Gregor Samsa: Drone Operator

By David Burr Gerrard March 17, 2014

Gregor Samsa: Drone Operator

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

SUSAN BERNOFSKY has chosen “The Death of a Salesman” as the title of the afterword to her excellent new translation of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” In fact, Gregor Samsa does have a certain kinship with Willy Loman: they share Gregor’s pre-transformation job as traveling salesman and his post-transformation decision to commit suicide, which, in Bernofsky’s words, is “the final service [Gregor] performs for the benefit of his family.” Bernofsky notes that Gregor “is a salesman, but what he has sold is himself: his own agency and dignity, making him a sellout through and through.” This is all true and supports the standard and probably correct interpretation that Gregor is an insect before his transformation, a non-person with no important preferences of his own. This is why I was startled to notice something I had never paid attention to: that Gregor once had a job he actually seems to have liked. Even more surprising is what this job was: a soldier.

This is mentioned only in passing when, as insect, Gregor makes one of his disastrous excursions out of his room: “On the opposite wall, hung a photograph of Gregor from his time in the military, showing him as a second lieutenant whose carefree smile as he rested his hand on his dagger commanded respect for his bearing and uniform.” When we think of Gregor Samsa, we think of someone who is the opposite of a soldier. We think of a timid, cowering man. Neither of his guises — the traveling salesman who hands over his income to his parents and sister or the hideous insect despised and confined to his room — seems the image of a man being all that a man can be. But not only was Gregor a soldier, but he was a happy one, proudly holding a dagger and at least believing himself to command respect. Respect? Gregor?

Of course, Gregor cannot quite believe that he alone, sans uniform, sans dagger commands respect; the dagger and uniform ultimately command respect for his bearing. Gregor cannot view himself as anything other than part of a unit and he never wants anything other than to sacrifice himself for the good of the group. Before his transformation, Gregor organized his life around supporting his family and never seriously considered doing anything for himself; his great dream was to send his (likely untalented) sister to a music conservatory. This is why the scene that Bernofsky correctly singles out as one of the story’s most “brutally comic” — in which Gregor learns that, while he has been working to pay off his father’s debt, his father has been hoarding cash — is funny and heartbreaking only to us and not to Gregor. Gregor feels only the faintest and briefest twinge of resentment before deciding that yes, given that the transformation has made it impossible for him to provide for the family, “his father’s arrangements were no doubt for the best.”

It is difficult to imagine a more perfect image of the good soldier, and if Gregor’s efforts went unappreciated by his family, perhaps they did not by the military. The worst part of Gregor’s transformation, then, might be that it precludes him from ever re-enlisting and thus living the life best suited to his particular talents and inclinations. There is simply no way, in 1915, that “some sort of monstrous insect” (as Bernofsky nicely renders Kafka’s famously ambiguous characterization of what exactly Gregor has been transformed into) could serve in the military.

Even Gregor’s new shell seems to be a cruel reminder of his unsuitability for military service. Bernofsky points out that the German word for “carapace,” Panzer, is the same as the word for “armor.” However, Gregor’s carapace/armor proves “no defense once his suddenly powerful father starts pelting him with apples.” It is an immense indignity, to be attacked by the father one sacrificed oneself for and an even greater indignity to be saddled with armor that does nothing but lodge a weapon painfully in one’s body.  

Perhaps the troubled dreams from which Gregor awakes as an insect were dreams of military service. Perhaps he dreamed of a transformation that would turn him into an effective soldier. Perhaps he dreamed of being, not Willy Loman, but a different character out of American culture, one who like Gregor has suffered the total transformation of his body, but one who unlike Gregor emerges more powerful:  RoboCop.


The idea that a robot-soldier must be supplemented with a human body seems a bit antique in drone-blotted 2014, a potential stumbling block that José Padhila’s new remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1988 film RoboCop handles wittily. Set in the near future, Padhila’s film begins with a news segment about an American invasion of Tehran waged almost entirely by drones and robots. Robots scan women to determine whether they are threats; a robot kills an Iranian child; a suicide bomber destroys a robot. The American population does not seem to object to this sort of thing happening on foreign soil, just as  the American population was not particularly bothered by the December 12, 2013 drone strike against a wedding convoy in Yemen that, according to Human Rights Watch, killed 12 people and wounded 15 others, including the bride.   

Of course, what is good on foreign soil is not good on our own — we are all loyal to our own group — and in the world of the new RoboCop, attempts to introduce robots into American police departments are stymied by an American population uncomfortable with robots carrying out police/military actions at home. (An insightful piece by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic about the Yemen wedding massacre was aptly titled “If a Drone Strike Hit an American Wedding, We’d Ground Our Fleet.”) Thus, a fig leaf is needed, and it comes in the form of a wrecked human body, that of a severely maimed police officer named Alex Murphy. In both films, the human remnant is essentially a cumbersome concession and an annoying lie. Both Padhila and Verhoeven’s films are at their funniest and most trenchant when it is abundantly clear that Robocop is not really human and is merely behaving as he is directed. A military liaison in Padhila’s version complains that Murphy is “a step backwards,” and so he is: a pure, honest robot would be easier to manage and more lethally effective.

