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The Beetle and the Fly

January 17, 2014 | by

kafka metamorphosis

From the original cover of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, 1915.

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in their bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did.

Is Gregor’s transformation a death sentence or, in some way, a fatal diagnosis? Why does the beetle Gregor not survive? Is it his human brain, depressed and sad and melancholy, that betrays the insect’s basic sturdiness? Is it the brain that defeats the bug’s urge to survive, even to eat? What’s wrong with that beetle? Beetles, the order of insect called Coleoptera, which means “sheathed wing” (though Gregor never seems to discover his own wings, which are presumably hiding under his hard wing casings), are notably hardy and well adapted for survival; there are more species of beetle than any other order on earth. Well, we learn that Gregor has bad lungs they are “none too reliable”—and so the Gregor beetle has bad lungs as well, or at least the insect equivalent, and perhaps that really is his fatal diagnosis; or perhaps it’s his growing inability to eat that kills him, as it did Kafka, who ultimately coughed up blood and died of starvation caused by laryngeal tuberculosis at the age of forty. What about me? Is my seventieth birthday a death sentence? Of course, yes, it is, and in some ways it has sealed me within myself as surely as if I had suffered a total paralysis. And this revelation is the function of the bed, and of dreaming in the bed, the mortar in which the minutiae of everyday life are crushed, ground up, and mixed with memory and desire and dread. Gregor awakes from troubled dreams which are never directly described by Kafka. Did Gregor dream that he was an insect, then awake to find that he was one? “‘What in the world has happened to me?’ he thought.” “It was no dream,” says Kafka, referring to Gregor’s new physical form, but it’s not clear that his troubled dreams were anticipatory insect dreams. In the movie I co-wrote and directed of George Langelaan’s short story The Fly, I have our hero Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, say, while deep in the throes of his transformation into a hideous fly/human hybrid, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” He is warning his former lover that he is now a danger to her, a creature with no compassion and no empathy. He has shed his humanity like the shell of a cicada nymph, and what has emerged is no longer human. He is also suggesting that to be a human, a self-aware consciousness, is a dream that cannot last, an illusion. Gregor too has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But unlike Brundle’s fly self, Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.

the-fly-jeff

Jeff Goldblum in Cronenberg’s The Fly, 1986.

When The Fly was released in 1986, there was much conjecture that the disease that Brundle had brought on himself was a metaphor for AIDS. Certainly I understood this—AIDS was on everybody’s mind as the vast scope of the disease was gradually being revealed. But for me, Brundle’s disease was more fundamental: in an artificially accelerated manner, he was aging. He was a consciousness that was aware that it was a body that was mortal, and with acute awareness and humor participated in that inevitable transformation that all of us face, if only we live long enough. Unlike the passive and helpful but anonymous Gregor, Brundle was a star in the firmament of science, and it was a bold and reckless experiment in transmitting matter through space (his DNA mixes with that of an errant fly) that caused his predicament.

Langelaan’s story, first published in Playboy magazine in 1957, falls firmly within the genre of science fiction, with all the mechanics and reasonings of its scientist hero carefully, if fancifully, constructed (two used telephone booths are involved). Kafka’s story, of course, is not science fiction; it does not provoke discussion regarding technology and the hubris of scientific investigation, or the use of scientific research for military purposes. Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, The Metamorphosis forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend.

Stories of magical transformations have always been part of humanity’s narrative canon. They articulate that universal sense of empathy for all life forms that we feel; they express that desire for transcendence that every religion also expresses; they prompt us to wonder if transformation into another living creature would be a proof of the possibility of reincarnation and some sort of afterlife and is thus, however hideous or disastrous the narrative, a religious and hopeful concept. Certainly my Brundlefly goes through moments of manic strength and power, convinced that he has combined the best components of human and insect to become a super being, refusing to see his personal evolution as anything but a victory even as he begins to shed his human body parts, which he carefully stores in a medicine cabinet he calls the Brundle Museum of Natural History.

