“Metamorphosis and Shibboleth” by Lucian Samosata

All true language

Is incomprehensible,

Like the chatter

Of a beggar’s teeth.

– Antonin Artaud

This essay will discuss the role of sound in the evocation of catastrophe in nature, with reference to Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis, and will attempt to determine what kind of privilege may be accorded to sound in this role. The sounds of speech and of music are treated differently in The Metamorphosis, and this essay will contend that their functions are essentially antagonistic. The function of speech is analysed through the concept of the shibboleth, defined as the spoken sound which serves to identify the speaker according to some binary category, and which, depending upon a logic and pragmatics of war, underpins the social, as opposed to natural, catastrophe that takes place in the household of Gregor Samsa. Interpreting Kafka’s use of music throughout the novel, it is denied that musical sound is at all associated with the evocation of catastrophe in The Metamorphosis, and it is instead contended that the non-linguistic experience of music opens access to a Schopenhauerian ethics of resignation, reflection, and contemplation. This ambivalent but clearly drawn treatment of sound, it is argued, motivates a consideration of music as a vector towards ecological thinking, emphasising transcendence of linguistically imposed binaries and erasing the distinctions between Self and Other that result in catastrophe.
In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, catastrophe is encountered in the speaking of the shibboleth, which discloses the presence of the Other. The shibboleth structures any scrutinizing test in which an individual is to be judged, defined, and punished, according to categories of Self and Other, but in its prototypical, classical form it crucially depends upon a phonemic alternation in sounds, as illustrated in the verses that gave rise to the term:
The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!” And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites. (The Bible: Authorized King James Version, Judges 12.5-6).

The socio-ecological catastrophe that structures The Metamorphosis, beginning with Gregor Samsa’s transfiguration into ‘some kind of monstrous vermin’ and culminating in his ‘vacant and peaceful’ death, turns on an episode that parallels the one quoted above, viz.:

As he was thinking all this over very quickly without being able to decide to get up — the alarm was just ringing a quarter to seven — there was a cautious knock on the door at the head of his bed, and a call: ‘Gregor!’ — it was his mother — ‘it’s a quarter to seven. Aren’t you going to leave?’ That gentle voice! Gregor was startled when he heard his own voice in reply; no doubt, it was unmistakably his previous voice, but merging into it as though from low down came an uncontrollable, painful squealing which allowed his words to remain articulate literally for only a moment, then stifled them so much as they died away that you couldn’t tell if you’d heard them properly. (Kafka 29-31).
These episodes share an underlying discursive structure in which the individual is confronted by an inquisitor and demanded to speak, with the common understanding that successful communication will bring safety and harmony, whereas failure to speak the language of the persecutor will lead to disaster. This is the structure of the shibboleth. The speaking of the shibboleth, which in Gregor Samsa’s case would entail responding to the ‘gentle voice’ of his mother in the same German and is vitiated by the ‘uncontrollable, painful squealing’ that actually issues from his newly bestial mouth, is a far more decisive turning point in Kafka’s narrative than the physical transformation that opens the story (Kafka 31). In the immediate aftermath of the transformation, the reader is made privy to Gregor’s thoughts, which are rendered in Kafka’s classical High German and voice the relatively mundane – although shrill in their expression – anxieties of a lower middle-class wage slave. Although the reader can access these thoughts and experience Gregor as a conscious being, the inability to externalize them in linguistic communication renders Gregor monstrous to other humans. Thus the true catastrophe of the novel is evoked not by the ‘curved brown abdomen’ or ‘jittery legs’, which are noted only in passing, of the vermin that Gregor has become, but in the animal inarticulacy which at a stroke guarantees the total alienation of Gregor from his social ecology (Kafka 29). The moment in which Gregor is revealed as monstrous before his family is only the completion of the alienation that was established beforehand, in his failure to speak with anything other than an ‘animal’s voice’ (Kafka 37).
Gregor’s failure to speak the shibboleth of human language illustrates the role of the shibboleth in drawing borders between Self and Other, and enabling the Self to recognize the presence of the Other. The shibboleth universally provides the means for the creation of ‘…demarcation lines, discrimination, passports, and passwords’ (Derrida 1). The shibboleth is thus concerned not with identifying an essential Otherness, if such a thing exists, but with establishing arbitrary criteria for Self and Other. As there are no borders in nature all such binaries are established hermeneutically, by communities of speakers.

