Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Kafka's "Metamorphosis": A Tale of Affliction

There are several ways to read this peculiar story by Franz Kafka. You might, as many people do, see it as an existential comedy on the fallibility of man or the inhumanity of strangers, or a satire on the bourgeois family, unable to cope with change or anything that requires genuine human emotion. For the players in this drama fit a certain stereotype: the dutiful son, the petulant father who is never satisfied with his son's achievements, the loving sister who cannot deal with the ugly, cruel side of life, the mother who is uncomfortable with anything that disrupts the harmony of her family, the indifferent guests who lodge in their home and care nothing about the calamity which has befallen their landlord.  

The characters in this story are all recognizable because they are similar to how "respectable" people in all walks of life conduct themselves. That is to say, when confronted with something truly bizarre and out of the ordinary, the usual response is denial or a desperate attempt to place this disruption of normal life back into the realm of something rational and ordinary. So it is not surprising that the initial reaction by someone reading this story is to assume that it didn't really happen. In other words, no one really turns into a cockroach. The whole story is nothing but a dream. Gregor is having a nightmare, and Kafka's story is nothing but a depiction of Gregor's struggle to make sense of his disturbing dream. This way, the reader is left feeling entertained but not threatened. The world as we know it is completely rational and nothing extraordinary or supernatural ever occurs. Who cares if Gregor lives or dies? It's only a story about a dream.

I would like to suggest a different purpose by the author. "Metamorphosis" is not a satirical comedy, but a nightmare and tragedy. For the theatrical reference points are not "Waiting for Godot" or "No Exit," but Eugene O'Neill's "Death of a Salesman" or Pomerance's "The Elephant Man." What happens to Gregor is exactly what happens to Job. A decent, law abiding man who works diligently to pay off his father's debts has undergone a complete transformation. But even in his first waking moments when he becomes aware of the bizarre change which has come upon him, Gregor still wants to get out of bed and do his filial duty:

"Well, there's still hope once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents debts to him--that should take another five or six years--I'll do it without fail."

Like Job, Gregor has no idea what has happened to him or why his world has been turned upside down. The truth is that Job doesn’t deserve his fate, and neither does Gregor. One day he is living a normal bourgeois existence as a commercial traveler (salesman); the next day, he has the body of an insect. But his mind is still human. He has the same feelings and thoughts as he did as a human, but his mind is now trapped inside the body of an insect.  And like Job receiving advice from his so-called friends, Gregor soon finds that his family cannot help him. They are disgusted and frightened by his appearance. They mainly want him (or it) to go away. If he is no longer able to work, then what good is he? He has become a person with "special needs."

To make matters worse, Gregor can understand what others are saying, but they cannot understand him. He doesn't sound or look like a human being anymore. When the Chief Clerk comes to inquire why Gregor has not reported for work, it becomes clear that Gregor's value to his employer has vanished along with Gregor's human form. Although this reaction is not surprising coming from an employer; it is disheartening when his own family comes to the same conclusion. At first, his mother and sister are sympathetic and do what they can to make him comfortable. They are hoping for a kind of miracle in which their Gregor will be restored to his human body. But no miracle occurs, and as time goes on Gregor shows no improvement. They keep him boxed up in his own bedroom, which becomes a kind of storage place for things of little value.

Still, for several weeks, hope for some kind of recovery remains alive. Each day, his mother and sister bring him food and try to tidy up his room.  His sister becomes his primary caretaker. But after awhile, even these small acts of kindness are abandoned. One day, Grete comes in to find Gregor sitting in his chair, staring out the open window. She doesn't know it, but his vision is getting worse. Along with all his other physical problems, such as the festering wound in his side, he is going blind. His sister seems to realize that he is getting worse. But she doesn't know how to deal with the situation. She can't fix what is wrong with him, just as he is unable to give her the money to enable her to attend the conservatory for her music. During this period of stagnation, no one in the family has the power or even the motivation to try and change what seems to be their fate.

