Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

by Marc Estrin


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The metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa was surely one of the momentous transformations of modern times. Kafka’s burning vision of the future ended with Gregor being swept into a dustbin. But what if Gregor were to survive and live to challenge the wrongs clouding humanity’s horizon? In Insect Dreams, Gregor—rescued by profiteers— will sharpen his mind against the minds of Wittgenstein and Rilke, dance to the crazy rhythms of Prohibition, and appear as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial. Eventually, he’ll meet FDR, join the brain trust, and move into the White House.

But a talking cockroach with an ethical agenda can wear out his welcome, and soon Gregor is reassigned as a risk management consultant for the Manhattan Project. What follows is nothing less than the explosive birth of contemporary existence—and the culmination of a tale that is as intellectually ambitious as it is warmhearted and funny.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932961096
Publisher: Unbridled Books
Publication date: 09/02/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marc Estrin is a cellist with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. He also performs regularly with a string quartet. In addition, Mr. Estrin is an activist and novelist. Insect Dreams is his first novel. He and his wife live in Burlington, Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


Wunderkammer Hoffnung-Amadeus Hoffnung's Cabinet of Wonders-had begun as the hobby of a diminutive, shy adolescent: his childhood rock and insect collections, his autographs of singers from the Vienna State Opera, the paintings made by his oddly talented cat, and what was clearly the largest ball of string ever imagined by his otherwise mocking cohorts. The idea that his collection could become a business was far from the thoughts of this lonely child until one day in 1907 when his parents bought a Victrola, the very model pictured on "His Master's Voice."

"You can start saving for your own record collection," his father said.

Karl Maria Hoffnung was not miserly, he simply wanted his son to learn the virtues of discernment and self-sufficiency. "I'll add a crown a week to your allowance, and you can put it away for music. Maybe you could charge people to see your collections," he added, prescient.

Thus began young Amadeus's quest. He saved his weekly crowns and invested his meager capital in the thrift stores and flea markets of Vienna. He haunted antiquarian bookstores and roamed the alleys behind the mansions of the well-to-do. His collection grew: a cracked and fraying coconut, some Indian beads and an African necklace, a moth with an eight-inch wingspread, a turtle shell of splendiferous colors, the skull of what had probably been a cow, an ivory tusk, a miscellany of outlandish amulets and small objects for a "talisman" collection, a nail said to be from Noah's Ark (only three crowns), a hand mirror rimmed with portraits of its owner from birth to seventeen (the last two frames empty), a mandrake root in the shape of a woman, amusic box that played the "Ode to Joy," a small Chinese vase painted with graceful characters and mysterious mountains.

Still, he was not prepared to open to a cash-paying public until he found the most staggering item of all: a fossil cockroach in an ironstone nodule from the upper carboniferous rocks of the Sosnowiec coalfields. Three hundred fifty million years old, he was told, and not by the person who sold him the Ark nail but by a professor at the Technische Hochschule. Three hundred fifty million years old! He could feel its age weigh heavily in his hand. He could sense the three-inch insect ready to crawl, even without the last segments of its abdomen. Amadeus had invested three years and three hundred odd crowns, and now, with the coming of the stone roach, he was ready to begin. In 1910 he hung out his shingle: WUNDERKAMMER HOFFNUNG, 1. MARK EINTRITT. The next four years brought in enough one-mark coins to finance the purchase first of Parsifal and then of the entire Ring-right up to the fiery destruction of Valhalla.

June 28, 1914, was an important day. A Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, put a bullet in the heart of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and the Magyar leviathan, Anton Tomzak, walked into the Wunderkammer Hoffnung in Vienna. Or rather, waddled-Anton Tomzak weighed 614 pounds without his shoes.

He had an interesting proposition. What would Herr Hoffnung think about his exhibiting himself as part of the Wunderkammer? Tomzak proposed to construct, at his own expense, a curtained-off area in the space adjoining the main exhibition room and, at specific hours, make himself available for display. He would begin working for nothing more than meals on the days he was present (but oh, what meals!). If, after three probationary months, Herr Hoffnung's attendance were up, especially on the two days a week Tomzak proposed to exhibit, they would then arrive at some fair remuneration and a plan to further publicize his appearances.

A living soul in his Cabinet of Wonders? Life could be...entertaining, he supposed. Life. At twenty-one, Amadeus was grizzled and wrinkling. What had seemed mere shortness and hairlessness earlier on was now playing out more and more clearly as Werner's Syndrome, a rare disease of premature aging and hypogonadal function. Should Amadeus, a probable freak among men, become a proprietor of freaks? Anton Tomzak's appearance held a mirror up to his life, like the one in his collection, rimmed by his own successive portraits. But the portraits were few, and the changes swift, with far more empty spaces at the end. A wondrous freak show. So why not? And why not now?

After advertising for the first few weeks, Amadeus found Tuesdays and Thursdays packed for Tomzak's afternoon and evening shows. Each of Tomzak's many pounds cried out performer. He joked and jibed, he performed bizarre stripteases with tear-away garments specially constructed. Audience members were invited to estimate his waist and thighs, and then to measure. Strong-looking men were challenged to arm wrestle. Trios were summoned on stage to try to lift him. But where to grab?

