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Dec 31, 2013

Northrop Frye at Home and Abroad: His Ideas

Link: http://www.jeanogrady.ca/frye/ideas.html

Northrop Frye at Home and Abroad: His Ideas
by Jean O'Grady
This is a speech to the Senior Alumni at the University of Toronto, subsequently published in the Northrop Frye Newsletter, 8, no. 1 (Summer 1999). If I were writing it today, I would place more emphasis on the role of literature in intensifying consciousness--an important aspect of Frye's later thought that we are learning more about as his notebooks are published.

Northrop Frye  
What a guy        
Read more books than 
You or I

So begins a ditty about Frye popular at one time among undergraduates at Victoria College. It encapsulates the local view of Frye--affectionate, proprietorial, somewhat in awe of the great man but by no means overwhelmed. There is a curious dichotomy between this picture of Frye and that of the eminent man of letters celebrated by the world at large. Frye became an international phenomenon, the literary critic who opened up criticism as a discipline in its own right, and adumbrated a vast structure for the whole of literature. His books have been translated into 17 languages including Serbo-Croatian, Korean, and Portuguese; his theories have been used to elucidate works from Old English to Russian. Italy takes a particular interest in him, and hosted a conference on his works in Bologna in 1987. In the Far East, too, he is a hot property, and Professor Wu of Inner Mongolia is hard at work translating his early essays. The Northrop Frye papers in the Victoria University Library contain letters from 26 different colleges and universities offering Frye a job--and this is just in the 18 years between 1959 and 1977. The offers range from a permanent appointment as Mackenzie King Professor at Harvard, to a job in the English Department at Arizona State U.

In spite of this world-wide fame, and of 38 honorary degrees, Frye spent most of his working life at the (with all due respects) comparatively obscure Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He enrolled as an undergraduate in the college in 1929, studying Philosophy and English; then after his graduation he studied theology at Emmanuel, the theological college of Victoria University, while doing some part-time lecturing in the college English Department. As it became apparent that teaching was his vocation, the college authorities helped to send him to England for two years, to round out his English studies at Merton College. He persevered there, in spite of finding Oxford “dismally cold, wet, clammy, muggy, damp, and moist, like a morgue,” but was relieved to be taken on permanently in the English Department at Victoria in 1939. There he remained, except for spells as visiting professor, until his retirement. For years he rode the subway to work like any beginning lecturer, expounded his pass course in Biblical symbolism to undergraduates of every degree of sophistication, probably spent Saturday afternoons grading essays.

I first met him in this guise myself in 1960. I was going to study English Lang. and Lit. and had been advised by my high school guidance counsellor to enroll at Victoria so that I would, as they say, “get Frye.” I did get him, for several courses, and an amazing figure he was: dumpy and pastey-coloured, with an almost shifty air, as if he didn't quite belong inside this mortal envelope, he would open his mouth and in a quiet and unemphatic voice give expression to the most searching analysis, the most suggestive generalizations, the most piercing insights, all in sentences and whole paragraphs perfectly controlled and modulated. Even his witty remarks were delivered deadpan, with just the occasional quick upturn at the side of his mouth if you seemed to get the joke.

Going back into the past, here's a reminiscence of Frye as a lecturer by one of his students in 1946, political columnist Douglas Fisher, who had just arrived at college under the veterans' preference with many other former soldiers:

“Our class, perhaps 40 [people], was stiff. The general tone was serious, almost apprehensive. It reeked of both earnestness and doubt...At 9.05 a slight chap walked in, his suit too large, a dour Russian quality about its hang and texture. He was blond, his hair heavy, but haloed with wisps and snarls. [In his younger days, this blond mop had earned him the nickname ‘Buttercup.’] On first look, he seemed prissy, uncomfortable, yet curiously like a robot. Stiff--and we were stiffer.

He began while staring out the window...“My subject today is George Bernard Shaw...”, and he was away. A tape recorder would have picked up little but the teacher's voice. Except for an occasional titter, the class didn't loosen up. When the bell rang, the man stopped talking, bobbed his head, and left.

He was no sooner gone from the room when an uproar of comments made the place noisy. “This can't be university, it's too entertaining.” “What's this man's name?” A girl beside me looked at me for seconds but her mind wasn't there. When her beatific smile finally broke, she said, “That was better than any movie I've ever seen.” What I knew was--if this was university, I wanted a lot more of it, and the teacher...What a break! Northrop Frye as first voice heard at university.”

Frye was always the opposite of grandstanding or charismatic, the conduit of a force that came purely from the mind and owed nothing to physical stature. In 1950, when he spent a year as a visiting professor at Harvard, he went to a store where the proprietors took a friendly interest in the students. As Frye relates it, “the clerk asked me what I was studying, and I said, with only a touch of shrillness, that I was teaching. Just for the summer, of course. He wrapped my parcel, handed it to me, and said, ‘And I hope your permanent appointment comes through all right.’ ”

Working on the Collected Works of Northrop Frye I encounter another form of this contrast between appearance and reality. Perhaps most of you are already aware of this project, started under the auspices of Victoria University and now liberally supported by McMaster: but I hope you'll forgive me for taking the opportunity for a bit of publicity. Under the general editorship of Alvin Lee, we hope to bring out some 30 volumes of Frye's writings. I've brought along the first two volumes, recently published, the letters Frye and his future wife Helen exchanged between 1932 and 1939. These are edited by Robert D. Denham (please feel free to order on your way out). From the point of view of my present theme, what is interesting is that the Collected Works is to include not just the previously-published articles and books, but also, as you see, some of the private papers Frye deposited in the Victoria Library. As well as the letters, these include diaries and a whole series of notebooks. Frye thought in writing, and in these notebooks he wrestled with trains of thought, worked and re-worked the shapes of his books, and reflected on his own strengths and weaknesses. Just to give one example--this is not in a notebook but on a separate sheet of paper headed

STATEMENT FOR THE DAY OF MY DEATH:
“The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and competent professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.”

In donating these papers to a public repository, Frye must have forseen their eventual publication. It is not too much to say that they open up an entirely new Frye unsuspected by the general public and even by most of his friends and associates. Already I'm told that people who have read the Frye and Helen letters are amazed, their usual reaction being, “I never would have believed that Northrop Frye was so amorous!” And who would believe that Frye longed to write a novel--indeed, to write 8 novels, each in a different mode, covering between them all types of fiction from the comedy of manners to the war novel. He is sometimes accused of being exclusively concerned with western literature, yet these notebooks reveal that he was quietly studying Eastern philosophy in the 40s, long before it became fashionable, and that he hoped to write what he called a ‘Bardo’ novel based on inter-life existence as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. His published works seem complicated enough, but in his private schemes he was constantly trying to slot what he had written into a vast 8-fold circle which would mirror the novels on the critical level, besides forming parallels with the different divisions of the Bible, the parts of the Blakean corpus, not to mention the musical keys, the colours, and the astrological signs. Hayden White spoke more truly than he knew when he remarked that he sensed a subterranean Frye--that when talking to Frye he “had the feeling that he was always in that shop in the back of the mind of which Montaigne spoke, working on some intellectual issue.”

In suggesting this series of contrasts, between inner man and public persona, awkward figure and eloquent speaker, Toronto teacher and international icon, I'm working with categories that are not exactly parallel. But I feel I have a warrant in the practice of Frye himself, that inveterate manipulator of equivalents, correspondences, and categories. The particular binary oppositions I've been suggesting seem to me important because they lead in to something very central to Frye's thought, which might best be described as the relation between the individual and his society. In Frye's case, the question involves his own Canadianness and his Protestant inheritance. How is the individual absolutely himself yet the committed member of a corporate entity? The question is parallel to one encountered in his literary criticism, where Frye maintained that he recognized the uniqueness of the work of art, while his critics complained that he was obliterating it by relating the work to generic and archetypal patterns.

As background to these matters I'd like to take a few minutes to look at the outlines of Frye's thought as a whole. This will be familiar ground to some of you, but I hope not to all. Though Frye first gained recognition with his book on Blake,Fearful Symmetry, in 1947, it was the Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 that brought him world-wide attention. In this book he argued for literary criticism as a scientific discipline with a coherent structure of its own, as opposed on the one hand to the dilettantish and belle-lettrist approach that pointed out the beauties and flaws of individual works, and on the other to the historical approach which related works to their times and thus made criticism a mere parasite on history. TheAnatomy took a sweeping overview of western literature from its origins to the present, and in Aristotelian fashion mapped out its genera and species. One of its main contentions was that poems take the forms they do because of the imperatives of literature, not because of the author's desire to capture life or to express his own individuality. Poems are made from other poems; or, in the words of Yeats, “There is no singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.”

Criticism could look at the forms taken by literature from several different perspectives, expounded in the four main chapters of the book. Historical criticism, in Essay #1, saw writing devolve in a way most conveniently encapsulated by the status of its hero. [By the way, I apologize for the use of non-inclusive language. Frye always insisted that terms like ‘he’ and ‘man’ were inclusive, on Sydney Smith's principle that “man generally embraces woman.”] Anyway, Frye saw the history of literature as the increasing displacement of a mythic core towards realism. Thus in earliest times we have myth itself, in which the hero is a god-figure superior in kind to other men and his environment. In romance, which flowered in the middle ages, the hero is a human being but one with unusual powers, and his actions escape somewhat from the laws of nature. The Renaissance brings us to the dominance of the high mimetic mode, where the hero is superior in degree to other men, but subject to ordinary laws of nature--typically, he is a prince, the hero of tragedy. As realistic fiction develops in the low mimetic mode, the hero becomes an ordinary person, one of us. And in the ironic mode increasingly prominent in the twentieth century, the hero is an anti-hero or powerless man, as in Beckett and Kafka, and the reader looks down on scenes of frustration and absurdity. I haven't time to go into the sub-divisions of this diagram, which by describing a tragic and a comic form of each mode, a naive or sentimental version of each of those, and a parallel sequence of thematic modes, moves from five to forty different categories.

Essay 2 of the Anatomy (Ethical Criticism) approaches literature not historically, but as a simultaneous existence in the present, and suggests five different phases of criticism based largely on symbolism. For Frye, images are not just incidental figures stuck on to make a piece of writing more vivid. The very essence of literature, which is a hypothetical mode addressed to the imagination, is metaphor. From the earliest stories which identified the gods with parts of the natural world, as with sky-gods and sea-gods and so on, the essential literary and imaginative act has been to identify some aspect of the natural world with some aspect of humanity. On the literal level we can look at the poem as an individual unit whose images and sounds relate internally to each other; on the descriptive, we study its relation to the world it reflects. The formal phase unites both to get at its meaning. Finally we move into the last two phases of archetypal and anagogical criticism which are Frye's particular province. On the archetypal level we relate the poem to literature as a whole, studying genres and conventions; and on the anagogical level, we see literature as a total order of words organized metaphorically, a vast imaginative construct which presents man's vision of the world as he wishes it to be: from this perspective, nature has been completely humanized, and the distinction between subject and object, nature and perceiving mind has been obliterated. This, Frye says, is the imaginative model for human work, the vision of paradise regained.

The details of archetypal criticism, studied in Essay 3 of the Anatomy, are organized into two areas, the static and the dynamic. Statically, Frye discerns two archetypal groups corresponding to the two extremes of wish and nightmare: the apocalyptic imagery of gardens, sheepfolds, bread and wine, holy cities and so on, which are the metaphors of human desire, and the demonic imagery of monsters, waste lands, and fiery furnaces, which define all that man rejects. For the dynamic movement of plot, Frye invoked one of the most basic patterns, the cycle--as in the changing of the year from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter, and back to spring--phases which correspond with the movement of the day into night, with the human life-cycle, and with the process of disillusionment. (It's unfortunate to point out to the senior alumni that we're down here on the downside of the cycle, along with Leviathan and the desert). In what was probably his most influential and widely-accepted contribution to criticism, Frye distinguished four basic, pre-generic plot types: comedy, where the movement is from complications and difficulties into marriage and the birth of a new society; romance, whose action takes place in a summer world where ordinary laws are suspended; tragedy, which moves from a high point to death and defeat; and irony, imprisoned in a world below the human. These archetypal plots occur throughout the different historical modes, as do the character-types associated with them: thus the tricky servant in the plays of Plautus is reincarnated in the figure of our friend Jeeves, and the feast at the end of Roman comedy is still going strong in the last pages of Larry's Party.

Finally, and as somewhat of an anti-climax, the fourth essay in the Anatomy discusses rhetorical criticism, in which literature is looked at according to the genres, such as epic, lyric, and satire.

The Anatomy of Criticism was received with tremendous intellectual excitement, though by no means with universal assent. It ushered in that explosion of criticism which has made theory the dominant genre in the last half of the twentieth century. Some critics, appalled at its encyclopaedic subdivisions, balked at the thought that swallowing such an enormous pill was necessary for its salutary effects. Frye always denied the accusation that he was trying to make everyone accept his whole ‘system’ like a straightjacket; he remarked to an interviewer that perhaps he would ultimately be found less useful as a systemizer than as a quarry for later thinkers, “a kind of lumber-room for later generations...a resource person for anyone to explore and get ideas from.” He also declared his own indifference to his future reputation: “If posterity doesn't like me, the hell with posterity--I won't be living in it anyway.”

