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.

The 5 Greatest Rock-n-Roll Covers of All Time

BigMamaTwoWillie Mae “Big Mama Thornton” by Nick Young

A couple of weeks ago when I was luxuriating in vast open freedom of spring break, the musician Howard Dlugasch and I sat at the bar at the newly opened Jack of Cups Saloon (nee Brew Pub) on Folly discussing the difficulties local musicians face in performing original compositions at bar gigs. “No,” he said, “They don’t want to hear originals. They all want to hear covers. They all want to hear Journey.”

Howard Dlugasch

Howard Dlugasch

Howard’s lament got me thinking about covers themselves, and I began cataloging what I consider the greatest covers of all time, a Herculean task if you stop to think about it.  I immediately jettisoned jazz, decided to limit my purview to rock and folk. After racking my brain, I decided to limit my list to five, and certainly many will disagree with the following choices.

Before I announce my top five, though, I ought to provide the criteria I used in the construction of this pantheon.

1) The original song had to be significant in both its music and content.  By content I mean both the degree of significance of the lyrics’ poetic purpose and the poetic quality of the lyrics themselves.  Alas, this criterion eliminates Hendrix’s great cover of “Wild Thing.”

2)  The cover of the song had to make the song, as Ezra Pound would say, new.

3) The musicianship had to be first class.

Rather than attempting to rank the covers from “grooviest” to least “groovy,”¹ I’ve copped out by presenting the 5 Greatest Covers of all time in chronological order from oldest cover to most recent.

¹I retrieved these vintage terms from the Teen Beat files located in the adolescent wing of my memory museum.

  • Elvis Presley’s cover of Big Mama Thornton’s recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog”  Thornton’s 1953 recording is killer, backed by badass bass and drumming and some imitative barking.  Hit the arrow for a 20 secondish listen:

elvis-presley-songs-hound-dog

Before Presley, others had recorded the song, and some critics claim that Presley was actually covering a Bob Wills cover or a Freddie Bell and the Bellboys cover. Nevertheless, Presley was aware of and liked the Thornton original, and so I contend he’s covering the original, not a covering a cover.  At any rate, Elvis and his producer Steve Sholes have twanged the tune to rockabilly with some aggressive drum rolling.

  • Next comes the Animals cover of the traditional folk song “Rising Sun Blues,” a song whose roots go to 18th Century England and a popular genre called “the Unfortunate Rake.” Immigrants  transported the song across the Atlantic and transplanted the setting to New Orleans.  Some contend the song’s narrator is a woman turned whore after being abandoned by a rake, which is the scenario Dylan employs in his cover, a recording that precedes the Animals’. The earliest recorded version is by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in 1934, which tells the tale from a male perspective.  Here’s a snippet from an early ’60’s version by Ashley and the great Doc Watson.  Note the featured lyrics are much different from the Animals version.

 the_animals

Ashley/Watson:  

The Animals:

Electric guitarist Hilton Valentine’s minor key arpeggio and Alan Price’s organ transform the song into what the critic Dave Marsh called “the first rock folk hit.”

  • Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 recording of Bob Dylan’s 1967 release “All Along the Watchtower.”

jimi-hendrix

Dylan:

Hendrix: 

Now, that’s what I call making it new.

  • The Doors 1970 live version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”  This selection is perhaps the most controversial.  However, I’m going with it.  Listen.

images

Bo Diddley:

The Doors: 

  • Also, perhaps, controversial, I rank Patti Smith’s 2007 cover of Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells like Teen Spirit” in the top five.  Here Smith substitutes banjos and fiddles for electric guitars and replaces Cobain’s solo with a poem that elevates the song from an anthem of teen angst to some sort of post apocalyptic nightmare.

6a0120a7b5f86a970b015437e241f9970c-800wi

Nirvana:  

Patti Smith:  

Well, there you go.  Would love to hear some comments.  Obviously, I also stayed away from soul music because rating covers there would be almost as hard as jazz.  Also, I’ve dissed Janis, whose cover of “Piece of My Heart” should probably bump Morrison and Smith off this list.