Gregor Samsa’s Kafkaesque thoughts

Thoughts of a monstrous insect called Gregor Samsa

(“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect.” The metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

My chief lepidopterist says I am not a roach but a dung beetle cap’ble of flight .Alas, if only I knew this hidden truth! It was my insect’s fears preying on my soft underside and it remained unaware of the silky wings that sit on my sides.It was the bread crumbs thrown at me by my sis that closed the gap ‘tween mind’s body and bliss.If only I knew I could fly from these smelly holes through the window and land this body on lawn ,so it smells the freshest dung that rolled on grass.

I was thinking whether Kafka’s story of a traveling salesman waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect could be classified as a tragic tale. What are the tragic elements of the story except perhaps the insect’s unhappy end? The transformation itself is not tragic because it made no difference to the insect whether it was a traveling salesman in its earlier form and it never felt sad about it. An “absurd “story has some tragic elements but only those which underline the futility of all human existence.

Not finding inherent tragedy in the insect’s tale, I find it easy to sublimate the resultant artistic experience by looking at the insect’s tragedy, per se. I mean I don’t look at Gregor Samsa’s tragic experience of a metamorphosis into an insect but the insect’s own tragic experience of not realizing its flying capability .A dung beetle unable to realize its potential for flying .Probably because it was Kafka’s own limitation that the insect had to be monstrous and monstrous dung beetles cannot fly .The tragedy of the beetle was that it cannot over-reach itself.

“To Any Reader “-BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

I love the poem for the child-like simplicity of its presentation. The poem has two crisp images that merge into each other and run through to the end. The poem is addressed to reader,not to a reader but to any reader.The book is the the first image. Whatever the book has to convey has significance to any reader i.e. universal significance. The book opens up windows to a garden where a child is playing around the trees under a mother’s watchful eye from the house. The garden is the second image . It stands for the happier times when the child was playing blissfully round the trees while the mother from within the house is checking up on it from time to time. The mother could knock at the window and call the child to hear her. You the reader can now see through the book’s windows the child still playing round the trees. But alas you cannot knock to be heard. Because the child no longer exists in the form occuring in the earlier pages of the book. He has since grown and gone , leaving his airy form behind in the garden. The words of the book are mere air . The windows it presents are holes in a memory and the child figment of an early form that cannot now hear your knock.No amount of your calling lures him out of the book , where he plays an airy thing of your memory.

The child is playing in the garden in another space . The reader,as from a different space ,experiences it , now through the book’s window. Unlike mom who could by her knock on the window, make the child hear,the reader cannot catch his attention. Nor can he be lured out of the book. The book is the bridge that links two spaces in time i.e . the child’s and the reader’s. The child continues to play in the garden but is out of reach for the reader. He is a mere thought, an idea in the sequence of a chronicle. He will linger for ever as an airy being straight out of the book, through the reader’s own transience.

Anyreader, you may see the child(your own former self) through the book’s windows .Only you cannot knock the window now to call the child , who is too far far away to hear your call.

I see interesting use of visual imagery. Look at the way mom’s physical seeing is juxtaposed with the reader’s imaginary view through the windows of the book :

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.

Mother sees :: you may see, if you look
playing round the garden trees :: Another child far far away
As from the house :: In another garden

Also , look at the interesting way in which space is dealt with by use of the visual imagery:

Mother’s seeing is from the physical window and its knocking can call the child to hear
Reader’s seeing is through the windows of the book he cannot knock and call to hear

Mother’s space is a window overlooking the garden
Reader’s space is through the book’s windows to a far far away child, who is a mere idea.

“Far , far away” extends space indefinitely as the reader looks back at his own childhood . The child is grown and gone away from the garden , now an adult peering through the windows of the book.

“Tyger, Tyger” By William Blake


Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Blake’s song is about innocence and experience, innocence of the lamb coexisting with the experience of the tiger. When the Creator made them , did he forge them alike , when their natures are so diametrically opposite? Was it the same God who made them both?

