A Buddhistic Approach to Kafka’s Metamorphosis

K-buddah_jpgA professor friend of mine at the College of Charleston who teaches a freshman course entitled The Nature of Solitude: Sacred & Secular, Voluntary & Involuntary invited me to come and cover Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” so I thought I’d share with any instructors out there the approach I took. Since the course is philosophical, not literary, rather than discussing the structure or aesthetics of the work or taking a Freudian or Marxist approach to the narrative, I’ve opted to approach the work more practically.

I decided to begin the hour-and-fifteen minute class with a keynote presentation that highlights the remarkable unlikelihood that any of the students sitting in the class actually have come into being (see “Slide 4” for further explanation) to underscore the horrible tragedy of the stunted life of the Metamorphosis’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa.  In addition, the presentation also suggests that mythology and its talented stepsister literature offer interesting ways to cop insight into, not only our lives, but science as well.  In fact, the presentation suggests that science itself is a myth, albeit a self-correcting one. Finally, I wanted to alert students to the human propensity of projecting our biology onto the cosmos as a way of explaining mysteries outside of ourselves. Of course, you can view the presentation all at once, but I have provided how I deal with each slide below the presentation.

Slide 1

As you can see, the first slide, the title slide, consists of two images, the first a sperm cell crashing into an ovum, the second, an artist’s rendering of a comet or meteor crashing into earth, which is science’s current best guess as to what engendered the chemical reactions that led to life.  I do the ol’ Socratic method, asking the students to identify what’s going on in each slide.

Slide 2

Slide 2 consists of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,”  as in the work-a-day world overwhelms me with its mind-numbing responsibilities and anxieties, which, of course, relates to “The Metamorphosis.”  As you recall, Gregor who has awakened in the form of a gigantic beetle seems more worried about getting to work on time than he does about horrible fact that he has been transformed from a mammal to an insect who still possesses a human consciousness.

The poem offers a plethora of potential Socratic questions as you relate the sonnet to the novella.  I actually talk about the structure of the sonnet, its volta in line 9, but the main focus is what the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet and Gregor Samsa have in common and what the sonnet and Dylan’s lyrics have in common.

Slide 3

Slide 3 quotes a stanza from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,”  which offers a beautifully truncated catalogue of childhood.  Note the anxiety inherent in Dylan’s ditty. (By the way, you can read my argument why Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize in literature HERE).

Slide 4

The fourth slide is an excerpt from the movie Adaptation, which didn’t successfully make the trip from my hard drive to the Internet, but you can view it here: 

Obviously, ultimately, Nicolas Cage’s character’s question how did I get here has a very complicated answer.  For him to exist on this tiny planet swirling around a run-of-the-mill star much has had to happen, much of which from my perspective seems random, the first meteor which brings life, the second meteor that brings death to the dinosaurs and their displacement by mammals; then you have to factor in the long odds of that particular sperm hitting that particular egg through the long line of his ancestors culminating with his parent’s coupling on that particular day of his conception, a day when his mother didn’t have a headache, a coupling that led to one of 250,000 sperm cells in what I call the most important-race-of one’s-life reaching the finish line of one of mother’s 300 or so ova, a process that resulted in him, and by extension, you, C of C freshman, or you, blog reader.

Slides 5 & 6

These slides underscore the long odds of existence, emphasizing just what a shame it is for poor Gregor to live such a stunted life given the enormous odds of existence.  Here, I sneak in Buddhist doctrine, and talk about the Samsa family dynamic, the office manager, etc.

Slide 7

I talk about myth here, not as untruths, but in the Joseph Campbell mode as symbolic structures that embody profound truths.

Slide 8

This slide suggests that science is often wrong about details (not theories).  If I had written “quark” instead of “electron” in my 1970 chemistry test, I would have been correct but had my answer marked wrong.  By the way, I’ve photoshopped my 1970 self into this slide (the redheaded one leaning over the desk) to show the freshmen what I looked like 45 years ago and to horrify them with the realization that they too one day will look like me now [cue maniacal laughter]

Slide 9

The discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann named it after a word from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, suggesting that scientists like literature, that disciplines are all interrelated.

Slide 10

A reprise of Slide 8

Slide 11

In Slide 11, I ask if anyone recalls the Greek creation myth of Uranus and Gaia.  If no one does, I retell it, which is essentially, the sky Uranus had sex with the earth Gaia and life began, which, brings us back to the first slide.  The current scientific theory and the Greek myth are essentially the same.

For the rest of the period, I let the students talk about “The Metamorphosis” and give them wide range.  Of course, given the title of the course, Gregor Samsa’s involuntary solitude should be brought up.

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