Small children came again and again and brought their parents to see them riding, fifteen at a time, on his head and shoulders, strung out along his arms, clinging to the clothes on his back and front, or with toeholds in his belt.

An article appeared in the Neue Freie Presse, featuring Tomzak, of course, but also describing in great detail the other artifacts and oddities of Amadeus's collection. And the crowds grew so large that groups had to be scheduled at half-hour intervals, as in the busiest of restaurants.

By the end of the first year of the war, many Austro-Hungarians, especially the Viennese poor, were wandering the streets. Karl Kraus thought Vienna "a proving ground for world destruction," and the "differently-abled," once supported by their families or the social system, were sacrificed first. As houses and institutions were destroyed by acts of war, the streets and parks became homes for the unfortunate, and people not usually seen in public became the object of stares and whispers.

Eight months after Tomzak's appearance, Clarissa Leinsdorf and her daughter Inge showed up at the museum. The mother was thirty-eight years old and stood eighteen inches tall. Her daughter was seventeen, the spitting image of her mother, but two inches shorter. Who might have impregnated Clarissa, and how, was beyond imagining, yet there they were, standing in the rain, asking, in grating twitters, to be let in. Ten days later, Milena Silovec arrived, an armless girl who could type fifty words a minute with her toes-without mistakes-who later became secretary to the burgeoning Hoffnung operation.

Within the course of a few weeks, the ambience of Hoffnung Wunderkammer had radically changed, and with the closing of music halls and theaters, the crowds increased so much that Amadeus had to rethink his entire operation-a collection of wonders that would burst the seams of any cabinet.

In short order, Amadeus became manager to Katerina Eckhardt, a beautiful Swabian woman whose wide skirt covered a second lower body protruding from her abdomen. Her attractiveness was not so compromised as to prevent her from giving birth over the next decade to four girls and a son, the last from her secondary body. Such are the confusions of war and inflation. On February 9, 1915, a large cloth bag was found at the museum door with a note: "Plese give home to my poor babie." In the bag a jar, and in the jar, a thirty-pound fetus pickled in brine. No eyes, no nostrils, huge ears, and a tail. And who found this gift? Yet another applicant, while knocking at the door, one George Keiffer, eight feet, six inches, rejected by the Austrian army because of his size and dismissed from a French prison camp because he was too big to feed. He could pick up an entire horse or cannon-and he did-to the great delight of the ever-expanding crowds at Hoffnung's.

And so the Wunderkammer became a circus, the Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung, an assembly of walk-through wagons, each featuring human anomalies, pathetic, astonishing, and willing. Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung-the Tails of Hoffnung Circus. The name reflected the mind-boggling collection of freaks and oddities there assembled-the cast-off "tailings" of otherwise normal production, the butt-end protrusions, the devil flaunting an anal thumb at the world. Perhaps it was not a circus at all: there were no trained beasts, no clowns and acrobats, and most especially no death-defying trapeze artists to titillate and awe the spectating circle. On this issue, Amadeus Ernst Hoffnung was scornful and corrosive.

"No trapeze acts!" he would bluster, and in this emblem he would subsume all other parodies of human freedom. "A family of acrobats high in the roof, balancing, swinging, hanging by the hair from their children's teeth! What a betrayal of humanity, what a mockery of holy Mother Nature!" The image enraged him. Did he imagine his own exhibits might better depict her maternal labors?

Leo Kongee, the "Man with No Nerves," rammed hatpins through his tongue and pounded spikes into his nose. Godina and Apexia, the "Pinhead Sisters," joked with horrified viewers about the angels dancing inside their skulls. Gerda Schlos, "the Homeliest Woman in the World," flirted with men and teased their female companions about their sexual competence. There was Josef/Josefina, "Man or Woman, Who Is To Say?," and Serpentina, "The Girl with No Bones." Glotzaügiger Otto could pop both his eyes right out of his face. And Steinkopf Bill charged ten groschen for pieces of the rocks broken on his head. . . .

December 17, 1915, brought Amadeus more to celebrate than Beethoven's birthday-which is what he was doing in the semidarkness of the four-o'clock hour when Anna Marie Schlesweg's crew pulled its wagon into the cluster of wagons now inhabiting a huge empty lot in Vienna's Meidling district. The trailer marked "Büro" was lit by lantern light. Anna Marie knocked resolutely.

"Jah. Come in."

"Herr Hoffnung?"

"Jah. Und?"

"Do you have a moment?" Four of them peeked through the door. "We'd like to show you something."

"I don't need it. I don't need any more. I have enough problems. Basta. Genug. But come in already nevertheless, and close the door. You're letting out the heat."

"What is that awful noise?" asked one of the men-from well behind.

"Herr Klofac!" scolded Anna Marie, their doughty leader.

"That, my impolitic but honest friend, is what a deaf man hears inside his fortress skull."

Amadeus removed the needle from side three of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. "It's my little birthday celebration. I play it every year."

"Happy birthday!"

"To Beethoven, not to me. Did you sing 'Happy Birthday' to him?"

"No. We drove all the way from Prague...." Anna Marie began to explain.

