I’m reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at the moment. It’s the story of poor Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find that he’s turned into an insectoid creature of undefined type. Being an Oxford World’s Classics edition, it has notes – presumably written by the same woman who did the translation.
So, one of the first things Gregor notices is a patch of white spots on his abdomen. They are, and remain, a mystery. ‘Maybe the result of a nocturnal ejaculation,’ writes the note-maker.
1. Why assume a hidden sexual reference when there’s no hint of a sexual dimension to the character of Gregor Samsa? Why assume any hidden reference at all? Maybe Kafka was simply adding a little detail to further establish the fact that Gregor’s body is no longer human. Human bodies don’t generally have a group of white spots on the abdomen; an insect’s body might.
2. Besides, a nocturnal ejaculation wouldn’t leave a group of white spots. It would leave a gloopy mess which would be unpleasant to the touch but virtually invisible. Where has this woman been all her adult life? I assume she must be reasonably advanced in academic circles to be allowed to translate a classic. Does she know nothing of ejaculations, nocturnal or otherwise?
And then there’s an episode further down the line when Gregor, having escaped incarceration in his bedroom, is being pelted with apples by his horrified father. One of them hits and injures him, and the narrative relates that Gregor feels ‘pinned to the floor.’ ‘A possible reference to Jesus on the cross,’ offers the note-maker.
Need I go on about the making of oblique and highly speculative assumptions about the hidden intentions of the author? Maybe Gregor, in his injured state, simply feels pinned to the floor. Is it part of the academic’s role to find ways of justifying their existence by always having to spot and interpret arcane dimensions for the benefit of us lesser folk? In some situations, maybe, but maybe they also sometimes get carried far away on the tide of their undoubted cleverness.
It’s not Nelson’s Column, says a French character in a classic British comedy sketch, it’s Nelson’s willy.