What Is Not Erased: Kafka and Lynch and Their Gift of Death

Eraserhead is very much of the same ilk as The Metamorphosis, and could be described to be a dark(er) twin of that novella.

In an interview with Chris Rodley, David Lynch once said, “The one artist that I feel could be my brother is Franz Kafka.” Indeed, a dream project of Lynch’s, forever on the backburner, was a big screen adaptation of the Prague author’s classic novella, The Metamorphosis. Lynch wanted to seek out a new angle on the story, switching the setting from expressionist Prague to ’50s America. However, the dream was eventually abandoned when Lynch realised that the project would be expensive to produce, and more alarmingly for the studios, wouldn’t make any money.

There’s a certain irony in this, since Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead (1977) was blighted by the same ‘curse’: relatively speaking, it was expensive to make, and raising the funds for the five year production, fell upon Lynch. When finally released, it didn’t make money. The finished product was so obscure that it found itself consigned for decades to the wilderness of midnight showings. But the irony runs deeper, since it is the author’s belief that with Eraserhead, Lynch had already made his own version of The Metamorphosis. However, although it’s easy to ascribe the term ‘Kafkaesque’ to Eraserhead, just as it is to Lynch’s later films, this expression is entirely superficial and in no way captures the many affinities Eraserhead shares with The Metamorphosis, both stylistic and thematic.

What are these themes exactly? Certainly, they include existentialist themes such as alienation, the social self and the shame that haunts it; the idea that capitalist (or, better put, gesellschaft) society consumes human relationships and dehumanises individuals; and that the world is governed by unstable, unpredictable laws that seem to operate almost at random. But these parallels deepen when Eraserhead is put into the context of the Marcionist thought that arose out of Habsburg era Bohemia amongst German and Jewish intellectuals such as Kafka. Through this lens, it becomes evident that Eraserhead is very much of the same ilk as The Metamorphosis, and could be described to be a dark(er) twin of that novella.

The world Lynch creates in Eraserhead is a black and white nightmare that could almost be a silent film. Slow, directionless and disjointed, it is suffused with a cold, unsettling atmosphere. Industry has deformed this desolate urban dreamscape beyond recognition; the streets of the nameless city are empty; factories stand like monoliths on the horizon, their gargantuan chimneys spewing black smoke languorously into the sky; piles of ash punctuate barren wastelands that lie between neighbourhoods; Henry (Jack Nance) snakes his way around them, headed home after a day at work.

Henry lives in a dilapidated apartment building, his one-bedroom flat thinly insulating him from the harsh reality outside. From his window, he observes one man brutally assaulting another. There’s no respite in the company of his girlfriend’s (Charlotte Stewart) family: her grandmother is utterly despondent, her mother stern and uncommunicative, her father an invalid with a penchant for mindless small talk. Mary herself is painfully timid, or else prone to hysterical outbursts: when Henry visits for dinner, she soon flees the scene, her mother suddenly announcing that a child has been born, Henry’s child, and that Mary’s labour suffered some complications. Something happened to the child that left it horrifically maimed, its frail, diminutive body wrapped in a thick coat of bandages, its head grotesquely oversized – it doesn’t resemble a human so much as it does a mutant.

In spite of her effort to raise the child with Henry, Mary is soon driven hysterical by its moaning and crying, and flees, leaving Henry alone with his offspring. There, in his bubble, he descends into a trance as the child grows ill; he yearns for the sexual companionship of the woman next door; and he is haunted by the woman “in the radiator”, her pretty face is swollen by two glandular growths. Warmly, she sings to Henry that “in heaven, everything is fine.” Increasingly alone, Henry eventually cuts open the child’s bandages to reveal only organs. Amidst its horrific cries of agony, he puts the child out of its misery by piercing its heart. His world collapses, and he finds himself in the world of the lady in the radiator, into whose loving arms he is taken.