The experience of the tiger comes from the fires of the smithy that fashoned it. Those are hell-fires of Mephistophilis, ferocious in their evil.But it is made by the same God who made the innocent beauty of the lamb. The tiger burns bright , its eyes glowing coals of experience. There is beauty in it, born of a symmetry carefully crafted by a loving hand and a beauty eye. Why would God smile his work to see? Perhaps to see so much beauty in violence,accomplished in the same way as beauty in the lamb’s innocence.

The immortal eye or hand would frame the fearful symmetry lest it not overflow and contradict the lamb’s innocence.The intellectual cannot grasp a reality where symmetry can be so fearful, a paradox in which violence is integral part of beauty and becomes truth.A logical bottleneck is in the acceptance of a reality where the beauty of innocence co-exists with the symmetry of experience. Experience is the hell-fires that fashion the tiger’s symmetry, the deftness with which the hand and the eye have fashioned its form , a form that pleases the senses despite its fearfulness.

Only an immortal eye or hand could “frame” such a fearful symmetry. The metaphor used is smithy with tools like the hammer , the chain and the furnace. Framing would imply containing the contradicting elements of the composition – beauty of the tiger’s form with the fierceness of its posture. The fearfulness is accomplished by twisting the sinews of its heart with an amazing art and by a powerful shoulder. The tiger is beautiful form pleasing to the eye but its fierceness flows from its heart , a terror achieved after the sinews are hammered into place and the heart starts beating.

Once the heart starts beating, what hand dare seize the fire,what wings aspire! Who is the “he” who is supposed to aspire on wings? Surely not Icarus of waxen wings aspiring to the sun or the child monkey God of the Hindu pantheon who climbed the skies to eat the fruit of a sun and burnt his mouth red.

What immortal hand or eye dare
Frame they fearful symmetry

A mortal hand or eye cannot dare frame such symmetry .It will be singed by the fires of the tiger’s being.It is only God who can dare to do it or clasp its deadly terrors. It is He who created its symmetry.To frame is to capture the very essence of the tiger’s being.

Some lovely usages that have caught my fancy are

Burning bright
Burning bright denotes more light than heat

The forests of the night
A beautiful mixing of space with time

Immortal hand or eye

Hand or eye is hand or eye in the abstract because it is part of an immortal body. hand because the blacksmith forges with his hand to shape but uses eye to decide proportions.

Frame
Frame is used here in the context of taming uncontrolled nature, in order to bring about symmetry

Aspire
I am not sure if the poet meant the aspiring Icarus whose wings melted in the sun.

In what distant deeps
In the netherworld that is hell with its blazing fires

Did he smile his work to see?
I love the line for the simplicity of this highly graphic image . God smiles down on the tiger with an artist’s pleasure ( looking at the work of art he had created)

What shoulder , What art
Shoulder is the smith’s physical labour involved in shaping the object. Art is the brain involved in bringing symmetry to the finished product.

Twisting the sinews of thy heart
The process of forging the heart is almost physical like twisting the sinews tightly to ensure they are in place.

“Requiem ” by R.L.Stevenson


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

What a beautiful death poem , by a tuberculular poet embracing death with a will. Will is the testament that expresses the dying man’s wish which is that the following verse be engraved as his epitaph:

Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from sea
and the hunter home from the hill

Listen to the music of the lines:

The recurrence of d’s haunt you like death in the first stanza, sounding its inevitability :

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
GlaD DiD I live and glaDly Die
and I laiD me Down with a will

“Under the wide and starry sky” is how the occupant of a narrow grave may view the vast expanse of the sky -at once wide(not infinite) and starry.

Dig the grave and let me lie

Grave is the resting place, also a serious thing. Grave is the noun here, while grave in the next stanza is a verb equivalent to engrave, meaning engraving the letters of the verse on the grave stone. Dig the grave here has almost the modern meaning of “dig” meaning what one likes, loves or enjoys ( as in I dig this song). Especially after the poet says “gladly die” and wants to lie where he always wanted to be.

