Lost in a Cave

Plato was right.

In “Allegory of the Cave,” he presents listeners/readers with a thought experiment.

What would happen if a group of people were confined in a cave and constrained in such a way that they believed shadows on the wall were reality?  What would they do if one of their number was freed and learned that the shadows were merely a ghostly absence of reality, and then returned to spread the truth to his still imprisoned friends?

“You lie!” they would shout.

Thus was born the philosophical idea that our perceptions create our realities (note plural), an idea which helps explains the difficulty of dislodging emotional truths from our minds.

For me, and for the purposes of this blog, it also explains the power of fiction and its ability to insinuate itself into “real” life.

Stephen King, in a piece published in today’s Guardian, has a marvelous take on Trump and Trump voters.  After a deft analysis of the election, he proceeds with a round table discussion with “Trump voters” born not of the womb but of his protean imagination.

It’s a perfect example of how writers of fiction, as Tim O’Brien notes in his novel The Things They Carried, are adept at “making up a few things to get at the real truth.”

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Who’s Afraid of Poetry?

Apparently, demagogues.

That, at least, is the message sent by the new administration, which broke a fifty year run of poetry at the inaugural.

Of course it was probably difficult to find a poet worth her salt to versify Trump’s coronation.

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Still, it would have been easy to pull an appropriate poem from the canon.

A particularly apropos work would be Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A bit dramatic?

Consider the following:

  • every mention of climate change and LGBT rights was deleted from the White House web page, right at noon, when the new administration took over.
  • Trump’s America First Foreign Policy page opens with the Orwellian line “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy” (Orwell’s version? “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”).
  • The exaggerations of his inauguration speech: “You came by the tens of millions [600,000] to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
  • And the free speech chilling “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”

We have a clear view of the beast . . . and innocence has certainly been drowned.

The prophetic lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” are sadly too familiar.

Surprisingly, no one recited this poem today.

And that’s a shame because poetry has the power to move people, even unconsciously, as William Carlos Williams notes in “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

                                  It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

The nation died a bit on this inauguration day.

But it will, like the weeds in Williams’ “Spring and All,” “grip down and begin to awaken.”

Poetry: if you can’t handle it, you can’t handle the truth.

Living Like it’s 1939

Okay, 1938, but who’s counting.

In The Nation magazine that year, E.M. Forster, who penned the phrase “only connect” that gives this site its name, wrote an essay titled “What I Believe.”

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The first few lines capture the signs o’ the times, both then and now.

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp.

With Brownshirts on the march in Germany, this description of the age was appropriate.

Now?  “religious and racial persecution” . . .  “ignorance rules” . . . and my favorite, science as a “subservient pimp”?

You decide.

And post your favorite excerpts in the Comments section.

What I Believe” by E.M. Forster

Gregor in the Real World

From the opening paragraphs, Kafka makes it clear that the dehumanizing nature of Gregor’s job is largely responsible for his alienation and transformation. After the first three paragraphs establish the premise of the story – a tabloidish tale of a man transformed into a “monstrous vermin” (3) – one of the main causes of this transformation is revealed: “Oh God . . . what a grueling job I’ve picked!” (4). Gregor’s anxiety about his lateness is darkly comic: here is a man transformed into some sort of gigantic insect, yet all he’s worried about is getting to work on time!!!??? Yet his anxiety is well-founded — as the reader soon finds out. He isn’t even fifteen minutes late when the “office manager himself” appears (9), and after dismissing any thoughts of Gregor’s illness, insinuates that he’s absconded with funds, and complains about his job performance – all without actually seeing if he’s even conscious.

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Gregor’s anxiety about work attests to the pressures of his job. It wears down his bodily and mental resistance, giving rise to feelings of alienation – that feeling of loneliness and despair that stems (in his case) from stress and lack of human contact. His physical exhaustion points toward the debilitating nature of his work. Upon awakening that first morning, he complains that “Human beings have to have their sleep” (4). The sentence is constructed like a tautology and pursuing the logic of it to its end points to the connection between his work and his transformation. Since his business prevents him from getting enough sleep and humans “have to have” sleep, we can only conclude that Gregor is not human and that this condition is a result of his job.

Similarly, his mental state, given his position and the authoritarian atmosphere that seems to dominate his work, preys on his mind and weakens his self-esteem. As a traveling salesman Gregor never receives sustained human contact. And without this contact, Kafka suggests, a person loses humanity. Complaining about his job, Gregor laments that he is “constantly seeing new faces,” and never has a chance to develop “relationships that last or get more intimate” (4). As many psychological studies have shown, personal contact is essential to mental health. His job makes it impossible to form the emotional ties that would prevent the feelings of isolation and loneliness that lead to alienation. Not only can’t he make friends, but the atmosphere at the home office is tainted by an authoritarian boss who “sits on the desk and talks down from the heights to the employees” (4). It’s clear that with such a antagonistic relationship, Gregor will not find any emotional fulfillment at his workplace. His occupation, which requires all of his intellectual, emotional, and physical energies, consists of a cold, antiseptic routine, devoid of the human touches which contribute to an employee’s well-begin: there will be no water-cooler bull sessions for Gregor.. It does not allow the freedom of thought and the basic traits of humanity deemed essential for mental health.