But perhaps the major criticism levelled was that the book minimized the writer's immediate involvement in and meaning for his society. The anagogic level was either ignored or disbelieved in, and Frye was criticized for suggesting an autonomous literary universe to be studied in and for itself, cut off from social history, from authorial imperatives, and from the realistic representation of the world. Criticisms of this sort ranged from Ezra Pound's reported, “Anagogical? Hell's bells, nobody knows what that is!” to the more magisterial words of a critic: “It is a dehistoricization and desocialization of life, ontologically a despecification.” The Frygian critic seemed a dry anatomist, utterly uninvolved in the needs of his readers for guidance and wisdom and of his society for literary culture.

The criticism of remoteness from ordinary society and its concerns, applied to Frye himself as a critic, was radically unjust: even at the time of the Anatomy he was deeply involved in Canadian culture. He worked out his critical principles from his study of William Blake, but he honed them on Canadian poetry: and not Canadian poetry as we have it today, but Canadian poetry of the pre-Atwood era. For ten years, from 1951 to 1960, he wrote the Poetry in English section of the University of Toronto Quarterly's annual survey of Canadian literature. To produce this he had to read virtually all the poetry published during the preceding twelve months--a mixed bag, as you can imagine. Wit and word-play abound in Frye's reviews, whatever might be said of the poems. For instance, “One can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as of buttercups in the Canadian Poetry Magazine.” Of the book First Flowering, which collected high-school poets, he remarked that none of these youngsters was likely to become a professional poet. “If there were any such, the book, for them, would be better entitled First Deflowering.”

As a reviewer, Frye was not entirely bound by his own notorious stand against value-judgments, that the function of the academic critic is not to sit on high pronouncing whether a work is good or bad, but rather to see what the work is trying to do and how it relates to existing literature. Indeed, he bore witness to his less-noticed concession that value judgments are inevitable on one level, even though they may reflect only one's cultural conditioning. He hit upon some ingenious ways of commenting on poems that were unlikely to be keepers. “Arthur Bourinot's The Treasures of the Snow affects a very short line which would be well adapted for bringing out rhythmical subtleties if there were more subtleties to bring out.” “Of [the books] in the check-list below, some achieve a certain uniform competence, . . . but otherwise there is nothing for a reviewer to say except to hope that they will find their audience.” Edna Jaques was one of the most popular poets of the time. “The opening lines of her book indicate her mastery of the central technical device of nostalgic verse, a list of reminders or stimuli, vigorously checked off one after the other:

The strong clean smell of yellow soap,  
A farmer plowing with a team,  
The taste of huckleberry pie      
A pan of milk with wrinkled cream.

No, if this kind of thing is worth writing, Miss Jaques is certainly the person who knows best how to write it, and all our poets who are ambitious of belonging to the ‘conservative’ or ‘romantic’ school should learn about nostalgia from her.”

In spite of such equivocations, necessary to one who was expected to comment on every offering, he kept in mind that his primary function was to elucidate. In his Canadian reviews he showed that reading current poetry is an essential cultural activity, “the poetic conversation of cultivated people,” and thus he helped to build up a reading public that would allow an indigenous, mature literature to flower.

Theoretically, too, Frye elaborated on the social role of literature in studies of the relation between the poet, or the critic, and his society. Though he continued to produce a stream of practical criticism--books on Shakespeare, Milton, and T.S. Eliot, articles on the Renaissance, Yeats, Joyce, Samuel Butler, and numerous others--he also wrote books like The Well-Tempered Critic and The Critical Path (1971). In the latter, subtitled An essay on the social context of literary criticism, he introduced a new terminology and a new twist to the word ‘myth.’ Frye saw a constant dialectic in human history between the myth of concern and the myth of freedom. The myth of concern is society's central mythology, the body of what it believes as a society and what holds it together. Later Frye split it into primary concern, essentials like food, sex, property, and freedom of movement, and secondary concern, the structures of religion, politics, and ideology. The myth of freedom is the liberal, generally scientific opposition which criticizes the myth of concern from an individualistic point of view. Poets, Frye says, are basically children of concern in that they address mankind's enduring hopes and fears. No longer, of course, do they speak for a central mythology generally shared by society. Instead of the myth of concern that society offers, which tends to conformity and received ideas, literature offers a blueprint of concern which is hypothetical, incorporates the questionings of the myth of freedom, and is not to be believed in implicitly but held in the mind as an imaginative model. Viewed as a whole (and here you'll notice the anagogic level of the Anatomyreappearing) literature presents a total body of possible belief, a ‘great code’ of concern or vision of society that the critic explicates.

Frye's interest in the social context of literature led him to consider increasingly the role of language in all its aspects, literary and non-literary, in constituting human culture; latterly he tended to define himself as a ‘cultural critic’ rather than a ‘literary critic.’ His two last weighty books, The Great Code in 1981, and Words with Power in 1990, both begin with expositions of the theory of language that respond to the explosion of linguistics and semiotics in the previous decades. Language is seen to go through three phases, the metaphorical, the dialectical, and the descriptive, corresponding roughly to an age of stories, an age of reasoned argument, and an age of science. Literature keeps alive the earliest, metaphoric phase of language, and in his last works Frye delved into the basic source for those metaphors in the Bible. (I'm sure some of you became acquainted with this in your RK Option course.) Again there are two aspects, the cyclical and the dialectical. Looked at as a plot, or mythos, the Bible is a comedy: it gives the history of mankind, under the name of Israel, from creation in paradise, through a fall into time and encroaching darkness, to apocalypse and the regaining of paradise, with a series of falls and recoveries in between. Seen dialectically, its imagery falls into the two categories, mentioned before, of apocalyptic and demonic imagery.

Ultimately, all these figures can be identified with a single figure, which is Christ. This human figure is both the fulfilled individual and the giant form of his society. In Paul's words, “So we, being many, are one body in Christ;” in Frye's interpretation, “the community with which the individual is identical is no longer a whole of which he is a part, but another aspect of himself.” Frye's Return of Eden ends with “the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world, and that all walls of partition have been broken down forever.” Frye is not inculcating religious doctrine here, since from a literary point of view ‘belief’ in Christ is not in question. Rather he is pointing out that mankind's imagination culminates in a single human figure who is both one and many, the individual glorified as his social body.

Those of you familiar with Blake will recognize that Frye has come full circle. Blake's universe is populated by mighty figures--the human imagination as the chained Los, a vengeful God as the stern Urizen. For Blake it is the local that becomes the universal, not some construct abstracted from many locals and resembling none; he believed in the radiance of the particular--a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. In so stating, I too hope to have come full circle, recalling my opening question of the relation of the individual to his society. Society--that is, a real society, is the fulfilment of the individual, not an obliteration of him.

A corollary to this doctrine is the importance of roots, of starting from one particular time and place. Where you are, Frye would say, can be the centre of the universe, with the circumference the reach of the imagination, potentially infinite. This may recall Frye's famous remark that the question in Canadian literature was not so much ‘Who am I?’ as ‘Where is here?’ Successful literatures are apt to be regional, rooted in a particular place such as Faulkner's southern states or Margaret Laurence's Manawaka. In individual terms, you belong to something before you are something; from the moment you draw breath you are defined by sex, class, nationality. Growing up is a long and arduous process of what Jung would call individuation. It involves certainly escaping the uncritical acceptance of the norms of society and transcending the limitations of sex, class, and so on. But the goal of the process is not an isolated individual but a social being, one with ties to all of mankind.

This brings us naturally to Frye's educational theories. He lived through exciting times for education. When he began teaching, the Ontario government was just being influenced by the tail end of the progressive or Deweyite movement, with its demand for a more useful and practical curriculum geared for ‘life’ and involving ‘the whole child.’ Later, after Russia launched its Sputnik, he weathered the demand for an increasingly technological education geared towards tangible scientific achievement. Still later came the upheavals of the 60s and 70s, with radical student demands for ‘relevance’ and complete freedom to design one's own curriculum. Frye was actually spending a term as visiting lecturer at Berkeley when the first violent student unrest broke out in the spring of 1969, leading him to say that the student radicals reminded him of a sentence in an old cook-book: “Brains are very perishable, and unless frozen or pre-cooked, should be used as soon as possible.” And finally there was the outcry over ‘the canon,’ and the rejection of all those miserable dead white males who wrote the great books. Frye's response was consistently to defend the values of a traditional, disinterested liberal education. “An arts degree is useless,” he would say, “if it isn't, it isn't worth a damn.”

Frye saw that the student came to university stuffed with the clichés and received ideas of a society that was essentially unreal and phantasmagoric. Fads come and go, an endless line of consumer goods are consumed or thrown away, politicians are assassinated, millions mourn a Diana they never knew. For four years, the student could withdraw himself from this society, and concentrate on the more stable forms proffered by mankind's achievements in the arts and sciences: on what Frye called the authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination. The student of literature engages with that total order of words that I sketched earlier, which provides a model for man's work and suggests a notional society, classless and enlightened; in fact the title of one of Frye's educational pieces is “We are teaching a vision of society.”

Frye's rather subdued, egoless presence as a teacher is therefore deliberate: he aimed at being a transparent medium between student and work. The source of authority in the classroom is not the teacher but the writer being studied, and the impersonal authority of the subject itself. He went so far as to say that the relation between teacher and student was rather an embarrassing one, and that the best moments in the classroom were those in which it was obliterated by a joint vision of the subject. In the light of this glimpsed vision provided by culture, the student will be a radical critic of what is: far from becoming a ‘well-rounded’ individual, with its comfortable overtones of contentment and softness, he is likely to be maladjusted and crochety. Like Socrates, the teacher has for his aim that of corrupting youth.

Sometimes Frye wondered if it was too late, when a student reached university, to influence his mind, already pre-programmed by TV and advertisements. He became involved then in schemes for earlier education, helping to found a Curriculum Institute in which university professors joined with elementary and high school teachers to suggest improvements in the curriculum, and later overseeing the production of a series of English readers for grades 7 to 13. His ideal early childhood education began with rhythm and chant and fantastic stories, with the enduring narratives of the Bible and classical myth, and encompassed at ever deeper levels the narratives of comedy and romance, tragedy and irony. His concern was to keep the imagination in play, for only through imagination could the individual think metaphorically and engage in the play of mind through language that constructed reality in human form.

Such was his notion of the mature individual in relation to his conditioning: and what of Frye himself? The particular milieu he was born into was middle-class, white, Canadian, and Methodist. Methodists were supposed to undergo a ‘conversion,’ the defining experience of their lives, when they are convinced of their utter sinfulness and of God's ability to forgive them. It's typical of Frye that he underwent an anti-conversion: having been brought up by a church-going mother, at the age of about 15, walking to school, as he put it, “the whole shitty, smelly garment of fundamentalism dropped off into the sewer and stayed there,” and he realized that he had never really believed in the vengeful God who threw the bad guys into hell and rewarded the godly with a permanent spot in the heavenly choir. Nevertheless, he remained within the Protestant tradition, imbued with its Bible culture, its radical individualism, its emphasis on the spirit. He trained as a minister, then, when it became apparent that he was temperamentally unsuited to the ministry, taught at the originally Methodist college of Victoria, and sought all his life to define a religion that did justice to man's spirituality without falling into what he saw as superstitious idolatry.

The religion he defined was radical to say the least; by the time of his last book, The Double Vision, he had virtually jettisoned the ideas of God the father, of the historical Jesus as an atoning figure, of the afterlife, of the creation as a historical event, and of the apocalypse as something that was likely to happen. As we might guess, they're all metaphors. What remains is the figure of Jesus, who is the creative principle within man linking man with the divine, and through whose vision man sees the eternal here and now. Often enough in his early years Frye felt the deficiency of the eternal at Victoria, with its endless fussing over locking the girls into residence by 11 p.m. and never serving a glass of wine; but, particularly as the multiversity developed, he stressed the vital importance of the church-based colleges with their specific traditions.

This is not to say that he was always at ease in his group. Colleagues remember him in the Senior Common Room, not talking but filling in the Times crossword puzzle, which he could complete in about half an hour. One professor recalls trying out a bit of conversation at lunch time the day after the big Quebec election: “Well, Norrie, what's the significance of the PQ victory?”, whereupon Norrie only snapped, “How the hell would I know?” and returned to eating his soup. Yet he always felt he, his colleagues, and his students formed a community and he enjoyed being part it, even to serving as its Principal for 9 years.

As for his Canadian identity, that was also something he cherished. He could no more be an American than he could be a Catholic, and he was true to his roots in not forsaking Canada for the more lucrative field of the U.S. According to his reading Canadians differed from the Americans both geographically and historically. In its history Canada had skipped over, intellectually speaking, the rational eighteenth century, and was always the home of a more Tory, less revolutionary attitude than the American. Geographically, Canada lacked an eastern seaboard where settlement was concentrated, and the immense distances stretching out between isolated towns led to a garrison mentality in regard to nature. Such speculations on the nature of Canadianness, along with essays on Canadian painting and literary figures from Haliburton to Ethel Wilson, will occupy two volumes of the Collected Works. Perhaps the chief piece will be the conclusion he wrote to the Literary History of Canada, of which he was an editor. It was one of the most satisfying aspects of his life to see Canadian literature, which was still a provincial backwater when he began, flower into the magnificent literature that we have now--a development that arguably owes something to his efforts.

