Franz Kafka’s A Report to the Academy is a short story, in the form of a first-person account voiced by a human-like ape who was shot and captured in West Africa then transported to Europe by ship in a cage. ‘Red Peter’ is driven to escape his cage, so he embraces the process and performance of becoming human, which includes learning to speak and behave like one of his captors.
‘Freedom was not what I wanted,’ he reports, retrospectively. ‘Only a way out; right or left, or in any direction; I made no other demand; even should the way out prove to be an illusion… To get out somewhere, to get out! Only not to stay motionless with raised arms, crushed against a wooden wall.’ Red Peter has a strong incentive for self-transformation, but it has little to do with chasing his dreams. He doesn’t become human-like because it is a higher or better way of being. He does it purely to escape the trap.
I felt trapped as well. I grew up us a welfare kid with troubled, erratic and unreliable parents. They separated when I was two, which meant that there were two traps laid out for me, two cages I would have to inhabit.
They were substantially different cages. When I was sent to live with my father and his wife at the age of five it was like being sent across an ocean. I barely knew him, and nothing in that new environment made sense to me—not least because the only family I’d known until then was Greek, while my father’s was Anglo. I had to assimilate, and I did this by observing, mimicking, trial and error, by learning to conceal or suppress what was now regarded as deviant, by trying out different personas. The way that I was—behaviourally and inwardly—didn’t fit, so I had to adapt.
Some of the transformations were physical: I grew a mullet and received an earring. I had no control over those developments (I certainly didn’t want the earring) but they were signs of belonging, tribal markings. My father and stepmother were stamping their influence on me, blending me into their world. I was inwardly hostile to every change, but I had nowhere to go, so I yielded.
This was an important experience. To have lived and looked and felt and been one way until the age of five or six, and to then be re-made against my will, in response to a new environment, new people, and new behavioural norms. And to then experience a version of this several times over as I shifted from place to place, parent to grandparent to distant acquaintances to institutional care. But by this steady and repeated exposure to foreign worlds, to change and uncertainty, I became largely immune to the anxiety it can produce. Because I don’t feel that I have a settled place, I rarely feel wholly out of place, and because I don’t fear expulsion, I’m prepared to take the kind of social risks that—paradoxically—can make me seem even more embedded in whatever world I’m occupying.
But mine is not a typical working class, or even underclass, story. While poor children are far more likely to experience severe and repeated upheavals, most working-class people are vitally embedded in their communities. Their sense of identity is dependent on ties with family and peers, and they have no burning incentive to radically re-make themselves. This kind of attached and well-adjusted person is extremely bad at passing as anything other than themselves, mostly because they don’t want to. They’re proud of their origins, loyal to their communities, and they resent outsiders who fail to appreciate the values and norms that make their lives meaningful. When they arrive at a sandstone university, or somewhere similarly dominated by middle-class sensibilities, they stick out like sore thumbs.
I was not like that, partly because I needed a way out more than I needed freedom. I left the bulk of my old life behind, but it wasn’t especially hard because I’d done it all before, and because I’ve never developed a fixed identity. Who I am has always partly depended on where I am and who I’m with.
I haven’t consciously set out to ‘pass’ as middle-class, but nor have I known what it is to be an obviously irreconcilable presence in the middle-class world. For much of the last fifteen years, I’ve had to correct a different assumption: I’ve had to point out that I never went to a fancy school or relied on networks of support. I’m a white male who mostly writes, talks and thinks about literature, which is a cliché of the privileged type. But I have also been an unwanted and uneasy bogan child with an earring and a mullet who barely recognised himself in the mirror because in his mind he was a bold, vain and well-dressed little Greek boy. Because I’ve known what it is to become another person’s version of me, and because I’ve so often had to correct assumptions about my origins and beliefs, it’s never been difficult to suspend the categorising impulse or to try out new ways of being.
Red Peter says:
I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth…. In revenge, however, my memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more…. I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels; and the opening in the distance, through which it comes and through which I once came myself, has grown so small that, even if my strength and my will power sufficed to get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through.
Becoming human, for Red Peter, means casting away memory and transforming into something so alien that it is impossible to return without skinning yourself alive. The price of ‘a way out’ is that it is one-directional: you’ll never fit back in, nor can you authentically speak as, or for, the person you left behind.
I could say that passing as middle class also requires superficial adjustments. You have to make yourself gentle, physically small and approachable. You have to smile more than is natural, but never too broadly. You have to nod along and make reassuring gestures in conversation. You have to accept that there is such a thing as middle-class macho-ness, even if most of the working-class girls and women you’ve known are more physically and behaviourally domineering than middle-class men. And behaviour that once marked you out as peculiar or feminine, like reading and writing, take on a radically different colouring.
But, overall, crossing into the middle-class is no different from any other kind of migration. We get along well enough when we pay attention to the particular, when we take people as we find them, and when we accept that misrecognition, and feeling—or even being—left out, is an ordinary and universal part of the migrant experience. When you are a stranger in a strange land, you rarely benefit from total acceptance or the feeling of belonging. Perhaps you can hope for it, but only a fantasist expects it. Instead, you ask: is this better than the actual, rather than an imagined, alternative? Is the price worth paying? For those who are trying to escape a bad situation, like Red Peter, the answer will typically be ‘yes’.
I had no realistic example of functionality to follow as a teenager, never mind attainment or excellence, so I bumbled along, working in filthy and exhausting jobs, mostly in the recycling industry. I was white trash buried in trash, moving it around and being moved around by it, day after day, year after year, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, which are some of the most intensely lived years of most people’s lives. I felt, keenly, that unemployment was more dignified, but unemployment was another cage I was hoping to evade. The trap seemed inescapable, until it wasn’t.
I passed into the middle-class via university. There, for the first time in my life, I could talk at length with living creatures about literature, philosophy and history. I could immerse myself in intellectual exploration instead of meaningless, arduous and soul-destroying labour. Instead of working full days in scorching heat, being constantly sunburnt (or rednecked), cut through gloves by broken glass, showered with rotten milk or enduring countless other forms of degradation and humiliation, I sat in airconditioned seminar rooms and libraries reading German philosophers and French poets. Instead of being ordered around like a lump of meat, I pursued whatever excited me. Such is life outside the cage.
And it costs so little. A few decades of misrecognition? A lifetime of unbelonging? Unending dismay at the inability (or unwillingness) of others to notice their extraordinary luck?
I’ll take it.