Monday, September 3, 2007

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Sierra Club


How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room. There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world.


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Lecture: Gregor Samsa as Functional Deviant
COPAC UK: Franz Kafka
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Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924), a German Jewish novelist who was born and lived in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The date of his death is undetermined; rather, 1924 is the last date in which Kafka could be said to reside in a human body. His most famous works include The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) and The Trial (Der Prozess.) One of the most interesting aspects of Kafka's work is that he wrote in Prussian dialect, not German. Prussian literature is uncommon, at best, as Prussian is thought to be a strict, highly technical language-- the language of engineers. The difference between Prussian and German is akin to the difference between the English of Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea and that of the Owner's Manual from a '94 Jeep Wrangler.

In this regard, Kafka follows an interesting Jewish literary tradition: the oldest Jewish prayers (e.g. Mourner's Kaddish) and literature (e.g. The Old Testament's Song of Songs, aka the Song of Solomon) are written in Aramaic-- a trade language older than Hebrew. The vast bulk of the Jewish contribution to World Literature and Art, prior to WWII and Shoa (aka the Holocaust), was in Yiddish-- a pidgin composed of German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, etc. and rendered in the Hebrew character set (just as Aramaic is.) Yiddish was primarily a trade language. What's this all mean? Uncertain -- but certainly an interesting tidbit. Maybe you'll use it in a term-paper someday. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Franz Kafka.]

Gregor Samsa as Functional Deviant
A Hypothetical Interpretation by Friedrich Nietzsche
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

My dear friends:

Suppose all that you have always valued in your lives was shown to you to be: illusion. What would it be like to turn truth on her head? To have your precious beliefs, maxims, platitudes, and traditions inverted and distorted beyond recognition? To suddenly realize that what is good, is bad; what is beauty, is foul; what is virtue, vice?

What if all your points of reference were to shift: North becomes South; black becomes white; deviant becomes saint; saint becomes deviant.

Suppose that this transformation--a metamorphosis of perception were to come to you -- and you alone. Suddenly you awake -- and in utter solitude -- you discover that the world is its opposite.

Two realities strike you all at once: One, you define yourself in terms of your values. With your values now reversed, so too are you reversed: you are a roach! Two, what you have become is apparent to everyone else.

Gregor Samsa has burrowed his way out of the value set that defined his social setting. The metamorphosis was inevitable. Look at where his values were anchored: servant to the needs of an oppressive boss in order to meet the needs of an exploitive family.

So, he ceases to serve. With new values opposing those of the family, the employer, and society at large, Gregor emerges as a deviant. He has entered the world of the despised.

Never forget, my friends, that "truth" is in the eye of the beholder. In Gregor's world the despised and the beloved are reversed.

Franz Kafka is a new thinker -- one of that breed I spoke to you about 100 years ago. Gregor Samsa is his agent. Never forget my brilliant words about such men in Beyond Good and Evil: "The philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to his today: his enemy was ever the ideal of today (Section 212, BGE)."

So, I Friedrich, will now tell you what my philosophic friend Franz finds so fascinating about Gregor the bug!

Society is an association of institutions held together by a set of artificial values. You like to call them "truths." I say they are masks -- but never mind. Your prestige in your society is measured by the degree to which you choose to conform to its values. When you conform you are close to the norm. If you deviate from the norm, you are a deviant. But beware. Deviation is met with indignation. But deviation and deviants are essential for your survival.

Here's where I, Friedrich, come in. You see no one knows where the norm is! Why? There is no truth! The deviant defines the norm for you. The norm is established with reference to the deviant. In a world without crime you would have to invent crime. Oh, I know how much you 90's people rail against crime and justice and criminals--I read your electronic musings--but believe me, without crime you would be lost souls with no reference to good or evil...dare I say you would be beyond good and evil?

In your society your deviant subgroups become isolated from the main group because you insist judging everything the deviant does as a further manifestation or proof of the deviance. In fact the label itself defines the deviant individual.

Because individuals so defined tend to become isolated and alienated from your main culture, individuals with common "deviant" characteristics define their own separate sub-cultures. These sub-cultures in turn may differentiate too, generating their own versions of deviance within deviance and new sub-sub- cultures form.

Remember that the cohesion of your society depends on these deviant groups as reliable points of reference. The more firmly you believe in the "truth" of their deviance, the more faith you have in the steadiness of your "values." Because you define deviance in terms of masks--you call them moral principles (one ought not to deviate), deviant individuals and the subcultures to which they belong can and often do become targets for social oppression. You despise them, but you cannot exist without them.

This all serves an important social function. Let's say you as a social group adhere to the moral principle, "one ought to behave within the law." Under such a belief "outlaws" are deviant. Outlaws are a threat to your security. You form a mental model of what an outlaw is like: a certain stereotype emerges. Outlaws reveal themselves by their dress, language, and habits. You and I know this is not always true about outlaws, but the stereotype provides some comfort to you. Of course if you are an outlaw and comfortable as one, adopting the dress, language, and mannerisms of the stereotype may make you feel at home with your outlaw peers, and comfortable as a member of an outlaw subculture. You have exaggerated cultural examples of this in your portrayals of outlaws: prohibition gangsters, old western movie villains, Mafia operatives, outlaw motorcycle gangs.