Frye once defined the Canadian genius as the ability to produce strange hybrids, such as the University of Toronto in education, the United Church in religion, and Confederation in politics. He himself has some of this Canadian characteristic of contrasting entities strangely combined: the local teacher and the world celebrity, the committed Christian and the man who didn't know whether Christ ever existed and didn't think it much mattered, the believer in community and the shy introvert, the eloquent speaker and the tongue-tied conversationalist. On this showing, he himself was one of our most characteristic as well as our most famous products.

—Jean O'Grady

Dec 25, 2013

Communicative Ethics:Habermas

Link: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/habermas/1998/communicative-ethics.htm


Source: The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory. Jürgen Habermas. MIT Press, 1998, parts VIII and IX of Chapter 1 only, reproduced here;
Transcribed by: Andy Blunden.

It is no accident that the categorical imperative is directed to the second person singular and that it creates the impression that each individual could undertake the required test of norms for himself in foro interno. But in fact the reflexive application of the universalisation test calls for a form of deliberation in which each participant is compelled to adopt the perspective of all others in order to examine whether a norm could be willed by all from the perspective of each person. This is the situation of a rational discourse oriented to reaching understanding in which all those concerned participate. This idea of a discursively produced understanding also imposes a greater burden of justification on the isolated judging subject than would a monologically applied universalisation test.
Kant may have been so readily inclined to foreshorten an intersubjective concept of autonomy in an individualistic direction because he failed to distinguish ethical questions sufficiently from pragmatic questions. Anyone who takes seriously questions of ethical self-understanding runs up against the stubborn cultural meaning of an individual’s or a group’s historically changing interpretations of the world and of themselves. As a child of the eighteenth century, Kant still thinks in an unhistorical way and consequently overlooks the layer of traditions in which identities are formed. He tacitly assumes that in making moral judgments each individual can project himself into the situation of everyone else through his own imagination. But when the participants can no longer rely on a transcendental preunderstanding grounded in more or less homogeneous conditions of life and interests, the moral point of view can only be realised under conditions of communication that ensure that everyone tests the acceptability of a norm, implemented in a general practice, also from the perspective of his own understanding of himself and of the world ... in this way the categorical imperative receives a discourse-theoretical interpretation in which its place is taken by the discourse principle (D), according to which only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agreement of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.
I began with the question of whether the cognitive content of a morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody can still be justified after the collapse of its religious foundation. In conclusion, I would like to examine what the intersubjectivistic interpretation of the categorical imperative can contribute to answering the question. Here we must treat two problems separately: First, we must clarify how much of the original intuitions a discourse ethics salvages in the disenchanted universe of postmetaphysical justification and in what sense one can still speak of the cognitive validity of moral judgments and positions (VIII). Second, there is the final question of whether the content of a morality that results from the rational reconstruction of traditional, religious intuitions remains bound, in spite of its procedural character, to it original context (IX)

VIII

With the devaluation of the epistemic authority of the God’s eye view, moral commands lose their religious as well as their metaphysical foundation. This development also has implications for discourse ethics; it can neither defend the full moral contents of religious intuitions (1) nor can it represent the validity of moral norms in realist terms (2).
(1) The fact that moral practice is no longer tied to the individual’s expectation of salvation and an exemplary conduct of life through the person of a redemptive God and the divine plan for salvation has two unwelcome consequences. On the one hand, moral knowledge becomes detached from moral motivation, and on the other, the concept of morally right action becomes differentiated from the conception of a good or godly life.
Discourse ethics correlates ethical and moral questions with different forms of argumentation, namely, with discourses of self-clarification and discourses of normative justification (and application), respectively. But it does not thereby reduce morality to equal treatment; rather, it takes account of both the aspects of justice and that of solidarity. A discursive agreement depends simultaneously on the nonsubstitutable “yes” or “no” responses of each individual and on overcoming the egocentric perspective, something that all participants are constrained to do by an argumentative practice designed to produce agreement of an epistemic kind. If the pragmatic features of discourse make possible an insightful process of opinion- and will-formation that guarantees both of these conditions, then the rationally motivated “yes” or “no” responses can take the interests of each individual into consideration without breaking the prior social bond that joins all those who are oriented toward reaching understanding in a transsubjective attitude.
However, uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a motivational deficit. Because there is no profane substitute for the hope of personal salvation, we lose the strongest motive for obeying moral commands. Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse. There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action. Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that “plagues” us when we act against our better judgment. But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail.
With the loss of its foundation in the religious promise of salvation, the meaning of normative obligation also changes. The differentiation between strict duties and less binding values, between what is morally right and what is ethically worth striving for, already sharpens moral validity into a normativity to which impartial judgment alone is adequate. The shift in perspective from God to human beings has a further consequence. “Validity” now signifies that moral norms could win the agreement of all concerned, on the condition that they jointly examine in practical discourse whether a corresponding practice is in the equal interest of all. This agreement expresses two things: the fallible reason of deliberating subjects who convince one another that a hypothetically introduced norm is worthy of being recognized, and the freedom of legislating subjects who understand themselves as the authors of the norms to which they subject themselves as addressees. The mode of validity of moral norms now bears the traces both of the fallibility of the discovering mind and of the creativity of the constructing mind.
(2) The problem of in which sense moral judgments and attitudes can claim validity reveals another aspect when we reflect on the essentialist statements through which moral commands were previously justified in a metaphysical fashion as elements of a rationally ordered world. As long as the cognitive content of morality could be expressed in assertoric statements, moral judgments could be viewed as true or false. But if moral realism can no longer be defended by appealing to a creationist metaphysics and to natural law (or their surrogates), the validity of moral statements can no longer be assimilated to the truth of assertoric statements. The latter state how things are in the world; the former state what we should do.
If one assumes that, in general, sentences can be valid only in the sense of being “true” or “false” and further that “truth” is to be understood as correspondence between sentences and facts, then every validity claim that is raised for a nondescriptive sentence necessarily appears problematic. In fact, modern moral scepticism is based on the thesis that normative statements cannot be true or false, and hence cannot be justified, because there is no moral order, no such things as moral objects or facts. On this received account, the concept of the world as the totality of facts is connected with a correspondence notion of truth and a semantic conception of justification. I will very briefly discuss these questionable premises in reverse order.
A sentence or proposition is justified on the semantic conception if it can be derived from basic sentences according to valid rules of inference, where a class of basic sentences is distinguished by specific (logical, epistemological, or psychological) criteria. But the foundationalist assumption that there exists such a class of basic sentences whose truth is immediately accessible to perception or to intuition has not withstood linguistic arguments for the holistic character of language and interpretation: every justification must at least proceed from a pre-understood context or background understanding. This failure of foundationalism recommends a pragmatic conception of justification as a public practice in which criticizable validity claims can be defended with good reasons. Of course, the criteria of rationality that determine which reasons count as good reasons can themselves be made a matter for discussion. Hence procedural characteristics of the process of argumentation itself must ultimately bear the burden of explaining why results achieved in a procedurally correct manner enjoy the presumption of validity. For example, the communicative structure of rational discourse can ensure that all relevant contributions are heard and that the unforced force of the better argument alone determines the “yes” or “no” responses of the participants.
The pragmatic conception of justification opens the way for an epistemic concept of truth that overcomes the well-known problems with the correspondence theory. The truth predicate refers to the language game of justification, that is, to the public redemption of validity claims. On the other hand, truth cannot be identified with justifiability or warranted assertability. The “cautionary” use of the truth predicate — regardless of how well “p” is justified, it still may not be true — highlights the difference in meaning between “truth” as an irreducible property of statements and “rational acceptability” as a context-dependent property of utterances. This difference can be understood within the horizon of possible justifications in terms of the distinction between “justified in our context” and “justified in every context.” This difference can be cashed out in turn through a weak idealization of our processes of argumentation, understood as capable of being extended indefinitely over time. When we assert “p” and thereby claim truth for “p” we accept the obligation to defend “p” in argumentation — in full awareness of its fallibility — against all future objections.
In the present context I am less interested in the complex relation between truth and justification than in the possibility of conceiving truth, purified of all connotations of correspondence, as a special case of validity, where this general concept of validity is introduced in connection with the discursive redemption of validity claims. In this way we open up a conceptual space in which the concept of normative, and in particular moral, validity can be situated. The rightness of moral norms (or of general normative statements) and of particular normative injunctions based on them can then be understood as analogous to the truth of descriptive statements. What unites these two concepts of validity is the procedure of discursively redeeming the corresponding validity claims. What separates them is the fact that they refer, respectively, to the social and the objective worlds.
The social world, as the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relations, is accessible only from the participant’s perspective; it is intrinsically historical and hence has, if you will, an ontological constitution different from that of the objective world which can be described from the observer’s perspective. The social world is inextricably interwoven with the intentions and beliefs, the practices and languages of its members. This holds in a similar way for descriptions of the objective world but not for this world itself. Hence the discursive redemption of truth claims has a different meaning from that of moral validity claims: in the former case, discursive agreement signifies that the truth conditions of an assertoric proposition, interpreted in terms of assertability conditions, are fulfilled; in the latter case, discursive agreement justifies the claim that a norm is worthy of recognition and thereby itself contributes to the fulfillment of its conditions of validity. Whereas rational acceptability merely points to the truth of assertoric propositions, it makes a constructive contribution to the validity of moral norms. The moments of construction and discovery are interwoven in moral insight differently than they are in theoretical knowledge.
What is not at our disposal here is the moral point of view that imposes itself upon us, not an objective moral order assumed to exist independently of our descriptions. It is not the social world as such that is not at our disposal but the structure and procedure of a process of argumentation that facilitates both the production and the discovery of the norms of well-ordered interpersonal relations.
The constructivist meaning of moral judgments, understood on the model of self-legislation, must not be forgotten; but it must not obliterate the epistemic meaning of moral justifications either.