Yet, as Gregor’s condition deteriorates, we learn some interesting facts about his family that illuminate what Gregor's true value is to them. Along the way, you could say that Gregor’s family goes through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Then, finally, Gregor, or the creature he has become, succumbs to his illness. The charwoman comes into his room and pokes his corpse with a broom, saying “Just look at this; it’s dead. It is lying here dead and done for.”

In her eyes, Gregor is no longer a member of the family. He has become an “it” and the “it” is an intruder. In reply, Gregor’s father says, “thanks be to God.” 

Suddenly, with Gregor out of the picture, the family becomes pro-active. They evict the rude lodgers and decide they don’t really need such a large apartment. They get rid of the charwoman and then, mirabile dictu, they all manage to obtain employment. It turns out that Gregor's father is not quite as helpless and destitute as he appeared. So, from a strictly mercenary perspective, Gregor’s death has become the motivation for the family to acquire economic independence. 

But what does this play say to us about the human condition? It says we are temporary constituents of matter, mortal beings, and subject to forces we cannot control. Like Job, Gregor is innocent. He has committed no crime. And yet, innocence offers no protection from affliction. It is the innocent who must carry the moral burden of our crimes. And what are our crimes? They are too numerous to be listed, but the greatest among them is indifference to the suffering of others. Of course, there are many possible interpretations to this story. I am choosing one. The theme of alienation runs through many works of existentialist authors like Kafka. But what does alienation really mean? In moral terms, it means the inability to respond to one’s environment (or to others) in any kind of human way.

On the other hand, one can easily give the meaning of Gregor’s death a transformative spin by describing his metamorphosis as a form of Christian allegory, in which the good son becomes a sacrificial lamb whose death releases the family from its spiritual bondage and inspires them to go on and lead better lives. But this is hard to justify. The family will indeed survive and possibly even prosper, but it seems that any memory of their son has evaporated. 

In biology, metamorphosis means “a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism.” So it is fair to say that Gregor’s family has gone through its own metamorphosis. But, as my friend Ron would say, “is this a good thing, or a bad thing?”

Monday, October 20, 2014

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis, Part 1 (Bugs and People)

Pop quiz. How many times have you fallen asleep and woken up the next morning? Many, many times for sure. How many times have you fallen asleep and woken up the next morning as a bug? That’s how this story begins. Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman. He goes to bed one night and when he wakes up the next morning he has somehow turned into a bug. This could be a horror story or a modern-day movie like The Fly. So why is it included in the Great Books?
The story of Gregor Samsa raises many questions. For starters if a man falls asleep one evening and wakes up the next morning as a bug is he still a “man” too? Gregor still has his own personal memories of his work and his family. He still has human emotions. He still feels hunger and hope and sadness. But he has the body of a beetle. Healthy human food such as milk and bread repulses him. He can understand what people are saying but he can’t talk back to them in human language. So the first hurdle we face in understanding this story is answering the question: what makes Gregor Gregor? What is it about this man that defines him specifically and uniquely as “Gregor” the traveling salesman, or Gregor the son, or brother, and so on? What is it that connects Gregor to the real world day after day, week after week, year after year? No matter how many times he falls asleep and wakes up again, he’s still “Gregor.” Until now.
The next hurdle we face in understanding the story is why a bug? It would be a very different story if Gregor had gone to bed and woken up the next morning as a woman. It would be a very different story if Gregor had turned into a cuddly little kitten or a cute little puppy. What is Kafka trying to tell us when he has Gregor turn into a bug instead of a woman or a kitten or a puppy? A woman is another human being. We can understand that. Kittens and puppies can be playful and affectionate. We can understand that too. People adopt kittens and puppies as pets. But who has ever adopted a bug as a pet? Scientists and nature lovers study bugs to learn more about them. But they don’t feel affection for them. And of all living species insects (along with reptiles) are the species most alien to us. We can feel warm-blooded affection for higher mammals and many people love birds. But who can love a bug?
That’s how Kafka sets up a story that’s ripe for philosophical speculation. Here we have a man who is alienated from the human family, he’s alienated from his own family, and he’s even alienated from his own self. So what does he worry about? Being late for work. Gregor thinks “…what an exhausting job I’ve picked! Traveling about day in, day out.” He usually catches the 5:00 morning train but today he overslept. He’s turned into a bug and that’s inconvenient. Now his clothes won’t fit and it will be much harder to meet his sales quota. Some customers may not feel comfortable placing orders with a bug sales rep. But if he hurries he still has time to catch the 7:00 train. I turn into a bug and this is what I worry about? What is Kafka trying to tell us?
On one level maybe Kafka’s just telling an interesting story. All good writers do that. This story happens to be a bizarre tale. But lots of people like reading about bizarre things. Just ask Stephen King. On a deeper level Kafka may be asking us to consider what is so special about people? What makes us human? What makes us different from bugs? Or is Kafka asking us to be kind to one another? Or is he asking us to pause in the middle of our busy daily lives and consider what we value most? Maybe he’s asking all these things; maybe not. After all literature isn’t philosophy. As a storyteller Kafka doesn’t have to prove anything. He’s just telling a story. And that’s a very human thing to do. Bugs don’t tell stories.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Blinded by Culture

