Twin Peaks Backstory Investigations: The Metamorphosis, Written by Franz Kafka (1915)

This article concludes my Twin Peaks Backstory Investigations series. This time I’m going to change the medium, shifting from films that are significant to characters or creators to the print literature work that David Lynch has named as a favorite from Eraserhead-days interviews to the present. And no one could forget the presence of Kafka’s portrait framed and mounted on the office wall of Gordon Cole. I’m excited about the medium shift because thinking through the harmonies that Twin Peaks and The Metamorphosis can create together transcends the conventional idea that the primary literature-film relationship is one of adaptation.

If you’ve ever read Sergei Eisenstein’s formidable volume on cinematic aesthetics, The Film Sense, you’ll know that he regards poetry printed on paper to be one of the greatest prompts to his innovations in montage: “Paradise Lost itself is a first-rate school in which to study montage and audio-visual relationships.” And on Mayakovsky, “In his ‘chopped line’ the articulation is carried through not to accord with the limits of the line, but with the limits of the shot…Mayakovsky cuts his line just as an experienced film editor would in constructing a typical sequence of ‘impact.’”

Eisenstein’s exploration of poetry illuminates Lynch’s invocations of Kafka’s story as a matter of form and not content alone. In other words, a fusion of form and content are key to the unsettling strangeness that Lynch and Kafka both conjure, and it’s energizing to consider where print literature and cinema run parallel or together and where they veer apart. For this Backstory Investigation, I attempted to hold form and content in mind–like holding Josie Packard in mind for decades as she inhabits the element wood–located between water and fire.

Turning to Kafka’s story, all you have to do is read the first couple of pages by the light of a Twin Peaks attention beam and you’ll see glimmers of familiar gold shining. The very first sentence of The Metamorphosis takes the reader inside Gregor Samsa’s bedroom just as he’s waking from “uneasy dreams.” Finding his human body transformed into that of a “gigantic insect,” Gregor struggles to determine whether or not he’s still inside a dream world and the weird rules that apply within it.

Gregor has uneasy dreams about turning into an insect, The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Gregor’s perplexity about being in or out of the dream of course resonates at the level of content with Twin Peaks. With Season Three and Fire Walk With Me in particular, Twin Peaks explicitly poses declarations about living inside a dream as well as questions about who the dreamer is. While that’s a nice connection to notice, what’s much more exciting is to pay attention to the sonic element Kafka brings to this. One important factor that feeds Gregor’s mental fogginess is that he’s woken up late, and he cannot comprehend this because he has an alarm clock next to his bed set to “ear-splitting” volume. Gregor’s physiological metamorphosis has radically altered his sense of hearing, and it’s that sense that initially discombobulates him. Gregor is uncertain he’s awake because the audio field he inhabits is alien to him. This audio alienation continues throughout the story and is accompanied by other sensory changes adding to the effective embodied account of what Gregor’s life becomes.

That initial focus on audio estrangement in the weird space between waking and dreaming worlds is part of what makes Kafka’s story so fascinating. So much of literary and cinematic culture grants an outsized emphasis to the visual, that this attention to sound also discombobulates the reader by swerving from the conventional. And the same is true of Twin Peaks and Lynch’s cinema as a whole. From diegetic sounds that are intensified through exaggerated volume, to others that emanate from unlocatable and/or unidentified sources, some of the eeriest sequences in all three seasons and the prequel film depend upon audio craft. Just think of the fact that there are t-shirts that one can wear to signal fellow Twin Peaks fans with only one phrase printed on them: [intense ominous whooshing].

Intense ominous whooshing in Twin Peaks: The Return as Dale Cooper falls through a starry sky at fast speed

So, it’s literature and cinema, form and content. Plus, in those first pages of Kafka, what triggers Gregor to think of the change in his own hearing is him mentally playing out a scene of quitting his job: “If I didn’t have to hold my hand because of my parents I’d have given notice long ago, I’d have gone to the chief and told him exactly what I think of him. That would knock him endways from his desk! It’s a queer way of doing, too, this sitting on high at a desk and talking down to employees, especially when they have to come quite near because the chief is hard of hearing.” Thankfully Gordon Cole only shares one character trait in common with Gregor’s chief, but the one he does share helps direct the reader/spectator know to pay attention to sound and to dwell on the sonic aspect of being in a body and communicating with others.