As Nietzsche remarks:
…one should use “cause” and “effect” only as pure concepts, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and communication – not for explanation. In the “in-itself” there is nothing of “causal connections,” of “necessity,” or of “psychological non-freedom”; there the effect does not follow the cause, there is no rule of “law.” It is we alone who have devised cause, sequence, for-each-other, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we project and mix this symbol world into things as if it existed “in itself,” we act once more as we have always acted – mythologically. (Nietzsche 29).

Even the laws of nature are laws. The canonical shibboleth behaves in the ‘symbol world’ of grammar and is not at all concerned with the actual physical sounds of the alveolar and post-alveolar voiceless fricatives – sibboleth or shibboleth –except insofar as they distinguish between dialects of Hebrew (Nietzsche 29). The reader is equally aware of Gregor’s natural deformity as the family is, but can access his thoughts and bring him within the bounds of comprehension, whereas the family cannot. Gregor Samsa is thus designated as an Other, as monstrous, not according to nature, which in itself lacks the hermeneutic resources for making such a distinction, but in terms of the symbol world that is encountered in the voices of his family and the chief clerk, and his de jure exclusion from this world. Derrida draws the link between the shibboleth and Othering explicitly:
In the word, the difference between shi and si has no meaning. But it is the ciphered mark that one must be able to partake of with the other, and this differential capability must be inscribed in oneself, that is, in one’s own body as much as in the body of one’s own language, the one to the same extent as the other. This inscription of difference in the body (e.g., the phonatory aptitude to pronounce this or that) is, nonetheless, not natural; it is in no way an innate, organic faculty. Its very origin presupposes belonging to a cultural and linguistic community, to a milieu of apprenticeship, in sum, an alliance. (Derrida 26).
The catastrophe of alienation from such a world is isomorphic to one’s death, a symbolic death; although, upon recognizing that Gregor is irrevocably alienated from the Samsa household by his inarticulacy, the family does not kill him by the banks of the Jordan, Gregor’s death as a person is achieved instantly in his failure to speak. Further, the unspoken recognition that the presence of the Other cannot persist without violence is illustrated in the father’s pantomimic assault on Gregor, pelting the latter with ‘little red apples’ (Kafka 59). As with the account of the shibboleth in Judges, the designation of the Other brings the Samsa family into a state of war. The catastrophe at the centre of the novel is thus made possible by Gregor’s half-death and resulting half-life, the loss, together with the loss of his vocal articulation, of his passport into the human world.
As indicated above, the shibboleth operates in the context of war. One speaks a codeword in order to be distinguished as an ally or to evade detection as the enemy, whether in the classical case of the Hebrew shibboleth, the uttering of ‘perejil’ in the Parsley Massacre, Francisco the sentinel’s demand to ‘stand and unfold yourself’ in Hamlet, or in the chief clerk’s demands that Gregor answer him (Ayuso 47; Shakespeare 1). Foregrounding ‘a photograph of Gregor from his time in the reserve [that was] hung on the wall, showing him as a lieutenant, with his hand on his sword,’ in an early passage in The Metamorphosis, Kafka establishes a motif of war that is fulfilled in the numerous threatened and actual acts of violence between Gregor, the Samsa family, and the gentlemen-lodgers, and made inevitable by the shibboleth that structures the story as a whole (Kafka 39). What this reveals about the designation of the Other, and especially with regard to The Metamorphosis, with its distinctively modern treatment of the Other, is that Self-Other distinctions are only made within what is already a war, even if a latent one. Binary distinctions in fact only make sense in war; the threat of imminent danger calls for absolute parsimony and does not allow for ambiguity; one is either friend or foe. Spoken language, including that which evokes catastrophe in The Metamorphosis, is universally an ordering of positions within a war, which urges the destruction of the Other but also the destruction of meaning, as ‘the meaning of the word matters less than, let us say, its signifying form once it becomes a password, a mark of belonging, the manifestation of an alliance’ (Derrida 20). The urgency with which Gregor is demanded to speak the shibboleth, to give his defence to the chief clerk illustrates the uneasy fragility of the alliance between himself and his employers, and between the Samsa family and Prague society more generally. In the eyes of the firm, the ‘slightest lapse’ on Gregor’s part provokes the ‘utmost suspicion’, for as a low-status salesman he is already ‘the boss’s creature, stupid and spineless’ prior to the metamorphosis, ever at threat of being recognized as the reviled Other (Kafka 34; 31).