The truth (or value) of any new theory is measured in two ways: does it make accurate (and verifiable) predictions about the way nature operates; and if so, does it offer a better explanation than the existing theory?

The Greeks of Homer (or Oedipus) weren't fools, but they could be foolish in the same way that children are when they believe in fairies, Santa Claus, and other mythical creatures. Are we smarter than Aristotle or Oedipus?  Probably not. But we are better informed which means we have access to better information.  We also have the ability to think critically about what is true and what isn't true, which is something that people in Homer's day lacked. We don't burn incense or sacrifice bulls or chickens on altars to bring us good fortune. We use logic, technology, and a knowledge of the past to inform our decisions regarding the future. We don't believe in fate, but we do believe in DNA, cause and effect, and statistical probability.

When it comes to Freud's work on dreams, there continues today to be much doubt whether it even qualifies as science. Much of it is highly speculative, just as his work on infantile sexuality remains mired in controversy. But a theory doesn't always have to be true in order to be useful. Dreaming is so common a human experience as to be almost universal. Often, people are troubled by dreams and are confused, embarrassed, and even ashamed by the content of their dreams. Freud had the insight that dreams are connected with feelings, especially feelings that are often suppressed, such as erotic feelings for other people. He developed a theory about why people have such dreams, and how these dreams be interpreted in a useful way.

What is not clear to many people today is how Freud's early work on dreams qualifies as science rather than mythology.  A person goes to her analyst and describes a dream. How does the analyst know that the person lying on his couch is not inventing the dream as she speaks? Well, there are techniques for separating lies from truth, but are the same techniques able to distinguish hallucinations from dreams? Maybe or maybe not. But people do not spend large sums of money to lie on a couch and discuss their dreams if they don't get some benefit. The proof is in the pudding. Some people feel better going to a priest and giving their confession. Other people go to a psychiatrist and feel better after talking to someone who listens to what they have to say. Even after 2,000 years of human development, our mind is largely a mystery. We don't understand ourselves, nor do we understand the people around us. We live in confusion and we experience anxiety over our inability to control our lives. What Freud attempted to do, with his theory and his practice, was to provide relief from anxiety.


The popular word in use today is stress. And it is far from certain whether this condition is related to our biology or our way of living. Kierkegaard believed that anxiety or stress is existential, meaning it is part of the human condition. Freud, on the other hand, believed that anxiety is treatable and that the ultimate goal of psychiatry should be to make people feel better (or less miserable) than they otherwise would. Of course, Aristotle, along with the Greek dramatists like Sophocles, might say the same thing: tragedy makes people feel better about themselves. Wasn't this the whole point of "katharsis"-- the purgation or cleansing of our soul which, in today's language, we describe as the release of anxiety?

