miércoles, 23 de marzo de 2011

Gregor Samsa and Fairchild`s beetles

Attempts to uncover the identity of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” have tended to follow two trajectories. The first, concerned with the literal representation of a nonhuman body, has focused on the best way to classify or describe that body, leading critics to wonder if Gregor actually is an insect and, if so, what kind. (...)

Vladimir Nabokov’s well-known lecture on the novella features an extended consideration of the former and leads to the conclusion that the vermin “belongs to the branch of ‘jointed leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong.” Nabokov, “elected to the Cambridge Entomological Society” for his work on butterflies, is better suited than most to comment on the interstices of fiction and entomology. This interest in the invertebrate world explains his consideration of the physical features,and corresponding taxonomic categorization, of Samsa’s body. Indeed, after establishing the creature’s phylum, Nabokov moves to the next biological grouping, class. The key to understanding Samsa’s class is an accurate appendage tally: if the numerous legs “mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view.”

Making the assumption that six legs are sufficient to call numerous, Nabokov concludes that, of the various classes of Arthropods, Samsa “is an insect,” and moves to the next piece of this cladistic quandary, identifying the kind of insect, which he describes not as a cockroach, but as a very broad “brown, convex, dog-sized beetle.”(...)

Around the same time that Kafka imagined an insect enlarged and interposed in the life of a modern family, the American naturalist David Fairchild devised a macrophotographic technique that allowed for magnified frontal and side views of insects. This altered perspective presented a new world in such a radical way that Fairchild titled his 1914 book showcasing this new photographic approach Book of Monsters in an effort to emphasize the disconcerting effect of this refiguration of the kinds of insects commonly found in a yard or garden. Published by the National Geographic Society, the book contains “a collection of . . . a few of the small-sized monsters which inhabit the tall grass, the flower garden and vegetable garden, the pines and oaks of a place in the woods of Maryland.”11 However, as Fairchild notes, “if you compare these photographs with those to be found in most books on insects, you will find that they differ in several particulars.”

The increased magnification made possible by Fairchild’s photographic equipment forces his audience to reconsider the appearance of insects in a way that highlights their menacing modernity, emblematized through Fairchild’s text, fixating as it does on their mechanical features and alien behavior as well as the continual threat they pose to the welfare of industrial human society. The more recent popularity of insect documentaries such as Microcosmos and Alien Empire builds from the representation of another world first made possible by Fairchild’s invention. The combination of image and text in the Book of Monsters results in a refiguration, or re-presentation of the insect as a living creature and as a signifier or motif in search of meaning (...)

Kafka`s textual and metatextual metamorphoses parallel Fairchild’s evocation of actual insect metamorphosis in the Book of Monsters. He treats this topic through a discussion of the development of Allorhina nitida, the June beetle, a species not that dissimilar in appearance from Nabokov’s sketch of Kafka’s dogsized beetle. Fairchild provides two images: one is a side view of the June beetle, the other a side view of its larva. The passage that accompanies the image of the larva, an elongated gelatinous mass, provides a detailed account of the physiological changes that occur in the cocoon:

"In looking at these two strange beings . . . we cannot feel confident that science has gone very far in giving us the reasons for the things we see. They seem no more alike than fish and tortoise or bird and quadruped and yet, before our very eyes, in one brief year, the one turns into the other. This beetle dies, and leaves behind a hundred little cells, parts of its own body and the body of its mate. These paired cells, the fertilized eggs, grow rapidly into the form of the clumsy, helpless grub which feeds upon the leaves, only to break up and form themselves again into this armor-plated creature of the beetle world. There must be something as radically wrong with our individualistic ideas of today as there was with the conception of a flat world which prevailed before the time of Columbus. Perhaps if we stop trying to think of these manifestations of beetle life as individuals and think of them as parts of one great organism scattered over the surface of the earth, these striking differences will seem no stranger to us than do the difference in the various stages of a flower’s life. The beetle forms inside the grub and the tulip flower bud forms inside the bulb. If tulip flowers could fly, we should then have the strange spectacle of the opening of the scale-covered tulip bulb and the coming forth of the gorgeous colored flower which sailed away to shed its seeds in someone else’s garden. I think that this is the way we must look at it if we would get a clear idea of this strangest of phenomena, metamorphosis..."

Dean Swinford
"Classifying and Depicting Insects: Fairchild and Kafka"

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