Although the sound of spoken human language certainly evokes catastrophe at crucial junctures throughout The Metamorphosis, this is counterposed to the transcendental sound experienced through music. It is significant that the only intimations of hope, on the part of Gregor, are entirely directed towards plans to send Grete to a conservatoire to study violin. The role of music, both in its cultural connotations and in its performance, is conspicuously insulated from the misery, alienation and conflict that otherwise govern the Samsa household. Gregor’s transfiguration into a vermin, along with his subjection to the firm, is ‘no dream’, but the plan to inaugurate Grete’s career in music is a ‘beautiful dream’ that possesses Gregor even in his utter abjection and isolation (Kafka 29; 49). Further, the playing of the violin itself is an auditory phenomenon that is able to overcome the alienation of Gregor that was earlier wrought by the failed shibboleth:
Attracted by the playing, Gregor had ventured a little further out until his head was already in the living-room. He was hardly surprised that he had shown so little consideration for the others of late; in the past this consideration had been his pride. And besides, right now he would have had even greater reason to hide, for, because of the dust on everything in his room, which rose at the slightest movement, he too was quite covered in it; he dragged threads, hairs, bits of left-over food about on his back; his indifference towards it all was far too great for him to do what he had previously done several times a day, lie on his back and scrub it against the carpet. And in spite of this condition, he did not hesitate to advance some way forward on the spotless floor of the living-room. (Kafka 66).
Divorced from the social life of the Samsa household, Gregor is still able to remark that his sister plays ‘so beautifully’, and even suggests that the fact ‘that music should move him like this’ is a mark of his bestiality (Kafka 66). The encounter with music in The Metamorphosis thus establishes the possibility of a harmony that contradicts the alienation imposed by the shibboleth in language. Although there is ‘an insistent and… quite central linkage of music with violence’ in Kafka’s oeuvre as a whole, Kafka also draws correspondences between music and food, and between music and harmony in the Christian Flesh-Spirit dialectic (Smyth 171). This harmony is not broken in The Metamorphosis until language once again intrudes: ‘”Herr Samsa!” called the middle gentleman, and without wasting another word pointed with his forefinger at Gregor, who was moving slowly forward. The violin fell silent’ (Kafka 67). Gregor again fails the test of the shibboleth as the middle gentleman vocally and indexically (pointing being the gestural equivalent of naming, singling out a thing) designates him as Other. Thus, sound plays a pivotal role in structuring the dynamics of the novel: spoken language places Gregor under the tyranny of his family and the firm, and makes his monstrous transformation manifest, only to be interrupted by the pure beauty of music and the hope associated with it, which is interrupted in turn by the language of the gentlemen-lodgers, who constitute a new tyranny.
The partially redemptive, spiritual role Kafka accords to music in The Metamorphosis gestures towards a Schopenhaurean ethics of reflection and resignation. Schopenhauer was well-known to literary contemporaries and friends of Kafka, and the latter owned the collected works, as well as a biography, of the former, suggesting the possibility of a direct philosophical influence on The Metamorphosis (Whitlark 97). In any case, Schopenhauer’s declaration that ‘the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence’ corresponds to the use Kafka makes of music at pivotal points in The Metamorphosis, in which music penetrates, briefly, the alienation and hostility that otherwise pervades a world individuated into human and animal, employer and employed, master and servant (Schopenhauer 257). The presence of the pure beauty of music, and the means it offers of escaping petty matters of wars and alliances coordinated around linguistic shibboleths, parallels the philosophical escape from Samsara, the cycle of turmoil and suffering (reflected in the name Samsa) through which one may ‘after a long conflict and suffering, finally renounce forever all the pleasure of life and the aims till then pursued so keenly, or cheerfully and willingly give up life itself’ (Schopenhauer 253). In The Metamorphosis the suffering of the protagonist is crucially suspended following such conflict and suffering, at several points. One is in the discovery of the possibilities afforded by the body Gregor now inhabits, and reflects an attitude of resignation and acceptance towards it and, following, joy:
…soon eating no longer gave him the least pleasure, and so for diversion he developed the habit of crawling all over the walls and ceiling. He was particularly fond of hanging high up under the ceiling. This was something different from lying on the floor; one breathed more freely; an easy swinging motion passed through the body; and in this almost happy state of distraction up there, it could happen that to his own surprise he would let go and fall smack! to the ground. But now of course he had his body under control, quite unlike before, and didn’t hurt himself even after such a great fall. (Kafka 52).