Friday, October 10, 2014

FREUD: On Dreams (Psychology and Mythology)

In our last reading Oedipus the King had a most unhappy fate, just as the gods had predicted. Some people think the culture of classical Greece, with its belief in magic, Olympian gods and fate is so far removed from our own (American) experience of the world as to be almost unrecognizable. Why? Are we smarter than they were? They weren’t fools. They left Western civilization a remarkable cultural heritage of democracy, science, philosophy, art, architecture and dramas like Oedipus the King. So we ask how could they have been so wrong about so many things; the nature of the gods, magical tales, and Fate? Maybe we should turn the tables and ask a different question. In Sophocles’ play Oedipus blinded himself because he had been “blinded” by his culture. Might our own culture also be blind, only in a different kind of way?
Let’s make a simple comparison between modern and ancient worldviews. Has modern science given us a more powerful view of reality and truth? For example, this week’s reading is about dreams. So let’s take dreams as a starting point. What is the nature of dreams? Where do they come from? What do they mean? The ancient world was very interested in dreams. Genesis tells us Jacob dreamed about angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. That seems pretty important. But does it mean anything? And if we can’t interpret what dreams mean, then what’s the point of having them? Also in Genesis Joseph had a gift for interpreting dreams and this gift changed the whole course of history. So maybe dreams are more important than we think.
On the other hand, all that stuff in Genesis happened a long time ago (if it happened at all). And some authors refer to the Genesis and Greek epochs of history as “prescientific” times. Freud is one of those. He says “during the epoch which may be described as prescientific, men had no difficulty in finding an explanation of dreams. When they remembered a dream after waking up, they regarded it as either a favorable or a hostile manifestation by higher powers, demonic and divine.” How does Freud know what prescientific men thought? But let’s assume Freud is right and assume that for ancient people dreams were in fact a “ladder” to higher powers. Dreams could then put us in touch with higher realms of being. This seems like a worthy goal, not all that much different from Socrates’ ladder in Plato’s Symposium. Moderns reject this idea. What’s really at stake here isn’t the nature of dreams; it’s the nature of reality. In the ancient worldview dreams are a gateway to another world; the world of mythology. And Freud classifies mythology as superstition. He says “when modes of thought belonging to natural science began to flourish, all this ingenious mythology was transformed into psychology…”
Freud believes modern science has transformed superstitious myth into rational psychology. Now we come back to the question of Oedipus and blindness: what are our own potential modern-day blind spots? Why do most of us prefer rational psychology over superstitious myth? Better yet, drop the adjectives. Rational sounds too positive, superstitious too negative. Then why do we prefer psychology (science) over myth? Does science give us a more powerful view of reality than the vision offered by myth, legend and magical tales? Freud prefers science and tries to convince our minds with rational arguments. Sophocles relies on myth and wants to move our hearts with poetry and drama. But it’s not like Freud is new wave and Sophocles is old school. The old Greek Aristotle preferred logical persuasion and clear thinking. The modern writer Kierkegaard thinks logic is too dry and turns wine into water; it drains all the juice out of life. Freud and his kind think faith in myth and magical tales only retard human progress. Sophocles and his kind think magic and myth is the juice (and wine) of life.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Some Final Thoughts on Oedipus

The culture of classical Greece, with its belief in magic, Olympian gods and fate, is so far removed from our own (American) experience of the world as to be almost unrecognizable.  Yet the world of Oedipus is not really any stranger than the culture of the Old Testament with its superheroes (Abraham, Moses, David) and villains (Cain, Pharaoh, the Moabs, and anyone else who stood in the way of God's chosen people).  Most of us don't see the world that way. Yes, we believe in good and evil, but not the way Moses did. We believe that nature is governed by laws which are rational, consistent and understandable. The laws of nature don't favor one race or one individual other another.  That's what we mean when we say that the world we live in is non-deterministic. Americans, along with many other people, believe that we ourselves are the arbiters of our own fate. That's what moral freedom (and responsibility) implies. If our lives were truly deterministic (driven by fate) there could be no rational basis for morality. What can good and evil even mean when the outcome is already fixed?