There is none of this in The Metamorphosis. The Samsabeetle is barely aware that he is a hybrid, though he takes small hybrid pleasures where he can find them, whether it’s hanging from the ceiling or scuttling through the mess and dirt of his room (beetle pleasure) or listening to the music that his sister plays on her violin (human pleasure). But the Samsa family is the Samsabeetle’s context and his cage, and his subservience to the needs of his family both before and after his transformation extends, ultimately, to his realization that it would be more convenient for them if he just disappeared, it would be an expression of his love for them, in fact, and so he does just that, by quietly dying. The Samsabeetle’s short life, fantastical though it is, is played out on the level of the resolutely mundane and the functional, and fails to provoke in the story’s characters any hint of philosophy, meditation, or profound reflection. How similar would the story be, then, if on that fateful morning, the Samsa family found in the room of their son not a young, vibrant traveling salesman who is supporting them by his unselfish and endless labor, but a shuffling, half-blind, barely ambulatory eighty-nine-year-old man using insectlike canes, a man who mumbles incoherently and has soiled his trousers and out of the shadowland of his dementia projects anger and induces guilt? If, when Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into a demented, disabled, demanding old man? His family is horrified but somehow recognize him as their own Gregor, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in the beetle variant of the story, they decide that he is no longer their Gregor, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear.

When I went on my publicity tour for The Fly, I was often asked what insect I would want to be if I underwent an entomological transformation. My answers varied, depending on my mood, though I had a fondness for the dragonfly, not only for its spectacular flying but also for the novelty of its ferocious underwater nymphal stage with its deadly extendable underslung jaw; I also thought that mating in the air might be pleasant. Would that be your soul, then, this dragonfly, flying heavenward? came one response. Is that not really what you’re looking for? No, not really, I said. I’d just be a simple dragonfly, and then, if I managed to avoid being eaten by a bird or a frog, I would mate, and as summer ended, I would die.

This essay appears as the introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis.

David Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaker whose career has spanned more than four decades. Cronenberg’s many feature films include Stereo, Crimes of the FutureFast Company, The BroodThe Dead ZoneThe FlyNaked LunchM. ButterflyCrashA History of Violence, and A Dangerous Method. His most recent film, Cosmopolis, starred Robert Pattinson and was an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. Consumed, his first novel, will be published in September.

 

31 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. Richard Pruitt | January 18, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Cronenberg is always interesting, but the short story wasn’t published in Playboy in 1951. There was no Playboy in 1951. I think it was 1957. Probably just a typo.

  2. Jan Sand | January 23, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Many of those now in positions in government, politics, corporations and the military may have been, at one time, humans with human considerations, but the requirements of their positions of power have transformed them into insectile creatures driven only by the inhuman requirements of their organizational functions.

  3. BG | January 23, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    We turn into beetles (quite literally, as in Kafka’s story) when those around us deny our humanity. Some of us accept to live as insects. Others continue to listen to music and do their best to resist hanging from ceilings. Sometimes we try to keep telling the truth we know, and hope someone will make it out as human speech. At other times we refuse to earn, to eat, to live. I don’t know what happens then. This is my experience, at least.

  4. Jan Sand | January 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Incidentally, the Cronenberg film was a remake of a 1958 film with Vincent Price. Details can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fly_%281958_film%29

  5. Joel S. | January 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Whenever I discover insects consuming my thoughts (more often than I care to relate), I find the Cronenberg Oeuvre a wonderful, counter intuitive antidote. Monstrous imaginings and shameful realities are a required part of conscious living. Thank you, David. Please don’t die yet.

  6. Francois | February 4, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    The print format at this publication is rather horrid. Many of us to actually prefer print on paper. Reading this itty bitty print? I’d rather be water-boarded. And it can not be enlarged as that swipes off the right hand text. Paris Review. Get with it. Give us a break.

  7. Sarah Jacobs | January 5, 2015 at 3:16 am

    This is beautiful. I hope Cronenberg has read Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s _The Golem of Hollywood_. He’d probably get a lot out of it. He’d probably also be the best choice for director if the Kellermans ever decided to make a film version.