And this breakdown in mental health is where Marx comes in.  Walter Sokel, one of the most informed critics on Kafka, makes the connection between work, Marxism, and alienation clear; he notes that for Marx,

Only where work appears as its own reward are human beings truly human. Where it is imposed by economic necessity, the worker is not merely alienated from himself as an individual; he is estranged from his humanity. Marx’s idea of human self-alienation is not restricted to factory work, but includes any kind of work in which an individual is engaged merely for the wage or income it beings him. The worker is dehumanized wherever his work fails to involve his creative urge and desire. (Sokel 106)

The lack of creativity in his job is made explicit when the narrator, communicating Gregor’s thoughts, observes that “He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (5). This is a withering denunciation of the place of the worker in a capitalist society. Instead of being valued as a contributing member of the establishment, workers like Gregor are impersonal, cogs in the wheel of the corporation, without individuality or even humanity. Such distancing makes it much easier for managers and invest bankers to rationalize mergers or acquisitions which result in mass layoffs – or for office managers to accuse their salesmen of ineptitude, recalcitrance, and malfeasance. Ironically, Gregor has become what his boss wanted: he is, indeed, “without brains or backbone;” instead, he has to make do with a nerve bundle and an exoskeleton. Kafka isn’t suggesting that work itself is the problem: it’s not that Gregor is a slacker who only wants to stay home and make picture frames. The problem is in the all-consuming nature of work in a capitalist society. To ensure his position, Gregor must live, breath, and sleep his job. Such a life is bound to eventually crack the will of a person. . . . or transform them into a guest at the Roach Motel.

Capitalism’s pervasiveness and destructiveness is seen both in his treatment at the hands of his company, and in the depiction of the Samsa family, where capital gains, instead of familial care, rule. The story portrays capitalism as essentially parasitic: the capitalist feeds off the labor of the worker just as a leech sucks the blood of its host. This parasitism works on several levels. First, we see the parasitism of the textile company; it retains its connection to Gregor – its host – until he has nothing left to offer it. Likewise, the family, ensconced around the breakfast table and growing fat and comfortable at Gregor’s expense, feeds off of Gregor, and is all too ready to discard him when he no longer provides nourishment. The power of the capitalist – and conversely the futility of the worker – is illustrated in Gregor’s ill-treatment at both of their hands. Although he has worked hard both to enrich his company and support his family, his only reward is the ashcan. His worth is clearly demonstrated by the consideration of his family after his death: once released of the burden of maintaining him, they rapidly forget him. The last paragraph finds them not brooding over the death of a favored son, but planning for a future that now looks rosy indeed, especially since they’ve finally shed the desiccated host that had supported them for so long. Yet the hungry eyes they cast on Grete’s body suggest that the Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, in true capitalist form, will soon find a replacement host to feed upon.

This portrayal of the Samsa family as a microcosm of capitalism is revealed in the discussion of the family finances. Think, for a moment, what you would do if you discovered your son had become a “monstrous vermin.” I can safely assume that most of you would try to get a doctor, bring in other relatives, or try to make him as comfortable as possible. The family’s actions, and particularly those of his father, show clearly that profit motive is what rules in the Samsa household. When the narrator notes that “In the course of the very first day,” Mr. Samsa began discussing the “family’s financial situation” (26), it’s clear that they had only looked upon Gregor as a wage-slave. To make the connection between capitalism and the family even more complete, Kafka includes an odd detail about the Samsa’s finances. Instead of living hand to mouth, as would be expected given the nature of their situation (father owing money due to bankruptcy), Mr. Samsa had skimmed off some of the money Gregor had given him, and put it aside. While at first this sounds like a prudent measure, it is actually a mirror image of what the textile company had been doing as well: making money off of Gregor’s labor. By doing so, Mr. Samsa has accumulated, as Kafka telling notes, “capital” (28). To make the irony clear, Kafka has Gregor “delighted” at this, yet adds,

Of course he actually could have paid off more of his father’s debt to the boss with the money and the day on which he could have gotten rid of his job would have been much closer, but now things were undoubtedly better the way his father had arranged them. (28)

Things, of course, are not much better. The job has literally sentenced Gregor to a slow death, and Kafka uses this bitter irony – Gregor rejoicing at his own annihilation – to expose the dangers of capitalism. By illustrating the invasive nature of capitalism (a parasite infecting both work and family), Kafka suggests that it’s not only Gregor or his particular job that is at fault, but the nature of any work or relationship that uses labor as its capital.

In another connection between the world of work and family, a strange doubling occurs. Just as the father assumes the role of the capitalist, he also assumes the role of authority figure. Like the boss at the textile factory, Mr. Samsa speaks from a higher position. With Gregor now crawling on his stomach, his sense of perception has radically changed, and his father literally looms up before him, like a figure enlarged and distorted by a fun-house mirror. Once he has to fend for himself, Mr. Samsa reassumes his role as the family patriarch. Prior to the metamorphosis, he is frail and weak: he needed both Gregor and his mother to “shuffle along” on holiday walks (38). Yet how real is his frailty? From his first appearance in the text, Kafka makes it clear that he is far from the impotent old man he claims to be. We first see him knocking at Gregor’s door, “feebly, but with his fist” (6). The qualifying phrase “but with his fist” undercuts the ostensible weakness (“feebly”) of his action. Using a classic symbol of male power – a fist – Kafka shows that there is a latent dominance in Mr. Samsa that is waiting for an opportune moment to surface.

