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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How Many Legs Had Gregor Samsa?

Posted by John Holbo on 06/19/07 at 02:41 AM

An illustration of the sorts of issues raised by my last two posts (1, 2):

As Ben Wolfson points out in comments, there is a problem with trying to understand the sort of meaning that literary interpretation aims to extract as a partial function of ‘natural meaning’ (in anything like Grice’s sense). Because that gets absurdly inclusive, pretty quick. That is, you start by considering that trees mean roots, i.e. the trees in Macbeth have to have roots, which seems reasonable; but what’s to stop you from moving on to the thought that the soil also has to be proper for nourishment, etc.? It seems to me that this is an unavoidable paralogism. I’m thinking of Kant on ‘transcendental paralogisms - i.e. primrose paths of reasoning you are bound to go down, which invariably end badly if you keep going. (Not a technical definition of ‘transcendental paralogism’, by the by.)

There is a series of books by John Sutherland - ‘great puzzles in 19th Century fiction’ - including titles like Is Heathcliff a Murderer?; and Who Betrays Ellizabeth Bennet? [amazon]. To take another famous example: ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’

What do we think of this sort of noodling around in fictional worlds? Probably that the exercise quickly exhausts whatever slight, literary point it might have had—or, perhaps, it acquires a new one, some sort of probably dubious, pedantic, fanboy sort of botheration about continuity.

Here’s a funny example of this sort of reasoning pattern I have come across. In Nabokov’s Lectures On Literature, in his discussion of Kafka’s “Metaphorphosis”, right after hectoring his audience not to be so stupid as to suppose words like ‘tree’, in fiction, just refer to ‘reality’ in some simple way, Nabokov gets all tangled up in the biological implications of Gregor Samsa’s condition.

How many legs had Gregor Samsa? What with one thing and another, Nabokov concludes he, “obviously belongs to the branch of ‘joint leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong” (p. 258). [There are accompanying sketches, by Nabokov.] That he is a cockroach (as some critics have foolishly supposed!) is decisively refuted on the grounds that roaches are flat, whereas Gregor is convex, belly and back. Ergo, a beetle. Ergo, those things are wing casings, although (Nabokov reasons) probably not only Gregor but Kafka himself failed to realize it. Ergo, Gregor could (secretly!) fly. That is, there was a possible, surprise move off the board (bumbling sort of beetlish knight’s wheel). But the main character missed it, as sometimes happens.

There is a moral to the story. Nabokov instructs his audience to ‘treasure all their lives’ the knowledge that, “Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.” This is, of course, a flagrant violation of Nabokov’s own stricture against drawing moral lessons from literature.

Now obviously this turns “Metamorphosis” into a Nabokov-style story, and we don’t take this too seriously. (As the man said: pull the other five, they’ve got bells on.) But it seems significant that another thing Nabokov likes to do is draw maps and diagrams of the locations in stories. That is, he very much likes to explore the ‘natural meaning’ of the situations in fiction. This obviously suits his rather puzzle-box-ish temperament. But it is not always clearly irrevelant. Anyway, a funny example - offered for your amusement.

All this also reminds me of a short post on M. John Harrison’s blog that got linked around a few months ago:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

This is sort of ambiguous between: worldbuilding is bad and worldbuilding is bad for authors but potentially the proper business of readers. I think Harrison is sort of wobbling between.


I do think, John, that this theory of fiction that you’re building out here is marked by the specific genre that’s your favorite. Let’s not all get into a fight about reading tastes, but it is pretty clear to me that most of the SF stuff that I’ve read (not an expert, but I’m interested in it and I do read it) is tilted toward the world-building side of the readerly experience. “A society where everyone’s jacked in to the internet without wires / where the sexes have disappeared / where computers are sentient. I wonder what effect that has on x, y, and z.” Right?