“Here he lies where he longed to be”

Connect it to the next lines where the sailor is home from sea and the hunter from the hill. where he wants to **be**? In the sea and in the hills one could **be** but in the grave?But then it is only “be” that goes musical with “me”. All one’s achievements in life , either on the sea or in the mountains go to nought and finally one has to return to this home after all.

Glad did I live and gladly die

The poet lived a glad life and has no complaints. Does it mean that he had indeed a glad life? of course not.He is just glad that he lived(glad,did I live).Or may be he lived indeed a glad life and now he is dying and he will lie gladly in his new home under the wide and starry sky.

Be

Interesting usage at different places in the poem. Be means to live, to exist, the opposite of death which is nonexistence. Can one long to be in grave ?

This be the verse you grave for me : Here “be” suggests an irrovacable option, a testament that has to be implemented.

the hunter home from the hill
the sailor home from sea

The alliterations with “h” and “s” are beautiful. Note the hunter is home from the hill but the sailor is home from sea.The hunter goes to a hill (not for a prolonged stay there) but the sailor comes back home after long absences.

“Long Live The Weeds”- By Theodore Roethke

Long live the weeds that overwhelm
My narrow vegetable realm! –
The bitter rock, the barren soil
That force the son of man to toil;
All things unholy, marked by curse,
The ugly of the universe.
The rough, the wicked and the wild
That keep the spirit undefiled.
With these I match my little wit
And earn the right to stand or sit,
Hope, look, create, or drink and die:
These shape the creature that is I.

Taking off from where Hopkins left in his poem Inversnaid, Theodore Roethke , now spending his time in a greenhouse is hugely occupied by weeds that force the gardener to work so hard ! Hopkins asked what would the world be if bereft of the wet and wilderness and said let them be left and long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. Roethke’s own vegetable realm is narrow and small but one is a monarch of all that one surveys(realm),but his rights there is somebody to dispute. The weeds make one toil like the son of man, struggling with a barren wild and a red rock under whose shadow you see fear in a handful of dust.The bitter rock .The barren soil. You have to make it alive. Do we need the weeds? Why does one have to struggle to keep them away from the narrow garden?Because the struggle is worth it. It is because of the weeds that the spirit is alive. We try to pit our limited wit against their enormous capacity to grow and flourish without any external support.We earn our right to stand or sit ,hope look,create drink or die and they shape the creature that is I.

Overwhelm/narrow vegetable realm is not a rhyming music. The metaphor inside is music. The garden (garden of Eden?) is overwhelmed by weeds . The weeds ,like the bitter rock and the barren soil, are the ugly and unholy things of the garden. Haven’t the evil forces represented by the fallen angel forced the Son of God to toil all the harder for it ? It is the rough and the wicked that keep the spirit undefiled. We do need the weeds . Not the way Hopkins said we needed them. Hopkins looked at the beauty of the world made by the wet and wilderness and the weeds that grow in the wild adding to the raw beauty of the landscape . Roethke is glad weeds make him toil hard to keep his garden beautiful.But for them we would not work hard to keep our garden beautiful. The way the weeds make us toil shapes our personality, giving us the strength to fight the forces of adversity.

The Biblical metaphor takes us back to the story of the Garden of Eden:

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse…

Paradise Lost by John Milton

The narrow vegetable realm is the Garden of Eden, that was lost to Adam and Eve on account of their first disobedience. The weeds are the unholy things that abound in the garden and need to be removed for the good and the holy to flourish.The greater man , son of God appears and restores the pristine garden but he must toil in the barren soil and the wild rock , with the weeds that overwhelm the vegetable realm. The struggle with rough and the wicked keep the spirit undefiled. Faith in the Holy Trinity-God , Son of God, and the Holy Spirit shall keep the garden free of unholy things, the wild and the wicked.

Interesting usages :

Overwhelm : Overwhelm means inundate, bury or drown under a great weight. The weeds overwhelm the beautiful plants of the garden, both in the sense of choking them and not allowing them to grow but in the sense of depriving them of the essential nutrients from the soil. Imagine masses of weeds as a great flood, a deluge that will eventually drown all life in the universe.

