Insect Dreams:The Half Life of Gregor Samsa
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It seems the Samsas' chambermaid only claimed to sweep into the dustbin the twentieth century's most remarkable contemplative. Instead, having spirited him from his bedchamber, she apparently sold the metamorphosed Gregor to a Viennese sideshow, where it being 1915 he could earn his living lecturing carnival crowds on the implications of Rilke and Herr Spengler.
In this delightfully original work of imagination, compassion, and good reason, we follow the trajectory of Kafka's salesman-turned-cockroach across two continents and thirty years as he touches the most significant flash points of his time. In the process, Marc Estrin delivers a human saga of cultural ambition and compassionate insight that may be the most surprising addition to Jewish literature in a generation.
What's more, the book is funny. And Estrin's Gregor is downright endearing.
With its reach and substance, Insect Dreams is nothing short of a liberal education in cultural history, musical theory, nuclear physics, and the world of ideas. But it's also a remarkable reading experience. With a scope, heart, and intelligence unparalleled in recent memory, Insect Dreams should spark wide-ranging discussions about who we're becoming, now that the swiftest century is complete.
Marc Estrin is a cellist with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. He also performs regularly with a string quartet. In addition, Mr. Estrin is an activist and novelist. Insect Dreams is his first novel. He and his wife live in Burlington, Vermont.
GREGOR SAMSA'S DREAM OF LIFE AND DEATH: a meditation by the author on his book
I've known Gregor for forty-odd years now, quite intimately for the last few. Kafka introduced us when I was a teenager, and as any acquaintance from youth, his place and image in my world has changed with my own aging. My Gregor is not the monstrous vermin you'll find in "The Metamorphosis", but a figure that has grown in me from that dessicated seed, a figure about whom I, like you, must puzzle and speculate. My Gregor, too, ends up deadas do we allbut with a more elaborate trajectory in a twentieth century Kafka never new (lucky him!) One can never fully explain a life, but here are my suspicions.
O lord, grant to each his own death,
the dying which truly evolves from this life
in which he found love, meaning and distress.
Gregor's Six-Legged Suicide
At some pointit's hard to say exactly whenperhaps after the St. Louis affair, perhaps after Yoshio Miyaguchi's self-immolationmy Gregor Samsa began to hear the ticking of his own death's clock, and experience a sense of solitude closing in around him. It was then that his path took on its final trajectory, step by step, trustingly, towards that great invisible border. It was not a surrender, not a simple succumbing to fate, but a conscious act of submission, taken in hand, and made his own. Carl Jung claimed that "the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." Gregor had lit a light that shone even through the immense candlepower of the bomb. While most suicides tend to make death superficial, an act like any other, something to do, Gregor's relationship to death was more exact, a Musil-like combination of "precision and soul", empowering the absence of poweras if in ruptured nothingness there might emerge some luminous power of affirmation.
It seems to me that Gregor's act had six distinct strands:
1. Despair. All suicide has some component of despair. It may be common personal despondencya failed love affair, the death of a loved one, the shrinking of one's prospects to zeroor it may be higher level despairthe samurai's noble seppuku, the saint's martyrdom in remissionem peccatorum. Gregor's was the latter. Jew and alien both, he was hypersensitive to any mistreatment of "The Other". While his own life might be deemed "successful", the life of a professional operating in the highest circles of power, he remained acutely aware of the plight of the afflicted: the racismhooded and bareheaded bothof his adoptive homeland; the depredations of the rich upon the poor; the incarceration of innocent Japanese; and most critically the German treatment of Jews, gypsies and "deviants" during the war, and the utter insensitivity of his own Administration in addressing it. If man is wolf to man, it was always "the Other" that was the preferred food. The final blow, of course, was his colleagues' lust to continue working, though the bomb's raison d'etre was no more, and the decision to drop it, without warning, on unarmed civilians. I'm glad he did not live to see the results.