It’s written into the DNA of the genre. But if you were a fanatical fan of Harlequin romance instead, I think you’d be coming up with something very different here. The reader of the romance doesn’t care nearly as much about the “world” - “tropical island paradise” or whatever might be enough without building out the socio-economic structure of the place, the predominant weather patterns, the reason why the bedrooms have blinds and not curtains, etc, etc, etc. The dominant interest, I imagine, is waiting for Fabio to get his shirt off and how it will happen, and whether he’ll start with the left or right earlobe.

Harrison above is having literary anxieties about the genre, right? People buy the SF to see cool visions of new worlds, new organizations of these worlds. Harrison would like his readers to read him like they do (or would) Dickens or Ian McEwan. It’s certainly possible that that might happen (and I’d read certainly more SF if it did, but, really, I’m not the target audience commerically speaking what with the Ph.D. and all...)

But I think before you head forward with this you might want to do some long and hard thinking about whether your proposal isn’t jiggered in a rather particularized direction by what you like to read.

By CR on 06/19/07 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One other thing for now. The distinction between SF (where the worldbuilding may well be the point) and other modes of fiction leads us to another issue. I could go on for a long time about this, but for now just this:

When I read Charlie Stross’s Accelerando a year or so ago, yes, the fun of the thing was following him through the world-building travelogues, thinking my own thoughts about the world beyond what is described in the fiction itself. But now I’m reading Delillo’s Falling Man. I lived in NYC during and after 9/11. If anyone would be able to assign “natural meanings” to the scenery, it would be me (and the other 9 or 10 million there at the time). But I am doing almost zero “world-building” as I read this thing. Delillo’s descriptions are extremely sparse ("apartment on the West side,” “apartment downtown") save for a bit of vivid stuff culled (by him, and by us again as we read it) from a small set of very familiar media images (the falling guy, of course. the guy covered in dust, the national guard kid standing at a check point).

It’s very clearly a different set of mental operations summoned by the two novels. Their appeal is different. And I’m not sure you’re theory could really account for all that much of what is interesting about the Delillo book.

By CR on 06/19/07 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gregor would have figured it out if it wasn’t for that damn apple.

By David Moles on 06/19/07 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I had a great professor—a Victorianist—who made it one of her pedagogical missions to remind us that novels are representations, not reality.  Thus, you cannot psychoanalyze the characters; instead, you might do historical and biographical research to see how an author and her society viewed psychology and then determine if the novel’s characters played along.  Likewise, if a novel’s characters never eat or sleep, you cannot assert that, in a gap in the story, the characters were sleeping or eating (or were not sleeping and eating). 

Samsa neither had nor didn’t have wings.  He might have had something that, on real bugs, were wing casings, but in the novella, wings are never a possibility.  Basically, this goes back to the “Which college courses would Hamlet have studied?” idiocy.  Shakespeare might have sent him off to university X (I forget the real name), but there’s no evidence in the play that Shakespeare had any idea what a medieval continental education would have looked like. 

I’d go as far as to say that, in *Macbeth*, the trees DON’T have roots.  All we know is that, in the world of the play, trees don’t normally move, and then they do.  That is to say, all we know is that moving trees is out of the ordinary in that world.  We don’t know if the reason why Macbethian trees don’t usually move is because of their roots.  There’s not a lick of textual evidence that roots are an issue. 

Now, I’m running the risk of an almost textual know-nothingism here.  In the end, I do think we’re supposed to make certain associative connections between a text and our real world—or at least, between a text and the author’s idea of what his or her real world was like.  (That is to say, we cannot say that Ovid’s shifting creatures have anything to do with evolution and genetic mutation, as those weren’t a part of his world, even if mutating creatures inevitably makes us today think of genes and such.)

For example, take a certain strain of postcolonial criticism such as Said’s reading of *Mansfield Park*.  Said takes as his starting point the assumption that, given Austen’s reference to Caribbean plantation colonies, Austen is from that point on allowing readers to make associative links between center and periphery.  An extreme textualism would counter that all we know is that, in the world of Austen’s novel, there is one Caribbean colony.  I don’t think she even refers to slavery, so an extreme textualist might say we cannot bring slavery in.

