photo & text by nacrowe
i first read the novella THE METAMORPHOSIS (KURT WOLFF, 1915) by CZECH JEWISH literary icon FRANZ KAFKA way back in high school and for me it quickly felt PRESCIENT of my current situation at the time. the novella follows the salesman GREGOR SAMSA as he struggles to come to grips with the fact that he woke up one day from bed as a giant insect.
although the conceit seems HUMOROUS at first glance, the underlying PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR of an UNSANCTIONED PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION has rendered this narrative a classic example of EXISTENTIAL literature. in my case, going through the double whammy of PUBERTY and the ISOLATION of boarding school, not to mention the later moves during my high school years to both KUWAIT and SACRAMENTO left me feeling a bit CONFUSED and UNSURE of my place in the world. when confronted with a NOVEL SITUATION or a new REALITY, the main thing is survival, just getting through it. when rereading THE METAMORPHOSIS over the years, that yearning to adapt after the initial shock of it all was what rally felt COMPELLING for me. i always found it INTRIGUING how quickly SAMSA pedals to SURVIVAL MODE and completely bypasses the RATIONALIZING and SEARCH FOR MEANING in his predicament. to me that felt TRUTHFUL to my experience of life at the time (and since). once one is at a COMFORTABLE distance you can sit back, analyze and come to some conclusion about the wider RAMIFICATIONS and CONSEQUENCES of a TRAUMATIC event. but such is a luxury one does not have in the moment.
THE METAMORPHOSIS poses for me a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION about the very notion of a PERSONAL IDENTITY. is our IDENTITY the very collection and narrativizing of our PERSONAL EXPERIENCES or are we SEPARATE from such? does one ever really transcend seismic shifts in our lives or do we, in essence, TRANSFORM into a new being, DIFFERENT version of ourselves. having traveled extensively throughout my life and been put in countless cultural situations across several continents, i often wondered what would i be like if i never left SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. on a FUNDAMENTAL level, would i be a DISTINCTLY SEPARATE person sans those experiences. in THE METAMORPHOSIS, is SAMSA somehow TRANSFORMED FUNDAMENTALLY given his new insect anatomy, or has his personal sense of IDENTITY remained intact?
for me that is the question of the novella. we all are in a CONSTANT state of TRANSFORMATION, as 98% of our atoms are replaced every year, creating an INTERESTING real-life SHIP OF THESEUS-like scenario. that WELL-KNOWN, MIND EXPERIMENT first presented by ANCIENT GREEK philosopher PLUTARCH presents a scenario in a plank of wood is replaced on a SHIP. the consideration then arises of whether or not the SHIP is in fact the SAME SHIP due to this replacement of a minor part? extrapolated further, the question arises of how many pieces can be replaced before it could fundamentally be determined to be a DISTINCT DIFFERENT SHIP? is there such a threshold? there is no CONCLUSIVE, DEFINITIVE answer. similarly, THE METAMORPHOSIS is always asking us to constantly QUESTION OURSELVES and especially our firmly-held SENSE OF REALITY in the face of LESS-THAN-SATISFYING answers in an at-best INDIFFERENT MORAL UNIVERSE. in a sense, that UNYIELDING TRANSFORMATION of all things is the point, even if we can't QUANTIFY or CONTEXTUALIZE such to our limited expectations. we are living in a natural world that is in a constant ETERNAL STATE OF FLUX, of TRANSFORMATION, of BECOMING. it is an ABSURD and DIFFICULT REALITY to internalize in any PRACTICAL way, especially as we are taught to recognize patterns and discern meaning from outside stimuli. from such we determine an OBJECTIVE, a MOTIVATION, a MEANING. here there is none. just NEVERDING CHANGE. which is ABSURD. and the pursuit of meaning in amidst such an ABSURD REALITY is enough in of itself is what i gather from KAFKA.
THE METAMORPHOSIS is required reading in my opinion. in addition to the novella, anything by KAFKA is most definitely worth checking out.