IX

Discourse ethics defends a morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody. But it does this in the first instance through a rational reconstruction of the contents of a moral tradition whose religious foundations have been undermined. If the discourse-theoretical interpretation of the categorical imperative remained bound to the tradition in which it originates, this genealogy would represent an obstacle to the goal of demonstrating the cognitive content of moral judgments as such. Thus it remains to provide a theoretical justification of the moral point of view itself.
The discourse principle provides an answer to the predicament in which the members of any moral community find themselves when, in making the transition to a modern, pluralistic society, they find themselves faced with the dilemma that though they still argue with reasons about moral judgments and beliefs, their substantive background consensus on the underlying moral norms has been shattered. They find themselves embroiled in global and domestic practical conflicts in need of regulation that they continue to regard as moral, and hence as rationally resolvable, conflicts; but their shared ethos has disintegrated. The following scenario does not depict an “original position” but an ideal-typical development that could have taken place under real conditions.
I proceed on the assumption that the participants do not wish to resolve their conflicts through violence, or even compromise, but through communication. Thus their initial impulse is to engage in deliberation and work out a shared ethical self-understanding on a secular basis. But given the differentiated forms of life characteristic of pluralistic societies, such an effort is doomed to failure. The participants will soon realize that the critical appropriation of their strong evaluations leads to competing conceptions of the good. Let us assume that they nevertheless remain resolved to engage in deliberation and not to fall back on a mere modus vivendi as a substitute for the threatened moral way of life.
In the absence of a substantive agreement on particular norms, the participants must now rely on the “neutral” fact that each of them participates in some communicative form of life which is structured by linguistically mediated understanding. Since communicative processes and forms of life have certain structural features in common, they could ask themselves whether these features harbor normative contents that could provide a basis for shared orientations. Taking this as a clue, theories in the tradition of Hegel, Humboldt, and G. H. Mead have shown that communicative actions involve shared presuppositions and that communicative forms of life are interwoven with relations of reciprocal recognition, and to this extent, both have a normative content. These analyses demonstrate that morality derives a genuine meaning, independent of the various conceptions of the good, from the form and perspectival structure of unimpaired, intersubjective socialization.
To be sure, structural features of communicative forms of life alone are not sufficient to justify the claim that members of a particular historical community ought to transcend their particularistic value-orientations and make the transition to the fully symmetrical and inclusive relations of an egalitarian universalism. On the other hand, a universalistic conception that wants to avoid false abstractions must draw on insights from the theory of communication. From the fact that persons can only be individuated through socialization it follows that moral concern is owed equally to persons both as irreplaceable individuals and as members of the community, and hence it connects justice with solidarity. Equal treatment means equal treatment of unequals who are nonetheless aware of their interdependence. Moral universalism must not take into account the aspect of equality — the fact that persons as such are equal to all other persons — at the expense of the aspect of individuality — the fact that as individuals they are at the same time absolutely different from all others. The equal respect for everyone else demanded by a moral universalism sensitive to difference thus takes the form of a nonleveling and nonappropriating inclusion of the other in his otherness.
But how can the transition to a posttraditional morality as such be justified? Traditionally established obligations rooted in communicative action do not of themselves reach beyond the limits of the family, the tribe, the city, or the nation. However, the reflexive form of communicative action behaves differently: argumentation of its very nature points beyond all particular forms of life. For in the pragmatic presuppositions of rational discourse or deliberation the normative content of the implicit assumptions of communicative action is generalized, abstracted, and freed from all limits — the practice of deliberation is extended to an inclusive community that does not in principle exclude any subject capable of speech and action who can make relevant contributions. This idea points to a way out of the modern dilemma, since the participants have lost their metaphysical guarantees and must so to speak derive their normative orientations from themselves alone. As we have seen, the participants can only draw on those features of a common practice they already currently share. Given the failure to identify a shared good, such features shrink to the fund of formal features of the performatively shared situation of deliberation. The bottom line is that the participants have all already entered into the cooperative enterprise of rational discourse.
Although it is a rather meager basis for justification, the neutral content of this common store may provide an opportunity, given the predicament posed by the pluralism of worldviews. A prospect of finding an equivalent for the traditional, substantive grounding of a normative consensus would exist if the form of communication in which joint practical deliberation takes place were such that it makes possible a justification of moral norms convincing to all participants because of its impartiality. The missing “transcendent good” can be replaced in an “immanent” fashion only by appeal to the intrinsic constitution of the practice of deliberation. From here, I suggest, three steps lead to a theoretical justification of the moral point of view.
(a) If the practice of deliberation itself is regarded as the only possible resource for a standpoint of impartial justification of moral questions, then the appeal to moral content must be replaced by the self-referential appeal to the form of this practice. This is precisely what is captured by:
(D) Only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the acceptance of all concerned in practical discourse.
Here the “acceptance” (Zustimmung) achieved under conditions of rational discourse signifies an agreement (Einverstandnis) motivated by epistemic reasons; it should not be understood as a contract (Vereinbarung) that is rationally motivated from the egocentric perspective of each participant. On the other hand, the principle of discourse leaves open the type of argumentation, and hence the route, by which a discursive agreement can be reached. (D) does not by itself state that a justification of moral norms is possible without recourse to a substantive background consensus.
(b) The hypothetically introduced principle (D) specifies the condition that valid norms would fulfill if they could be justified. For the moment we are only assuming that the concept of a moral norm is clear. The participants also have an intuitive understanding of how one engages in argumentation. Though they are assumed only to be familiar with the justification of descriptive sentences and not yet to know whether moral validity claims can be judged in a similar way, they can form a conception (without prejudging the issue) of what it would mean to justify a norm. But what is still needed for the operationalization of (D) is a rule of argumentation specifying how moral norms can be justified.
The principle of universalization (U) is indeed inspired by (D), but initially it is nothing more than a proposal arrived at abductively.
(U) A norm is valid when the foreseeable consequences and side effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could bejointly accepted by all concerned without coercion.
Three aspects of this formulation are in need of clarification. The phrase “interests and value-orientations” points to the role played by the pragmatic and ethical reasons of the individual participants in practical discourse. These inputs are designed to prevent the marginalization of the self-understanding and worldviews of particular individuals or groups and, in general, to foster a hermeneutic sensitivity to a sufficiently broad spectrum of contributions. Second, generalized reciprocal perspective-taking (“of each,” “jointly by all”) requires not just empathy for, but also interpretive intervention into, the self-understanding of participants who must be willing to revise their descriptions of themselves and others (and the language in which they are formulated). Finally, the goal of “uncoerced joint acceptance” specifies the respect in which the reasons presented in discourse cast off their agent-relative meaning and take on an epistemic meaning from the standpoint of symmetrical consideration.
(c) The participants themselves will perhaps be satisfied with this (or a similar) rule of argumentation as long as it proves useful and does not lead to counterintuitive results. It must turn out that a practice of justification conducted in this manner selects norms that are capable of commanding universal agreement — for example, norms expressing human rights. But from the perspective of the moral theorist there still remains one final justificatory step.
We may assume that the practice of deliberation and justification we call “argumentation” is to be found in all cultures and societies (if not in institutionalized form, then at least as an informal practice) and that there is no functionally equivalent alternative to this mode of problem solving. In view of the universality and nonsubsititutibility of the practice of argumentation, it would be difficult to dispute the neutrality of the discourse principle (D). But ethnocentric assumptions, and hence a specific conception of the good that is not shared by other cultures, may have insinuated themselves into the abduction of (U). The suspicion that the understanding of morality operationalized in (U) reflects eurocentric prejudices could be dispelled through an “immanent” defense of this account of the moral point of view, that is, by appealing to knowledge of what it means to engage in the practice of argumentation as such. Thus the discourse-ethical model of justification consists in the derivation of the basic principle (U) from the implicit content of universal presuppositions of argumentation in conjunction with the conception of normative justification in general expressed in (D).
This is easy to understand in an intuitive way (though any attempt to provide a formal justification would require involved discussions of the meaning and feasibility of “transcendental arguments”). Here I will limit myself to the observation that we engage in argumentation with the intention of convincing one another of the validity claims that proponents raise for their statements and are ready to defend against opponents. The practice of argumentation sets in motion a cooperative competition for the better argument, where the orientation to the goal of a communicatively reached agreement unites the participants from the outset. The assumption that the competition can lead to “rationally acceptable,” hence “convincing,” results is based on the rational force of arguments. Of course, what counts as a good or a bad argument can itself become a topic for discussion. Thus the rational acceptability of a statement ultimately rests on reasons in conjunction with specific features of the process of argumentation itself. The four most important features are: (i) that nobody who could make a relevant contribution may be excluded; (ii) that all participants are granted an equal opportunity to make contributions; (iii) that the participants must mean what they say; and (iv) that communication must be freed from external and internal coercion so that the “yes” or “no” stances that participants adopt on criticizable validity claims are motivated solely by the rational force of the better reasons. If everyone who engages in argumentation must make at least these pragmatic presuppositions, then in virtue of (i) the public character of practical discourses and the inclusion of all concerned and (ii) the equal communicative rights of all participants, only reasons that give equal weight to the interests and evaluative orientations of everybody can influence the outcome of practical discourses; and because of the absence of (iii) deception and (iv) coercion, nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favor of the acceptance of a controversial norm. Finally, on the assumption that participants reciprocally impute an orientation to communicative agreement to one another, this “uncoerced” acceptance can only occur “jointly” or collectively.
Against the frequently raised objection that this justification is circular I would note that the content of the universal presuppositions of argumentation is by no means “normative” in the moral sense. For inclusivity only signifies that access to discourse is unrestricted; it does not imply the universality of binding norms of action. The equal distribution of communicative freedoms and the requirement of truthfulness in discourse have the status of argumentative duties and rights, not of moral duties and rights. So too, the absence of coercion refers to the process of argumentation itself, not to interpersonal relations outside of this practice. These constitutive rules of the language game of argumentation govern the exchange of arguments and of “yes” or “no” responses; they have the epistemic force of enabling conditions for the justification of statements but do not have any immediate practical effects in motivating actions and interactions outside of discourse.
The point of such a justification of the moral point of view is that the normative content of this epistemic language game is transmitted only by a rule of argumentation to the selection of norms of action, which together with their moral validity claim provide the input into practical discourses. A moral obligation cannot follow from the so to speak transcendental constraint of unavoidable presuppositions of argumentation alone; rather it attaches to the specific objects of practical discourse, namely, to the norms introduced into discourse to which the reasons mobilized in deliberation refer. I emphasize this when I specify that (U) can be rendered plausible in connection with a (weak, hence nonprejudicial) concept of normative justification.
This justification strategy, which I have here merely sketched, must be supplemented with genealogical arguments drawing on premises of modernization theory, if (U) is to be rendered plausible. With (U) we reassure ourselves in a reflexive manner of a residual normative substance which is preserved in posttraditional societies by the formal features of argumentation and action oriented to reaching a shared understanding. This is also shown by the procedure of establishing universal presuppositions of argumentation by demonstrating performative self-contradictions, which I cannot go into here.
The question of the application of norms arises as an additional problem. The principle of appropriateness developed by Hans Günther first brings the moral point of view to bear on singular moral judgments in a complete manner. The outcome of successful discourses of justification and application shows that practical questions are differentiated by the sharply defined moral point of view; moral questions of well-ordered interpersonal relations are separated from pragmatic questions of rational choice, on the one hand, and from ethical questions of the good or not misspent life on the other. It has become clear to me in retrospect that (U) only operationalized a more comprehensive principle of discourse with reference to a particular subject matter, namely, morality. The principle of discourse can also be operationalized for other kinds of questions, for example, for the deliberations of political legislators or for legal discourses.

Dec 22, 2013

The Metamorphosis

Source: http://www.kafka.org/index.php?id=191,209,0,0,1,0 

Lecture on "The Metamorphosis" by Vladimir Nabokov


Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. "To take upon us the mystery of things"—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol's "The Greatcoat," or more correctly "The Carrick"); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to "so what." We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.

I want to discuss fantasy and reality, and their mutual relationship. If we consider the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" story as an allegory—the struggle between Good and Evil within every man—then this allegory is tasteless and childish. To the type of mind that would see an allegory here, its shadow play would also postulate physical happenings which common sense knows to be impossible; but actually in the setting of the story, as viewed by a commonsensical mind, nothing at first sight seems to run counter to general human experience. I want to suggest, however, that a second look shows that the setting of the story does run counter to general human experience, and that Utterson and the other men around Jekyll are, in a sense, as fantastic as Mr. Hyde. Unless we see them in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is beautifully constructed, but it is an old one. Its moral is preposterous since neither good nor evil is actually depicted: on the whole, they are taken for granted, and the struggle goes on between two empty outlines. The enchantment lies in the art of Stevenson's fancywork; but I want to suggest that since art and thought, manner and matter, are inseparable, there must be something of the same kind about the structure of the story, too. Let us be cautious, however. I still think that there is a flaw in the artistic realization of the story—if we consider form and content separately—a flaw which is missing in Gogol's "The Carrick" and in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." The fantastic side of the setting—Utterson, Enfield, Poole, Lanyon, and their London—is not of the same quality as the fantastic side of Jekyll's hydization. There is a crack in the picture, a lack of unity.

"The Carrick," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "The Metamorphosis": all three are commonly called fantasies. From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality. Let us therefore examine what reality is, in order to discover in what manner and to what extent so-called fantasies depart from so-called reality.

Let us take three types of men walking through the same landscape. Number One is a city man on a well-deserved vacation. Number Two is a professional botanist. Number Three is a local farmer. Number One, the city man, is what is called a realistic, commonsensical, matter-of-fact type: he sees trees as trees and knows from his map that the road he is following is a nice new road leading to Newton, where there is a nice eating place recommended to him by a friend in his office. The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him, this is reality; to him the world of the stolid tourist (who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world. Finally the world of the local farmer differs from the two others in that his world is intensely emotional and personal since he has been born and bred there, and knows every trail and individual tree, and every shadow from every tree across every trail, all in warm connection with his everyday work, and his childhood, and a thousand small things and patterns which the other two—the humdrum tourist and the botanical taxonomist—simply cannot know in the given place at the given time. Our farmer will not know the relation of the surrounding vegetation to a botanical conception of the world, and the botanist will know nothing of any importance to him about that barn or that old field or that old house under its cottonwoods, which are afloat, as it were, in a medium of personal memories for one who was born there.

So here we have three different worlds—three men, ordinary men who have different realities—and, of course, we could bring in a number of other beings: a blind man with a dog, a hunter with a dog, a dog with his man, a painter cruising in quest of a sunset, a girl out of gas— In every case it would be a world completely different from the rest since the most objective words tree, road, flower, sky, barn, thumb, rain have, in each, totally different subjective connotations. Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence. The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality. We may taste in it a particle of madness if a lunatic passed through that locality, or a particle of complete and beautiful nonsense if a man has been looking at a lovely field and imagining upon it a lovely factory producing buttons or bombs; but on the whole these mad particles would be diluted in the drop of objective reality that we hold up to the light in our test tube. Moreover, this objective reality will contain something that transcends optical illusions and laboratory tests. It will have elements of poetry, of lofty emotion, of energy and endeavor (and even here the button king may find his rightful place), of pity, pride, passion—and the craving for a thick steak at the recommended roadside eating place.

So when we say reality, we are really thinking of all this—in one drop—an average sample of a mixture of a million individual realities. And it is in this sense (of human reality) that I use the term reality when placing it against a backdrop, such as the worlds of "The Carrick," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "The Metamorphosis," which are specific fantasies.