2. Guilt. As sensitive, self-critical, even self-doubting as Gregor was, there was also, as is common, a component of guilt. He knew it was "silly". He sometimes called it "stupid". But he also knew that without his thigmotactic suggestions, Neddermeyer might never have hit upon the implosion strategy, and the whole project might have founderedcompletely, or at least long enough for the war to have been less violently ended, and history to have been slightly less malevolent. His guilt may have been irrational, but irrationality is part of being humanor once human.
3. Buddhist Thinking. My impression is that the letter from the dying Amadeus was a short course in Buddhism for Gregor, the analogue to young Prince Siddhartha's encounter with old age, sickness and death. Not that he hadn't understood these issues intellectually before: he was not a student of Spengler for nothing. But Amadeus' communication from Berlin, read under FDR's bedroom couchan evocative venuecontrasted so ironically with the Christmas Carol being sung that it burrowed its way into a deeper level of Gregor's being, prompted a step back from his engagement with the world, and a concomitant semi-withdrawal from ego, per se. His subsequent encounter with Miyaguchi, and the flames of that hero's departure, seared the pattern into his flesh, as it were, and may have served as a model, or at least a spur to his greenhorn Buddhist thinking.
4. Oppie/Schopenhauer/Hinduism was another clear strand, an Ariadne thread out of the maze. That individual death was a mere manifestation of the Veil of Maya; that he, even in his chitinous shell, was Brahman, the universe; that extinction yielded the gift of The Wholesurely this made easier a course which others might have feared to tread. Fool and angel both, Gregor walked it lightly on his six legs.
5. Related to that strand is the two-pronged dimension of love, Agape and Eros. For some, the latter must diminish the former. Yet Gregor was innocent enough of erotic bounty to largely escape its toll. Alice was his one love, his one experience of human physical affection, and their one night together was a medium-size slice of the pie of his guilt. But unlike implosion-guilt, it was a slice he would not have done without. Its bittersweet softness coated many rougher elements of his life with a velvety, nostalgic glaze: he was glad he had met and loved, however sad the outcome. And as one cannot love others without loving oneself, so too one cannot love selfenough to renounce itwithout having loved others. The Alice affair was Eros' contribution. Of Agape there was no lack. It was "implicit in the project".
6. The sixth strand is for me the most problematic. For Gregor, there was a distinct messianic dimension to his mission: "to help save humanity from being so bestial," he once put it. He didn't see himself as being the Messiah, of course, but simply as aiding in tikkun, the healing, repair, and transformation of the world, the redemption of God's creation on earth. The goal of any nice Jewish boy. But being a German-speaking, depth-seeking European, he was also alive to Aryan myths: Parsifal, Amfortas, the Grail, the Waste Land, the meaning of the Unhealing Wound. And he did feel that the unfortunate hole in his back was symbolic, was more than symbolic, that it was a sign, a setting-apart, and even a source of power. What could the wound do? It could somehowillogically"heal the Waste Land and make it bloom again," and in this thought he found his pride. I find here what little there was of his arrogance.
But to me the whole messianic idea is patently ridiculous. The transpersonal dimension of his self-sacrifice was humble, but still megalomaniacal. What possible healing connection could there be between the admittedly magnificent symbol of his death, and its dreadful real-world context? A transpersonal dimension to suicide is vanity no matter where or when or how, a self-imposed, self-deluded struggle one is bound to lose. Gregor's embrace of such primitive thinking led him to imagine that the force of life can only be maintained by the suppression of lifeRite of Spring revisited. Nonsense. The idea also led him to his only act of dissimulation: his presentation to Oppenheimer that last night was far from honest, was even baldly manipulative. Seizing on Oppie's interest in the Gita, Gregor made it seem as if he were applying for discipleship to that work, an early initiate, yearning to take a large step along the path of Enlightenment. Actually, he simply wanted his boss to get him past the guards. Can you imagine Oppie's reaction had Gregor said, "I want to commit suicide under the tower in order to help save the world"? The brigthat's what it would have been. The psychiatric service, then the brigwithout his keys or belt.