Two other symbols of oppression and authority, boots and uniforms, help establish Mr. Samsa’s place in the household. Right before he bombards his son with apples, Gregor quails at the “gigantic size of the soles of his boots” which his father “lifted . . . unusually high off the floor” (38). Conveying both a feeling of his distaste for his son – he’ll crush him like a bug – and oppression – the image of someone being stamped out – the boot signifies his father’s treatment of Gregor as a thing to be removed. In a similar fashion, the militaristic cut of his messenger’s uniform reinforces the air of authority that now surrounds his father. Note, especially, how he “refused” (41) to remove it in his home. Leaving it on as a sign of his rediscovered power, it seems a constant reminder to Gregor that he has been displaced and is no longer welcome: the old parasite (Mr. Samsa) will not willingly become a host to the new parasite (Gregor).

Yet the argument can (and has) been made that a strict Marxist interpretation makes Gregor too willing of a victim. In other words, he could have always quit his job and gone elsewhere. But showing how money and capitalist inclinations have corrupted even the sanctity of the household dooms any chance of true choice. This reveals the existentialist core of the story. Gregor’s passivity in the face of his transformation reflects the existentialist belief that all actions are ultimately futile because there is no real choice. Life is, to borrow the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To me, this existentialist view, which Kafka exploits in the story, explains Gregor’s acceptance of his fate. At the last few moments of his life, after he has heard his sister denounce him and his family agree with her, he “thought back on his family with deep emotion and love” (54). Instead of railing against the treatment he has received, he agrees that he’s become a burden: “His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s” (54). Such thoughts reveal the resignation with which Gregor viewed life. No matter what situation he was placed in, even a change into a vermin, he would adjust to it and eventually accept it. Gregor himself seems to have sublimated these feelings of insecurity and inferiority deep into his own unconscious. His acceptance of his new, vermin self, suggests it is not a wholesale transformation but the final step in an ongoing process.

Indeed, throughout the story he exhibits an eerie acceptance of his new state, from his lack of wonder about his metamorphosis to the way he readily adapts to a bug’s life. His first adaptation is physical. When he first falls out of bed, he still thinks of himself as human. Instead of crawling towards the door, he attempts to stand upright, ignoring the “pains in his abdomen” (13) caused by his exertions. Then, after painfully making his way towards the door and opening it, he delivers his long speech to the office manager. It isn’t until he falls onto the floor and uses his legs that “he has a feeling of physical well-being” (17). In other words, it’s only when he acts like a bug that he is comfortable. Instead of railing at this condition, he marvels at it, glad that his legs “strained to carry him wherever he wanted to go” (17). This bland acceptance implies that this new state was something he had anticipated, or even desired, for a long time.

A Freudian critic would argue that his id has taken over: subconsciously Gregor has always wanted to regress to a primitive state, probably because he wants the affection of his mother (note that the last person he looks at is his mother [53]). Allowing his unconscious to take over is also a way of escaping the pressures of his life and, he must have hoped, shedding his sense of alienation by switching roles and allowing his family to take care of him. But from a Freudian standpoint, such a regression to an id state would only further alienate Gregor. Indeed, that is what the story proves. Far from drawing his family to him, he becomes a specter of horror and disgrace.

Yet even in his changed state, Gregor dearly wants to retain his human nature. This is most clearly seen – in Freudian terms – when his mother and Grete attempt to clear out his room. At first, he is happy to have his room cleared of furniture. But his mother’s words “doesn’t it look as if by removing his furniture we were showing him that we have given up all hope of his getting better. . . ?” (33), jar him back to human sensibilities. He wonders why he had at first wanted to “have his warm room . . . changed into a cave” (33). The choice of words here starkly emphasize his change. He had wanted his “room,” with all its human associations, converted into a “cave,” which connotes the animal. Without the mother’s reminder, his id would have maintained its dominance, actively asserting itself over the more socialized ego. For one moment, his ego prevails over his id. (I know all this id and ego talk sounds a bit, well, silly; bear with me: I’m not the world’s best Freudian critic, but I do think it works well with this story. . . . I’m just trying to show you how.) Desperate to keep from “totally forgetting his human past” (33), he decides that he must now prevent them from removing anything else from his room. He breaks out and, confused and disoriented, instinctively tries to save the first thing he sees, the picture of the girl. A closer examination of the picture itself and Gregor’s odd “attachment” to it reveals, in a rather grotesquely touching way, his desire to remain in the human world.

The detail Kafka bestows on the picture makes it an important Freudian symbol; it is the only piece of furniture from Gregor’s room that is described in depth. In fact, it makes it’s appearance early, in the second paragraph to be exact, where it is described as a “lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared” (3). Viewed in Freudian terms, the picture, with its phallic arm disappearing into fur, is an obvious symbol of intercourse. For Gregor, it had the attraction of a pin-up (if the story was set today, it’d be a Pamela Anderson poster). Thus, we need to examine why he decides to save this instead of, for example, his desk. Instinct, I think, is the operative word here. Note his position on the picture: he crawls over it, and “pressed himself against the glass, which gave a good surface to stick to and soothed his hot belly” (35). Later, when he tries to remove himself to assist his sister, he is “stuck to the glass and has to tear himself loose by force” (36). It seems that he was, shall we say, amusing himself in a carnal fashion while pressed against the pin-up. On one level, this is a bit disgusting (okay, more than a bit disgusting), yet on another, and more human level, it is quite poignant and sad. Apparently, even two months after his metamorphosis, Gregor is still attracted, sexually, to humans. That basic instinct (the strongest after the instincts for sustenance and self-preservation) to reproduce is still strong in him. He is drawn, not to the stack of Playbug magazines in the corner, but to a human image of sensuality. Considered in that light, instead of a tawdry spectacle of perversion, this episode becomes a touching sign of Gregor’s desire to retain his humanity.