In The Carrick" and in "The Metamorphosis" there is a central figure endowed with a certain amount of human pathos among grotesque, heartless characters, figures of fun or figures of horror, asses parading as zebras, or hybrids between rabbits and rats. In "The Carrick" the human quality of the central figure is of a different type from Gregor in Kafka's story, but this human pathetic quality is present in both. In "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" there is no such human pathos, no throb in the throat of the story, none of that intonation of "'I cannot get out, I cannot get out,' said the starling" (so heartrending in Sterne's fantasy A Sentimental Journey). True, Stevenson devotes many pages to the horror of Jekyll's plight, but the thing, after all, is only a superb Punch-and-Judy show. The beauty of Kafka's and Gogol's private nightmares is that their central human characters belong to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around them, but the central one tries to get out of that world, to cast off the mask, to transcend the cloak or the carapace. But in Stevenson's story there is none of that unity and none of that contrast. The Uttersons, and Pooles, and Enfields are meant to be commonplace, everyday characters; actually they are characters derived from Dickens, and thus they constitute phantasms that do not quite belong to Stevenson's own artistic reality, just as Stevenson's fog comes from a Dickensian studio to envelop a conventional London. I suggest, in fact, that Jekyll's magic drug is more real than Utterson's life. The fantastic Jekyll-and-Hyde theme, on the other hand, is supposed to be in contrast to this conventional London, but it is really the difference between a Gothic medieval theme and a Dickensian one. It is not the same kind of difference as that between an absurd world and pathetically absurd Bashmachkin, or between an absurd world and tragically absurd Gregor.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde theme does not quite form a unity with its setting because its fantasy is of a different type from the fantasy of the setting. There is really nothing especially pathetic or tragic about Jekyll. We enjoy every detail of the marvelous juggling, of the beautiful trick, but there is no artistic emotional throb involved, and whether it is Jekyll or Hyde who gets the upper hand remains of supreme indifference to the good reader. I am speaking of rather nice distinctions, and it is difficult to put them in simple form. When a certain clear-thinking but somewhat superficial French philosopher asked the profound but obscure German philosopher Hegel to state his views in a concise form, Hegel answered him harshly, "These things can be discussed neither concisely nor in French." We shall ignore the question whether Hegel was right or not, and still try to put into a nutshell the difference between the Gogol-Kafka kind of story and Stevenson's kind.

In Gogol and Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair. In Stevenson the unreal central character belongs to a brand of unreality different from that of the world around him. He is a Gothic character in a Dickensian setting, and when he struggles and then dies, his fate possesses only conventional pathos. I do not at all mean that Stevenson's story is a failure. No, it is a minor masterpiece in its own conventional terms, but it has only two dimensions, whereas the Gogol-Kafka stories have five or six.
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Born in 1883, Franz Kafka came from a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He is the greatest German writer of our time. Such poets as Rilke or such novelists as Thomas Mann are dwarfs or plaster saints in comparison to him. He read for law at the German university in Prague and from 1908 on he worked as a petty clerk, a small employee, in a very Gogolian office for an insurance company. Hardly any of his now famous works, such as his novels The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926) were published in his lifetime. His greatest short story "The Metamorphosis," in German "Die Verwandlung," was written in the fall of 1912 and published in Leipzig in October 1915. In 1917 he coughed blood, and the rest of his life, a period of seven years, was punctuated by sojourns in Central European sanatoriums. In those last years of his short life (he died at the age of forty), he had a happy love affair and lived with his mistress in Berlin, in 1923, not far from me. In the spring of 1924 he went to a sanatorium near Vienna where he died on 3 June, of tuberculosis of the larynx. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Prague. He asked his friend Max Brod to burn everything he had written, even published material. Fortunately Brod did not comply with his friend's wish.

Before starting to talk of "The Metamorphosis," I want to dismiss two points of view. I want to dismiss completely Max Brod's opinion that the category of sainthood, not that of literature, is the only one that can be applied to the understanding of Kafka's writings. Kafka was first of all an artist, and although it may be maintained that every artist is a manner of saint (I feel that very clearly myself), I do not think that any religious implications can be read into Kafka's genius. The other matter that I want to dismiss is the Freudian point of view. His Freudian biographers, like Neider in The Frozen Sea (1948), contend, for example, that "The Metamorphosis" has a basis in Kafka's complex relationship with his father and his lifelong sense of guilt; they contend further that in mythical symbolism children are represented by vermin—which I doubt—and then go on to say that Kafka uses the symbol of the bug to represent the son according to these Freudian postulates. The bug, they say, aptly characterizes his sense of worthlessness before his father. I am interested here in bugs, not in humbugs, and I reject this nonsense. Kafka himself was extremely critical of Freudian ideas. He considered psychoanalysis (I quote) as "a helpless error," and he regarded Freud's theories as very approximate, very rough pictures, which did not do justice to details or, what is more, to the essence of the matter. This is another reason why I should like to dismiss the Freudian approach and concentrate, instead, upon the artistic moment.

The greatest literary influence upon Kafka was Flaubert's. Flaubert who loathed pretty-pretty prose would have applauded Kafka's attitude towards his tool. Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author's private sentiments; this was exactly what Flaubert's method through which he achieved a singular poetic effect.

The hero of "The Metamorphosis" is Gregor Samsa (pronounced Zamza), who is the son of middle-class parents in Prague, Flaubertian philistines, people interested only in the material side of life and vulgarians in their tastes. Some five years before, old Samsa lost most of his money, whereupon his son Gregor took a job with one of his father's creditors and became a traveling salesman in cloth. His father then stopped working altogether, his sister Grete was too young to work, his mother was ill with asthma; thus young Gregor not only supported the whole family but also found for them the apartment they are now living in. This apartment, a flat in an apartment house, in Charlotte Street to be exact, is divided into segments as he will be divided himself. We are in Prague, central Europe, in the year 1912; servants are cheap so the Samsas can afford a servant maid, Anna, aged sixteen (one year younger than Grete), and a cook. Gregor is mostly away traveling, but when the story starts he is spending a night at home between two business trips, and it is then that the dreadful thing happened. "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into corrugated segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, flimmered [flicker + shimmer] helplessly before his eyes.

"What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream....

"Gregor's eyes turned next to the window—one could hear rain drops beating on the tin of the windowsill's outer edge and the dull weather made him quite melancholy. What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought, but it could not be done, for he was accustomed to sleep on his right side and in his present condition he could not turn himself over. However violently he tried to hurl himself on his right side he always swung back to the supine position. He tried it at least a hundred times, shutting his eyes* to keep from seeing his wriggly legs, and only desisted when he began to feel in his side a faint dull ache he had never experienced before.

*Nabokov’s notes in his annotated copy: “A regular beetle has no eyelids and cannot close its eyes—a beetle with human eyes.” About the passage in general he has the note: “In the original German there is a wonderful flowing rhythm here in this dreamy sequence of sentences. He his half-awake—he realizes his plight without surprise, with a childish acceptance of it, and at the same time he still clings to human memories, human experience. The metamorphosis is not quite complete as yet.”

"Ach Gott, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. Many more anxieties on the road than in the office, the plague of worrying about train connections, the bad and irregular meals, casual acquaintances never to be seen again, never to become intimate friends. The hell with it all! He felt a slight itching on the skin of his belly; slowly pushed himself on his back nearer the top of the bed so that he could lift his head more easily; identified the itching place which was covered with small white dots the nature of which he could not understand and tried to touch it with a leg, but drew the leg back immediately, for the contact made a cold shiver run through him."

Now what exactly is the "vermin" into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of "jointed leggers" (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. If the "numerous little legs" mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view. But I suggest that a man awakening on his back and finding he has as many as six legs vibrating in the air might feel that six was sufficient to be called numerous. We shall therefore assume that Gregor has six legs, that he is an insect.

Next question: what insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.) Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. In the course of the story he gets gradually accustomed to using his new appendages—his feet, his feelers. This brown, convex, dog-sized beetle is very broad. I should imagine him to look like this:

In the original German text the old charwoman calls him Mistkäfer, a "dung beetle." It is obvious that the good woman is adding the epithet only to be friendly. He is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle. (I must add that neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly.)

Let us look closer at the transformation. The change, though shocking and striking, is not quite so odd as might be assumed at first glance. A commonsensical commentator (Paul L. Landsberg in The Kafka Problem [1946], ed. Angel Flores) notes that "When we go to bed in unfamiliar surroundings, we are apt to have a moment of bewilderment upon awakening, a sudden sense of unreality, and this experience must occur over and over again in the life of a commercial traveler, a manner of living that renders impossible any sense of continuity." The sense of reality depends upon continuity, upon duration. After all, awakening as an insect is not much different from awakening as Napoleon or George Washington. (I knew a man who awoke as the Emperor of Brazil.) On the other hand, the isolation, and the strangeness, of so-called reality—this is, after all, something which constantly characterizes the artist, the genius, the discoverer. The Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing else than mediocrity surrounding genius.
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PART ONE
I am now going to speak of structure. Part one of the story can be divided into seven scenes or segments:

Scene I: Gregor wakes up. He is alone. He has already been changed into a beetle, but his human impressions still mingle with his new insect instincts. The scene ends with the introduction of the still human time element.

"He looked at the alarm clock ticking on the chest. Good Lord! he thought. It was half-past six and the hands were quietly moving on, it was even past the half-hour, it was getting on toward a quarter to seven. Had the alarm clock not gone off? ... The next train went at seven o'clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren't even packed up, and he himself wasn't feeling particularly fresh and active. And even if he did catch the train he wouldn't avoid a row with the boss, since the firm's messenger would have been waiting for the five o'clock train and would have long since reported his failure to turn up." He thinks of reporting that he is sick, but concludes that the insurance doctor would certify him as perfectly healthy. "And would he be so wrong on this occasion? Gregor really felt quite well, apart from a drowsiness that was utterly superfluous after such a long sleep, and he was even unusually hungry."

Scene II: The three members of the family knock on his doors and talk to him from, respectively, the hallway, the living room, and his sister's room. Gregor’s family are his parasites, exploiting him, eating him out from the inside. This is his beetle itch in human terms. The pathetic urge to find some protection from betrayal, cruelty, and filth is the factor that went to form his carapace, his beetle shell, which at first seems hard and secure but eventually is seen to be as vulnerable as his sick human flesh and spirit had been. Who of the three parasites—father, mother, sister—is the most cruel? At first it would seem to be the father. But he is not the worst: it is the sister, whom Gregor loves most but who betrays him beginning with the furniture scene in the middle of the story. In the second scene the door theme begins: "there came a cautious tap at the door behind the head of his bed. 'Gregor,' said a voice—it was his mother's—'it's a quarter to seven. Hadn't you a train to catch?' That gentle voice! Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but with a persistent pitiful squeaky undertone.... 'Yes, yes, thank you, Mother, I'm getting up now.' The wooden door between them must have kept the change in his voice from being noticeable outside.... Yet this brief exchange of words had made the other members of the family aware that Gregor was still in the house, as they had not expected, and at one of the side doors his father was already knocking gently, yet with his fist. 'Gregor! Gregor!' he called, 'what's the matter with you?' And after a while he called again in a deeper voice: 'Gregor! Gregor!' At the other side door his sister was saying in a low, plaintive tone: 'Gregor? Aren't you well? Do you need anything?’ He answered them both at once: 'I'm just ready,' and did his best to make his voice sound as normal as possible by enunciating the words very clearly and leaving long pauses between them. So his father went back to his breakfast, but his sister whispered: 'Gregor, open the door, do.' However, he was not thinking of opening the door, and felt thankful for the prudent habit he had acquired in traveling of locking all doors during the night, even at home."

Scene III: The getting out of bed ordeal in which man plans but beetle acts. Gregor still thinks of his body in human terms, but now a human's lower part is a beetle's hind part, a human's upper part is a beetle's fore part. A man on all fours seems to him to correspond to a beetle on all sixes. He does not quite yet understand this and will persistently try to stand up on his third pair of legs. "He thought that he might get out of bed with the lower part of his body first, but this lower part, which he had not yet seen and of which he could form no clear conception, proved too difficult to move; it was all so slow; and when at last almost savagely he gathered his forces together and thrust out recklessly, he had miscalculated the direction and bumped heavily against the lower end of the bed, and the burning pain he felt taught him that it was the lower part of his body that probably for the time being was the most sensitive . . . But then he said to himself: 'Before it strikes a quarter past seven I must be quite out of this bed, without fail. Anyhow, by that time someone will have come from the office to ask what is the matter with me, since it opens before seven.' And he set himself to rocking his whole body at once in a regular series of jolts, with the idea of swinging it out of the bed. If he tipped himself out in that way he could keep his head from injury by lifting it at an acute angle when he fell. His back seemed to be hard and was not likely to suffer from a fall on the carpet. 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. Still, he must take the risk... Well, ignoring the fact that the doors were all locked, ought he really to call for help? In spite of his misery he could not suppress a smile at the very idea of it."

Scene IV: He is still struggling when the family theme, or the theme of the many doors, takes over again, and in the course of this scene he falls out of bed at last, with a dull thud. The conversation is a little on the lines of a Greek chorus. From Gregor's office the head clerk has been sent to see why he has not yet turned up at the station. This grim speed in checking a remiss employee has all the qualities of a bad dream. The speaking through doors, as in the second scene, is now repeated. Note the sequence: the chief clerk talks to Gregor from the living room on the left; Gregor's sister, Grete, talks to her brother from the room on the right; the mother and father join the chief clerk in the living room. Gregor can still speak, but his voice becomes more and more indistinct, and soon his speech cannot he understood. (In Finnegans Wake, written twenty years later by James Joyce, two washerwomen talking across a river are gradually changed into a stout elm and a stone.) Gregor does not understand why his sister in the right-hand room did not join the others. "She was probably newly out of bed and hadn't even begun to put on her clothes yet. Well, why was she crying? Because he wouldn't get up and let the chief clerk in, because he was in danger of losing his job, and because the boss would begin dunning his parents again for the old debts?" Poor Gregor is so accustomed to be just an instrument to be used by his family that the question of pity does not arise: he does not even hope that Grete might be sorry for him. Mother and sister call to each other from the doors across Gregor's room. The sister and servant are dispatched for a doctor and a locksmith. "But Gregor was now much calmer. The words he uttered were no longer understandable, apparently, although they seemed clear enough to him, even clearer than before, perhaps because his ear had grown accustomed to the sound of them. Yet at any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him. The positive certainty with which these first measures had been taken comforted him. He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle and hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them."