The bitter rock: Recall the allusion to the red rock in T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land

Come in under the shadow of this red rock
…………………………………………………..
I will show you fear in a handful of dust

Son of man : The offspring of Adam and Eve. Recall Eliot’s allusion to the Son of man

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


Marked by curse
: The curse of god by which the rebellious angels fell and became the permanent denizens of Hell. The weeds , the wild rock and the barren soil are in such contrast to the verdant beauty of the original Garden of Eden which man lost due to his first disobedience. And he inherited the unholy things , marked by curse but all that is designed to make him toil harder and regain the original beauty of the garden.

With these I match my little wit : The poet has to be all the time on his toes because the weeds grow phenomenally faster than the regular plants and it takes quite a bit of struggle to keep the garden free of them. He has to exercise all his puny intellect to ensure they are eliminated.
Metaphorically the son of man has to stay away from the vile things of the universe and the temptations that the devil has to offer all the way.

“Trees “-A poem by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

I love the poem for the stark simplicity with which the poet deals with the tree.It is interesting to see the handiwork of a poet compared with God’s.This one does not have any illusion about his own capabilities for creating and admits the foolishness of a poet who thinks he can make things the way God does.No poem can be a work as lovely as a tree.

A comparison of an abstract thing like a poem with a concrete thing, a living one at that -isnt it a little daft? Seems so but not exactly .A tree is a product of design just like a poem. A poem can be lovely but not as a single unique idea. Not a tree whch is Plato’s Idea of a thing of which each individual tree is a copy. All art is a copy of the Idea , which is a unique identity.And each artifice is a copy of an Idea, twice removed from reality and has therefore to be imperfect. The artist can paint a tree ,not make it .The poet can make a poem which is itself a beautiful experience derived from an Idea copied from God’s original.

Within the grand image of a poem compared with a tree are several other beautiful metaphors to describe the traits of a tree. First , tree is a child of the earth.Its hungry mouth is prest against the earth’s sweet bosom, flowing with life sustaining liquid. The tree is then a praying one, with its leafy arms to the sky, thanking its Maker all day for its beautiful existence.Then , in summer it shall wear a beautiful flower in her hair, the Robbins nest that is so grand and so colorful.In winter there will be snow covering its bosom and in monsoon it shall live in an intimate relationship with rain.

The tree is an organic entity that can better be compared with another organic thing.That is why the tree is humanised in all stages of human life and growth. Thus the tree has a hungry mouth for the earth’s bosom like a human infant.It has eyes with which it looks at God all day and arms which it raises to pray to Him.In summer she wears her flowers of a robins’ ‘nest that make her so lovely to look at.A beautiful woman now she has her own bosom covered with snow and last ,she lives with rain in intimate relationship.

But such poems are made easily by fools like the poet .Only God can make trees.

“The Fly”- By William Blake

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Teeny weenie like the subject fly, the poem is bigger than what it seems.It is not just about a fly but also about three characters from the image in which Blake had set the poem as a text in the trees. The poem is set as a blurb in the trees with a nurse and a toddler in the foreground and a shuttle cock playing girl in the background.Do we need to understand the background to the poem? Not necessary but it does help a better understanding.

The fly is also a man whose wing is casually brushed by a blind hand,probably a recall of the girl’s racquet brushing the feathered shuttle cock .The poet seems looking at the girl playing as he is thoughtlessly brushing the fly and plunges into thought about how thoughtless he has been.Man brushes the fly casually and is himself a fly subject to a similar brushing by a higher power.Fly is man and man is fly ,the way both get brushed with a casualness shocking to the thoughtful man.

There is a lot common between fly and man-both have life .Thought for man makes for life and thoughtlessness is brain death .The fly is helpless against the forces of life and death and so is man who drinks and sings ,till a blind hand brushes his wing.He is a happy fly, if he lives by thought and if thought stops he dies like the fly .The hand that brushes is a random(blind) event ,whether for the fly or for man.

The toddler ,the girl and the nurse associated with man’s birth and his growing are activities that go on like the summer play of a fly till his wing is brushed by some blind hand.