As long as we’re talking (okay, I’m talking), about Freud and sexuality, it’s best to clear the table of the other Freudian aspects of the story, specifically, the oedipal conflicts between his father, and the hint of incest Gregor exhibits towards his sister. A Freudian critic would place the authoritarianism of his father not as an outgrowth of capitalism, but as the manifestation of unresolved tensions in the relationship between mother and son. As I suggested earlier, many critics see Gregor as a metaphor for the id, a person reduced to his instinctual core. As such, the desire for untoward attention (be it breast-feeding, sex, or just that special feeling of closeness felt by all infants) from his mother which this state fosters would be unconsciously – or even consciously – acknowledged by his father. This drama is played out at the end of section II, when Gregor lies helpless after being struck on the back with that oh-so-symbolic fruit, an apple (fruit that brings with it the knowledge of good and evil; according to the bible, the faculties that make us human). From a Freudian standpoint, Mr. Samsa’s attack was an attempt to beat back the id that he, at some unconscious level, felt was motivating Gregor’s change. In an attempt to save her son, his mother bursts out of his room in an oddly disheveled state. Wearing only a “chemise,” and shedding her undergarments (“petticoats”) as she runs toward Mr. Samsa, she “forced herself onto him” (39). Continuing these allusions to sexuality and continuing to employ euphemisms, Kafka notes that Mrs. Samsa was “embracing him,” and, for the (if you’ll pardon the pun) clincher, he adds that she was “in complete union with him” (39). Obviously Mrs. Samsa is trying to distract her husband using, her . . . er. . . femininity. What’s interesting here is Gregor’s reaction. Trapped in his id state and longing for his mother’s attentions, he cannot bear this symbolic act of sex and his vision fails. Note especially the timing of the punctuation “in complete union with him – but now Gregor’s sight went dim . . . ” (39). The construction of the sentence, with the dash emphasizing the disgust Gregor felt, accentuates the Freudian nature of the encounter.

Gregor’s relationship with Grete also carries with it hints of Freudian sexuality. The very first time we hear her, the narrator notes that she “moaned” and later “whispered” (6). These are odd words to use for a conversation between a sister and brother because they are loaded with sexual connotations. Interestingly the next time incest makes an appearance, it, like the incident with the picture cited earlier, seems connected to his desire to retain his humanity. In the third section, Gregor is drawn to the sound of Grete’s violin playing. Since he had not liked music at all before his change, the narrator wonders (and given the symbiotic relationship between the voice of the narrator and Gregor, it seems Gregor does as well), “Was he an animal, that music could move him so?” (49). His reaction to the music, an allusion to Shakespeare’s line from The Tempest that “music hath charms to sooth the savage beast,” suggests that his metamorphosis is almost complete. Yet just as he did with the picture of the girl noted earlier, at the moment when the animal nature appears to subsume his human nature, his thoughts turn to sexuality and bring him back into his past state. Here, he begins to fantasize – or enter a Freudian dream-state – about locking Grete into his room and protecting her from all others. Then, following the classic fable paradigm of Beauty slowly learning to love the Beast through enforced contact, Gregor dreams of “raising himself up to her shoulder and kissing her on the neck which, ever since she started going out to work, she kept bare” (49). In his mind, she would welcome this – yet the reality of a brother kissing a sister on the neck is somewhat less romantic and more bestial. This desire for contact fits into the pattern of estrangement from and then flight to humanity that Gregor has exhibited throughout the story. It’s also a measure of his alienation from the world: he’s so cut off from others that he can only imagine sex with his sister – or a picture of woman done up in fur.

Of course by this time, any hope of reentering the human world is pointless. His family’s reaction to his change, from the start, has been a strange mixture of disgrace and shame. It seems that their disgrace stems, in part, from a sense of guilt they feel. They’re ashamed of Gregor, yet, at some level, are ashamed of their own role in Gregor’s transformation. It’s interesting that those who did not know Gregor before his transformation – the char woman, the lodgers – are more intrigued than disgusted or horrified at his appearance. Only the family and the office manager, or those who bear a large part of the responsibility for his current state, cannot bear to even look at him. Perhaps instead of vermin, they see a manifestation of their own cruelty.

In particular, Grete’s behavior at the end of the story calls attention to this latent sense of guilt. Late in the story, after the lodgers declare they will move out, she calls Gregor “it” (51). Using the impersonal pronoun “it” means that Grete no longer sees (or more accurately, doesn’t want to admit) Gregor as human. This distancing from Gregor, or setting him apart from humanity, is necessary before she can consign him to his death. Her conscious needs the rationalization – she seems to think “Oh, it’s not really my brother; it’s only a monster” – to assuage her feelings of guilt for giving up on him. That this reference to Gregor as “it” is only a rationalization is made clear a few pages later. Contemplating the corpse of Gregor from his doorway, Grete “never took her eyes off” of him. She says aloud, “Just look how thin he was” (55 italics added). The quick switch back to the personal pronoun suggests the implausibility of her earlier rejection of Gregor as human. Now that he’s dead, her true feelings come out and the guilt over her earlier actions become clear. That long stare she towards his body probably includes a measure of self-reproach for not examining him more closely over the last few months. She registers surprise over his thinness, yet she was the one family member in daily contact with him and had never noticed it earlier.