"Without singing 'Happy Birthday' to Beethoven? Did you sing 'Happy Birthday' to him yesterday?"

"I thought today was-"

"Today and yesterday. He has two birthdays. Extraordinary people do extraordinary things. That's what Zirkus Schwänze der Hoffnung is all about. What have you got to show me?"

"I thought you said you had enough," Klofac pointed out.

"I'll make an exception. I like honest, boorish people."

"My men will bring in the-crate."

And Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup clomped out the door, down three wooden steps into the darkness.

"How old are you, madame?"


"Good. What's your name?"

"Anna Marie Schlesweg."

"And how old am I?"

"I don't know. Fifty?"

"Fifty is a good guess. I'm twenty-two."

Crashing and grumping as the three ex-borders chez Gregor grind the crate against the door frame.

"Easy does it, gentlemen. I just finished paying off this trailer."

"Sorry, Herr Hoffnung. Soukup, tip this way a little. Klofac, lift. Okay, now up...easy. Where shall we put it?"

"Here, I'll move these chairs."

"Watch your fingers."

"There it is. Soukup, open it," directed Frau Schlesweg.

"Not me. You open it."

Amadeus stepped in. "I'll open it. I'm used to surprises."

But not like this one. Herr Hoffnung was stunned. Three hundred fifty million years swirled up at him from the bottom of the crate. His roach. His Sosnowiec roach come to call. The Great, secret Joy of his recent, and long-departed youth. He had to grip hard on the edge of the crate.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. What is he?"

"I dunno. A big roach, I think." Klofac, always to the point.

"Is he alive?"

"He was last time we looked. Hey, Gregor, Gregor, wake up. Say something."

"He talks? He has a name?"

"Good and proper. Gregor, say something to Herr Hoffnung."

"You named a roach?"

"I think he wasn't always a roach," ventured Kramar.

"He was a man. Young. Early twenties," Anna Marie elucidated. "A traveling salesman. He lived with his parents in the Zeltnergasse."

"How did he..."


"This is not some kind of joke?"

"Here, lift him out." Klofac was anxious to prove Gregor's authenticity. "Kramar, grab his butt. Soukup, reach in and get him under his chest."

"Thorax, my friend. But it's okay. Just leave him in there."

"No, no, you have to see for yourself. He'll respond. He's just shy."

Four pairs of hands reached down into the crate.

"Careful of his antennae. They break." Anna Marie, ever solicitous.

"Up...up...swing him over this way. Now down. Can we put him on the couch?"

"Let me put something down first. There."

In a brown flash, Gregor scrambled instinctively under the couch.

"He likes to be under couches," said Anna Marie by way of explanation for Gregor's rudeness. "He was always under the couch when I came in to clean his room. He always hid under there."

"Thigmotaxis, my dear," Herr Hoffnung explained. "Roaches are thigmotactic. From the Greek thigma, touch, and taxis, a reflex movement toward one thing or another. Roaches love to be touched all around."

"That's disgusting."

"Disgusting but true, my good honest man."

It was ten o'clock before negotiations were completed and plans under way. Gregor, recently-and understandably-depressed, had lost several kilograms. And even an exoskeleton can appear strikingly dehydrated. With the accumulated dust, hair, and bits of old food stuck to his back and sides, he was a shocking sight indeed. But his mad escape, freeing his family from their burden, his larval sense of adventure had all lifted his spirits-and when he heard the talk of exhibiting him as "The Hunger Insect," he whispered hoarsely from under the couch.


Five homo sapiens at the table whirled around to the couch.

"He does talk! Astonishing."

"What do you expect? He was a traveling salesman. They have to talk."

"Gregor? Is that your name?" Herr Hoffnung asked. "I said, is that your name?"


"He stopped talking."

"Maybe his name has changed."

"I don't want to be The Hunger Insect. I want to eat. And I want to think. Eat, read, and think."

"He always had a lot of books in his room," Anna Marie confided to Herr Hoffnung.

"People won't pay to see a cockroach read and think," Soukup objected.

"What if I tell them what I'm thinking?"

"I don't think people care what a cockroach thinks."

"Just how many times a day do you expect to eat?" Klofac queried.

"And what did you have in mind for food?" Kramar was anxious for details.

"Gentlemen! Quiet. Our friend Gregor may be old hat to you, but I assure you that whatever he does-if he just sits there and stares-he will be a sensation."

"If he doesn't do something, they'll think he's stuffed."

"Or a statue."


"I'll move around. I'll get books off the shelf."

"Now he wants a shelf," Soukup snorted.

"So how many books do you want and what kind?"

Klofac: "The shelf will come out of your salary."

Gregor's first book, chosen right from Amadeus Ernst Hoffnung's glass-enclosed bookcase, was Johann Gotthelf Fischer von Waldheim's Zoognosia: Tabulis synopticis illustrata, in usum praelectionum Academiae Imperialis Medico-Chiurgicae Mosquensis, an immense leather-bound volume, with tables and illustrations of every known species of animal. He wanted to make sure he had something unique to offer.