The extreme textualist view makes sense in certain fantastic, romantic, sci-fi type narratives.  If the Glubon family on Gort 9 made its money from harvesting flug on Shinky-C, we’d be wary about assuming, with no textual evidence, that the people of Gort are running a slave colony on Shinky-C.  Shinky-C might have been uninhabited, and the farmers might be well-treated, well-paid Gorters (or robots or dinosaurs). 

But we assume that, in Austen’s case, she’s made such an extreme effort to be realistic and almost anthropological about her society and her historical moment that what’s going on in the colonies must be somewhere on her mind.  But this is where my concerns about Said’s reading practices surface.  Given Austen’s almost forced avoidance of political events, might we not conclude that she quite consciously hopes her readers will also studiously avoid bringing such events to bear on her world?

So at what point is one of the generic conventions of realism the license for the reader to connect the text to the author’s world?  (But again, not the actual past world of the author but rather the author’s representation or understanding of his or her world.)

Of course, none of this matters for the historicist, who is less concerned with meaning than with reading the text symptomatically.  In which case the author needn’t have known about something for it to have somehow affected the text.  But then we’re no longer in the realm of meaning, natural or otherwise.

By on 06/19/07 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The extreme textualist view makes sense in certain fantastic, romantic, sci-fi type narratives.”

Actually, I don’t think that it does.  The sci-fi narrative can make no literary sense without the overtones introduced by contemporary knowledge.  If something about the sci-fi narrative reminds you of slave colonies, it may not be an actual slave colony within the universe of the narrative, but the association with slave colonies is part of the work.  Making the association disjoint with the “reality” within the universe of the work is a critical part of what literary SF does.

I don’t think that M. John Harrison’s post really goes far enough.  He refers to the too-developed worldbuilding book as “a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study”, i.e. a place of worship.  I don’t think that it’s possible to understand what’s going on with these associations in Western society unless you treat worldbuilding as a sort of technocratic cover term for the religious term, demiurgy, with all that implies.  Nor does the use of only a minimalist worldbuilding mean that the SF author is doing something qualitatively different from the SF author who goes for the full D&D treatment.  (Although aesthetically the difference may be profound.)

By on 06/19/07 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, this is an interesting and vexed matter.

Let me first explicitly say that what little I know about “natural meaning” in the philosophy of language comes from these discussions. So I have little sense of how far afield the notion can legitimately wander—a question Luther has raised in a previous post.  John has given the relationship between tracks and moving animals as an example, and this sort of example is typical in the semiotics literature, for example, where the track is said to be a (certain kind of) sign of the animal. Would the relationship between a bicycle and a wire spoke also be an example of natural meaning? Given previous examples in this discussion I would hazzard the answer is “yes,” as the relationship between a spoke and the bicycle is similar to that of the relationship between a tree and its roots. But a spoke would not ordinarily be taken as a sign of the bicycle, though in the appropriate context it might be used as a figure for the bicycle. What about the atoms that constitute the bicycle or the tree? Is that too within the scope of a natural meaning? I don’t know.

My own thinking on this problem comes from cognitive science, in particular, from the knowledge representation end of the business. There we’ve devoted a great deal of effort to figuring out how to handle these sorts of relationships among bits and pieces of perception, ideation, and knowledge. Within this kind of framework, for example, the relationship between the spoke and the bicycle is rather easier to handle the relationship between the deer and its tracks; that is to say, the latter requires more complex machinery than the former. As for the relationship between atoms and the bicycle, there is a simple version that treats it in the same fashion as the relationship between between the spoke and the bicycle—part-whole. But that simple version glosses over the fact that we do not have sensory knowledge of atoms; we can’t see them with the unaided eye, etc. Rather atoms take their place in a fundamentally abstract conceptualization of the physical world; and that abstraction requires fairly sophisticated machinery. There are, in fact, a number of such abstract conceptualizations. Atomic theory in ancient Greece was rather different from atomic theory in 19th century chemistry and physics. And so forth and so on.