Yet while she experiences a twinge of guilt, it is short-lived. One of the points Kafka makes here is the fleeting nature of human emotions. As Grete and her mother stand by the window, saddened by the char-woman’s revelation that she’s gotten “rid of the stuff next door” (57), Mr. Samsa watches them for a while, then tells them “Come on now, come over here. Stop brooding over the past. And have a little consideration for me, too” (57). Their quick emotional shift, from grief for a brother and son to cooing over papa, marks the rapidity with which they forget Gregor. Mr. Samsa’s impatience over their grieving also illustrates the Freudian tensions in the family. Gregor’s father cannot bear any attention being given to Gregor at his own expense – even after Gregor’s death. The women’s eagerness to comfort Mr. Samsa – “they obeyed him at once, hurried over to him, fondled him” (57-58) – reestablishes his authority as the alpha male in the family. The scathing irony in this short passage (the father wants “consideration” while Gregor lies in the trash) is Kafka’s way of pointing out the essential animal nature of man: even family ties, deemed sacrosanct by culture, are no match for the survival instinct. Any guilt the Samsa’s feel is quickly forgotten as they luxuriate in their new freedom and weigh their futures with an optimistic air.

Gregor’s death, for the Samsas, amounts to a rebirth. Some critics (see footnotes 63+) see in Gregor’s life and death traces of a Christ motif. His death, in particular, supports such a reading. He dies, in a sense, to save the family, mirroring the Christian ideal of Christ’s sacrifice for all. Dying in March (spring, the month of Easter), Gregor’s death sets the family in motion, reawakening them bodily and mentally. Gregor’s death literally sends them forth: for the first time in the story, we see the Samsas out of the house. While he was alive they are symbolically trapped in their home: throughout the story the weather is gloomy or dark, mimicking their feelings about their own condition. Gregor’s death brings the first mention of light: as he dies he notices that “outside the window everything was beginning to grow light” (54). The car the Samsas enter is “filled with warm sunshine” (58), a symbol of the new and easier life that awaits them. But at what cost? I read this last paragraph as black humor, an ironic passage whose rosy tone is constantly undercut by the knowledge of Gregor’s death. The last line, with its emphasis on sexuality and reproduction, suggests that the Samsas, far from changing their ways, are looking hungrily for a new host to latch on to. I pity Grete’s husband.

If I’ve seemed to have jumped around and offered no specific interpretation of the story, all I can say is “good.” There is something about a work like “The Metamorphosis” that defies a simple exegesis. That, to me, is one of its attractions. I’ve read this book probably twelve times, and with each reading, I discover a new shade of meaning, a line I hadn’t noticed earlier, a different metaphoric approach. As I noted in a previous post, this story seems frighteningly relevant and, oddly enough, real. Let me know if you find other connections to life or other interpretations as well.

Work Cited

Sokel, Walter H. “From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function  of Self-Alienation in Kafka’s

‘Metamorphosis’.” The Metamorphosis. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House,

1988. 105-116.

Avian Therapy

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“Hope is a thing with feathers”
Emily Dickinson

john-lennon-young

“This bird has flown”
John Lennon

Time to feed it.

Here’s some seed:

Radical Reading

charlie_brown_reading

In the course of a Tim Wu interview on the Leonard Lopate Show, Wu (author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads) notes that advertisers don’t want you sitting down and reading a book for three hours because it means you’re “cheating” them of exposure.

Want to be radical?

Want to stick it to “The Man”?

Want to rage against the machine?

Read a book.

Afterword to A Leap of Faith

You’ll find here critical readings of the three stories we reviewed last week.  Use them as a way to build on your own thinking about the works and to work on incorporating literary criticism into your own interpretations.

And if you’re thinking “Hey . . . this looks suspiciously like a way to prepare me for writing research papers . . .” I’d say you’re a thinker.

Note: some of the page numbers will be off due to use of earlier edition.

“Horizontal Snow”

Salvation can be offered; it can just as easily be rejected. In “Horizontal Snow” we have a narrator who is offered something – what it is isn’t exactly clear – by a man who “claimed to be a preacher” (112). However, as an instrument of God, Lot is flawed: he’s murdered a man, literally with his own hands, and feels no remorse. Does this make him less holy? The obvious answer is yes, but there is a long Christian tradition of the sinner turned proselyte (think St. Augustine), and so he may hold out the hope of redemption for the narrator. Yet the narrator, locked in his own private world, blots out (whites out?) any chance of change by distancing himself from Lot through the easy out of social convention: he ignores Lot’s obvious religious devotion and concentrates on his (Lot’s) appearance; the narrator sees in Lot “the complete aspect of an outcast and loser” (122).