--From Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa by Marc Estrin, Copyright (c) February 2002, Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

Table of Contents

1.Tails of Hoffnung3
3.Personae Not Quite Gratae13
4.Metamorphosis II: An Insect With Qualities20
5.X-Ray: The Faustian Roach is Not a Hollow Man32
6.Meanwhile in America: Praise Him With Dance and Drum45
7.Philosophical Investigations48
8.Westward in Minkowski Space62
New York
9.Metamorphosis III: The Roach American71
10.Love, O Love, O Careful Love83
11.Interlude for Scalpel and Piano103
12.Of Death and Deaths, and Life on Earth123
13.Aliens and Sedition139
14.Like a Sick Eagle148
15.Sometimes, the Unexpected; Sometimes Not165
16.The Insect Sonata176
18.Kidnapped Encore194
Washington, D.C.
20.Dreaming of Immortality in a Kitchen Cabinet205
21.Mein Kampf, Dein Kampf216
22.Disorder and Early Sorrow230
23.The Wound and the Bow237
24.Days of the Locust247
25.Large things and Irrational254
26.Wars of the Worlds I: The Spirit of St. Louis260
27.Wars of the Worlds II: Neutrons and Neutrality266
28.Wars of the Worlds III: Of This World and the Next282
29.Wars of the Worlds IV: Orientalia292
30.Wars of the Worlds V: Of Fire and Ice302
31.To High Siberia304
Los Alamos, New Mexico
32.Applied Thigmotaxis321
33.Among the Ancients331
35.Ritual and Vision356
36.Pluto Redivivus372
37.Brief Uber den Vater386
38.In the Blackest of Forests392
39.A Piece of Cake401
40.A Rite of Spring407
41.The Uncertain Glory of April420
42.Principium Individuationis429
43.Batter my Heart, Three-Person'd God440
Works in the Mix: A Bibliography465

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A fascinating, erudite, humorous and humanistic journey through the interwar years.”—Chicago Tribune
“[A] funny, learned and, at times, poetic first novel.”—The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
“An idea with immediate and powerful literary appeal: Gregor Samsa, last seen as man turned cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, survives. He steps out of the pages of a book into a Viennese sideshow. From there his adventures only become wilder and funnier as the 20th century wears on…Estrin has the wit and brains to pull this off with comic brilliance, but more importantly he has the heart. Not since Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel or Donald Harington’s The Cockroaches of Staymore have we met such a strangely lovable insect.”—The New Orleans Times Picayune
“With wit, humour and daunting intellect, Estrin resurrects one of literature’s most recognized symbols of the plight of modern intoxicating meld of fact and fiction...If you’re a sucker for existentialism, for the big why of life and the bewildering how and where we’ve gone wrong, if you like zany humour underpinned with poignant searching, try dreaming along with Estrin’s Insect Dreams. Get to know his bug. You’ll recognize your own cockroachness in him.”—Toronto Globe and Mail
“Ultimately, Insect Dreams is a compilation of our dreams. It’s the kind of book from which one wakes clutching surreal scenes, desperate to tell others, delighted and baffled and horrified. Of course, Gregor makes a particularly peculiar savior; what do we need the moral example of a frail insect for—so despised and dejected of men? But stranger things have happened.” The Christian Science Monitor
“This ambitious and arresting first novel resurrects Kafka’s half-cockroach Gregor character to cry out against the evils of Nazis and the atomic bomb in a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking tragicomic romp across defining cultural milestones of the 20th century West. But if this book bears a sobering message, it is also adroitly about the incongruities of life as an insect-human whose trials and sorrows truly seem like our own.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brimming with ruminations and observations and delectable bites of backstage history.”—The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Gregor becomes a complex figure in Estrin’s imagination. He’s a troubled soul…A wit deepened by a vivid depiction of generosity, curiosity and heroic persistence.”—The New York Times Book Review
“First: It’s funny. Second: It’s very funny. Third: It’s brilliant.”—Frederick Reuss
“Get ready for a highly imaginative ride through the cultural frontier of the early 20th Century. A colossal book of characters and events that inspires tears of laughter and sadness in its rich blend of clever metaphor and unsettling facts, this book promises to become a pivotal literary landmark. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Inventive, puckish Marc Estrin has produced a novel—a first novel, as it happens—that stands apart from business as usual in contemporary fiction...His storytelling—loose and expansive, historical and imagined, funny and sad—is a seriously ambitious work of art as well as a fine entertainment...He asks how the world between 1915 and 1945 might look to Gregor Samsa, the ultimate outsider, and follows the track of the possibilities that present themselves. This nonmethod gives the book its feel of spontaneity and life, its energy, its freedom from the deadening conventions of ordinary fiction.”—World and I

Reading Group Guide


It seems the Samsas' chambermaid only claimed to sweep into the dustbin the twentieth century's most remarkable contemplative. Instead, having spirited him from his bedchamber, she apparently sold the metamorphosed Gregor to a Viennese sideshow, where —it being 1915 —he could earn his living lecturing carnival crowds on the implications of Rilke and Herr Spengler.

In this delightfully original work of imagination, compassion, and good reason, we follow the trajectory of Kafka's salesman-turned-cockroach across two continents and thirty years as he touches the most significant flash points of his time. In the process, Marc Estrin delivers a human saga of cultural ambition and compassionate insight that may be the most surprising addition to Jewish literature in a generation.