  8. Giulia | March 4, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    PRESS RELEASE

    Tribute to David Cronenberg
    the complete retrospective of the Canadian Director’s films and three international exhibitions

    Jeremy Irons, Terry Gilliam, Alfonso Cuarón and Matteo Garrone at the Lucca Film Festival and Europa Cinema 2015

    From the 15th to 22nd of March 2015 retrospectives, film classes and conversations with international authors
    The experimental Italian filmmaker Roberto Nanni will also be a guest star at the Festival
    Grand finale with the third edition of Lucca Effetto Cinema Notte

    Jeremy Irons, Terry Gilliam, Alfonso Cuarón and Matteo Garrone will be the guests of honor of the 11th Edition of the Lucca Film Festival, which will take place in the Tuscan city and in Viareggio from Sunday 15 March to Sunday 22 March 2015. The festival will pay tribute to each guest with screenings of their works, film masterclasses and gala evenings. This year’s edition of the festival celebrates Canadian director David Cronenberg who will be unable to attend in person due to personal matters but who will be present via Skype at several encounters. The tribute encompasses a complete retrospective of his films, three exhibitions and a concert in which some of his films’ most beautiful soundtracks will be performed. Among the scheduled events, a tribute to Roberto Nanni, the Italian experimental cinema director and a day dedicated to Italian filmmaker Mario Monicelli to celebrate the centennial of his birth and the acclaimed International Short Film Contest. The festival will close with Lucca Effetto Cinema Notte, a night where city becomes a real outdoor movie set. Events taking place in Viareggio are part of the initiatives organized by Europa Cinema, which this year has joined forces with the Lucca Film Festival.

    The Lucca Film Festival and Europa Cinema directed by Nicola Borrelli, is one of the key events organized and sponsored by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca. The exhibits dedicated to Cronenberg are organized in collaboration with the Comitato Nuovi Eventi per Lucca in collaboration with the festival and with the support of Banca Pictet and Société Générale. The Festival also enjoys the support of MiBACT (the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism), the Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lucca. Gesam Gas & Luce SpA, Banca Generali Private Banking, the Region of Tuscany, the City of Lucca with the collaboration of the Province of Lucca, the Fondazione Sistema Toscana, the Fondazione Giacomo Puccini and Puccini Museum – Casa Natale, the Fondazione Centro Arti Visive, CG Entertainment and the Photolux Festival. Thanks are also due to Trenitalia Tuscany Regional Management for their collaboration.

    International guests in Lucca: Gilliam, Cuarón and Irons

    British director and screenwriter Terry Gilliam, the well-known member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, will inaugurate the 11th Edition of the Lucca Film Festival on Sunday, March 15 at 9 p.m. at the Cinema Moderno in Lucca. During the gala evening, the Festival will pay tribute to Gilliam with a Lifetime Achievement Award and screen his latest work The Zero Theorem, starring Oscar winning actor Christoph Waltz. Film critic Francesco Alò will introduce the evening. On Monday, March 16 at 11 a.m., Terry Gilliam will hold a film masterclass at the Teatro del Giglio with the participation of film critic Francesco Alò, Nicolas Condemi and Federico Salvetti, the Artistic Director of the Lucca Film Festival and Europa Cinema.
    Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, director of films such as Gravity and of Y tu mamá también will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday, March 19 at 9 p.m. at the Cinema Moderno in Lucca. The award ceremony will be followed by the screening of Children of Men, the science fiction thriller film directed and co-written by Cuarón, starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. Film critics Andrea Fornasiero and Claudio Bartolini will introduce the evening. In addition to a retrospective of the Mexican director’s films, on Friday 20 March at 11 a.m., Cuarón will hold a film masterclass at the Teatro del Giglio with the participation of Nicola Borrelli, Alessandro Romanini, Andrea Fornasiero and Claudio Bartolini.
    The Gala evening dedicated to English actor Jeremy Irons will be held on Friday, March 20 at 9 p.m. at the Cinema Moderno in Lucca. After presenting Oscar winning actor with a Lifetime Achievement Award the evening will continue with the screening of M. Butterfly, one of the two films directed by David Cronenberg in which Jeremy Irons stars. On Saturday 21 March at 11 a.m., Irons will hold a film masterclass at the Teatro del Giglio, with the participation of film critic Claudio Carabba, Nicola Borrelli, Alessandro Romanini and Manrico Ferrucci, Director of the Teatro del Giglio of Lucca. That same day at 3 p.m. actress Sinéad Cusack will introduce the film Eastern Promises.

