Nabokov on Kafka on Insects
Vladimir Nabokov, celebrated author of Lolita, and other novels, was not merely a writer. Not that being a writer is any sort of a “mere” thing, but go with me here. Nabokov was a professionally-trained entomologist, a lifelong student of insect biology.
He curated Harvard’s butterfly collection, contributing a great deal to the practice of lepidoptery and even getting parts of his work published in our day and age. Nabokov was a fan of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the story of Gregor Samsa, who turned into a bug. That’s Nabokov’s teaching copy of Kafka’s book up there, scrawled with notes. Nabokov lectured on Kafka, and using his knowledge of insects he offered a theory as to what kind of bug Gregor may have become (not a cockroach as usually assumed):
Now what exactly is the “vermin” into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of “jointed leggers” (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. If the “numerous little legs” mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view. But I suggest that a man awakening on his back and finding he has as many as six legs vibrating in the air might feel that six was sufficient to be called numerous. We shall therefore assume that Gregor has six legs, that he is an insect.
Next question: what insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight … He is merely a big beetle.
Nabokov also offered this nice note to the Joes and Janes in the audience:
Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.)
Nabokov isn’t the only entomologist who has studied Kafka’s work. Donna Bazzone of St. Michael’s College in Vermont wrote about the impossible biology of an insect the size of Gregor Samsa, based on the study of thousands of insect species:
None could be as big as the “new Gregor.” If the body with its exoskeleton were to scale up to human size, it would be so heavy that even appropriately sized legs and musculature could not support it. Such an insect could not move. Also, because insects do not have a respiratory system with tubes connecting to internal lungs that have large absorptive areas, a giant like Gregor the roach would not be able to get enough oxygen to survive. Furthermore, our circulatory systems are powered by a large muscular heart that sends blood to all cells in the body through an elaborate network of blood vessels. Insects lack such a sophisticated circulatory system, so if you scaled the body to human size, insect blood (containing oxygen and nutrients) wouldn’t be able to reach all cells.
I always knew something bugged me about that story.
Thanks to Open Culture for the Nabokov book link that sent me down this rabbit hole.
In a 1996 interview, David Foster Wallace (a student of advanced mathematics in college in addition to being, you know, a writer) revealed that the structure of his career-defining work Infinite Jest was devised as a literary fractal.
It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal, although what was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket was the first- was the draft that I delivered to [my editor] Michael in ‘94, and it went through some I think ‘mercy cuts’, so it’s probably kind of a lopsided Sierpinski Gasket now.
This Serpinski Gasket that he speaks of? The ordered wormhole of symmetrical layers? It’s a famous construction of stacked triangles that you’ve probably seen before.
Want to dig really deep into the literary mathemagic behind Wallace’s work? Here’s a fantastic essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books (warning: pretty cerebral). DFW reminds us:
“God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics.”
(Tip of the triangle to Maria Popova)
Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.
James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
This poem provided co-discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann, with a clue of how to spell the name for the subatomic particle whose existence he had theorized in 1964. But he had picked out the name, originally pronounced “kwork”, some time before picking up Joyce. The drink-heavy imagery of Finnegan’s Wake made a pub scene of an after-the-lab “three quarts” too appealing of a link for Gell-Mann, and the pronunciation “quark” stuck.
The patterns of neural activation when we’re reading for pleasure are not the same as those when we’re reading critically. It’s not just that the brain’s pleasure centers become activated in the more relaxed, immersed form of reading while the areas that have been implicated in attention and cognitive load are more active for the close reading. Instead, the transformation appears to be on a much broader level, with emotional, spatial, motor, and other areas all involved to various extents at various points.
We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.
The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.
The words of Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) narrate this story about the evolution of books from tablets of stone to tableaus on paper to tablet computers. Of course, being a very smart guy, Douglas Adams presciently predicted the rise of digital storytelling a more than a decade before the first real e-reader.
Here’s Adams’ 1993 story animated by UK illustrator Gavin Edwards.