What's more, the book is funny. And Estrin's Gregor is downright endearing.

With its reach and substance, Insect Dreams is nothing short of a liberal education —in cultural history, musical theory, nuclear physics, and the world of ideas. But it's also a remarkable reading experience. With a scope, heart, and intelligence unparalleled in recent memory, Insect Dreams should spark wide-ranging discussions about who we're becoming, now that the swiftest century is complete.


Marc Estrin is a cellist with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. He also performs regularly with a string quartet. In addition, Mr. Estrin is an activist and novelist. Insect Dreamsis his first novel. He and his wife live in Burlington, Vermont.


GREGOR SAMSA'S DREAM OF LIFE AND DEATH: a meditation by the author on his book

I've known Gregor for forty-odd years now, quite intimately for the last few. Kafka introduced us when I was a teenager, and as any acquaintance from youth, his place and image in my world has changed with my own aging. My Gregor is not the monstrous vermin you'll find in "The Metamorphosis", but a figure that has grown in me from that dessicated seed, a figure about whom I, like you, must puzzle and speculate. My Gregor, too, ends up dead—as do we all—but with a more elaborate trajectory in a twentieth century Kafka never new (lucky him!) One can never fully explain a life, but here are my suspicions.

O lord, grant to each his own death,
the dying which truly evolves from this life in which he found love, meaning and distress.


Gregor's Six-Legged Suicide

At some point—it's hard to say exactly when—perhaps after the St. Louis affair, perhaps after Yoshio Miyaguchi's self-immolation—my Gregor Samsa began to hear the ticking of his own death's clock, and experience a sense of solitude closing in around him. It was then that his path took on its final trajectory, step by step, trustingly, towards that great invisible border. It was not a surrender, not a simple succumbing to fate, but a conscious act of submission, taken in hand, and made his own. Carl Jung claimed that "the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." Gregor had lit a light that shone even through the immense candlepower of the bomb. While most suicides tend to make death superficial, an act like any other, something to do, Gregor's relationship to death was more exact, a Musil-like combination of "precision and soul", empowering the absence of power—as if in ruptured nothingness there might emerge some luminous power of affirmation.

It seems to me that Gregor's act had six distinct strands:

1. Despair. All suicide has some component of despair. It may be common personal despondency—a failed love affair, the death of a loved one, the shrinking of one's prospects to zero—or it may be higher level despair—the samurai's nobleseppuku, the saint's martyrdom in remissionem peccatorum. Gregor's was the latter. Jew and alien both, he was hypersensitive to any mistreatment of "The Other". While his own life might be deemed "successful", the life of a professional operating in the highest circles of power, he remained acutely aware of the plight of the afflicted: the racism—hooded and bareheaded both—of his adoptive homeland; the depredations of the rich upon the poor; the incarceration of innocent Japanese; and most critically the German treatment of Jews, gypsies and "deviants" during the war, and the utter insensitivity of his own Administration in addressing it. If man is wolf to man, it was always "the Other" that was the preferred food. The final blow, of course, was his colleagues' lust to continue working, though the bomb's raison d'etre was no more, and the decision to drop it, without warning, on unarmed civilians. I'm glad he did not live to see the results.

2. Guilt. As sensitive, self-critical, even self-doubting as Gregor was, there was also, as is common, a component of guilt. He knew it was "silly". He sometimes called it "stupid". But he also knew that without his thigmotactic suggestions, Neddermeyer might never have hit upon the implosion strategy, and the whole project might have foundered—completely, or at least long enough for the war to have been less violently ended, and history to have been slightly less malevolent. His guilt may have been irrational, but irrationality is part of being human—or once human.

3. Buddhist Thinking. My impression is that the letter from the dying Amadeus was a short course in Buddhism for Gregor, the analogue to young Prince Siddhartha's encounter with old age, sickness and death. Not that he hadn't understood these issues intellectually before: he was not a student of Spengler for nothing. But Amadeus' communication from Berlin, read under FDR's bedroom couch—an evocative venue—contrasted so ironically with the Christmas Carol being sung that it burrowed its way into a deeper level of Gregor's being, prompted a step back from his engagement with the world, and a concomitant semi-withdrawal from ego, per se. His subsequent encounter with Miyaguchi, and the flames of that hero's departure, seared the pattern into his flesh, as it were, and may have served as a model, or at least a spur to his greenhorn Buddhist thinking.

4. Oppie/Schopenhauer/Hinduism was another clear strand, an Ariadne thread out of the maze. That individual death was a mere manifestation of the Veil of Maya; that he, even in his chitinous shell, was Brahman, the universe; that extinction yielded the gift of The Whole—surely this made easier a course which others might have feared to tread. Fool and angel both, Gregor walked it lightly on his six legs.

5. Related to that strand is the two-pronged dimension of love, Agape and Eros. For some, the latter must diminish the former. Yet Gregor was innocent enough of erotic bounty to largely escape its toll. Alice was his one love, his one experience of human physical affection, and their one night together was a medium-size slice of the pie of his guilt. But unlike implosion-guilt, it was a slice he would not have done without. Its bittersweet softness coated many rougher elements of his life with a velvety, nostalgic glaze: he was glad he had met and loved, however sad the outcome. And as one cannot love others without loving oneself, so too one cannot love self—enough to renounce it—without having loved others. The Alice affair was Eros' contribution. Of Agape there was no lack. It was "implicit in the project".