On matters of communication, Gregor’s awareness of his changed body brings to him new perspectives on his relationships with family and work colleagues. In addition to modified hearing capabilities, Gregor discovers that when he speaks no one can comprehend the audio vibrations he’s emitting. At first he “did his best to make his voice sound as normal as possible by enunciating the words very clearly and leaving long pauses between them,” but ultimately he discovers that he can only convey his intentions and preferences through body movements and gestures. As he’s trying to get out of bed on this first morning of the metamorphosis, Gregor abandons his attempts to voice his apologies and his awareness that he must hurry to make up for lost time—determining instead to figure out how to use his new legs and carapace to take the action. Yet, audio still concerns him: “His biggest worry was the loud crash he would not be able to help making, which would probably cause anxiety, if not terror, behind all the doors.” Anxiety and perhaps terror as the result of sounds emitted by unseen actions captures the shared eeriness of The Metamorphosis and Twin Peaks, and these impacts are heightened by the dark humor of Gregor’s and Gordon Cole’s speech patterns and malapropisms.

What’s more, Gregor’s worry about audio miscommunications generates in his mind a subsequent worry about how the chief and other work colleagues will interpret his action of not coming to work–the transformation to gigantic insect itself practically irrelevant in itself: “What a fate, to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion! Were all employees in a body nothing but scoundrels, was there not among them one single loyal devoted man who, had he wasted only an hour or so of the firm’s time in a morning, was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed?”

While Gregor was haunted by his workplace culture—a sentiment doubtless influenced by Kafka’s own professional experience in an insurance firm—the analog insurance firm, Lucky 7, in Season Three of Twin Peaks has a radically different culture. Bushnell Mullins is far from tyrannical; I’d say he’s one of the most loveable characters of the latest season. However, the paperwork bureaucracy of an insurance firm still appears in Twin Peaks through the massive folder-compiled paper and ink files that Dougie is tasked with reviewing in order to avoid losing his position for asserting a colleague was cheating the firm. The sequence of Dougie reviewing those case files is actually one of my favorites in Season Three. It is Lynchian and Kafkaesque with its combined elements: the moody song “Windswept” lending audio shape to a seemingly endless stack of legal documents, contracts, and fire investigation reports as well as Dougie’s cryptic method of pencilled analysis assisted by little green illuminations. The sequence reads as a brilliant innovation connected to but not what you might call under the influence of Kafka.

In addition to communication about work, Gregor struggles with his grasp of who and what he is when it comes to his room. As I’ve written in other Backstory Investigations, mise-en-scene is a great way to read Twin Peaks in concert with other texts, and The Metamorphosis is no exception. In the second paragraph of the story, the reader learns of only one object in Gregor’s bedroom that captures something personal—a magazine photo of a beautiful woman dressed in several articles of fur, particularly a muff in which she’s placed her hands up to the forearms so they aren’t visible. This lone object of personal decor helps frame the story both in terms of human-animal blur and of fantasy being colonized by the glossy world of advertisement-driven mass media. Nevermind that Gregor appears to care little about money beyond what his family needs to keep the wolves from the door; his very fantasies and dreams and desires are populated by media that means to sell. This parallels with much of Lynch’s work, not just Twin Peaks but especially with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. And what’s important is not the specific content of the woman’s physical beauty and her wealth as signaled by the preponderance of furs; rather, what’s important is the existence, slender as it may seem, of Gregor’s capacity for fantasy, for desire. Twin Peaks and The Metamorphosis can both lead those who dive into them into our own investigations of how our communications, fantasies, and desires are structured so that one might get clearer glimpses of being and of how to make being a state of coexistence that’s better for everyone.

