Jean Stimmell: Kafka’s America

  • Photo illustration by JEAN STIMMELL Photo illustration by JEAN STIMMELL

For the Monitor
Thursday, November 16, 2017

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” This, of course, is the famous opening line of Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Metamorphosis.”

Because Kafka was living through times in many ways similar to what we are facing, I fear that being transformed into a giant insect is something we should all worry about.

 John Sutherland writes that for Kafka, the cockroach might be an allegory for racism, foretelling the rise of Hitler, authoritarianism and his attempted extermination of an alleged “verminous” race”?

Or, is Kafka foreseeing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its nightmarish results: fellow citizens like Kafka woke up one day to find their identities had vanished.

That’s the way I feel.

My sense of identity, if not vanished, has been seriously compromised. Before Trump, I felt securely grounded on what it meant to be an American; now I feel that ground has turned to quicksand.

Nevertheless, I hoped that as time went on, life under Trump would normalize, allowing me to regain a solid footing in reality. That hasn’t happened.

But on the first anniversary of the rise of Donald Trump, I awoke with the icy realization that my worst nightmares about Trump had become cold reality.

It was like I had dreamed that my beloved Statue of Liberty, benevolent greeter to the huddled masses of the world, had been turned into a gigantic, swamp-dwelling mosquito: An avenging apparition hell-bent on sucking our identity out of us, those precious qualities we have always held in common as Americans and cherished..

Yes, we have always had outliers but a huge majority of us have always believed in what the Statue of Liberty stood for – that we were the exceptional nation that believed in fair play, a beacon of light to other countries.

Being one-for-all was what it meant to be an American, each of us a unique ingredient in what had always been the great American melting pot.

Now Trump is attempting to reverse what it means to be an American. His cry of “America First” is a dog whistle meaning “white people first.” Not surprisingly, white nationalism and hatred of foreigners is on the rise.

Our situation is so beyond the pale, it’s not just tragic, it’s absurd. And that brings us back to Kafka.

Kafka’s surreal dream story was a forerunner to a type of theater that highlights the absurd to convey the playwright’s sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable. This genre, naturally enough, became known as the “Theater of the Absurd.”

And isn’t that exactly what we feel as a nation right now: a sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable.

We are living in Trump’s Theater of the Absurd, starting with his inaugural where the crowd was sparse but he said huge. Photographs proved him wrong, but his spokesperson touted his version as a perfectly acceptable “alternative fact.”

New examples crop up daily. Here are a selected few:

Trump says Putin “means it” when he says he didn’t meddle in our elections despite the findings of all our intelligence chiefs, whom Trump dismisses as “political hacks.”

Man-made climate change is a hoax despite unassailable scientific evidence, coupled with what we plainly see with our eyes. This week the Trump team was jeered at climate talks for promoting coal.

Christians, who support Trump even though he brags about grabbing women’s genitals, are now citing the bible to defend Roy Moore’s child molestation charges.

The U.S. has spent $6 trillion on wars of choice since 9/11, wars that have sunk into bottomless quagmires; meanwhile our infrastructure and standard of living are going to hell. Trump’s answer is to double down on the military.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom in indicators of mortality and life expectancy. Trump’s answer is to attempt to take health care away from millions more.

 Is this the Theater of the Absurd or what!

 Around the world, citizens take to the streets to protest grievances much less global than those I have listed. Yet, we sit immobilized as if in a stupor.

To us collectively as a people, it is like Trump has slipped a date rape drug in our drink. Or, in the words of conservative columnist Bret Stephens, “We inhabit a culture we despise but see no way of improving.”


(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)