6. The sixth strand is for me the most problematic. For Gregor, there was a distinct messianic dimension to his mission: "to help save humanity from being so bestial," he once put it. He didn't see himself as being the Messiah, of course, but simply as aiding in tikkun, the healing, repair, and transformation of the world, the redemption of God's creation on earth. The goal of any nice Jewish boy. But being a German-speaking, depth-seeking European, he was also alive to Aryan myths: Parsifal, Amfortas, the Grail, the Waste Land, the meaning of the Unhealing Wound. And he did feel that the unfortunate hole in his back was symbolic, was more than symbolic, that it was a sign, a setting-apart, and even a source of power. What could the wound do? It could somehow—illogically—"heal the Waste Land and make it bloom again," and in this thought he found his pride. I find here what little there was of his arrogance.

But to me the whole messianic idea is patently ridiculous. The transpersonal dimension of his self-sacrifice was humble, but still megalomaniacal. What possible healing connection could there be between the admittedly magnificent symbol of his death, and its dreadful real-world context? A transpersonal dimension to suicide is vanity no matter where or when or how, a self-imposed, self-deluded struggle one is bound to lose. Gregor's embrace of such primitive thinking led him to imagine that the force of life can only be maintained by the suppression of life—Rite of Spring revisited. Nonsense. The idea also led him to his only act of dissimulation: his presentation to Oppenheimer that last night was far from honest, was even baldly manipulative. Seizing on Oppie's interest in the Gita, Gregor made it seem as if he were applying for discipleship to that work, an early initiate, yearning to take a large step along the path of Enlightenment. Actually, he simply wanted his boss to get him past the guards. Can you imagine Oppie's reaction had Gregor said, "I want to commit suicide under the tower in order to help save the world"? The brig—that's what it would have been. The psychiatric service, then the brig—without his keys or belt.

There is a Jewish/Platonic level at which I can understand, and even approve of, Gregor's transpersonal goal: he once spoke to me of what he called "the mission of Noah", his desire to become an "intimate and pure ark of all things, a refuge in which they might take shelter, and where they are not content to be as they are—narrow, shopworn, trapped in life—but where they might be transformed, preserved from themselves, intact." He believed it could be. So? So what difference did it make to General Groves, or Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush? Or to the kids in South Central, or the dead babies in Iraq or Afghanistan? Et cetera. I won't go into it. As the good Doctor Williams Carlos Williams whispered on his deathbed, his last words of wisdom, "You know, there are a lotta bastards out there." And what, moreover, had Gregor to offer in this task of salvation? Only his aptitude for termination, his fragility, his exhaustion, his gift for death.

Enough. This too-emotional critique of strand six threatens to overwhelm reality: the truth was that I found his act enthralling and admirable. Gregor had answered a call to die more profoundly, dreaming perhaps of continuing—inside death—the movement of metamorphosis.

The Hours in the Trench

What must it have been like to lie there between 11 and 5:30, nuzzled among wires and instruments, five hours of listening to the rain, followed by an hour and a half of listening to—nothing? Here I can only conjecture. At least three themes suggest themselves:

1. Dust unto dust.

Gregor used this expression often in the last months of his life, slipped it into discussions that were at first glance inappropriate, but on further reflection provided odd resonance. It was not God into which he plunged. Given his messianic ambitions, Gregor's inward movement was preparation for some manifestation in the world, faithful to the fullness of earthly existence. Gregor, Mr. Thigmotaxis, was most sensitive to the loving embrace of his environment. And what was the main feature of this high desert? Dust. In spite of the torrential rains of his last night, his pit must have been dry. There was too much sensitive equipment in there for its roof to have been fashioned otherwise. For all the downpour, he had entrusted himself to dust, dry dust, the hot summer dust of the Valley of the Dry Bones. A talmudic voyager, he knew well Ezekiel 37: "there was a noise and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone." I am certain that along with his vision of coming-apart, there was a strong expectation of putting-together, of rebirth, atomic matter still conserved, dust to greater dust, Dasein to be found again at the pure center of the excessive. After all, this suicide was not a typical act of night, but a patient act of morning.

2. Chrysalis.

It can hardly escape the reader that Gregor's descent into the pit before his ultimate transformation smells of insect metamorphosis. Though the word is somewhat ragged by now, a thought which rarely occurs is that the change so well described by Kafka was only the first of a series of polymorphic changes, growing instars evolving toward some radiant end.

I say "toward". But as with all life cycles, there is really no beginning or end. Perhaps, as the schoolgirls suggested, Gregor the fabric salesman was only the roach's way of making a more profound roach. Or vice versa. Remember Chuang-Tsu's question: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"

Most insects have stretch receptors that fire up neurohormones when the exoskeleton is pushed beyond capacity. Did Gregor have moral or spiritual stretch receptors which prompted some eccentric molt? What went on physiognomically in those six and a half hours? If beauty is directly proportional to truth, perhaps on that last night he developed splendrous wings, wings like those of a giant Atlas moth. We will never know. "It is the mark and nature of significant truth to stay hidden," Heidegger observes, "though radiant in and through this occlusion." The darkness of night is surer than the light of day.