You even use age as a basis for referencing deviation to a norm. To some extent young people (teens in particular) and very old people tend to occupy sub-cultural niches in which they feel comfortable because they have become isolated from the main social group. Teens and old people do deviate from the norm with respect to age. But the very label "teen" or "old" carries a whole catalogue of behavioral expectations for you. You know the stereotypes: teens are rebellious and careless. Old people are senile and unreliable. Whether true or not, the behavior, dress and mannerisms of young and old people are seen by the main group as further evidence of the stereotype. These age based social reference points help anchor your social norm: that of the ideal, reliable and conforming, middle aged conformer. The deviants: teens and old people in turn tend to cluster within cultural sub- groups in which they mirror common forms of dress, behavior and mannerisms.

There are endless ways in which people in your society can deviate from behavior norms. Religion or religiosity is or was seen as a basis for defining sub groups: a hot debate in some US states right now over school prayer is pitting those against prayer (labeled by the large group as "atheist") against more mainstream Christian believers. Point being here that the anything the "atheist" says or does is seen as further evidence of the label. Again, according to the argument, the social stereotyping reinforces the values of the main group by giving it reference points. Once labeled you are marked forever.

There are other examples: skin color (black, white, native); economic class (rich, poor, employed, unemployed), ethnic background and illness illness (both physical and mental). The behavior of anyone who suffers from a serious mental or physical disability tends to be interpreted as flowing from the conditions of the disability--to the exclusion of anything else. If you are labeled insane (or mislabeled insane) there is little you can do or say that will not be seen as further evidence of your illness. Ten years ago Guy Paul Morin was labeled schizophrenic. Look how easy it was for a jury of 12 to convict him of a horrendous murder and rape of a child based mainly on the expert characterization of someone with that label: psychiatrists said: "Mr. Morin could have done what he did in a delusionary haze and utterly repressed the memory." Everything that Guy Paul Morin said or did during his 10 years of life as a social cockroach was understood through the filter of your society's characterization of the mental deviance known as schizophrenia. Mr. Morin was cleared on Monday. DNA evidence proved that he could not have committed the crime.

Sexual deviation can be seen in this light too. Where heterosexuality is the norm and where there is a social moral principle that that is the way one "ought" to be, those who deviate from that norm are labeled as deviant. The "gay" subculture is a reference for normal behavior. The subculture in turn may appropriate its own set of normal rules, dress, and behavioral standards.

"Gregor Samsa woke up one morning changed into a monstrous vermin:" Really? You think so? "Gregor's eyes turned to the window, and the overcast weather---completely depressed him." If you suddenly found yourself in Gregor's shoes--six shoes to be exact--would the weather be your first concern?

Consider the possibility that Gregor had acquired a label: a label from which he knew he would never escape: a label so odious in the eyes of family, boss, and society at large that nothing Gregor could do, or say could ever be interpreted as anything other than further evidence of the condition to which that label had attached?

Had Gregor acquired the characteristics of a functional deviate? The real metamorphosis that takes place in labeling is complete. Not only do others see us in terms of the label, we see ourselves that way too: The label becomes deeply internalized. "Gregor was shocked to hear his own voice answering, unmistakably his own voice, but from below an insistent distressed chirping intruded."

On page 11 Gregor answers his father's request that he open the door with a clear "No." The response produces a stunned silence and a sob from his sister. It was the last intelligible word Gregor would ever utter. It would soon become apparent to the rest of the world that Gregor was indeed what he himself knew he was: a social deviant.

With the door opened everyone was shocked. It was Gregor--but Gregor transformed- his long speech on page 16 appeals to the manager to accept him. "I'm in a tight spot." He isn't heard. His appeal for understanding, forgiveness and a second chance fall on deaf ears. Gregor has become something loathsome to the social norm. His appeal is nothing more than the ranting of a labeled man. Nothing he says or does from this point forward will or can be referenced in any other light. Familial and social stability depend on it.

As odious and as reviled as Gregor has become, he serves a critical function within his social setting. His very existence allows his family to establish a familiar norm--one that was missing when Gregor the salesman ruled the roost. His father had been, sullen, and lethargic. His mother asthmatic. His sister lazy. With Gregor, the deviant as a point of reference all three experience a transformation: they become socially defined. The father regains vitality; the mother sews, the sister learns music, French and short hand. All three become economic producers. The deviant, Gregor, has an important role to play in this family.

There are other pieces in this puzzle that fit the picture. Gregor the bug may hold alien values, but he is essential. He is isolated from the main stream but tethered to it. Deviants are reviled but critical for survival. For Gregor the tethers are universals: music and love. "Was he an animal that music could hold him so? (p.49)"

The cleaning lady says, "Look at that old dung beetle." She later credits Gregor with, "unlimited intelligence." Her friendly derision towards Gregor Samsa expresses a winking acknowledgment of certain shared values. She is a ally. She too is a deviant--and as part of an economic underclass recognizes and shares something of Gregor's world.

And what of Gregor's world and Gregor's values?

Remember my words: "He shall be greatest who can be lonliest, the most concealed, the most deviant, the human being beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, he that is overrich in will. Precisely this shall be called greatness; being capable of being as manifold as whole, as ample as full. (BGE 212)"

Thank You.

Books from Alibris: Franz Kafka


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