There is a Jewish/Platonic level at which I can understand, and even approve of, Gregor's transpersonal goal: he once spoke to me of what he called "the mission of Noah", his desire to become an "intimate and pure ark of all things, a refuge in which they might take shelter, and where they are not content to be as they arenarrow, shopworn, trapped in lifebut where they might be transformed, preserved from themselves, intact." He believed it could be. So? So what difference did it make to General Groves, or Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush? Or to the kids in South Central, or the dead babies in Iraq or Afghanistan? Et cetera. I won't go into it. As the good Doctor Williams Carlos Williams whispered on his deathbed, his last words of wisdom, "You know, there are a lotta bastards out there." And what, moreover, had Gregor to offer in this task of salvation? Only his aptitude for termination, his fragility, his exhaustion, his gift for death.
Enough. This too-emotional critique of strand six threatens to overwhelm reality: the truth was that I found his act enthralling and admirable. Gregor had answered a call to die more profoundly, dreaming perhaps of continuinginside deaththe movement of metamorphosis.
The Hours in the Trench
What must it have been like to lie there between 11 and 5:30, nuzzled among wires and instruments, five hours of listening to the rain, followed by an hour and a half of listening tonothing? Here I can only conjecture. At least three themes suggest themselves:
1. Dust unto dust.
Gregor used this expression often in the last months of his life, slipped it into discussions that were at first glance inappropriate, but on further reflection provided odd resonance. It was not God into which he plunged. Given his messianic ambitions, Gregor's inward movement was preparation for some manifestation in the world, faithful to the fullness of earthly existence. Gregor, Mr. Thigmotaxis, was most sensitive to the loving embrace of his environment. And what was the main feature of this high desert? Dust. In spite of the torrential rains of his last night, his pit must have been dry. There was too much sensitive equipment in there for its roof to have been fashioned otherwise. For all the downpour, he had entrusted himself to dust, dry dust, the hot summer dust of the Valley of the Dry Bones. A talmudic voyager, he knew well Ezekiel 37: "there was a noise and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone." I am certain that along with his vision of coming-apart, there was a strong expectation of putting-together, of rebirth, atomic matter still conserved, dust to greater dust, Dasein to be found again at the pure center of the excessive. After all, this suicide was not a typical act of night, but a patient act of morning.
It can hardly escape the reader that Gregor's descent into the pit before his ultimate transformation smells of insect metamorphosis. Though the word is somewhat ragged by now, a thought which rarely occurs is that the change so well described by Kafka was only the first of a series of polymorphic changes, growing instars evolving toward some radiant end.
I say "toward". But as with all life cycles, there is really no beginning or end. Perhaps, as the schoolgirls suggested, Gregor the fabric salesman was only the roach's way of making a more profound roach. Or vice versa. Remember Chuang-Tsu's question: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"
Most insects have stretch receptors that fire up neurohormones when the exoskeleton is pushed beyond capacity. Did Gregor have moral or spiritual stretch receptors which prompted some eccentric molt? What went on physiognomically in those six and a half hours? If beauty is directly proportional to truth, perhaps on that last night he developed splendrous wings, wings like those of a giant Atlas moth. We will never know. "It is the mark and nature of significant truth to stay hidden," Heidegger observes, "though radiant in and through this occlusion." The darkness of night is surer than the light of day.
3. The Animal and the Open.
Of this theme I am most certain. It is not the night, it is what haunts the night that frightensand humans are haunted by many things. But here we must recall that Gregor was not entirely human. Why was he so attracted by Rilke's Eighth Duino Elegy? Why did he make it the mainstay of his 1918 circus presentations? I refer the reader back to Chapter Three, and Gregor's performance of "With all its eyes the creature-world beholds the open."
Dr. Johnson once quipped that "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." He did not advertise the compensations. Rilke felt that the animal's consciousness put it at great ontological advantage, permitting it to enter into reality without having to be its center. He intuited the consequent sense of inner spacenot the inside dimension of any individual being, but the Weltinnenraum, the world's inner space, easily perceived by animals, and only with great difficult by humans.
Through all beings spreads the one space:
the world's inner space. Silently fly the birds
all through us.