    Guests in Viareggio: Matteo Garrone and Francesco Munzi. Tribute to Mario Monicelli

    Events in the Tuscan seaside resort of Viareggio feature Francesco Munzi and Matteo Garrone as special guests.
    Munzi will be at the Cinema Centrale in Viareggio on Friday, 20 March with his film Anime Nere (Black Souls) and on Saturday, 21 March at 11 a.m., the Italian director will hold a film masterclass at Villa Paolina. Garrone will be at the Cinema Eden in Viareggio on Sunday 22 March, at 8.30 p.m. where he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and present his L’imbalsamatore (The Taxidermist). The evening will be introduced by journalist Gabriele Rizza and by Giulio Marlia, the Artistic Director of the Lucca Film Festival and Europa Cinema.
    On the centennial of his birth, the festival has organized a tribute to the great Italian director and screenwriter Mario Monicelli. On Tuesday, 17 March two of the Maestro’s great masterpieces will be screened at the Cinema Centrale in Viareggio: La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959) and I compagni (The Organizer, 1963).

    Tribute to David Cronenberg: film retrospective, exhibitions and a musical concert between Lucca and Viareggio

    The Lucca Film Festival and Europa Cinema dedicates a complete retrospective of all films, as well as of five shorts, to David Cronenberg, director of cult films such as The Fly and Videodrome. In addition to the film tribute, visitors will be able to enjoy four international exhibitions, three in Lucca and one in Viareggio, which will be open to the public until Sunday, May 3rd 2015.
    In a national premier, the Festival presents Evolution featuring more than one hundred original artifacts from Cronenberg’s film sets, props, video interviews, film clips, never seen before movies and rare photographs from behind the scenes that follow his filmmaking career. The exhibition was created by the Toronto International Film Festival, curated by Piers Handling (TIFF artistic director and CEO) and by Noah Cowan (the first TIFF Bell Lightbox artistic director) and is hosted by the Fondazione Ragghianti of Lucca. Also in Lucca, at the Puccini Museum – the Maestro’s Birthplace, a separate detached section of Evolution is dedicated to M.Butterfly, the Canadian director’s film set in Beijing that revolves around the famous opera by Puccini. The State Archives of Lucca hosts Red Cars, a multimedia installation dedicated to Ferrari and to the car-racing world curated by Domenico De Gaetano, director of the cultural association Volumina, and by Alessandro Romanini. This exhibit is inspired by the Canadian director’s screenplay for a movie that was never made, narrating the rivalry between the two Formula One drivers: Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. The story unfolds through images, words and video in an atmosphere that evokes abstract painting and pop art. In Viareggio, the GAMC Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art) hosts Chromosomes. The exhibition curated by Domenico De Gaetano and Alessandro Romanini and created by Volumina features 70 still frames chosen by the Canadian director from his most famous films. The frames were then captured in the laboratories of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (the Experimental Cinema Centre), digitally processed by Volumina’s team of graphic experts under Cronenberg’s supervision and finally printed on canvas using innovative techniques, bringing the images to a new life beyond the movie screen.
    Not being able to attend the Festival in person, David Cronenberg will participate via Skype on Wednesday 18 March at 9 p.m. at the Cinema Centrale in Lucca. The Canadian Maestro will hold a film masterclass (via Skype) on Saturday 21 March at 5 p.m. once again at the Cinema Centrale. Claudio Bartolini, Domenico de Gaetano, Nicola Borrelli and Stefano Giorgi Artistic, director of the Festival, will also be present.
    The Tribute to David Cronenberg continues on that same day, Saturday 21 March, at 6.30 p.m. with a concert held at the Church of San Francesco, featuring a selection of music from the Canadian director’s films. Young musicians from the Conservatorio Luigi Boccherini of Lucca conducted by Maestro Gianpaolo Mazzoli (Director of the Conservatory) will perform scores from many of Cronenberg’s works including M.Butterfly, Ringers and Eastern Promises.
    The homage to Cronenberg also includes a fourth exhibition entirely dedicated to posters, fliers and rare playbills that retrace the Canadian director’s career throughout his filmography. The exhibition is curated by writer and collector Paul Zelati, one of the leading Italian critics of horror cinema and will be hosted from at the auditorium Fondazione Banca del Monte Lucca from Sunday 8 March to Sunday 22 March.

