Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bugsy, Alone

Take the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never read any Franz Kafka – including “The Metamorphosis” – as a given. He made the top of the queue because of another Shame-Faced Admission™: other than Gregor Samsa awakening from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed into a cockroach, I knew nothing about Kafka’s masterpiece.

You’d think somebody would have said something. With a work of this renown, inklings of what happens next typically come from a range of sources. Jeopardy! questions, obscure references in Maureen Dowd columns, cocktail party mentions of that heartbreaking scene when Gregor loses his job as mascot for the Bratislava Bugs (Go, Fightin’ Chitin!) when the team discovers he’s not some method actor wearing a costume.

Nope. All I ever heard was Samsa, dreams, cockroach. It’s as if no one ever read past the famous opening sentence.

The surprises began early: Gregor doesn’t turn into a cockroach at all but “a monstrous vermin.” Earlier translations opted for “gigantic insect.” At one point, a minor character calls Gregor an “old dung beetle,” but take it from a native New Yorker – a dung beetle ain’t a cockroach. Kafka deliberately left the description vague, forcing the reader to envision Gregor’s new, repellent form. That decision only magnifies the profound feeling of alienation.

If an author of literary fiction were to tackle this story now, it would be preoccupied with matters of biology and pages would be devoted to the merging of human and insect consciousness. The depiction of the psychology of this hybrid creature – similar to Brundlefly, from the David Cronenberg remake of The Fly – would be the point of the exercise. But Kafka has no interest in such parlor tricks. Gregor remains sad, lonely Gregor even when he becomes a bug. It’s the kind of thing that only happens in dreams.

Which is fitting, as Kafka is peerless when it comes to recreating their logic. Gregor begins to fear that his *ahem* new look will make him late for work, and at that moment a clerk pounds on his door to find out why he’s tardy – before he’s tardy. It illustrates the true meaning of Kafkaesque; it’s not pointless absurdity but the sense of the inevitable laboring hand in hand with the unfathomable.

Gregor’s concerns about office politics when he clearly has bigger problems cut to the heart of what “The Metamorphosis” is about: the dehumanizing nature of work. (Gregor is in sales. From Kafka to Glengarry Glen Ross. Can we all agree that salesman is the worst gig known to man and insect?) He’d rather sacrifice his humanity than report to his job, mainly because he feels he’s sacrificed his humanity already. If you put the same choice to the lead character in Office Space, I know what he’d pick: scuttling in the dark and avoiding Roach Motels.

Kafka doesn’t just rail against work but any type of obligation, even family. The mother, father and sister that Gregor is supporting are the ones who are truly monstrous. He may be a human spirit trapped in the most loathsome of carapaces, but his kin possess the souls of insects, evidenced by their reaction to Gregor’s ultimate fate.

As for the other stories in this collection, some of them I didn’t get, like “The Judgment.” “A Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony” are disquieting works that reflect on the artist’s relationship with the audience and the role of asceticism in creativity. At least, I think they do. None of them holds a candle to “The Metamorphosis,” which for now ranks as the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read. Unless you count some T. J. Hooker fan fiction I wrote when I was younger, and believe me, you don’t want to.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gender Blender

Episode three of the Shame-Faced podcast (26 minutes, 9MB) is an experiment in counter-programming. Rosemarie picks a classic chick flick for me to watch that I’d never seen, The Way We Were, while I help her fill a void in her cinematic education by showing her Dirty Harry, one of the greatest of guy films. Plus a few more goodies. Direct download it here or get it at iTunes.

As for posts on matters literary, don’t worry. One’s a-comin’.

Friday, June 09, 2006


"A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep."

Substitute mind for heart and you've got the Freudian conception of the dream.

After years of priding myself on being well-versed in the various psychological theories and even more years of being a Woody Allen fan, I still have a Shame-Faced Admission™ to make: I had never read any of the writings of Sigmund Freud. You remember Freud, don't you? He was quite famous for a while there. Father of the unconscious, ur-Viennese psychiatrist, noted pipe smoker? You know the guy. Starting in the 70's with the rise of feminism, he became a bit passé. And now with a medication for every mood, he's old news. Who wants to spend 15 years on the couch talking about their childhood when a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor can get you get you back to work in a week. And yet...

The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1900, feels brand new. Freud presents masturbation dreams, Oedipal dreams, and dreams about gathering great rewards in one's chosen profession. All that, plus he analyzes many of his own dreams here. It's practically one of those best selling memoirs: "Dreamcatcher: A Psychiatrist's Non-Waking Life." The only thing that marks it as not of this century is the untranslated French and Latin. My French is poor and my Latin limited. In fact, once I heard the Dude say "You mean coitus?" I lost whatever Latin words I had left.

(And by the way, how come my posts always refer to sex and Vince's are pure intellect? Is he that much classier than me? So be it. I won't be ashamed of that.)

"I like dreaming. 'Cause dreaming can make you mine."

Not only does Dreams feel fresh, it rings true. "A dream is a wish fulfilled," says Freud. He then proceeds to demonstrate how even anxiety dreams hide an unconscious wish that the conscious mind is trying to hide. I wish he was around today. If I could afford it, I’d ask him about that dream I had where a pack of Dobermans paced around my bed. I bet he could help with that. Oh well, if it happens again I’ll just get up and watch the 80’s Gold infomercial.

"Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me."

Apparently songwriters are the only Freudians left.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Guys & Dolls, The Movies

Guy movies. Chick flicks. Everybody knows what the staples of each type are. And everybody knows which ones they haven’t seen.

In installment two of the Shame-Faced podcast, Rosemarie and I delve into what makes a movie work for each gender. We also finally get around to watching a classic chick flick (Dirty Dancing) and guy movie (The Great Escape) that both of us somehow missed.

All that and more in Shame-Faced the podcast, episode two. Direct download all twenty-two minutes and 8MB of it, or get it at iTunes. Either way, it’s some good listening.