Why is it so hard for us? Why is the human so cut off from the interiority of the exterior, that extension within, where "the infinite penetrates so intimately that it is as though the shining stars rested lightly in his breast"?
What is outside, we know from the animal's face
alone; for while a child's quite small we take it
and turn it round and force it to look backwards
at conformation and not into that Open,
so profound in the animal's face...
Just as dog can smell what we cannot, and eagle see more sharply, so was Gregor superior to us in his perception of the Open, the vast space of the Weltinnenraum. Not only could he see farther and more deeply, even with myopic vision, but his eyes, like our ears, were always open. Without eyelids, he could not leave anything out of himself, withhold himself from any being, or reject any thoughta further dimension of the Open. Gregor's was a life of infinite relations, in a place unbarred to newnessthe experience of the Open.
But even an animal "whose Being is infinite for it, inconceivable, unreflective," even an animal which, "where we see the future, sees everything, and sees itself in everything and safe forever"sometimes that animal too bears "the weight and the care of a great sadness,"
For that which often overwhelms us clings
to him as well,a kind of memory
that what we're pressing after now was once
nearer and truer and attached to us
with infinite tenderness.
Gregor quoted these lines many times, harking back to his Vienna days, or surfing the sorrows from then to now. Yet out there in the desert night, in the darkness of the gash, waiting for the infinite blow, I am certain he embraced the Open, and was embraced in return, happy at last. This I know, even in the dryness of my bones.
The Logic of Gregor's Path
I think back on my own life: from high school to college to graduate school, then branching out interestingly enough, but compared to Gregor's, profoundly boring. His path looks more like Brownian motion, poor particle Gregor buffeted by random events, punched, kicked and shoved this way and that by a world fraught with explosions. Yet in retrospect, mine is the Brownian motion, and how fiercely determined his seems, as if guided by an inner logic more flowery, yet more iron-clad than my own, toward an inevitable destination: Ground Zero.
I think of his Vienna encounter with Robert Musil, that bitter, brilliant writer/engineer, combining in himself the strengths and perils of spirit and science, seizing on Gregor as an embodiment of the "Other Condition", secretly attending his talks, and finally articulating for him his role as possibilitarian. Could Gregor have done this himself? Would he not have simply dissolved into the stew of Otherness simmering in Amadeus' Wonderkitchen? Musil demanded he find a doorway to the world beyond limited existence. How fitting that interview ended with a telegram announcing the coming of Roëntgen-of-the-skeletal-hand.
And Wittgenstein. What impertinent author-God would cast the greatest mind in twentieth century philosophy as a fourth-grade schoolteacher in a dung-covered village north of Vienna? Yet there he was, in time to raise the question "What does it mean to be human?". And there Gregor was for him, planting the seed of his last and greatest work, his investigations of the limits of rational thought. And there, too, was Punch the Judealready and again.
If Alice had no other function in his life (and of course she had many), her poignant encounter with Gregor brought him briefly into the gravitational field of Dr. Max Lindhorst, with his exposition of Eros and Thanatos, and the consequences of Faustian hubris. Forewarned, but four-armed, Gregor left his session with this practitioner with more resolve, direction, and self-understanding.
A chance meeting at Yankee Stadium, a job on 43rd Street right near Town Hall, an offer of free tickets to the first performance of Ives' Fourth Symphony: it seemed destined that Gregor would meet up with his guru, his tutor for the New World, that crusty New England maniac-genius of music and insurance, Charles Ives. Was Gregor to remain an elevator boy all his life? How else could he have come to explore riskto the point where he was fearless in its face? And he was there for Charlie Ivesone insect calling anotherstrong and beautifulout of the table.
Ives was also Gregor's introduction to the concept of Hogmind, and the rage and struggle it could conjure. Yet far from counseling revenge and scorn, The Insect Sonata, Ives' grateful gift to Gregor, urged the place of Love in "man's right constitution":
Always preceding power,
And with much power, always, always much more love.
Gregor took this priority with him into battle.
