Saturday, May 5, 2007

Gregor Samsa, Mon Semblance, Mon Frere

ONE OF MY favorite aspects of story telling is the terrain between "framing," the use of a plot pattern already familiar to the reader, and "point-of-view," the perspective or multiple perspectives from which the narrative is related.

Just to supply some basic reference points, let's look at a nonfiction/historical application, the war fought in this country around 1865 between the Union and the Confederate States of America. If you started your schooling in California, as I did, your text books would call that epic confrontation The Civil War, but were you to have begun your studies in the East, as I later did, your text books might well have called that confrontation The War of Southern Succession. Moving right along, as TV hosts and panel discussion moderators are wont to say, you could have been a student at, say, Central Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, Florida, as I was, discovering as you leafed through your history texts a reference to The War of Northern Aggression. Thus you have the war, a treacherous bit of business, as being seen from various regional perspectives, each of which behaves as characters in real life, history, and fiction do, which is to say each character believes in the appropriateness, the rightness of his cause.

Moving to the drama of fiction for an example, we come to a remarkable point of view shift I discussed recently with my observation of how differently Hamlet might have worked its way to denouement had the protagonist not been the moody cheese Danish prince, but rather his uncle, King Claudius.

Meet Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman protagonist of Franz Kafka's simultaneously provocative and evocative, The Metamorphosis.As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard--as it were armor-plated--back and when he lifted his head a little, he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls. Above the table on which a collection of cloth was unpacked and spread out--Samsa was a commercial traveler--hung the picture he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and put into a pretty gilt frame. It showed a lady, with a fur cap on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished. Gregor's eyes turned next to the window and the overcast sky. One could hear rain drops beating on the window gutter. It made him quite melancholy. What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought, but it could not be done for he was accustomed to sleep on his right side and in his present condition, he could not turn himself over. However violently he forced himself towards his right side, he always rolled onto his back again. He tried it at least a hundred times, shutting his eyes to keep from seeing his struggling legs, and only desisted when he began to feel in his side a faint dull ache he had never experienced before.

Now that you have the beginnings of the implications to Gregor Sama's situation, I ask you to consider framing things a bit differently, and from a different point of view. Suppose he liked what had happened to him. Suppose that this was neither some cosmic punishment or even an evolutionary step with the happy ending of his transmogrification into another, more glorious life form than human.

We homo sapiens like to think of ourselves as being spiritually, morally, and biologically at the top of the life pyramid, a thought that for me opens the terrain I spoke of at the beginning of this piece. Or, to shift point of view, let's look at the point of view of that gigantic insect now riding shotgun on Gregor Samsa. Ah, at last, free to run the show for a bit, free to get out on the town, find a nice lady insect and boogie down, as it were.

Ontogeny--the growth and development of an organism such as man--recapitulates phylogeny--the evolutionary history of a species. Close, maybe, but no absolute cigar. Yet the concept has the merit of leading us to think of our process from sperm cell through fetus-ification, swimming through the amniotic fluid correlative of the pre-Cambrian sea, into birth and land, then subsequent cellular development to what we are now. It is nice to think of our species "evolving" through this ascending order until, suddenly at maturity, we begin to envision ourselves on the decline.

In brief, it is one thing to feel the absolute frustration Gregor Samsa felt at the awareness that he had evolved to his insectness, to have turned for no apparent reason into something other than his own form. That one thing for him to have felt is a kinship with the entire concept of Kafkaesqueness, a state of suspended being in which one is wrong in every sense, an outsider, a misfit, an undifferentiated wrongdoer as, indeed, Kafka characters tend to be. The other side of that coin, the shift in point of view to the insect, is a celebration of the return away from mankind, back to insect essence, for which there are betrayals and conspiracies from fellow humans.

It is as different in outcome as the prospective scenario for Hamlet. It is the unthinkable come to pass before our very eyes, before our very point of view. Seen from one perspective, Hamlet is a story of revenge write large; from another it is a king with a bit of a secret, pursued by the then equivalent of a suicide bomber.

The Metamorphosis is a cautionary tale of a family that has been beset by a stunning, overwhelming problem--that is, unless you chose to see it from the point of view of an insect who got his mojo back.

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