Reviews of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 film The Lobster seem to be about fifty-fifty on whether they use the term Kafka-esque, but few if any make an explicit comparison to The Metamorphosis. In The Lobster, the amorously ill-fated are surgically converted into an animal of their choosing while in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa transforms into an insect overnight. The comparison seems apt then on at least one level. Both stories involve people turning into animals, or maybe it’s more accurate to say both use animals as a device to signify “dehumanization”, but reviewers might have avoided the comparison because the commonalities stop there. These are radically different depictions, written a century apart, of subjects poorly adapted to their respective societies. Comparing the two stories is, however, useful in that drawing out their distinctions adds a clarifying dimension in reference to what drives the depicted dehumanization, and if art does in this case imitate life, we might also be able to form an impression of how societal power has itself transformed in the last century.
A thread dominating both of these stories is the hazy, amorphous line between “animal” and “human” that tends to be suspiciously malleable in the hands of societal norms. Plotting the demarcation is difficult if not impossible, but conveniently the approaches taken by The Metamorphosis and The Lobster can be illustrated by tying these stories to works by Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, respectively. In Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, he points to a conceptual separation of animal and human by noting, with some surprise or confusion, that he was embarrassed to be seen naked by his cat. The cat is naked too, but it can’t feel the same shame because it doesn’t have a concept of nudity. Derrida is then unable to suppress embarrassment not because his cat is judging him, that he knows of, but rather because he is judging himself by way of the gaze of this other, his cat. Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is an exemplary depiction of this sort of self-consciousness or awareness that for Derrida is one way of depicting what it is to be human. The most jarring thing about The Metamorphosis, aside from the transformation into an insect, is that after the initial realization, Gregor is most concerned about getting to work on time. He laments, beyond all else, how this will change his boss’s impression of him and how can support his family. Ironically, these worries turn out to be as synthetic and self-imposed as the concept of wearing clothes. Through his bedroom door, Gregor comes to learn that his family manages perfectly well without him. His suffering was entirely unnecessary.
The ability to have a concept of responsibility and feel shame at the prospect of failure is supposedly part of what makes him human, so why the transformation? Derrida also posits that “the list of “what is proper to man”… can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed … it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts”. A theme that runs through both stories is that this list, in which Derrida includes “history, laughing, mourning, burial, the gift”, can be artificially expanded without reference to what is actually comfortable or sustainable for a person. Society is capable of generating definitions of “human” that are completely ungrounded in the reality of the minds and bodies supposedly described by that category. Returning to the clothing example, not every garment is sweatpants, some clothes are distinctly uncomfortable, but we wear them because doing so is called for or appropriate in a way that is socially determined. In Gregor’s case, he’s roused every morning by the “ear-splitting noise” of his alarm clock. He’s immersed in technology as poorly suited for human physiology as a human bedroom is for the physiology of a giant insect. The pressure he feels to provide for his family and please his boss pushes him to work beyond what his body is capable of. “A man needs his sleep”, says Gregor. But maybe not an insect? Why not morph into something capable of working tirelessly day in and day out without any thought of experience, enjoyment, or satisfaction?
Contrast this now with Lanthimos’s David, who is not merely confronted with a mechanism on which he’s free to dehumanize himself, but is rather actively fed into a machine that was created for the express purpose of dehumanizing him should he fail to do as instructed and form a couple with another person. The first thing to notice is that the logistics of dehumanization are fundamentally different in The Lobster. Where Gregor was mystically transformed in his own home, due to perceived pressure from people he could identify and had personal relationships with, David is taken to a hotel at the behest of an omnipresent and faceless authority, in which he is threatened with a surgical procedure. The hotel as an institution calls to mind Foucauldian ideas about the role of seemingly neutral buildings like schools and factories as loci of power (where also you must work, but you’re free to choose if you build cars, microprocessors, or missiles in the same way one can choose to become any animal one wishes), but the hotel and its function can also be described through Baudrillard’s The Animals: Territory and Metamorphoses (!/s). To start with, the hotel insists that it operates for the good of its guests. Seemingly humanistic attempts to study animal psychology, argues Baudrillard, are crafted largely as a tool for mediating the limitations of industrial farming. At a certain point, the inability of animals to be kept in increasingly worse conditions begins to have an impact on profits, and at this point, but no sooner, animals are suddenly discovered to have a psychic life and needs. The “mental equilibrium” of the animals is still defined entirely, however, with reference to farming them for profit. “One will therefore bestow on animals a psychic life, an irrational and derailed psychic life, given over to liberal and humanist therapy, without the final objective ever having changed: death”. In this same sense, the final objective of the hotel is not its masking objective of forming loving relationships for the good of its guests, or promoting some form of humanistic development, but rather control.
Importantly, Baudrillard notes that studies of animals subjected to industrial farming are inherently different from scientific studies describing physiological mechanisms in that ultimately, the behavior of animals used for farming is prescribed in advance by the demands of business. Likewise, the hotel has no interest in understanding how or why relationships actually form, only that they do. Not “what stimuli generate the optimal mental conditions for a chicken?”, but “what aspects of the mental experience of a chicken must be appeased (slightly larger cages) or opposed (tranquilizers) to ensure optimal profits?”. Not “how do we optimize relationships for our guests?”, but “how do we optimize the number of relationships formed by our guests?”. The system resulting from this approach matches people based on a singular “defining characteristic”, which is simplistic to the point of being comical. Incidentally, the only couples we see formed at the hotel are based on lies. Limping Man fakes nosebleeds to be with Nosebleed Woman. The hotel has no incentive to verify their match and knew perfectly well that his defining characteristic was limping. All that matters is that the couple has been formed. Lying one’s way into a couple, plainly obeying, is an option available to everyone, but some seem less capable of accepting the idea. Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend makes no attempt at a fallacious relationship while David tries, but fails because his love for his brother is ultimately stronger than his fear of the hotel’s authority. Arguably, this is a more nobly human quality, but it’s also what the hotel ironically works to suppress. This unpredictable, unquantifiable balance is the true focus of the hotel’s activities. By creating harsh punishments, like burning a man’s hands with a toaster for masturbating (Lisping Man the onanist in place of Damiens the regicide) or, as the coup de grâce, turning apparent “loners” into animals, the institution of the hotel tips the scales on whether someone is going to adhere to their nature or simply accept authority. The overarching system demanding conformity isn’t depicted by Lanthimos, we could guess late capitalism in the face of its limitations, but it does clearly illustrate a much harsher predicament than the still navigable 1915 milieu of The Metamorphosis. Where Gregor Samsa’s world was a mistaken image layered over reality, David’s is an all-pervasive image that precludes reality. When at the end of the film David stares into the mirror ready to blind himself, he may very well have realized that he loves Short Sighted Woman even without matching her new defining characteristic. But what of it? How to communicate that idea in the world of the hotel, where the definition of love is predetermined as his blinding himself for her?
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Animals: Territory and Metamorphoses.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. The University of Michigan Press. 1994. 129-141.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am.” Trans. David Willis. Fordham University Press. 2008.
Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” The Penal Colony. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Schocken Books. 1961. 67-132
The Lobster. Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos. A24. 2016. Film.