I have spoken at length of the sequence of Gregor's disillusionments: the refugees, the Japanese, the completion and deployment of the bomb. But along with these major events, there were minor details which debrided his surface, as it were, and enabled such traumas to penetrate more deeply. The betrayal of Philoctetes, for instance, and the suppurating wound it left. His tears at the Time Capsule. The six-character calligraphy. The strange appearance of the Leiermann in Lafayette Park.
Leo Szilard once remarked that Gregor was the most stimulating person he had ever known, and the only one of his many friends and enemies he would have liked to emulate. I was taken aback. I had never thought of Gregor as stimulating. Inspiring, surely, in his low-key way, butuntil the endgentle to a fault. As for emulating him, well, let's just say he was unique.
Tilano was another huge guard rail on Gregor's path. His gift of a petroglyph New World ancestor preserved in volcanic tuff was one of the few experiences Gregor thought of as "mystical". And his take on the Faustian path of Western Civilization? I imagine he must have shared similar thoughts with Gregor:
Anglos want that which in the nature of things is impossible. They believe that there must be a man who is more manly than a good man can be, and that there is a beautiful woman who is more beautiful than all the other beautiful women. They really think that everything and every people, except us, can be whatever they would like it to be....They are never contented because they are always looking for a happiness which is greater than happiness. They want to find love where they have sown only hate and selfishness. They want to run and never tire, to satisfy all their thirsts and hungers and not be full. They cannot see that the sickness which they all suffer comes from greed, a kind of childish believing that when they close down their minds, the world is not what it always was and always what it will be.
Reading this interview in Robert Coles, I cried.
Gregor as Jewish
In assessing his life, I have spoken of the need to recall that Gregor was an animal. Though I approach the subject with some hesitation, one cannot avoid acknowledging, too, that Gregor was a Jew. What is a Jew? Herein lies my concern: I hesitate to characterize a group that has so often and so recently been characterizedto death.
Judaism and its children, Christianity and Islam, have long stood against much of the world with respect to the atom. The Hindus were atomists, the Arabs were atomists, affirming the eternity of matter and the recurrence of creation. And in the later Mediterranean, when most westerners believed the world to be ruled by a pantheon of gods with extraordinary powers but strangely human weaknesses , a handful of Hellenic thinkers called for a rational view involving only natural causes and effects, without invoking transcendent powers. God was set aside.
Not so! cried Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The world was created once, in its perfection, ex nihilo. Biblical doctrine remains at odds with all theory: for Hebrew anti-atomists, "God created..." was enough, truth was frozen, origins explained; there was no further need to question. Judaism is the only great religion to have produced not a single defender of atomism, at least until modern times.
Now this is a questionable achievement on a resumé for Los Alamos. Not that it wasn't shared by many of the crew. But they were scientists. Or soldiers. They had other things to think about, large problems that could distract them from larger issues. It would be safe to say that Gregor was the only non-scientist, non-military, philosophical possibilitarian on the mesa. Similar to his animal sense of the Open, his free-playing Judaism endowed him with extra sensibility with which to judge the goings-on.
Jewish, too, was his situation as "Other"non-digestible, eternally accusing, in his nice-guy way, the "most different" of his high school class. And thus "least likely to succeed." Not quite the pariah many of his confreres became, still, he carried separation with himthe ethical, prophetic Judaism in his heart.
Gregor once invoked his Jewish privilege, and gave his personal definition of a Jew. It was the only time anyone ever heard him "tell a joke". This was his joke:
It is May, 1940, at a refugee center in Paris, just before the Nazi occupation. The nice woman at the desk is trying to sort out transport requests. She asks a Belgian refugee where she and her children would like to go. "London. I have family." She is marked for London. Next she asks a French communist. "Sweden would be best," he says, "we can organize from there." Finally she asks an old Jew in black gabardine. "New Zealand," he mutters. "New Zealand?" she asks, "Why so far?" The Jew looks at her and says, "Far from what?"
Not exactly a side-splitter. But it will do.
