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.

Time, Time, Time Ain’t on My Side

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress

 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Eliot, “Prufrock”

Of course, time seems to pass more rapidly as we age because of the forever diminishing frames-of-references that years represent.

For example, when I was five, a student at Miss Marion’s kindergarten, a year was a fifth of my life and seemed as expansive as a continent.  The previous Christmas seemed like a far distant outpost several time zones removed, separated by a progression of slow transpiring days that unfurled and closed like lazy morning glories.

[check out the vines on the left as Cat Stevens rejoices]

Now, that I’m 61, a year seems like one revolution on a Tilt-a-Whirl that’s gone haywire in Max Sennett short – each successive whirl faster – last Christmas seeming a day or two ago and the next a day or two away.

But here’s the thing.  For the past week it’s as if I exist in a Rod Sterling directed Twilight Zone adaptation of a Kafka short story.

Every time I reach for something, it’s the very last one available!  It’s ubiquitous.  Uncanny.

For example, the day before yesterday, I had to replace the toilet paper roll in the master bath and the very next day needed to replace the roll in what we euphemistically call “the powder room.”  Coincidence – of course – but then last night as I unfurled the dental floss, the spool unwound and spit out the last remaining thread . This morning’s dry dog food scooping found the cup hitting the bottom, the food not completely done, but within three or four days of depletion.

And here’s the clincher: at school, I forgot to hit the staple function on the copier in the work room,[1] so had to staple my Romanticism tests by hand, and guess what, not only did the first stapler I used run out of staples, but the next one did as well!

To be honest, though, there was plenty of looseleaf paper to distribute to my students who are at this very moment in time explaining why this stanza of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” conforms to the subject matter and poetic conventions of Romanticism:

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic[2]

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[1] By the way, in those halcyon days before email, the copy room called the Lounge, and perhaps the fact that we in the working world are so busy there’s no time for contemplation may also play a role in the seeming acceleration of time’s passage.

[2] Of course, when I was copying my rubric for grading my students’ responses the copier ran out of paper.  I swear!