To me, Oedipus is a victim of cultural blindness. What does that mean? It means he is blinded by his own culture. He believes in fate, but he also thinks he is clever enough to arrange events so that he can avoid the consequences of his birth. In this, he is mistaken. Now it is certainly true that he contributes to his own downfall. You might characterize his pride and temper as examples of human fallibility, all of which play a part in his destruction. When Oedipus refuses to give way to King Laius on the road to Thebes, is this a character flaw or just an early example of road rage?

Later, Oedipus leaps to the conclusion that Creon is trying to steal his throne. Is this paranoia or does Oedipus have any good reasons to suspect treachery?  He certainly believes that he has avoided the prophesy of the Oracle by leaving Corinth and living out his life in Thebes. But he lacks reliable information about who he really is.  So, is his downfall the result of a tragic misunderstanding of what the facts are, or is he, himself, to blame for what unfolds? He does kill King Laius with his own hands. No one forces him to do it.  He willingly sleeps with Jocasta and has children with her; no one forces him to do this.  On the other hand, one could certainly argue that had he known who King Laius was at the crossroads, he might not have killed him. Likewise, if King Laius remained alive, Oedipus probably would never have been king of Thebes, nor would he have slept with Jocasta.

The moral of this story is that human beings are limited in their capacities. Yes, we have some wisdom but not enough to avoid making bad decisions. The world is large and we are small. Our human vision is limited to a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum which we call visible light. I can't help wondering if our human intelligence is also limited to a tiny fraction of what would be required if we were truly enlightened. The moral is that we often do not know what is in our own best interest. We stumble along the highway of life just as Oedipus did long ago, blinded by his own pride and a cruel destiny that is indifferent to human suffering.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Oedipus and Fate

It is easy to read Oedipus Rex as a dramatic story about fate.  The ancient Greeks believed in such things. They also believed in a whole pantheon of gods who ruled over the Earth from a heavenly sphere called Olympus. But what has any of that got to do with the real world we inhabit? Most people today are a little more rational than to believe in prophesy. Americans mostly believe in what they can see and touch, not in magical tales or miracles. We certainly don’t believe we are ruled by fate; instead, we believe that you make your own fate through hard work and persistence. Nevertheless, many things happen in life that are beyond our control.  We don’t choose our parents, and to some degree, we are products of our DNA. So, we can’t always avoid the accidents of nature that come upon us. But we grew up in the age of quantum theory, where nothing is completely analyzable. We make predictions based on probability, which is derived from the habit of observation. Unfortunately, not everything can be analyzed with precision. In other words, some things happen which are beyond our control or our understanding. But so what? Chance is a measurement of probability, not a curse or bad karma.


Needless to say, Oedipus is caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a plague going on in Thebes. People are dying like flies and are frightened. A kind of panic has taken over the city and the people expect their king to do something about it. In other words, when people are dying, it is the King’s responsibility to do something about it. This is not all that different than people today grumbling about Obama not doing something about Ebola. Isn’t it his responsibility to guarantee our safety? So Oedipus makes some enquiries. He sends Creon off to consult the oracle at Delphi and get some answers. This makes perfect sense. If you feel like you are being punished, then you need to find out why the gods are offended. What else can Oedipus do? Unfortunately, he doesn’t like the answers that Creon brings back to him. All this talk about Oedipus being the cause of the plague sounds like Creon is making a little play for becoming king himself. This is not all that different than how people in Washington respond to hearing bad press.  People in power always blame the messenger (or the media) when there is bad news. It makes no difference whether it is bad poll results or a bad prophesy. Someone must be held accountable.


Don’t like the opinion polls? Then call another media consultant. Just in the nick of time, a man arrives from Corinth. He tells Oedipus that his father has died. Normally, news like this makes you sad. But this bit of news makes Oedipus happy.  He’s off the hook now. He didn’t kill his father, so he can’t be the cause of the plague. But just as he is starting to celebrate, an old shepard arrives with news about Oedipus’ past. It turns out that Merope was not his real mother. So even though he can’t murder his own father, he’s still a little worried about that incest thing. But now, he finds out he was adopted as a baby. So, the story is getting complicated. If he was adopted, then who gave him up for adoption? Uh oh, now Oedipus learns that he was indeed Laius’ son and the prophecy which he hoped to avoid has come true.