Like Gregor Samsa, Alex Murphy suffers from troubled dreams. However, Murphy’s career in his new body is more successful than Gregor’s — rather than being confined to his room, he is released out onto a city that he makes much safer and that embraces him as a hero. His is not an exoskeleton in which an apple would get stuck; rather, bullets bounce off it. 

Nor does Murphy experience the familial fear, irritation, and final rejection that greets Gregor. Verhoeven’s film elides the question of how Murphy would be received by his family; his wife was never informed of his transformation, and we are briefly informed that she “moved on” after his apparent death. (“Moving on” is easy when one’s body is intact, as Kafka cruelly and brilliantly emphasizes in the final sentence of the story: ” when Gregor’s sister, freed of her now-dead brother, “swiftly sprang to her feet and stretched her young body.”) In Padhila’s more sentimental version, Murphy is welcomed by his young son after only the briefest hesitation, and by his wife after no apparent hesitation at all. She is upset that he is briefly brainwashed, but his new body does not seem to bother her in the least, and it is clear that, once the film is over, a normal family life will resume. Less clear is whether and how Murphy will carry out his bedroom duties, since, in the new film’s most surprisingly punishing scene, we see that he is lacking almost his entire body, including his genitals. Perhaps the suit includes a well-disguised prosthetic penis; the issue is not addressed. One way or another, Murphy is assumed to remain a conventionally competent husband.


We are reminded of the real-life drone operator’s promise: to incinerate a terrorist (or perhaps a farmer, a dog, a child) in Yemen in the late afternoon and eat microwaved quesadillas with the family in suburbia in early evening. But this operator is much more advanced than RoboCop, whose enduring cultural power relies on a more stable divide between robot and human than the one that has presented itself over the last several years: though the drone is unmanned, it is guided by a human being whose body remains fully intact, if spiritually vestigial. While both versions of RoboCop end with Murphy having removed a couple bad corporate apples from the civic exoskeleton and appearing to look forward to a promising career as a more or less omniscient and omnipotent policeman, the RoboCop is nonetheless imperfect. His not human but not totally robot body will persist in butting into operations. Only incidentally physically present, the drone operator is a clear improvement.

Still, a 2011 Air Force study found that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder for drone operators remain annoyingly high. It appears that human bodies are damaged by destroying other bodies, even when the destruction occurs at no physical risk to the destroyer. What might be ideal would be a person who is not a person, a totally compliant creature who sees only the rightness of what he is asked to do. What might be ideal is the selfless, obedient soldier, Gregor Samsa. 


One hundred years after the publication of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s transformation does not preclude military service. In the era of drone warfare, the body is little more than an embarrassing reminder of what the soldier has in common with the enemy. It is the enemy’s role to bear a body that will be burned; it is the soldier’s to sit at a screen and watch, all but obliterating the distinction between spectator and perpetrator. Post-transformation, all Gregor would need to perform serviceably as a drone operator would be too hook a joystick in one of his legs, which seems difficult but surely doable.

 In Kafka’s story, Gregor spends his days in a sofa by the window; we are told that if he did not know where he was, “he might have imagined he was gazing out his window at a gray desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably conjoined.”

If Gregor lived today he could do the same thing, except that the desert would be real, the window replaced by a monitor, the sofa by an ergonomically correct chair (the ergonomics might be different for his new body, but that’s a detail to be worked out), and his forlorn indolence by a fully operational martial mode. Gregor maintains his humanity principally by his continuing inability to fly — as the filmmaker David Cronenberg notes in his introduction to Bernofsky’s translation, Gregor’s wings appear to be absent — but if he lived today, he could fly by proxy. If he sees someone who looks like a terrorist, then Gregor can push a button, and that person will, like Gregor, cease to be a person. Gregor can celebrate the way drone operators might celebrate, by yelling what a person hit by a missile looks like on a monitor:: “Bug splat!”


If Gregor occasionally hits a wedding party and makes another family even more miserable than his own, the US government’s all-but-explicit explanation will be that guilt is never to be doubted. There is no word more frequently misused than “kafkaesque,” but it is hard to think of a more appropriate word for much of the language that the United States used to justify the War on Terror. According to The New York Times, for example, the US government “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants […] unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In other words, they are guilty for the most kafkaesque reason of all: because they are being punished. They can only save themselves by way of their own destruction, which sounds like just the sort of miniscule and pointless hope that would send a Kafka character madly scurrying about (if that Kafka character were on the wrong side of the monitor). So let’s hope for Gregor’s sake that he would be on the right side of the monitor: a non-person in a non-place control room somewhere in the United States.    

Of course, the United States is a country where Gregor Samsa never, to use a problematic metaphor, set foot. Kafka never came here either, which is why his novel Amerika makes the famous “mistake” of swapping the Statue of Liberty’s torch for a sword. But if the cowardly and servile Gregor Samsa lived today, and lived in United States, he could be put to use exterminating those who are accorded even less dignity than he is. In other words, if he lived today, Gregor Samsa could be a hero. There is more shame and irony in this than even Kafka could have ever predicted.  


David Burr Gerrard's debut novel, Short Century, is out in March on Rare Bird Books.

LARB Contributor

David Burr Gerrard's debut novel, Short Century, is out in March on Rare Bird Books.


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