It seems ingrained in the narrator’s character to reject kindness, wisdom, and love. The trail of shattered lives he leaves behind (as we see in flash-forwards) testify to an emptiness or blankness in his emotional and spiritual makeup that nullifies, from the outset, any chance of renewal. We see him at his lowest ebb, a time when his façade of rationality is cracking (“I didn’t have any reasoning” [111]), yet he remains immune to this brush with the bizarre and possibly holy, choosing instead a retreat into the conventional response of society when confronted with the strange: rejection. In this he is like most people – I’m not sure if I would have felt comfortable with what “may have been the ugliest man in the world” (112). But that’s the point: redemption isn’t easy; it involves suffering, sometimes mental, sometimes physical, and the narrator, again, like much of society, isn’t willing to suffer, to take that leap of faith. Of course, such a leap – as its name suggests – requires faith, and that seems to be a quality that the narrator lacks. Not only faith in a religious sense, but faith in himself, life, and especially, others. His refusal to commit points to an essential flaw in his character: emotional alienation.

Is it fitting that these events take place during a blizzard – the “horizontal snow” of the title? In the midst of a tempest/storm, as he is buffeted by the elements, he has the chance to change, but as I’ve just noted, he rejects it. Even the birth of a child – a child that has overcome odds (the previous two were stillborn) – has no effect: his greeting to the baby “Welcome home, chump” (118) and his bluntly honest response to Willie’s “You’re a nice fella” (119) – “I don’t think so” (119) – are signs that foreshadow a thwarted life. Lot is wrong: he never will “wake up out of [his] little nightmare” (398). The blizzard, or horizontal snow, is a powerful symbol of his emotional distance. Blind, cold, and wreaking havoc, it, like the narrator, is devoid of spirit and life. However, the story is a flashback: it takes place before he’s completely lost, before his life has hardened into a path of destruction. His rejection of Lot’s offer of redemption, or understanding of the “holy light” (122), apparently sets the pattern for his continued rejection of life – or more properly, emotion – itself. Instead of a transformative experience, he distances himself from Lot, dismissing his experience by telling the trucker who gives him a lift that Lot was “Just a ride” (122).

Still, why is he telling this story late in life, after the women, and after the work in the Dakotas? What is it about this experience that allows him to recall it and ponder, at length, over it? Does he realize what he’s lost? Is this merely the recounting of some anecdote? Is he merely puzzled? Is he somehow moved by his remembrance of this meeting with indigenous (note that Willie is a Native-American) American pilgrims? Has he finally paid “attention” (122)? And just what is this “holy light” (122) that he rejects? Hmmmm. . . . sounds like some good questions for group work.

“Gimpel the Fool”

As the textbook notes, Singer wrote in Yiddish and many of his stories take elements of Jewish folktales and update them to fit the conventions of modern short stories. Here, the Jewish stereotype of the “little man” is inverted. In some ways Gimpel matches the stereotype – he is persecuted, cuckolded, oppressed – but his inner life and strong faith sustain him, preventing him, as Singer notes (see “What the author/critics say” below) from being a “victim.” Set amid the shtetls (Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe, Singer shows that while Jews may live together to escape persecution, a desire to oppress the “Other” is not confined to anti-Semites.

The townspeople’s cruelty demonstrates their lack of faith and suggests that savagery and skepticism is their response to anything different; Gimpel’s very goodness seem to drive them into a frenzy of cruelty. Yet Gimpel’s faith prevails: as the rabbi tells him “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself” (1417). But the difficulty of trying to live a spiritual life in a temporal world is revealed when, as he leaves the rabbi’s house, “the rabbi’s daughter took me in” (1417). As the rabbi hints, yes he is a fool, but a holy fool, one whose naiveté will receive a spiritual reward. As for the others, their reward has a distinctly bitter, sulfuric quality: on her deathbed, Gimpel imagines Elka saying “I deceived Gimpel. That was the meaning of my brief life” (1424). Scorched and burning in hell, this vision becomes a warning to Gimpel of the fate the townspeople – and anyone without faith – will receive: “I’m paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here” (1425).

A kind of religious stoicism dominates Gimpel’s vision. As he states, “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too” (1420). Yet instead of hardening his heart, this view makes him wise, seeing in the cruelty of the townspeople the potential for good. Earlier in the story, we see that he knows he is being gulled, but still notes optimistically ” I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good” (1417). Instead of being angry at being taken advantage of – as I would (and have) – he reveals the goodness of his character by seeking the solace of good intentions.

Yet Gimpel’s difference, which separates him from the others, is not strictly confined to religious matters. The theme of the holy fool, when considered as a literary device, suggests a more general theme: the fate of an individual in society. Similar to “A&P,” we have here a character who wants to remain an individual – though here this desire is much more subtle and based on morality instead of honor – and, like Sammy, Gimpel has to leave the society he is in to pursue his vision.

But before he can pursue his vision, he must, in the manner of many prophets and holy men, be tempted. Like the narrator in “Horizontal Snow” and Manischevitz in “Angel Levine,” the story places us at a climatic moment: when his faith is tested. It is a measure of his realism as a character that he, at first, succumbs to the temptation of the “Spirit of Evil” (1424). At first glance, this temptation involves merely revenge, but the Spirit is after larger game: Gimpel’s soul. When Gimpel voices his concern about “the judgment in the world to come,” the Spirit sneers, “There is no world . . . There is no God either” (1424-25). Gimpel’s first impulse is to try and crush the devil, but, “answer[ing] the call of nature,” he sinks to the level of the townspeople. That seemingly innocuous line, ” answer[ing] the call of nature,” illuminates the distinction between Gimpel and the others, and between faith and skepticism. Revenge seems the “natural” course for Gimpel to take. It requires an effort, a conscious decision to forswear revenge; only by rejecting human “nature” – which in this case involves seeking revenge by urinating in the dough – and retaining his individuality can he remain true to his god. This difference between himself and others takes on a logical, more conscious air by Elka’s admonishment in his dream vision: “Because I was false is everything false too?” (1425). She exposes the “eye for an eye” idea of revenge as hollow by setting up a false tautology: if A sometimes = B, than does everything = B? The story asks the question, “because some lack faith, should everyone lack faith?”