Scene V: Gregor opens the door. "Slowly Gregor pushed the chair towards the door, then let go of it, caught hold of the door for support—the soles at the end of his little legs were somewhat sticky—and rested against it for a moment after his efforts. Then he set himself to turning the key in the lock with his mouth. It seemed, unhappily, that he hadn't really any teeth—what could he grip the key with?—but on the other hand his jaws were certainly very strong; with their help he did manage to set the key in motion, heedless of the fact that he was undoubtedly damaging them somewhere, since a brown fluid issued from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped on the floor. . . Since he had to pull the door towards him, he was still invisible when it was really wide open. He had to edge himself slowly round the near half of the double door, and to do it very carefully if he was not to fall plump upon his back just on the threshold. He was still carrying out this difficult manoeuvre, with no time to observe anything else, when he heard the chief clerk utter a loud 'Oh!'—it sounded like a gust of wind—and now he could see the man, standing as he was nearest to the door, clapping one hand before his open mouth and slowly backing away as if driven by some invisible steady pressure. His mother— in spite of the chief clerk’s being there her hair was still undone and sticking up in all directions—first clasped her hands and looked at his father, then took two steps towards Gregor and fell on the floor among her outspread skirts, her face quite hidden on her breast. His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept till his great chest heaved."

Scene VI: Gregor tries to calm the chief clerk so that he will not be discharged. "'Well,' said Gregor, knowing perfectly that he was the only one who had retained any composure 'I'll put my clothes on at once, pack up my samples and start off. Will you only let me go? You see, sir, I'm not obstinate, and I'm willing to work; traveling is a hard life, but I couldn't live without it. Where are you going, sir? To the office? Yes? Will you give a true account of all this? One can be temporarily incapacitated, but that's just the moment for remembering former services and bearing in mind that later on, when the incapacity has been got over, one will certainly work with all the more industry and concentration.' " But the chief clerk in horror and as if in a trance is stumbling towards the staircase to escape. Gregor starts to walk towards him—a wonderful bit here—on the hind pair of his three pairs of legs, "but immediately, as he was feeling for a support, he fell down with a little cry upon his many little legs. Hardly was he down when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand." His mother springs up, and in backing away from him she upsets the coffeepot on the breakfast table so that it pours over the rug. " 'Mother, Mother,' said Gregor in a low voice, and looked up at her. The chief clerk, for the moment, had quite slipped from his mind; instead, he could not resist snapping his jaws together at the sight of the streaming coffee. That made his mother scream again." Gregor, looking now for the chief clerk, "made a spring, to be as sure as possible of overtaking him; the chief clerk must have divined his intention, for he leaped down several steps and vanished; he was still yelling 'Ugh!' and it echoed through the whole staircase."

Scene VII: The father brutally drives Gregor back into his room, stamping his feet and flourishing a stick in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Gregor has difficulty getting through the partly opened door, but forced by his father he tries until he gets stuck. "One side of his body rose up, he was tilted at an angle in the doorway, his flank was quite bruised, horrid blotches stained the white door, soon he was stuck fast and, left to himself, could not have moved at all, his legs on one side fluttered trembling in the air, those on the other were crushed painfully to the floor—when from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely. The father caught at the handle of the door with the stick and slammed it behind him, and then at last there was silence."
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PART TWO
Scene I: The first attempt is made to feed coleopteron Gregor. Under the impression that his condition is some kind of foul but not hopeless illness that may pass with time, he is placed at first on the diet of a sick human being and he finds that a human meal of milk has been offered to him. We are always aware of those doors, doors opening and closing stealthily in the dusk. From the kitchen, across the hallway, to the hallway door of Gregor's room light footsteps had come, his sister's, awakening him from sleep, and he discovers that a basin with milk has been placed within his room. One of his little legs has been damaged in the collision with his father; it will grow better, but in this scene he limps and trails it uselessly behind him. He is a big beetle as beetles go, but he is smaller and more brittle than a human being. Gregor makes for the milk. Alas, while his still human mind eagerly accepts the notion of that sweetish sop, with soft white bread in the milk, his beetle stomach and beetle taste buds refuse a mammal's meal. Although he is very hungry the milk is repulsive to him and he crawls back to the middle of the room.

Scene II: The door theme continues and the duration theme settles in. We shall begin to witness Gregor's usual day and dusk during this fantastic winter of 1912, and his discovery of the security of the couch. But let us look and listen with Gregor through the crack of the parlor door on the left. His father used to read aloud the newspapers to his wife and daughter. True, this has now been interrupted and the flat is silent though not empty of occupants, but on the whole the family is getting used to the situation. Here is the son and brother plunged into a monstrous change that should have sent them scuttling out into the streets for help with shrieks and tears, in wild compassion—but here they are, the three philistines, cosily taking it in their stride.

I don't know if you read a couple of years ago in the papers about that teenage girl and boy who murdered the girl's mother. It starts with a very Kafkaesque scene: the girl's mother has come home and found her daughter and the boy in the bedroom, and the boy has hit the mother with a hammer—several times—and dragged her away. But the woman is still thrashing and groaning in the kitchen, and the boy says to his sweetheart, ''Gimme that hammer. I think I'll have to knock her again." But the girl gives her mate a knife instead and he stabs the girl's mother many, many times, to death—under the impression, probably, that this all is a comic strip: you hit a person, the person sees lots of stars and exclamation marks but revives by and by, in the next installment. Physical life however has no next installment, and soon boy and girl have to do something with dead mother. "Oh, plaster of paris, it will dissolve her completely!" Of course, it will—marvelous idea—place body in bathtub, cover with plaster, and that's all. Meanwhile, with mother under the plaster (which does not work—wrong plaster, perhaps) boy and girl throw several beer parties. What fun! Lovely canned music, and lovely canned beer. "But you can't go, fellas, to the bathroom. The bathroom is a mess."

I'm trying to show you that in so-called real life we find sometimes a great resemblance to the situation in Kafka's fantastic story. Mark the curious mentality of the morons in Kafka who enjoy their evening paper despite the fantastic horror in the middle of their apartment. " 'What a quiet life our family has been leading,' said Gregor to himself, and as he sat there motionless staring into the darkness he felt great pride in the fact that he had been able to provide such a life for his parents and sister in such a fine flat.” The room is lofty and empty and the beetle begins to dominate the man. The high room "in which he had to lie flat on the floor filled him with an apprehension he could not account for, since it had been his very own room for the past five years—and with a half-unconscious action, not without a slight feeling of shame, he scuttled under the couch, where he felt comfortable at once, although his back was a little cramped and he could not lift his head up, and his only regret was that his body was too broad to get the whole of it under the couch.”

Scene III: Gregor's sister brings a selection of foods. She removes the basin of milk, not by means of her bare hands but with a cloth, for it has been touched by the disgusting monster. However, she is a clever little creature, that sister, and brings a whole selection—rotten vegetables, old cheese, bones glazed with dead white sauce—and Gregor whizzed towards this feast. "One after another and with tears of satisfaction in his eyes he quickly devoured the cheese, the vegetables and the sauce; the fresh food, on the other hand, had no charms for him, he could not even stand the smell of it and actually dragged away to some little distance the things he could eat." The sister turns the key in the lock slowly as a warning that he should retreat, and she comes and cleans up while Gregor, full of food, tries to hide under the couch.

Scene IV: Grete, the sister, takes on a new importance. It is she who feeds the beetle; she alone enters the beetle's lair, sighing and with an occasional appeal to the saints—it is such a Christian family. In a wonderful passage the cook goes down on her knees to Mrs. Samsa and begs to leave. With tears in her eyes she thanks the Samsas for allowing her to go—as if she were a liberated slave—and without any prompting she swears a solemn oath that she will never say a single word to anyone about what is happening in the Samsa household. “Gregor was fed, once in the early morning while his parents and the servant girl were still asleep, and a second time after they had all had their midday dinner, for then his parents took a short nap and the servant girl could be sent out on some errand or other by his sister. Not that they would have wanted him to starve, of course, but perhaps they could not have borne to know more about his feeding than from hearsay, perhaps too his sister wanted to spare them such little anxieties wherever possible, since they had quite enough to bear as it was."

Scene V: This is a very distressing scene. It transpires that in his human past Gregor has been deceived by his family. Gregor had taken that dreadful job with that nightmare firm because he wished to help his father who five years ago had gone bankrupt. "They had simply got used to it, both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling. With his sister alone had he remained intimate, and it was a secret plan of his that she, who loved music, unlike himself, and could play movingly on the violin, should be sent next year to study at the School of Music, despite the great expense that would entail, which must be made up in some other way. During his brief visits home the School of Music was often mentioned in the talks he had with his sister, but always merely as a beautiful dream which could never come true, and his parents discouraged even these innocent references to it; yet Gregor had made up his mind firmly about it and meant to announce the fact with due solemnity on Christmas Day." Gregor now overhears his father explaining "that a certain amount of investments, a very small amount it was true, had survived the wreck of their fortunes and had even increased a little because the dividends had not been touched meanwhile. And besides that, the money Gregor brought home every month—he had kept only a few dollars for himself—had never been quite used up and now amounted to a small capital sum. Behind the door Gregor nodded his head eagerly, rejoiced at his evidence of unexpected thrift and foresight. True, he could really have paid off some more of his father's debts to the boss with this extra money, and so brought much nearer the day on which he could quit his job, but doubtless it was better the way his father had arranged it." The family believes this sum should be kept untouched for a rainy day, but in the meantime how are the living expenses to be met? The father has not worked for five years and could not be expected to do much. And Gregor's mother's asthma would keep her from working. ''And was his sister to earn her bread, she who was still a child of seventeen and whose life hitherto had been so pleasant, consisting as it did in dressing herself nicely, sleeping long, helping in the housekeeping, going out to a few modest entertainments and above all playing the violin? At first whenever the need for earning money was mentioned Gregor let go his hold on the door and threw himself down on the cool leather sofa beside it, he felt so hot with shame and grief."

Scene VI: A new relationship begins between brother and sister, this time having to do with a window instead of a door. Gregor "nerved himself to the great effort of pushing an armchair to the window, then crawled up over the window sill and, braced against the chair, leaned against the windowpanes, obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out of a window always used to give him." Gregor, or Kafka, seems to think that Gregor's urge to approach the window was a recollection of human experience. Actually, it is a typical insect reaction to light: one finds all sorts of dusty bugs near windowpanes, a moth on its back, a lame daddy longlegs, poor insects cobwebbed in a corner, a buzzing fly still trying to conquer the glass pane. Gregor's human sight is growing dimmer so that he cannot see clearly even across the street. The human detail is dominated by the insect general idea. (But let us not ourselves be insects. Let us first of all study every detail in this story; the general idea will come of itself later when we have all the data we need.) His sister does not understand that Gregor has retained a human heart, human sensitivity, a human sense of decorum, of shame, of humility and pathetic pride. She disturbs him horribly by the noise and haste with which she opens the window to breathe some fresh air, and she does not bother to conceal her disgust at the awful smell in his den. Neither does she conceal her feelings when she actually sees him. One day, about a month after Gregor's metamorphosis, "when there was surely no reason for her to be still startled at his appearance, she came a little earlier than usual and found him gazing out of the window, quite motionless, and thus well placed to look like a bogey. . . She jumped back as if in alarm and banged the door shut; a stranger might well have thought that he had been lying in wait for her there meaning to bite her. Of course he hid himself under the couch at once, but he had to wait until midday before she came again, and she seemed more ill at ease than usual." These things hurt, and nobody understood how they hurt. In an exquisite display of feeling, in order to spare her the repulsive sight of him, Gregor one day "carried a sheet on his back to the couch—it cost him four hours' labor—and arranged it there in such a way as to hide him completely, so that even if she were to bend down she could not see him. . . Gregor even fancied that he caught a thankful glance from her eye when he lifted the sheet carefully a very little with his head to see how she was taking the new arrangement."
It should be noted how kind, how good our poor little monster is. His beetlehood, while distorting and degrading his body, seems to bring out in him all his human sweetness. His utter unselfishness, his constant preoccupation with the needs of others—this, against the backdrop of his hideous plight comes out in strong relief. Kafka's art consists in accumulating on the one hand, Gregor's insect features, all the sad detail of his insect disguise, and on the other hand, in keeping vivid and limpid before the reader's eyes Gregor's sweet and subtle human nature.

