo, 1954). For the relationship between shame and amae cf. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, pp. 48-57.Cf. p. 76 above.
31. Cf. p. 76 above.
32. For the following cf. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, pp. 127-132.
33. Cf. J. Schubiger, Franz Kafka. Die Verwandlung, (Zürich, 1969), p. 47 : „Gregor stellt vor allem seine Leiden, für die er die Familie verantwortlich macht, gerne zur Schau."
- Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, pp. 131 f.
- Cf. p. 80 above