So, our minds are populated be a rather complex collection of such bits of knowledge. It’s through and against this background knowledge that we understand verbal utterances and written statements of all sorts. In the case of fiction, just how much of this general background knowledge applies to the story world varies widely from text to text. Where the story world is quite different, as is often the case in science fiction, the author must attend to world building—as John has indicated. Quite independently of that, where the text was constructed at a time and place at some cultural distance from a current reader, that reader may have to exert some effort to equip himself with the relevant background information. Historicists and anthropologists deal with this problem all the time.

One thing that people often do, is imagine other things and events within what they take to be the parameters of a given story world. In the extreme, this yields fan fiction. But—as John’s examples indicate—in a less extreme version this sort of thing was once a respectable way to comment on literary texts. As Luther’s Victorianist asserted, however, this is no longer so. It is not at all clear to me just how far we can prune away these inferences along “natural” lines.

<CENTER>* * * *</CENTER>

In thinking about this, I had intended to take up the example of trees, roots, and Macbeth. The point I was going to argue is that, even though the text never explicitly asserts that Macbethian trees have roots (as Luther seems to be saying), we nonetheless may validly assume that Macbethian trees have roots and take that as the basis of Macbeth’s sense that he is immune from the prophesy about Birnam wood. For we do need some basis for believing—as Macbeth does—that trees don’t move. Rootedness would satisfy. If not rootedness, then what?

Alas, Shakespeare’s text belies me. After the third apparition has made the Birnam wood prophesy, Macbeth muses:

That will never be
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellion’s head, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom.

Thus not only does Macbeth (and thus Shakespeare) explicitly assert that trees have roots, but that those roots are earthbound. Hence, the trees cannot move—note that drawing that conclusion requires some simple knowledge of what it means to be earthbound. Hence Macbeth will not face rebellion (and just where did rebellion come from? another inference from background knowledge) but will “live the lease of nature.” What background knowledge must one draw on in order properly to understand that last phrase, and the one that follows? We’ve got to call on background knowledge in order to make even the most superficial sense of these words.

But it seems to me that any reasonably skilled reader or theatre-goer is going to sense that there’s more going on here than the literal meaning of these lines. At this point Macbeth is being tricked/trapped. However it is that the reader knows or senses this, that borders on the “fancy stuff” the John alluded to yesterday.

By Bill Benzon on 06/19/07 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I read Falling Man on Sunday.  While reading, I too was struck by Delillo’s sparse language.  I too found it very easy to extrapolate from his mostly non-specific language the world of 9/11/01, Manhattan.  But this is not because of Delillo’s skill at manipulating “natural signs” but because he has chosen a subject that is the most recognized media event of our age, because he counted on his audience’s awareness of the context of the book--from the striking book jacket photo, the encapsulation of the themes on the inside flap, &c.

It occurred to me after getting through the first chapter that my understanding of the scene as having taken place in NY was only grounded as such because of my knowledge of the context of the book and the way in which Delillo interpolated certain media markers into the text(that he knew everyone would recognize: the leapers from the WTC).  I reread the chapter.  This time, however, I pretended that I lived in a universe in which 9/11 never happened.  And an entire host of possible worlds floated past my mind’s eye.  Even the leapers were situated in a vague way.  Taken outside of a very dedicated (but c. 2007 USA, quite reflexive) “world-building,” the scene has little power to communicate.

By on 06/19/07 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR writes: “I do think, John, that this theory of fiction that you’re building out here is marked by the specific genre that’s your favorite.”