Ok, it is a sad denouement. But nothing in this play suggests to me that Oedipus is a victim of fate. His own bad temper has brought about his downfall. First, he lost his composure at the crossroads where he encountered Laius and killed him rather than give way. Then, when Creon returned from the oracle with the bad news, Oedipus immediately suspects Creon of wanting his throne. So, if he had just listened to Jocasta and let the whole matter go, he could have avoided the shame of learning the ugly truth of his background. It seems clear to me that the old expression “character makes the man” is the real moral of this tale. If Oedipus had made better decisions, he would have lived out the rest of his life without ever discovering the facts of his childhood. But if that is true, then it must also be true that sometimes too much information is detrimental to one’s happiness. So, even though it pains me to admit it, and it goes completely against our love of truth, and our reverence for knowledge, sometimes we just have to accept that ignorance is bliss.

Monday, October 06, 2014

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King (Preachers and Kings)

For many readers Ecclesiastes seems full of contradictions. In one place it says “all is vanity.” That makes life sound hopeless. In another place it says “there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.” That makes life sound pleasant. Well, which is it? Is life one long trial to be endured or is it a joyful experience to be relished? Ecclesiastes seems to be saying: both; life is really just one darn thing after another. So enjoy it while you can. This sounds like a contradiction. In the world of Ecclesiastes wisdom is the ability to reconcile contradictions. And there are many in life. The first step is to accept reality as it really is, not as we wish it would be. Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.” Can’t argue with that. In every life there’s a big tree lying smack in the middle of the road. We can’t go around it. We can’t wish it away. The tree of reality is there whether we like it or not. The only question is: how do we respond to life’s inconvenient trees? The Preacher in Ecclesiastes doesn’t try to persuade us they aren’t really there, they are. But he advises the wise thing to do is to learn to live with them and get on with life.
This sounds like good advice; but what if the problem is so deep and so severe that we can’t just accept it and get on with life? Consider the life of Oedipus. Life has been good to him. Oedipus is a king. He has a lovely wife and wonderful children. People respect him. As he himself says, “I Oedipus whom all men call the Great.” But as the great Oedipus journeys through life he comes across a big tree lying smack in the middle of the road. He can’t go around it. He can’t wish it away. He has to deal with it. Oedipus is forced to choose. He can either continue on with his happy life; in which case he’ll never know the truth. Or he can find out the truth; in which case he’ll never be happy again. Well, which is it? Would Oedipus rather have his happiness or know the truth? What would the Preacher advise Oedipus in this situation?
The truth is Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother just as prophets long ago had predicted. Oedipus tried hard to prevent this prophecy from coming true. In the end all his efforts only helped fulfill it. He does end up killing his father and marrying his mother. His wife/mother Jocasta warned him: “Best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly… I beg you, do not hunt this out, I beg you…” But Oedipus doesn’t listen to her. He hunts out the truth anyway. Once he finds out what he’s done the question is how to respond. Reality has come crashing down on his life like a big tree crashing down on a house. His life is in ruins. What should he do? Get on with life as the Preacher recommends? After all, this was the will of the gods. There was nothing you (Oedipus) could do about it. The best course now is to go on about your daily business; eating, drinking and doing your work. You’ll never be happy in the same way you were before. But maybe there’s some divine purpose behind all this horror.
Oedipus doesn’t care about any divine purpose. He doesn’t consult priests or prophets. Oedipus is a great king. So he takes matters into his own hands and does what he thinks is best; he blinds himself. From now on Oedipus says, “darkness is my world.” The Chorus could have been speaking for the Preacher when they respond, “I cannot say your remedy was good; you would be better dead than blind and living.” But Oedipus doesn’t agree. He says “What I have done here (by blinding myself) was best done; don’t tell me otherwise, do not give me further counsel.” Jocasta’s counsel was the same as the Preacher’s: “Best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly.” Is living lightly the best counsel? Preachers and kings don’t always agree.