3. The Animal and the Open.

Of this theme I am most certain. It is not the night, it is what haunts the night that frightens—and humans are haunted by many things. But here we must recall that Gregor was not entirely human. Why was he so attracted by Rilke's Eighth Duino Elegy? Why did he make it the mainstay of his 1918 circus presentations? I refer the reader back to Chapter Three, and Gregor's performance of "With all its eyes the creature-world beholds the open."

Dr. Johnson once quipped that "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." He did not advertise the compensations. Rilke felt that the animal's consciousness put it at great ontological advantage, permitting it to enter into reality without having to be its center. He intuited the consequent sense of inner space—not the inside dimension of any individual being, but the Weltinnenraum, the world's inner space, easily perceived by animals, and only with great difficult by humans.

Through all beings spreads the one space:
the world's inner space. Silently fly the birds all through us.

Why is it so hard for us? Why is the human so cut off from the interiority of the exterior, that extension within, where "the infinite penetrates so intimately that it is as though the shining stars rested lightly in his breast"?

What is outside, we know from the animal's face alone; for while a child's quite small we take it and turn it round and force it to look backwards at conformation and not into that Open,
so profound in the animal's face...

Just as dog can smell what we cannot, and eagle see more sharply, so was Gregor superior to us in his perception of the Open, the vast space of the Weltinnenraum. Not only could he see farther and more deeply, even with myopic vision, but his eyes, like our ears, were always open. Without eyelids, he could not leave anything out of himself, withhold himself from any being, or reject any thought—a further dimension of the Open. Gregor's was a life of infinite relations, in a place unbarred to newness—the experience of the Open.

But even an animal "whose Being is infinite for it, inconceivable, unreflective," even an animal which, "where we see the future, sees everything, and sees itself in everything and safe forever"—sometimes that animal too bears "the weight and the care of a great sadness,"

For that which often overwhelms us clings to him as well,—a kind of memory that what we're pressing after now was once nearer and truer and attached to us with infinite tenderness.

Gregor quoted these lines many times, harking back to his Vienna days, or surfing the sorrows from then to now. Yet out there in the desert night, in the darkness of the gash, waiting for the infinite blow, I am certain he embraced the Open, and was embraced in return, happy at last. This I know, even in the dryness of my bones.

The Logic of Gregor's Path

I think back on my own life: from high school to college to graduate school, then branching out interestingly enough, but compared to Gregor's, profoundly boring. His path looks more like Brownian motion, poor particle Gregor buffeted by random events, punched, kicked and shoved this way and that by a world fraught with explosions. Yet in retrospect, mine is the Brownian motion, and how fiercely determined his seems, as if guided by an inner logic more flowery, yet more iron-clad than my own, toward an inevitable destination: Ground Zero.

I think of his Vienna encounter with Robert Musil, that bitter, brilliant writer/engineer, combining in himself the strengths and perils of spirit and science, seizing on Gregor as an embodiment of the "Other Condition", secretly attending his talks, and finally articulating for him his role as possibilitarian. Could Gregor have done this himself? Would he not have simply dissolved into the stew of Otherness simmering in Amadeus' Wonderkitchen? Musil demanded he find a doorway to the world beyond limited existence. How fitting that interview ended with a telegram announcing the coming of Roëntgen-of-the-skeletal-hand.

And Wittgenstein. What impertinent author-God would cast the greatest mind in twentieth century philosophy as a fourth-grade schoolteacher in a dung-covered village north of Vienna? Yet there he was, in time to raise the question "What does it mean to be human?". And there Gregor was for him, planting the seed of his last and greatest work, his investigations of the limits of rational thought. And there, too, was Punch the Jude—already and again.

If Alice had no other function in his life (and of course she had many), her poignant encounter with Gregor brought him briefly into the gravitational field of Dr. Max Lindhorst, with his exposition of Eros and Thanatos, and the consequences of Faustianhubris. Forewarned, but four-armed, Gregor left his session with this practitioner with more resolve, direction, and self-understanding.

A chance meeting at Yankee Stadium, a job on 43rd Street right near Town Hall, an offer of free tickets to the first performance of Ives' Fourth Symphony: it seemed destined that Gregor would meet up with his guru, his tutor for the New World, that crusty New England maniac-genius of music and insurance, Charles Ives. Was Gregor to remain an elevator boy all his life? How else could he have come to explore risk—to the point where he was fearless in its face? And he was there for Charlie Ives—one insect calling another—strong and beautiful—out of the table.

Ives was also Gregor's introduction to the concept of Hogmind, and the rage and struggle it could conjure. Yet far from counseling revenge and scorn, The Insect Sonata, Ives' grateful gift to Gregor, urged the place of Love in "man's right constitution":

Always preceding power,
And with much power, always, always much more love.

Gregor took this priority with him into battle.