Gregor Samsa experiences similar alienation and loneliness. The deformity with which he deals is not that of a child, but of his own body. He emerges one morning from troubled dreams transformed into a parasitic insect of some sort. At first, he adapts himself to the change, quite simply trying to get out of bed and to work. Outside, Prague is enshrouded in a cold, wet mist, and heavy raindrops clink on his windowsill. Organising himself takes a long time, and his family call in through the door, frightened that he has taken ill. By the time he emerges from his room, his work supervisor has turned up to check on him: everyone is aghast at what they see. His supervisor flees; his father pursues this mutant back into his room; his mother and sister cry and panic.

From then on, Gregor inhabits the nest which is his room; slowly, his family grow ever distant from him, and he becomes their shame, which they increasingly neglect; where previously he was the breadwinner, his father unable to work, his family grow resourceful, and find other means by which to subsist. A room is rented to three abrasive subtenants; and Herr Samsa finds it in him to take to work.

One day, as Gregor’s sister plays violin to the churlish subtenants, Gregor – whose deformity has worsened – is so taken by the beauty of her tune that he crawls out to her, to praise her talent, to let her know how much he loves her and in turn receive the assurance that she too loves him despite his condition. He is met with despondency, and following an earlier wound inflicted by his father, Gregor eventually dies, in a “condition of empty and peaceful reflection”. His family have now assumed their own will, and as such their future, as manifested by their daughter, is in the meantime secure.

Security was by no means a feature of life in Prague.

It’s never explained why or how Gregor transformed overnight into a repellent insect, just as it’s never explained in Eraserhead why this abomination of a child was born deformed (although the fowl industry outside is clearly the culprit). And in both cases, Gregor and Henry simply take this mysterious reality in their bemused stride, adapting to it without much thought as to the predicament in which they find themselves.

Eraserhead, at least superficially, is far more cryptic in its content than The Metamorphosis; but what is notable is that the beginning and the end of the film are signposted by scenes of a seemingly crippled man wrenching levers on what appears to be another planet. He ostensibly controls something distant from him; and it is reasonable to infer that this something is Henry’s world, which is promptly thrown into upheaval.

The mysterious ‘force’ or ‘law’ in both narratives ruins, and indirectly extinguishes, the lives of Henry and Gregor. But it is cruel society itself that is instrumental in the alienation Henry and Gregor experience. The tragedy lies not so much in the bad brute luck that befalls them, but in the shame that accompanies their respective maladies: Gregor is never horrified by the metamorphosis of his original form; nor is Henry ever repulsed by his child – indeed, it becomes a part of him. What does, however, render inexorable the fate of these two misfits is the hostile environments engulfing them. The hypothetical ‘Other’ is the architect of their shame; and in typical existentialist fashion, it is the Other who turns the external world in on the agent, making him conscious of the face he presents to those around him.

Both Henry and Gregor entertain delusions about their social selves. As both grow increasingly lonely, they initially believe that hope remains for their relationships. After Mary leaves, Henry clutches at an illusory freedom, sleeping with the girl next door before she notices his coexistent. She promptly abandons him, just like everybody else. And Gregor, parasitic on the ray of hope that was his sister’s love, tries to express human love for the first time since his metamorphosis – but again, this act is motivated by an illusory freedom, since his sister finally fully comes to face with and rejects him.

In Eraserhead, Henry’s shame is not incorporated into his body as Gregor’s is in The Metamorphosis. However, Lynch appears to imply that the child’s deformity is as much as part of Henry’s being as Gregor’s own physical deformity is a part of his own being. Arguably, this is revealed in the sequence where Henry’s head is inexplicably blown off, only to have a grossly enlarged version of the baby’s head grow out his neck. The meaning is quite clear: the child and Henry are essentially interchangeable with one another. It forms the centre of Henry’s life no matter how much he tries to ignore it, which is just so in The Metamorphosis.