a picture of mirene on the floor with a cat sized bug crawling next to it

But to zoom the scale back down to Gregor’s room, later in the story his sister and mother try to determine whether or not they should remove all the human furniture. On the one hand, his sister, the one family member capable of comprehending at least some of Gregor’s insect-bodied gestures, believes that he’ll be happier with more space to crawl unencumbered by the furniture. On the other hand, his mother believes the furniture is the only tie to his prior humanity remaining in his room and that it must stay, perhaps so the family can go on as if he’s still human and perhaps to encourage him to un-metamorphosize back to human form. Gregor, detached from the conventional momentum of his furniture and the magazine picture on the wall, cannot quite decide one way or the other. All of the stuff in his room that has been part of him has been made strange and he now reads his own mise-en-scene as if a detective trying to put together a profile of himself. This reflective work takes one final turn near the end of the story when the family has largely given up hope and begins to use Gregor’s room to store whatever household detritus they want out of sight. As he loses control over the objects that project or evince his identity, Gregor loses the will to go on. Even Gregor wonders if this being in his room is really him—or, in Twin Peaks parlance, a tulpa—since the family comes to believe it’s a double because the real Gregor would never have stayed so long and tormented them with his alien presence.

three women look in horror at a ginormous bug hanging from the ceiling

Kafka’s detailed attention to mise-en-scene makes for a productive juxtaposition with Twin Peaks. Though the series tends to maximalism by contrast with Kafka’s minimalism, the objects in personal spaces are equally lively and weird. I think of Big Ed Hurley pausing to examine a new knick-knack that Nadine had just added to the display shelves in their home. For just an instant he seems to be out of time and space, perceiving a sort of message from the unconscious that’s awfully hard to receive clearly—a message about Nadine’s fantasy, his own, and how these are structured. I think, too, of Agent Cooper forming the picture of Leo Johnson being shot by pointing to the geese decorations on the living room wall and stating that these same birds were flying that night. The instances go on and on and what’s key is to slow down and observe how characters interact with these objects–that’s where form and content converge.

As a final resonance between Twin Peaks and The Metamorphosis, Gregor, like Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me, is filled with love when he resolves to disappear. And as with Laura, the story goes on after the protagonist’s demise. All three of Gregor’s surviving family members have become newly successful and together they foresee a lovely future already unfolding for them. As a narrative twist, then, the image of Gregor sacrificing nearly all of himself to provide financial stability to the family has the rug pulled out from under it. A reader can’t help but wonder if Gregor has always, in fact, held his family back. The titular metamorphosis, then, refers to the rest of the Samsa family as much or more than it does to Gregor’s becoming an insect. This perspective doesn’t discard Gregor, but it reframes the story as a picture of deep entanglements and the complexities of living as social beings. Similarly, Twin Peaks was always so much more than the promotional tagline “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Twin Peaks is a magical metamorphosis of lives and loves that suffer and thrive—Twin Peaks is stories within stories of individuals entangled.

Written by Andy Hageman


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  1. I can’t believe this didn’t occur to me until now, but there are similarities between “The Metamorphosis” and “The Fly.” I’m thinking here of the 1986 David Cronenberg version, and it wouldn’t be the last time Cronenberg combined his trademark body-horror with an insect motif—his “Naked Lunch” (1991) also blurred the line between people and bugs.

    Samsa is like Dougie in that people don’t seem as surprised as they should be at his condition. Why is he merely tolerated by his family and let go from his job instead of being studied by doctors and scientists? Even the guy in “Mant!”, the film-within-a-film in “Matinee” (1993), got more of a reaction from his family GP. And why does nobody seem more than mildly annoyed by Dougie’s waxy affect? It doesn’t seem weird to them that he forgot how to pee? We, the audience, end up just having to roll with it.

    That drawing of insect-Samsa hanging from the ceiling is also sort of Giger-esque.

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