Ah, there he goes again, making light of my love of 19th Century British novels. Seriously, if what I am saying is right, it has to go for all fiction - SF and otherwise. But it might well be the case that SF and fantastic fiction are genres in which this factor that is operative in all cases becomes an undue preoccupation of readers. That would be a different point. Actually: the clearest example of novels based on what I’m talking about wouldn’t be my favorite sort of books; rather, mystery novels.

Bill, it’s funny that you noticed that. I’m writing something on the subject and I have a bit where I say ‘imagine if the one reference to roots were eliminated ... would the trees still have roots?’

By John Holbo on 06/19/07 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We (used to) get trap in this little snag all the time John, and I think it’s a different disciplines issue. I can’t tell if what you’re trying to build out is a “theory of the novel” or a “theory of worldbuilding in / by the novel.” I can’t tell, given the big game that you are hunting in these posts. And it makes a great deal of difference. And yes, it seems a more central issue to “genre fiction” (of both “high” and “low” sorts) than to “literary fiction.” (Lots of quotes, but that’s Valve commenting for you..)

I.Eaton: it is an interesting book, isn’t it? Symptomatic of something I can’t quite put my finger on, but will try sometime soon. It just seems to me that while it is, sure, very much set in a builtout world that many of us know something vivid of one sort or another about, it simply isn’t really interested in provoking us to look around very much, either at things he actually shows us or things that we might imagine lingering just off stage. It is interested in the interior spaces of the characters, not the way things are and how we might imaginatively extend out into it.

I’ll have to think more about it…

By CR on 06/19/07 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, what I’m doing is assessing competing hermeneutic theories - theories of what interpretation involves. A theory that omits to make room for this thing I am talking about is a flawed theory. And many theories don’t seem to be able to make room for it. That’s sort of interesting. That’s the angle.

By John Holbo on 06/19/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John—That Bérubé paper on Fish and Iser* is relevant here, that whole “connect the dots” thing. Where Bérubé says this:

It would have been possible, in other words, to contest Fish’s reading of Iser . . . by acknowledging that all forms of reading are interpretive but that some involve the kind of low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts we engage in whenever we interpret the letter “e” as the letter “e,” and some involve the kind of highlevel, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes something like S/Z – or Surprised by Sin. (And, of course, that there are any number of “interpretations” that fall between these extremes, and that the status of each of them is – what else? – both open to and dependent on interpretation.)

This “natural meaning” stuff would fall in that continuum somewhere toward then end for “low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts.”

*"There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser,” in Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, ed. Lynn Worsham (SUNY, 2004), pp. 11-26.

By Bill Benzon on 06/20/07 at 07:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nabokov was being naughty. As he well knew, a beetle of Gregor’s size would have suffocated, because beetles don’t have lungs (that’s why we don’t find any the size of cats, or even rats). Whatever Gregor was, he wasn’t an insect. He just looked like one to his presumably non-entomologically trained family. Something to do with all those legs I expect. Sadly, this means he was unlikely to have had wings, although, on balance, I think the lungs were a better bargain.

By on 06/21/07 at 05:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John M, as you may know, Nabokov specifically addresses this in his lecture, because Kafka makes reference to Gregor ‘breathing in’, ‘breathing out’ and such.  Mind you, “whatever Gregor was, he wasn’t an insect. He just looked like one“ is brilliantly put.  Neatly encapsulates the whole of Kafka’s story, perhaps his whole oeuvre.

By Adam Roberts on 06/22/07 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I had a great professor—a Victorianist—who made it one of her pedagogical missions to remind us that novels are representations, not reality.  Thus, you cannot psychoanalyze the characters

I disagree with this. Real psychoanalysts do their job by interpreting how other people *represent* themselves to the analyst, not by some privileged access to that person’s reality, whatever that would be. We’re all to a certain extent literary characters to each other. Psychoanalysis strikes me as about as legitimate or illegitimate for people in a book as for people in real life. Although I certainly agree that it’s much more of a waste of time to do it with literary characters as opposed to real people.

By on 06/25/07 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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