Elka’s part in this drama seems vaguely archetypal. Literally, a Madonna/whore figure, she represents the saving nature of grace and the possibilities of redemption. Like Levine and Manischevitz, Elka’s and Gimpel’s fates run parallel: when Gimpel loses faith, she appears in a dream with a black face, apparently suffering for her sins (1425). But as Gimpel regains his faith, and especially as it grows in his travels, her face appears “shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint” (1426). She becomes a part of his trials on earth, a test of his spirituality. His all-consuming love for her, “I adored her every word” (though tempered with realism, “She gave me bloody wounds though” [1420]), symbolize his relationship with God. As he states later in the story, after Elka has been unfaithful to him several times, “Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in” (1422). True soul-mates, his love for her, despite a host of difficulties and temptations, provides a sure measure of his humanity and spirituality. Later, as a reward for his devotion, Elka acts as medium between this world and the next, coming to his aid at a crucial moment and literally saving his soul. In a sense, his love and affection towards Elka is finally rewarded. Without her timely intervention, his realization that he is becoming cruel and vindictive — in other words, just like the townspeople — might not have occurred and he might have succumbed to the devil and lost his faith.

Gimpel’s spiritual view of life is revealed in his avowal at the end of the story that “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but once removed from the true world (1426). For Gimpel, the physical world – the world we live in – is “imaginary,” a fleeting vision that needs to be endured until the “true world” – the spiritual level – can be attained. The paradox of this vision is part of Gimpel’s individualism: he views the world and all it contains from his own perspective, remaining true to his own beliefs. In his final wanderings, he discovers the truth of his beliefs; that life is not always what it appears to be and that the strange and miraculous are possible on earth – it only takes faith, a message in accord with both secular and sacred interpretations of life.

What the author/critics say:

Interviewers: Now what about this folk element in your work? What use do you feel you are making of it, and how do you regard the so-called demonic trait?

But let me come back to the literary reason for my use of the demonic and supernatural. First, it helps me to express myself. For example, by using Satan or a demon as a symbol, one can compress a great many things. It’s a kind of spiritual stenography. It gives me more freedom. For another thing, the demons and Satan represent to me, in a sense, the ways of the world. Instead of saying this is the way things happen, I will say, this is the way demons behave. Demons symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior; and since I really believe in their existence – that is, not only symbolically bus substantively – it is easy to see how this kind of literary style was born. (qtd. in Blocker and Elman 23)

Blocker, Joel and Richard Elman. “An Interview with Isaac

Bashevis Singer.” Critical View of Isaac Bashevis

Singer. Ed. Irving Malm. New York: NYUP, 1969. 3-26

“the world [Singer] recoils from is the world of the market place, of human passions, of vain ambitions, of misguided aspirations, and of all the human relationships which result from them. This is the world of Gimpel the Fool, where the simple and the sensitive are gulled, deprived, humiliated, and despised. It is the world in which the poverty of Frampol distorts the perspective of its people.”

Eisenberg. J. A. “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Passionate Primitive

or Pious Puritan?” in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis

Singer. Ed. Irving Malin. New York: NYUP, 1969. 48-67.

From your collection Spinoza of Market Street, I get the impression that there are two broad philosophical areas into which the stories can be divided. . . . I got the feeling that either supernatural forces such as imps or devils are enticing man into wrong doing and then he is punished, or he stoically accepts the natural order, suffers, and does nothing to improve his condition. In either case, it seems that your characters are not so much conscious agents as expressions. They seem to become somewhat static.

No, it is not completely so, because I believe, at least consciously, in free will. Everyone of us has free will. The only thing is that free will is a rare gift and we get very little of it. In the stories where I describe human misery, I describe cases where a man did not make use of his free will and because of this you have a feeling that the imp and satan and the devil are victorious. I always believe that there is no power which can curb a man from using this rare gift if he really wants to. Even though you will see in my works many stories where I make man seem like a victim of other powers, I don’t believe in that.

Your characters have the will to repulse the forces if they make that choice?

Yes. They have the will and in some of my stories you will see that they actually do so. This war between God and Satan means actually the war between free will and compulsion. From the moment man is born, he is compelled, yet at the same time he is given the free will to fight compulsion.

You would say that when a man uses free will, he will use it to rise above into the ethical, that his compulsion may be toward evil but he uses his will to fight evil?

Yes, to my mind this is actually the essence of religion. There is not such a thing as a fatalist religion. Be it Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism, they all teach you that we are always given a choice. Even when it seems to a human being that he has no choice, he still has some choice. When a man is in prison, naturally he has no choice – he cannot leave the prison. He cannot break the walls, but he can always be at one wall or another wall – he can be quiet or he can be hysterical. He can be a good prisoner or a bad prisoner.

He can reconcile himself to his position?