Other such moments are found in the playing of the violin, and, as the final culmination of the emerging Schopenhauerian ethics in the novel, the ascetic state Gregor attains on the night of his death. Music, as spiritual nourishment, replaces food for Gregor, who ceases eating, and provides the prelude to Gregor’s final transcendence, in ‘a state of vacant and peaceful reflection’ of the alienation and suffering engendered by the spoken shibboleth (Kafka 71). It is in this state, attained by the contemplation of music and then through silent prayer, that meaning is restored following its destruction through the shibboleth in language, and erasure of the arbitrary laws of language permits one’s return to nature.
The Schopenhauerian ethics that is advanced in The Metamorphosis, in response to the alienation, subjection, conflict, and catastrophe that govern its action, is an ecological as well as a metaphysical re-thinking of the human situation within nature and takes music as opposed to speech as its inspiration. Schopenhauerian morality is implicitly ecological in its emphasis on compassion, asserting that ‘compassion is the “basis” of morality in the descriptive sense; that all virtuous behavior issues from compassionate identification with another being’ (Varner 216). Ecological ethics must be non-catastrophic, and must draw inspiration from the music that permits identification with an other rather than from speech which operates by codewords and shibboleths. Schopenhauer advocates both the possibility of transcending the Will that governs suffering through ascetic appreciation of music, and the importance of caring for non-human creatures (Varner 209-210). Both principles are brought to bear in The Metamorphosis, and manifested in Kafka’s differing treatments of speech and music. Further, the conceit by which Kafka provides the reader with access to Gregor Samsa’s mental states, evoked in inner speech, reflects Schopenhauer’s teaching that the will-to-life abides in all things. Even though, without the power of speech, Gregor is catastrophically alienated from the social ecology of Prague, his authentic noumenal existence manifests a will that escapes the comprehension of the Samsa family, which designates Gregor as Other on the basis of phenomenal evidence alone. If the meditation on sound, speech, communication and communion in The Metamorphosis is read in this way, through Schopenhauer, the novel constitutes a powerful allegory of the dependence of human well-being on ecology and the catastrophic effects of human misapprehension of this dependence.
This essay has confronted the question as to whether sound holds a privileged place in the evocation of catastrophe in nature, taking Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as an illustrative text, and has responded mostly in the affirmative, albeit with several qualifications. Firstly, the function of sound, encountered in the speaking human voice, reveals that catastrophe in Kafka’s novel is found not in nature, but in the linguistic and social structures that cover over the underlying holism of nature and subject it to linguistically mediated binaries, principally that of Self and Other as determined by the shibboleth in speech. The physical transformation of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis is thus a catastrophe only insofar as it entirely vitiates the protagonist’s attempts to be understood, and to utter the shibboleths that would make possible some sort of existence in the Samsa household and in Prague more generally. The role of sound is also not exclusively associated with catastrophe; music features prominently in the novel as a means of transcending the very structures that lead to conflict and alienation. It has been argued, in addition, that Kafka’s treatment of sound, as speech and as music, suggests a Schopenhaurean ethics of compassion and acknowledgement of the will-to-life in all things that is implicitly and profoundly ecological.
Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Ayuso, Mónica G. “How Lucky For You That Your Tongue Can Taste The ‘R’ In ‘Parsley'”: Trauma Theory and the Literature of Hispaniola.” Afro-Hispanic Review 30.1 (2011): 47-62.
Derrida, Jacques. Sovereignties In Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Joyce Crick. Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good And Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Prickett, Stephen, and Robert P. Carroll. The Bible: Authorized King James Version. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Trans. E.F.J. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. G.R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
Smyth, John Vignaux. “Music Theory in Late Kafka.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 3.2 (1998): 169.
Varner, G. E. “The Schopenhauerian Challenge in Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Ethics 7.3 (1985): 209.
Whitlark, James. Behind the Great Wall: A Post-Jungian Approach to Kafkaesque Literature. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1991.


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