Scene VII: Here occurs the furniture-moving scene. Two months have passed. Up to now only his sister has been visiting him; but, Gregor says to himself, my sister is only a child; she has taken on herself the job of caring for me merely out of childish thoughtlessness. My mother should understand the situation better. So here in the seventh scene the mother, asthmatic, feeble, and muddleheaded, will enter his room for the first time. Kafka prepares the scene carefully. For recreation Gregor had formed the habit of walking on the walls and ceiling. He is at the height of the meagre bliss his beetlehood can produce. "His sister at once remarked the new distraction Gregor had found for himself—he left traces behind him of the sticky stuff on his soles wherever he crawled—and she got the idea in her head of giving him as wide a field as possible to crawl in and of removing the pieces of furniture that hindered him, above all the chest of drawers and the writing desk." Thus the mother is brought in to help move the furniture. She comes to his door with exclamations of joyful eagerness to see her son, an incongruous and automatic reaction that is replaced by a certain hush when she enters the mysterious chamber. “Gregor’s sister, of course, went in first, to see that everything was in order before letting his mother enter. In great haste Gregor pulled the sheet lower and rucked it more in folds so that it really looked as if it had been thrown accidentally over the couch. And this time he did not peer out from under it; he renounced the pleasure of seeing his mother on this occasion and was only glad that she had come at all. “Come in, he's out of sight," said his sister, obviously leading her mother in by the hand.

The women struggle to move the heavy furniture until his mother voices a certain human thought, naive but kind, feeble but not devoid of feeling, when she says: 'Doesn't it look as if we were showing him, by taking away his furniture, that we have given up hope of his ever getting better and are just leaving him coldly to himself? I think it would be best to keep his room exactly as it has always been, so that when he comes back to us he will find everything unchanged and be able all the more easily to forget what has happened in between." Gregor is torn between two emotions. His beetlehood suggests that an empty room with bare walls would be more convenient for crawling about—all he needed would be some chink to hide in, his indispensable couch—but otherwise he would not need all those human conveniences and adornments. But his mother's voice reminds him of his human background. Unfortunately, his sister has developed a queer self-assurance and has grown accustomed to consider herself an expert in Gregor s affairs as against her parents. "Another factor might have been also the enthusiastic temperament of an adolescent girl, which seeks to indulge itself on every opportunity and which now tempted Grete to exaggerate the horror of her brother's circumstances in order that she might do all the more for him.” This is a curious note: the domineering sister, the strong sister of the fairy tales, the handsome busybody lording it over the fool of the family, the proud sisters of Cinderella, the cruel emblem of health, youth, and blossoming beauty in the house of disaster and dust. So they decide to move the things out after all but have a real struggle with the chest of drawers. Gregor is in an awful state of panic. He kept his fretsaw in that chest, with which he used to make things when he was free at home, his sole hobby.

Scene VIII: Gregor tries to save at least the picture in the frame he had made with his cherished fretsaw. Kafka varies his effects in that every time the beetle is seen by his family he is shown in a new position, some new spot. Here Gregor rushes from his hiding place, unseen by the two women now struggling with his writing desk, and climbs the wall to press himself over the picture, his hot, dry belly against the soothing cool glass. The mother is not much help in this furniture-moving business and has to be supported by Grete. Grete always remains strong and hale whereas not only her brother but both parents are going to be soon (after the apple-pitching scene) on the brink of sinking into some dull dream, into a state of torpid and decrepit oblivion; but Grete with the hard health of her ruddy adolescence keeps propping them up.

Scene IX: Despite Grete's efforts, the mother catches sight of Gregor, a "huge brown mass on the flowered wallpaper, and before she was really conscious that what she saw was Gregor screamed in a loud, hoarse voice: 'Oh God, oh God!', fell with outspread arms over the couch as if giving up and did not move. 'Gregor!' cried his sister, shaking her fist and glaring at him. This was the first time she had directly addressed him since his metamorphosis.'' She runs into the living room for something to rouse her mother from the fainting fit. Gregor wanted to help too—there was still time to rescue the picture—but he was stuck fast to the glass and had to tear himself loose; he then ran after his sister into the next room as if he could advise her, as he used to do; but then had to stand helplessly behind her; she meanwhile searched among various small bottles and when she turned round started in alarm at the sight of him; one bottle fell on the floor and broke; a splinter of glass cut Gregor's face and some kind of corrosive medicine splashed him; without pausing a moment longer Grete gathered up all the bottles she could carry and ran to her mother with them; she banged the door shut with her foot. Gregor was now cut off from his mother, who was perhaps nearly dying because of him; he dared not open the door for fear of frightening away his sister, who had to stay with her mother; there was nothing he could do but wait; and harassed by self-reproach and worry he began now to crawl to and fro, over everything, walls, furniture and ceiling, and finally in his despair, when the whole room seemed to be reeling around him, fell down on to the middle of the big table.” There is a change in the respective position of the various members of the family. Mother (on the couch) and sister are in the middle room; Gregor is in the corner in the left room. And presently his father comes home and enters the living room. "And so Gregor fled to the door of his own room and crouched against it, to let his father see as soon as he came in from the hall that his son had the good intention of getting back into his own room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him there, but that if only the door were opened he would disappear at once."

Scene X: The apple-pelting scene comes now. Gregor's father has changed and is now at the summit of his power. Instead of the man who used to lie wearily sunk in bed and could scarcely wave an arm in greeting and when he went out shuffled along laboriously with a crook-handled stick, “Now he was standing there in fine shape; dressed in a smart blue uniform with gold buttons, such as bank messengers wear; his strong double chin bulged over the stiff high collar of his jacket; from under his bushy eyebrows his black eyes darted fresh and penetrating glances; his onetime tangled white hair had been combed flat on either side of a shining and carefully exact parting. He pitched his cap, which bore a gold monogram, probably the badge of some bank, in a wide sweep across the whole room on to a sofa and with the tail-ends of his jacket thrown back, his hands in his trouser pockets, advanced with a grim visage towards Gregor. Likely enough he did not himself know what he meant to do; at any rate he lifted his feet uncommonly high and Gregor was dumbfounded at the enormous size of his shoe soles."

As usual, Gregor is tremendously interested in the movement of human legs, big thick human feet, so different from his own flimmering appendages. We have a repetition of the slow motion theme (The chief clerk, backing and shuffling, had retreated in slow motion.) Now father and son slowly circle the room: indeed, the whole operation hardly looked like pursuit it was carried out so slowly. And then his father starts to bombard Gregor with the only missiles that the living-dining room could provide—apples, small red apples—and Gregor is driven back into the middle room, back to the heart of his beetlehood. "An apple thrown without much force grazed Gregor's back and glanced off harmlessly. But another following immediately landed right on his back and sank in; Gregor wanted to drag himself forward, as if this startling, incredible pain could be left behind him; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and flattened himself out in a complete derangement of all his senses. With his last conscious look he saw the door of his room being torn open and his mother rushing out ahead of his screaming sister, in her underbodice, for her daughter had loosened her clothing to ler her breathe more freely and recover from her swoon; he saw his mother rushing towards his father, leaving one after another behind her on the floor her loosened petticoats, stumbling over her petticoats straight to his father and embracing him, in complete union with him—but here Gregor's sight began to fail—with her hands clasped round his father's neck as she begged for her son’s life."

This is the end of part two. Let us sum up the situation. The sister has become frankly antagonistic to her brother. She may have loved him once, but now she regards him with disgust and anger. In Mrs. Samsa asthma and emotion struggle. She is a rather mechanical mother, with some mechanical mother love for her son, but we shall soon see that she, too, is ready to give him up. The father, as already remarked, has reached a certain summit of impressive strength and brutality. From the very first he had been eager to hurt physically his helpless son, and now the apple he has thrown has become embedded in poor Gregor's beetle flesh.
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PART THREE
Scene I: ”The serious injury done to Gregor, which disabled him for more than a month—the apple went on sticking in his body as a visible reminder, since no one ventured to remove it—seemed to have made even his father recollect that Gregor was a member of the family, despite his present unfortunate and repulsive shape, and ought not to be treated as an enemy, that, on the contrary, family duty required the suppression of disgust and the exercise of patience, nothing but patience." The door theme is taken up again since now, in the evening, the door leading from Gregor's darkened room to the lighted living room is left open. This is a subtle situation. In the previous scene father and mother had reached their highest point of energy, he in his resplendent uniform pitching those little red bombs, emblems of fruitfulness and manliness; and she, the mother, actually moving furniture despite her frail breathing tubes. But after that peak there is a fall, a weakening. It would almost seem that the father himself is on the point of disintegrating and becoming a feeble beetle. Through the opened door a curious current seems to pass. Gregor's beetle illness is catching, his father seems to have caught it, the weakness, the drabness, the dirt. “Soon after supper his father would fall asleep in his armchair; his mother and sister would admonish each other to be silent; his mother, bending low over the lamp, stitched at fine sewing for an underwear firm; his sister. who had taken a job as a salesgirl, was learning shorthand and French in the evenings on the chance of bettering herself. Sometimes his father woke up, and as if quite unaware that he had been sleeping said to the mother: 'What a lot of sewing you're doing today!' and at once fell asleep again, while the women exchanged a tired smile.

“With a kind of mulishness his father persisted in keeping his uniform on even in the house; his dressing gown hung, uselessly on its peg and he slept fully dressed where he sat, as if he were ready for service at any moment and even here only at the beck and call of his superior. As a result, his uniform, which was not brand new to start with, began to look dirty, despite all the loving care of the mother and sister to keep it clean, and Gregor often spent whole evenings gazing at the many greasy spots on the garment, gleaming with gold buttons always in a high state of polish, in which the old man sat sleeping in extreme discomfort and yet quite peacefully." The father always refused to go to bed when the time had arrived, despite every inducement offered by the mother and sister, until finally the two women would hoist him up by his armpits from the chair, "And leaning on the two of them he would heave himself up, with difficulty, as if he were a great burden to himself, suffer them to lead him as far as the door and then wave them off and go on alone, while the mother abandoned her needlework and the sister her pen in order to run after him and help him farther." The father's uniform comes close to resembling that of a big but somewhat tarnished scarab. His tired overworked family must get him from one room to another and to bed.

Scene II: The disintegration of the Samsa family continues. They dismiss the servant girl and engage a still cheaper charwoman, a gigantic bony creature who comes in to do the rough work. You must remember that in Prague, 1912, it was much more difficult to clean and cook than in Ithaca, 1954. They have to sell various family ornaments. "But what they lamented most was the fact that they could not leave the flat which was much too big for their present circumstances because they could not think of any way to shift Gregor. Yet Gregor saw well enough that consideration for him was not the main difficulty preventing the removal, for they could have easily shifted him in some suitable box with a few air holes in it; what really kept them from moving into another flat was rather their own complete hopelessness and the belief that they had been singled out for a misfortune such as had never happened to any of their relations or acquaintances.'' The family is completely egotistic and has no more strength left after fulfilling its daily obligations.

Scene III: A last flash of human recollections comes to Gregor’s mind, prompted by the still living urge in him to help his family. He even remembers vague sweethearts, "but instead of helping him and his family they were one and all unapproachable and he was glad when they vanished." This scene is mainly devoted to Grete, who is now clearly the villain of the piece. "His sister no longer took thought to bring him what might especially please him, but in the morning and at noon before she went to business hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot any food that was available, and in the evening cleared it out again with one sweep of the broom, heedless of whether it had been merely tasted, or—as most frequently happened—left untouched. The cleaning of his room, which she now did always in the evenings, could not have been more hastily done. Streaks of dirt stretched along the walls, here and there lay balls of dust and filth. At first Gregor used to station himself in some particularly filthy corner when his sister arrived in order to reproach her with it, so to speak. But he could have sat there for weeks without getting her to make any improvement; she could see the dirt as well as he did, but she had simply made up her mind to leave it alone. And yet, with a touchiness that was new to her, which seemed anyhow to have infected the whole family, she jealously guarded her claim to be the sole caretaker of Gregor's room." Once when his mother had given the room a thorough cleaning with several buckets of water—the dampness upset Gregor—a grotesque family row ensues. The sister bursts into a storm of weeping while her parents look on in helpless amazement; "then they too began to go into action; the father reproached the mother on his right for not having left the cleaning of Gregor's room to his sister; shrieked at the sister on his left that never again was she to be allowed to clean Gregor's room; while the mother tried to pull the father into his bedroom, since he was beyond himself with agitation; the sister, shaken with sobs, then beat upon the table with her small fists; and Gregor hissed loudly with rage because not one of them thought of shutting the door to spare him such a spectacle and so much noise.”

Scene IV: A curious relationship is established between Gregor and the bony charwoman who is rather amused by him, not frightened at all, and in fact she rather likes him. "Come along, then, you old dung beetle," she says. And it is raining outside, the first sign of spring perhaps.