Yes. It is very interesting that in Europe there does not exist the fact that one gets time off for good behavior, which means that those who made the laws in this country knew that even a man in prison can behave well or badly, and he is rewarded and punished accordingly. This is a very good idea because it means that man has not lost his will completely even though he is in prison. (qtd. in Marshall Breger and Bob Barnhart 39-41)

Berger, Marshall and Bob Barnhart. “A Conversation with Isaac Bashevis Singer.” Critical View of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ed. Irving Malm. New York: NYUP, 1969.27-43.

Afterward to “Angel Levine”

A man who has it all suddenly finds himself bereft of family, health, wealth, and, for a moment, and faith. This sounds like the story of Job, which it is, but it’s also a basic plot used throughout the centuries. Here, Malamud uses it to trace the fall and then redemption of Manischevitz. The use of such an archetypal story lends a measure of solemnity to the gentle manner and bumbling ways of Manischevitz, who refers to God as “sweetheart” (1057), and shuffles along in pain. The allusions also give a structure and moral weight to a story filled with more comic elements, such as Manischevitz’s incredulity when confronted with a black, Jewish angel, and the tone of the narrator (notice here it is third person: unlike Gimpel, we don’t see the actions entirely from Manischevitz’s view).

Manischevitz’s slow descent into hopelessness is mirrored by Levine’s gradual resumption of worldliness. Tempted by Bella, Levine, after being rejected by Manischevitz, slowly regresses into mortal habits. Paralleling Levine’s decline, Manischevitz’s life unravels. The pair seem locked in some strange kind of tragic tango: Levine assumes the forms and shapes that Manischevitz expects of him. This is hinted at in the story when Levine tells Manischevitz “I am in a condition of probation. How long that will persist or even consist, I admit, depends on the outcome” (1058). It seems that Levine’s fate rests on his acceptance by Manischevitz; and conversely, Manischevitz’s fate rests on his acceptance of Levine. As one critic writes, “Manischevitz is required to acknowledge the divine essence in another, an act which redeems both the truster and the trustee” (Richman 78). Unlike the previous stories, the lines between faith and skepticism, belief and rejection, are here closely drawn and mutually beneficial – and mutually punitive. Of course, the question remains, why does Malamud shape these characters so? Why do they seem almost like Siamese twins, subject to the same fate?

At first, I was taken aback by the seeming regression of Levine’s character into stereotype. However, I read an interesting interpretation of this by Robert Solotaroff which relates it to Manischevitz’s crisis of faith. He argues that “In terms of the workings of faith, the inability to make a difficult assertion only renders it yet more difficult: since Manischevitz cannot accept a sober Levine in his apartment, he has to accept the stage Negro while they are surrounded by anti-Semites in a Harlem drive” (38). Since Manischevitz has rejected the first offer of salvation, he must be punished, and now, before he can receive grace, he must humble himself. In a sense, Manischevitz can only accept the angel after he (Levine) is transformed into a stereotype: he can only believe when confronted, literally, with his own prejudices. Thus he regains, not only his wife and health, but his essential humanity. His final remark to his wife, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere” (1064), marks his realization of a kinship with all – though, still in character, he has to transform others to his own view (Jewish) of humanity.

But before he can believe, his faith is sorely tested. After a brief respite, his pain returns and his darling Fanny fades. At his lowest ebb, he visits a synagogue, and Job-like, “rail[s] against God” (1061). But since he is essentially a good man, he receives a final chance at redemption. Just as Gimpel first commits a sin (urinating in the dough) and then is warned in a dream, so does Manischevitz first sin (doubt God’s omnipotence), and then receive a dream vision which gives him a measure of hope.

His final avowal of faith is oddly lacking in spirituality. Indeed, he chooses to trust Levine, “without belief” (1061), yet knowing that he somehow had to act. As he thinks, “If there was no choice, he did at least what was chosen” (1061). Although he feels he lacks faith, he still retains a shred of conviction: confronted with the choice of rejecting the dream or at least exploring its validity, he makes a “choice” and, sitting there in Bella’s with the wheel of fortune whirring in his head, finds redemption. The wheel seems to settle on “yes,” but then it “moved” (1063). At this moment, Manischevitz realizes that faith isn’t a matter of luck or chance. As he notes: “one had still to make a choice” (1063). Thus faith comes down to choice: he’s faced with a “no,” yet makes a conscious decision (free will?) to accept and believe – and decides to take the leap.

Works Cited

Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

What the author/critics say:

Norman Podhoretz on Malamud’s characters, ‘The Jew is humanity seen under the twin aspects of suffering and moral aspiration. Therefore any man who suffers greatly and who longs to be better than he is can be called a Jew” (Richman 78).

Richman, Sidney. “The Stories.” Bernard Malamud. Modern Critical Editions. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 71-100.

From a 1966 interview:

“My work, all of it, is an idea of dedication to the human. That’s basic to every book. If you don’t respect man, you cannot respect my work. I’m in defense of the human” (qtd. in Solotaroff 146).

In what way does Manischevitz evince this “defense of the human”?

Interviewer: Do you see an inner cohesiveness, a miniature world, in your works?

Malamud: “I like to be told that I’ve created a world” (qtd. in Solotaroff 151).

Malamud: “Narrative tries to find the way from one condition into another more blessed” (qtd. in Solotaroff 156).

Malamud on literature: “It elevates, enriches, changes and, in some cases, reveals the meaning of life. In some cases, it makes you want to change your life” (qtd. in Solotaroff 156).

© 2000 David Bordelon