Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis (What Is A Book For?)

A theme that pops up fairly regularly in Great Books discussions is the notion that Man is just a highly complex animal. It’s easy to see why someone would say that. Man is a physical creature just as all animals are physical creatures. We eat and drink, we sleep, we procreate and we die as all animals do. Seems simple enough; especially after reading Darwin. But if we push the idea a little further it’s not so simple. If a man is just a complex animal does that mean an animal is just a complex bug? Is a bug just a complex plant? And are plants basically just complex dirt? Maybe we should rephrase the question of Man being an animal and ask (when all is said and done) is Man at bottom really just complex dirt? To put it another way, is Man just a material being? If we define Man as “just” a complex animal then we might define Kafka’s book as just a complex combination of paper and ink. But Aristotle would point out that paper and ink describe a book’s “substance.” Substance is what a thing is made of. A (print) book is in fact made of paper and ink. We want to know what a book’s “essence” is; what kind of a thing is it? How would we define a book’s essence (its book-ness)? Put another way, what makes this thing a book and not just a random collection of paper and ink? Think of the following sequence. Letter. Word. Sentence. Paragraph. Chapter. Book. Does it make sense to say a book is just a complex combination of letters? That’s one way of looking at it. But that misses the whole point, the primary purpose, of a book; which is to transmit information or knowledge and wisdom to the reader. Now consider the Western tradition of a chain of being which follows this orderly sequence: Inanimate objects. Plants. Insects and reptiles. Animals. Man. Angels. God. Does it make sense to say Man is just a complex animal? No. Man is a different kind of being. To say Man is just a complex animal is to confuse separate categories in the great chain of being.
With that background let’s consider Kafka’s book (or story) The Metamorphosis. Gregor’s family (and the reader) is shocked by the very first sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” This sentence is not just some random splattering of black ink on a white page. It’s a very precise and orderly arrangement of symbols (letters) to form a sentence which expresses a coherent thought. And Kafka’s thought is a disturbing one. People don’t fall asleep one night and wake up the next morning as bugs. It just doesn’t happen; not in the real world. People are people. Bugs are bugs. Animals are animals. And that’s that. Kafka poses this great question: why? Why do people stay people and not turn into bugs or animals? He wants us to consider the “essence” of one man, Gregor, and think about what Gregor-ness means. What sets Gregor apart from angels and animals and bugs in the great chain of being? What makes Gregor unique in the whole chain of creation? He’s a dull person but even dull people do very human things. Gregor has a job. He travels. He reads the newspaper. He keeps a picture of a sexy woman on the wall in his bedroom. Animals don’t do these things. Not even complex animals. Why do people do them? That’s what makes us human. Think of a book again. We can read it or we can use it to make a fire or to hold open a door. Books aren’t made to build fires or hold doors open. They’re made to pass on knowledge. So what are human beings made for? That’s the question Kafka is asking. He doesn’t give a complete answer but he does hint at what we’re NOT made for. We’re not made to be economic robots. Kafka detests the modern tendency to standardize life and judge everything and everyone by the standard of utilitarian values. It de-humanizes us. We’re people, not bugs, says Kafka. And according to Kafka people are not just complex animals either. If we believe they are then we shouldn’t be surprised if people act like animals and we shouldn’t complain if we’re treated like animals.


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