    Tribute to Roberto Nanni
    Lucca Film Festival has always reserved special attention to experimental cinema; and the 11th edition features a comprehensive retrospective of filmmaker Roberto Nanni, from his early works until the last film shot in 2014. Nanni has worked with nearly all formats and has delved into the technique of found footage, using existing video material, which is decontextualized and reedited to create a new product. This while working on the synthesis between audio and visual languages. In his thirty-year career, Roberto Nanni has collaborated with musicians and filmmakers such as Steven Brown and Tuxedomoon, Derek Jarman, Gabriele Panico and Oren Ambarchi. All films in the section dedicated to Nanni will be shown in a new digital format made by the author specifically for the Lucca Film Festival stemming from the original materials in various film formats, analog and digital video. In addition to the retrospective, the tribute to Roberto Nanni includes a concert during which the composer Gabriele Panic will perform live music he composed for three works by the Italian filmmaker. The concert will take place on Wednesday 18 March at 10 p.m. at the Sala degli Affreschi of the Complesso di San Micheletto.

    International Short Film Contest
    The international contest features twenty-six short films in competition. Among the selected filmmakers Alessandro Amaducci, the well-known Italian video artist from Turin and Nicolas Provost, the internationally renowned Belgian director and visual artist. This section will also focus on Korean experimental cinema, with a series of animated short films. Academy-Award nominee Graham Greene stars in the short film directed by Ray Arthur Wang. The International Jury is composed by Mason Shefa, a young American experimental filmmaker, by Cynthia Tompkins, a professor at Arizona State University, by Francesco Alò, Italian journalist and film critic and by Antoni Pinent, the Spanish filmmaker who has competed in the Festival several times. The Award Ceremony will be held at the Cinema Moderno on Friday, 20 March at 9 p.m.

    Lucca Effetto Cinema Notte (Saturday, 21 March)
    The third edition of Lucca Effetto Cinema Notte will take place on Saturday 21 March and mark the end of the 11th edition of the Lucca Film Festival. Lucca will be transformed entire into an outdoor movie. The Tuscan city will be divided into ten areas, each with its own theme inspired by different movie genres. The 43 locations will be set up to reflect the reference film. The project is created by Stefano Giuntini for Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lucca.

    Tickets: Single-day Ticket (including film masterclasses and gala evening): € 10 / reduced € 7; Full Festival Ticket (including film masterclasses and gala evenings): 25 € / reduced € 20; Single film masterclass or single gala evening: 5 € / reduced 3 €; Viareggio single-day ticket for 16, 17, 20 and 22 March 5 €.; Concerts 1,5 €.

    Information http://www.luccafilmfestival.it

    Press Office Lucca Film Festival (Antonio Pirozzi +39-3395238132; Olimpia De Meo +39-3200404080 and +39-3392439292 Francesca Corpaci) English: Tessa Wiechmann; Davis & Franceschini – Lea Codognato / Caterina Briganti – tel. +39-(0)552347273 (info@davisefranceschini.it); External Relations Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca: Marcello Petrozziello (+39-(0)583472627; +39-340 6550425); communication@fondazionecarilucca

23 Pingbacks

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  8. […] David Cronenberg on The Metamorphosis and The Fly – When I went on my publicity tour for The Fly, I was often asked what insect I would want to be if I underwent an entomological transformation. My answers varied, depending on my mood, though I had a fondness for the dragonfly, not only for its spectacular flying but also for the novelty of its ferocious underwater nymphal stage with its deadly extendable underslung jaw; I also thought that mating in the air might be pleasant. […]

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