Scene V: The lodgers arrive, the three bearded boarders, with a passion for order. These are mechanical beings; their beards are masks of respectability but actually they are shoddy scoundrels, these serious-looking gentlemen. In this scene a great change comes over the apartment. The boarders take the parents' bedroom on the far left of the flat, beyond the living room. The parents move across to the sister's room on the right of Gregor's room, and Grete has to sleep in the living room but has now no room of her own since the lodgers take their meals in the living room and spend their evenings there. Moreover, the three bearded boarders have brought into this furnished flat some furniture of their own. They have a fiendish love for superficial tidiness, and all the odds and ends which they do not need go into Gregor's room. This is exactly the opposite to what had been happening in the furniture scene of part two, scene 7, where there had been an attempt to move everything out of Gregor's room. Then we had the ebb of the furniture, now the return flow, the jetsam washed back, all kinds of junk pouring in; and curiously enough Gregor, though a very sick beetle—the apple wound is festering, and he is starving—finds some beetle pleasure in crawling among all that dusty rubbish. In this fifth scene of part three where all the changes come, the alteration in the family meals is depicted. The mechanical movement of the bearded automatons is matched by the automatic reaction of the Samsas. The lodgers "set themselves at the top end of the table where formerly Gregor and his father and mother had eaten their meals, unfolded their napkins and took knife and fork in hand. At once his mother appeared in the other doorway with a dish of meat and close behind her his sister with a dish of potatoes piled high. The food steamed with a thick vapor. The lodgers bent over the food set before them as if to scrutinize it before eating, in fact the man in the middle, who seemed to pass for an authority with the other two, cut a piece of meat as it lay on the dish, obviously to discover if it were tender or should be sent back to the kitchen. He showed satisfaction, and Gregor's mother and sister, who had been watching anxiously, breathed freely and began to smile." Gregor’s keen envious interest in large feet will be recalled; now toothless Gregor is also interested in teeth. "It seemed remarkable to Gregor that among the various noises coming from the table he could always distinguish the sound of their masticating teeth, as if this were a sign to Gregor that one needed teeth in order to eat, and that with toothless jaws even of the finest make one could do nothing. 'I'm hungry enough,' said Gregor sadly to himself, 'but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!' "

Scene VI: In this great music scene the lodgers have heard Grete playing the violin in the kitchen, and in automatic reaction to the entertainment value of music they suggest that she play for them. The three roomers and the three Samsas gather in the living room.

Without wishing to antagonize lovers of music, I do wish to point out that taken in a general sense music, as perceived by its consumers, belongs to a more primitive, more animal form in the scale of arts than literature or painting. I am taking music as a whole, not in terms of individual creation, imagination, and composition, all of which of course rival the art of literature and painting, but in terms of the impact music has on the average listener. A great composer, a great writer, a great painter are brothers. But I think that the impact music in a generalized and primitive form has on the listener is of a more lowly quality than the impact of an average book or an average picture. What I especially have in mind is the soothing, lulling, dulling influence of music on some people such as of the radio or records.

In Kafka's tale it is merely a girl pitifully scraping on a fiddle and this corresponds in the piece to the canned music or plugged-in music of today. What Kafka felt about music in general is what I have just described: its stupefying, numbing, animallike quality. This attitude must be kept in mind in interpreting an important sentence that has been misunderstood by some translators. Literally, it reads “Was Gregor an animal to be so affected by music?” That is, in his human form he had cared little for it but in this scene, in his beetlehood, he succumbs: “He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.” The scene goes as follows. Gregor’s sister begins to play for the lodgers. Gregor is attracted by the playing and actually puts his head into the living room. “He felt hardly any surprise at his growing lack of consideration for the others; there had been a time when he prided himself on being considerate. And yet just on this occasion he had more reason than ever to hide himself since owing to the amount of dust which lay thick in his room and rose into the air at the slightest movement he too was covered with dust; fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him, caught on his back and along his sides; his indifference to everything was much too great for him to turn on his back and scrape himself clean on the carpet as once he had done several times a day. And in sprite of his condition no shame deterred him from advancing a little over the spotless floor of the living room.”

At first no one was aware of him. The lodgers, disappointed in their expectation of hearing good violin playing, were clustered near the window whispering among themselves and waiting for the music to stop. And yet, to Gregor his sister was playing beautifully. He “crawled a little farther forward and lowered his head to the ground so that it might be possible for his eyes to meet hers. Was he an animal that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become for the first time useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the couch, bend down her ear to him and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the School of Music, and that, but for his mishap, last Christmas—surely Christmas was long past?—he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection. After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar."

Suddenly the middle lodger sees Gregor, but instead of driving Gregor out the father tries to soothe the lodgers and (in a reversal of his actions) "spreading out his arms, tried to urge them back into their own room and at the same time to block their view of Gregor. They now began to be really a little angry, one could not tell whether because of the old man's behavior or because it had just dawned on them that all unwittingly they had such a neighbor as Gregor next door. They demanded explanations of his father, they waved their arms like him, tugged uneasily at their beards and only with reluctance backed towards their room." The sister rushes into the lodgers' room and quickly makes up their beds, but "The old man seemed once more to be so possessed by his mulish self-assertiveness that he was forgetting all the respect he should show to his lodgers. He kept driving them on and driving them on until in the very door of the bedroom the middle lodger stamped his foot loudly on the floor and so brought him to a halt. 'I beg to announce,' said the lodger, lifting one hand and looking also at Gregor's mother and sister, ‘that because of the disgusting conditions prevailing in this household and family'—here he spat on the floor with emphatic brevity—'I give you notice on the spot. Naturally I won't pay you a penny for the days I have lived here; on the contrary I shall consider bringing an action for damages against you based on claims—believe me—that will be easily susceptible of proof.' He ceased and stared straight in front of him, as if he expected something. In fact his two friends at once rushed into the breach with these words: 'And we too give notice on the spot.’ On that he seized the door-handle and shut the door with a slam."

Scene VII: The sister is completely unmasked; her betrayal is absolute and fatal to Gregor. " 'I won't utter my brother's name in the presence of this creature, and so all I say is: we must try to get rid of it....

" 'We must try to get rid of it,' his sister now said explicitly to her father, since her mother was coughing too much to hear a word. 'It will be the death of both of you, I can see that coming. When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can't stand this continual torment at home on top of it. At least I can't stand it any longer.' And she burst into such a passion of sobbing that her tears dropped on her mother's face, where she wiped them off mechanically." Both the father and sister agree that Gregor cannot understand them and hence no agreement with him is possible.

" 'He must go,' cried Gregor's sister, 'that's the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we've believed it for so long is the root of all our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can't live with such a creature and he'd have gone away on his own accord. Then we wouldn't have any brother, but we’d be able to go on living and keep his memory in honor. As it is, this creature persecutes us, drives away our lodgers, obviously wants the whole apartment to himself and would have us all sleep in the gutter.' "

That he has disappeared as a human brother and should now disappear as a beetle deals Gregor the last blow. Painfully, because he is so weak and maimed, he crawls back to his own room. At the doorway he turns and his last glance falls on his mother, who was, in fact, almost asleep. "Hardly was he well inside his room when the door was hastily pushed shut, bolted and locked. The sudden noise in his rear startled him so much that his little legs gave beneath him. It was his sister who had shown such haste. She had been standing ready waiting and had made a light spring forward. Gregor had not even heard her coming, and she cried 'At last!' to her parents as she turned the key in the lock." In his darkened room Gregor discovers that he cannot move and though he is in pain it seems to be passing away. ''The rotting apple in his back and the inflamed area around it, all covered with soft dust, already hardly troubled him. He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath."

Scene VIII: Gregor's dead, dry body is discovered the next morning by the charwoman and a great warm sense of relief permeates the insect world of his despicable family. Here is a point to be observed with care and love. Gregor is a human being in an insect's disguise; his family are insects disguised as people. With Gregor's death their insect souls are suddenly aware that they are free to enjoy themselves. " 'Come in beside us, Grete, for a little while,' said Mrs. Samsa* with a tremulous smile, and Grete, not without looking back at the corpse, followed her parents into their bedroom.'' The charwoman opens the window wide and the air has a certain warmth: it is the end of March when insects come out of hibernation.

* In a note in his annotated copy Nabokov observes that after Gregor’s death it is never “father” and “mother” but only Mr. and Mrs. Samsa.

Scene IX: We get a wonderful glimpse of the lodgers as they sullenly ask for their breakfast but instead are shown Gregor's corpse. "So they entered and stood around it, with their hands in the pockets of their shabby coats, in the middle of the room already bright with sunlight." What is the key word here? Shabby in the sun. As in a fairy tale, in the happy end of a fairy tale, the evil charm is dissipated with the magician's death. The lodgers are seen to be seedy, they are no longer dangerous, whereas on the other hand the Samsa family ascends again, gains in power and lush vitality. The scene ends with a repetition of the staircase theme, just as the chief clerk had retreated in slow motion, clasping the banisters. At the orders of Mr. Samsa that they must leave the lodgers are quelled. "In the hall they all three took their hats from the rack, their sticks from the umbrella stand, bowed in silence and quitted the apartment." Down they go now, three bearded borders, automatons, clockwork puppets, while the Samsa family leans over the banisters to watch them descend. The staircase as it winds down through the apartment house imitates, as it were, an insect's jointed legs; and the lodgers now disappear, now come to view again, as they descend lower and lower, from landing to landing, from articulation to articulation. At one point they are met by an ascending butcher boy with his basket who is first seen rising towards them, then above them, in proud deportment with his basket full of red steaks and luscious innards—red raw meat, the breeding place of fat shiny flies.

Scene X: The last scene is superb in its ironic simplicity. The spring sunshine is with the Samsa family as they write their three letters—articulation, jointed legs, happy legs, three insects writing three letters of excuse to their employers. "They decided to spend this day in resting and going for a stroll; they had not only deserved such a respite from work, but absolutely needed it." As the charwoman leaves after her morning's work, she giggles amiably as she informs the family: " 'you don't need to bother about how to get rid of the thing next door. It's been seen to already.' Mrs. Samsa and Grete bent over their letters again, as if preoccupied; Mr. Samsa, who perceived that she was eager to begin describing it all in detail, stopped her with a decisive hand. . .

" 'She'll be given notice tonight,' said Mr. Samsa, but neither from his wife nor his daughter did he get any answer, for the charwoman seemed to have shattered again the composure they had barely achieved. They rose, went to the window and stayed there, clasping each other tight. Mr. Samsa turned in his chair to look at them and quietly observed them for a little. Then he called out: 'Come along, now, do. Let bygones be bygones. And you might have some consideration for me.' The two of them complied at once, hastened to him, caressed him and quickly finished their letters.

''Then they all three left the apartment together, which was more than they had done for months, and went by trolley into the open country outside the town. The trolley, in which they were the only passengers, was filled with warm sunshine. Leaning comfortably back in their seats they canvassed their prospects for the future, and it appeared on closer inspection that these were not at all bad, for the jobs they had got, which so far they had never really discussed with each other, were all three admirable and likely to lead to better things later on. The greatest immediate improvement in their condition would of course arise from moving to another house; they wanted to take a smaller and cheaper but also better situated and more easily run apartment than the one they had, which Gregor had selected. While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a buxom girl. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body."*

* “The soul has died with Gregor; the healthy young animal takes over. The parasites have fattened themselves on Gregor.” Nabokov’s note in his annotated copy.
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Let me sum up various of the main themes of the story.
1. The number three plays a considerable role in the story. The story is divided into three parts. There are three doors to Gregor’s room. His family consists of three people. Three servants appear in the course of the story. Three lodgers have three beards. Three Samsas write three letters. I am very careful not to overwork the significance of symbols, for once you detach a symbol from the artistic core of the book, you lose all sense of enjoyment. The reason is that there are artistic symbols and there are trite, artificial. or even imbecile symbols. You will find a number of such inept symbols in the psychoanalytic and mythological approach to Kafka's work, in the fashionable mixture of sex and myth that is so appealing to mediocre minds. In other words, symbols may be original and symbols may be stupid and trite. And the abstract symbolic value of an artistic achievement should never prevail over its beautiful burning life.

So, the only emblematic or heraldic rather than symbolic meaning is the stress which is laid upon three in "The Metamorphosis." It has really a technical meaning. The trinity, the triplet, the triad, the triptych are obvious art forms such as, say, three pictures of youth, ripe years, and old age, or any other threefold triplex subject. Triptych means a picture or carving in three compartments side by side, and this is exactly the effect that Kafka achieves, for instance, with his three rooms in the beginning of the story—living room, Gregor's bedroom, and sister's room, with Gregor in the central one. Moreover, a threefold pattern suggests the three acts of a play. And finally it must be observed that Kafka's fantasy is emphatically logical; what can be more characteristic of logic than the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. We shall, thus, limit the Kafka symbol of three to its aesthetic and logical significance and completely disregard whatever myths the sexual mythologists read into it under the direction of the Viennese witch doctor.

2. Another thematic line is the theme of the doors, of the opening and closing of doors that runs through the whole story.

3. A third thematic line concerns the ups and downs in the well-being of the Samsa family, the subtle state of balance between their flourishing condition and Gregor's desperate and pathetic condition.

There are a few other subthemes but the above are the only ones essential for an understanding of the story.

You will mark Kafka's style. Its clarity, its precise and formal intonation in such striking contrast to the nightmare matter of his tale. No poetical metaphors ornament his stark black-and-white story. The limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy. Contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.

Copyright the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov
Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi
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