Jewish Oppenheimer and Hindu Science
Oppie was similarly schizophrenicif not worse. For he was not only a Jew, but a Hindu Jew. This was the man who was both father and midwife to the bomb, the man who rode his team through every difficulty and objection. This was the man who named his horse "Crisis". Yet this was the man who also said, "If atomic bombs were to be added as new weapons to the armaments of a warring world, then the time will come when mankind will curse the name of Los Alamos."
Such a statement was a great surprise to the men who, under him, and with his encouragement, were striving to create just such weapons. Yet to a student of the Vaisheshika Sutra, this thought would not seem strange. The atomic theory of Vaisheshika conforms with tenets of Brahminical doctrinea cyclical cosmos, a multiplicity of worlds, and the retributive consequences of human action. The theory proposes that in the course of cosmic process, atoms unite and separate continually. At the conclusion of a cosmic period, atoms isolate themselves from one another and restuntil they are again set in motion and re-coagulate, allowing souls that failed to reach salvation in the previous cosmic period to receive the fruits of their actions. Oppie might even have had a thought about Gregor's origin, based on the accompanying doctrine of the transmigration of souls.
Oppie probably did not "believe" this. But he did distinguish between "short half-life knowledge" and "long half-life knowledge". Scientific papers came and went. The Vedas and the Upanishads did not. One of his flippant remarks suggests a tantalizing third explanation for the designation Trinity: "At Trinity," he said, "Gregor, the bomb, and the world were all being tested."
Oppie was barely understood by others. For his "second thoughts", Truman called him a "crybaby" and refused to have anything more to do with him. But for all his moral and intellectual depth, he remained, first and foremost, a scientist. It is sad, but appropriate, that his famous comment on the explosion cited not a moral vision of cosmic apocalypse, but a purely cosmological cataclysmic show, Lord Krishna's Best-Ever Fireworks Display.
Thus Spake Zarathustra
Gregor's choice of farewell performance was even more significant than it first appeared. It was Teller who pointed out the Zoroastrian doctrine underlying Gregor's offering. His dance was not just a simple critique of bugbear Science, with a self-congratulatory coda of "cure" from its contrapuntal snare.
The religion of Zarathustra preached to pre-Islamic Persians a dualistic doctrine of struggle between light/good, and darkness/evil. Though equally balanced, it was two against one: the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, had as adversaries two demons, a good-cop/bad-cop deal, a one-two punch at humanity. Humans were free to do evil or goodas they chose. The two tempters were Lucifer and Ahriman.
As we know even in Christendom, Lucifer whispered in man's ear: "You are like the gods, knowing good and evil." Lucifer, the master of delusion, tempting men to believe they are more powerful, more effective, more beautiful, more benevolent, more admired than they really are. Lucifer, appealing to man's pride and ambition, counseling disregard of limitations. Hence, the Tower of Babel, the Flight of Icarus, the Birth of Dolly. Lucifer started men and women out on the path to freedom. Not unsimilar to the Judeo-Christian story. Lucifer brought the gift of Art.
Ah, but then there is Ahriman, a character dutifully unmentioned in our covetous times. Ahriman whispers in the other ear, "You are only man with no divine element in you. But you can turn to your own use the entire world, and everything in it. There is no limit to the knowledge, goods, or power you can acquire. The material world is all there is, so make the most of it." Knowledge of the world is Ahriman's realm; he is constantly whispering information, suggesting new machines to invent. Ahriman wants humanity to advance at breakneck speed, long before ego and moral nature are ready. The future is already here, the sky's the limit, humanity's job is to create an earthly utopia here and now, crammed with sensual and intellectual enjoyment, and endless material possessions. Ahriman brought the gift of Sciencethe cold, razor-sharp intellect of Science.
To address the crying future, Gregor, like Zarathustra, reached beyond the limits of language with its lexical-grammatical, imprisoning past, and resorted to dance, music and song. He invoked an escape from both Lucifer and Ahriman on that high-summer night in the blockhouse. His choice of Strauss and Nietzsche, was designed to help us understand the distinction. The twelve strokes of "O Mensch, gib Acht!" named our current marker in spacetime: midnight, and eternity.
This was a curious friend, my Gregor Samsa. I am still trying to understand him.