In both cases the source of shame results in the protagonist’s alienation from those around him; they are increasingly neglected and ultimately abandoned. On the part of Henry and Gregor’s families and acquaintances, this proves to be the rational solution – that is, to flee from and ignore the problem. Gregor and Henry (at least insofar that he is manifested in the baby) eventually die; in The Metamorphosis the story explicitly ends on the note that the Samsa family will finally move on; in Eraserhead, the same truth is implicit in the fact that Mary, her family and the girl next door disown Henry and his shame, never to return. Life for them carries on.

Alienation, according to Marxism, intensifies with the growth of industry. The more productive the market gets, so too does the individual become more competitive. In the Habsburg Empire, this sad reality was a source of contention. People pined for the preindustrial days of Gemeinschaft society; that is, the feudal society based on mutual aid between individuals, and on community spirit as governed by some benevolent authority. Gesellschaft (that is, capitalist) society seemed to perpetuate uncertainty and alienate individuals from one another. It is characterised by a blind drive towards the future, one which ignores the welfare of the individual who becomes an expendable source of labour. This vision was undeniably a romanticised one, but it seemed to promise an underlying societal harmony that appealed to the “little man”, when it was a gentle security eroded by the relentless drive of industry.

In Eraserhead it is clear that industry has completely dehumanised Henry’s world: there is no sense of ‘community’ in his neighbourhood. His job, similarly, is faceless: he is a printer on vacation. When his head blows off, it launches through the window and lands incongruously in the street. A passing street urchin picks it up and runs to the Pencil Factory, where a sample of Henry’s brain is deemed appropriate for use in the manufacturing of pencil erasers. In this almost post-apocalyptic world (note how in Henry’s flat, there is a framed photograph of a nuclear explosion), Henry is seen as little more than a commodity; all for which he matters is the on-going cycle of business and industry.

Kafka does not flesh out this issue in quite the same way. What he does draw attention to, however, is the fact that the Samsa’s predicament is worsened by the threat of destitution. Gregor was the breadwinner of the family; a travelling salesman – full of angst about his work – whose proceeds allow him to house his parents and sister in a spacious apartment; but given his malady, he cannot provide the necessary security. The Samsas grow to despise Gregor, and his inability to provide for them invokes shame, since Herr Samsa is forced to take up a menial job, and a room is let to subtenants, who treat the family badly. Quite simply, they, as a middle-class family, face the threat of ‘proletarianisation’. This is a reality they are forced to confront; Gregor is a reality they can avoid – thus mutual aid becomes an increasingly redundant factor.

Lynch and Kafka diverge in method here to similarly lament on the nature of the capitalist world. Capitalist systems don’t operate according to any specific laws; prosperity gains momentum and then swells like some accumulating wave, only to then recede again, its functioning mysterious and beyond the grasp of the individual. Indeed, the fate of the individual, of ‘little men’ like Gregor and Henry, is viewed as something chaotically controlled by an ambivalent invisible hand, or, as the case may be, a crippled man sitting in a control room on a distant planet.

Eraserhead should not be misunderstood as being a crude copy of The Metamorphosis. Rather, it should be understood as being a direct descendent of the novella, and the themes with which Kafka was toying. Lynch’s demented nightmare has withstood a great many interpretations, ranging from those suggesting that it deals with terminal illness, to those arguing that it is a simple meditation on the angst induced in fathers by the birth of their first child – Lynch himself, incidentally, had recently become a father.

There will probably never be any conclusive answer to what the correct interpretation is (assuming there is one), but what is certain is that Lynch imports an astonishingly great deal from his literary brother: quintessentially existentialist themes, such as shame and alienation, underpinned by the Marcionism of Bohemian intellectuals, who believed in an ominous law – manifested by industrialism – that flung the world into a vacuum of uncertainty. Superficially, this world, so vividly realised on screen by Lynch and in writing by Kafka, resembles a nightmare in the purest sense. Only death can release us from this nightmare, and it is only in the deaths of Gregor and Henry that deliverance is found.

Marcus How freelances generally about popular culture, politics and philosophy. He lives in London.