I have spoken at length of the sequence of Gregor's disillusionments: the refugees, the Japanese, the completion and deployment of the bomb. But along with these major events, there were minor details which debrided his surface, as it were, and enabled such traumas to penetrate more deeply. The betrayal of Philoctetes, for instance, and the suppurating wound it left. His tears at the Time Capsule. The six-character calligraphy. The strange appearance of the Leiermann in Lafayette Park.

Leo Szilard once remarked that Gregor was the most stimulating person he had ever known, and the only one of his many friends and enemies he would have liked to emulate. I was taken aback. I had never thought of Gregor as stimulating. Inspiring, surely, in his low-key way, but—until the end—gentle to a fault. As for emulating him, well, let's just say he was unique.

Tilano was another huge guard rail on Gregor's path. His gift of a petroglyph New World ancestor preserved in volcanic tuff was one of the few experiences Gregor thought of as "mystical". And his take on the Faustian path of Western Civilization? I imagine he must have shared similar thoughts with Gregor:

Anglos want that which in the nature of things is impossible. They believe that there must be a man who is more manly than a good man can be, and that there is a beautiful woman who is more beautiful than all the other beautiful women. They really think that everything and every people, except us, can be whatever they would like it to be....They are never contented because they are always looking for a happiness which is greater than happiness. They want to find love where they have sown only hate and selfishness. They want to run and never tire, to satisfy all their thirsts and hungers and not be full. They cannot see that the sickness which they all suffer comes from greed, a kind of childish believing that when they close down their minds, the world is not what it always was and always what it will be.

Reading this interview in Robert Coles, I cried.

Gregor as Jewish

In assessing his life, I have spoken of the need to recall that Gregor was an animal. Though I approach the subject with some hesitation, one cannot avoid acknowledging, too, that Gregor was a Jew. What is a Jew? Herein lies my concern: I hesitate to characterize a group that has so often and so recently been characterized—to death.

Judaism and its children, Christianity and Islam, have long stood against much of the world with respect to the atom. The Hindus were atomists, the Arabs were atomists, affirming the eternity of matter and the recurrence of creation. And in the later Mediterranean, when most westerners believed the world to be ruled by a pantheon of gods with extraordinary powers but strangely human weaknesses , a handful of Hellenic thinkers called for a rational view involving only natural causes and effects, without invoking transcendent powers. God was set aside.

Not so! cried Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The world was created once, in its perfection, ex nihilo. Biblical doctrine remains at odds with all theory: for Hebrew anti-atomists, "God created..." was enough, truth was frozen, origins explained; there was no further need to question. Judaism is the only great religion to have produced not a single defender of atomism, at least until modern times.

Now this is a questionable achievement on a resumé for Los Alamos. Not that it wasn't shared by many of the crew. But they were scientists. Or soldiers. They had other things to think about, large problems that could distract them from larger issues. It would be safe to say that Gregor was the only non-scientist, non-military, philosophical possibilitarian on the mesa. Similar to his animal sense of the Open, his free-playing Judaism endowed him with extra sensibility with which to judge the goings-on.

Jewish, too, was his situation as "Other"—non-digestible, eternally accusing, in his nice-guy way, the "most different" of his high school class. And thus "least likely to succeed." Not quite the pariah many of his confreres became, still, he carried separation with him—the ethical, prophetic Judaism in his heart.

Gregor once invoked his Jewish privilege, and gave his personal definition of a Jew. It was the only time anyone ever heard him "tell a joke". This was his joke:

It is May, 1940, at a refugee center in Paris, just before the Nazi occupation. The nice woman at the desk is trying to sort out transport requests. She asks a Belgian refugee where she and her children would like to go. "London. I have family." She is marked for London. Next she asks a French communist. "Sweden would be best," he says, "we can organize from there." Finally she asks an old Jew in black gabardine. "New Zealand," he mutters. "New Zealand?" she asks, "Why so far?" The Jew looks at her and says, "Far from what?"

Not exactly a side-splitter. But it will do.

Jewish Oppenheimer and Hindu Science

Oppie was similarly schizophrenic—if not worse. For he was not only a Jew, but a Hindu Jew. This was the man who was both father and midwife to the bomb, the man who rode his team through every difficulty and objection. This was the man who named his horse "Crisis". Yet this was the man who also said, "If atomic bombs were to be added as new weapons to the armaments of a warring world, then the time will come when mankind will curse the name of Los Alamos."

Such a statement was a great surprise to the men who, under him, and with his encouragement, were striving to create just such weapons. Yet to a student of the Vaisheshika Sutra, this thought would not seem strange. The atomic theory ofVaisheshika conforms with tenets of Brahminical doctrine—a cyclical cosmos, a multiplicity of worlds, and the retributive consequences of human action. The theory proposes that in the course of cosmic process, atoms unite and separate continually. At the conclusion of a cosmic period, atoms isolate themselves from one another and rest—until they are again set in motion and re-coagulate, allowing souls that failed to reach salvation in the previous cosmic period to receive the fruits of their actions. Oppie might even have had a thought about Gregor's origin, based on the accompanying doctrine of the transmigration of souls.

Oppie probably did not "believe" this. But he did distinguish between "short half-life knowledge" and "long half-life knowledge". Scientific papers came and went. The Vedas and the Upanishads did not. One of his flippant remarks suggests a tantalizing third explanation for the designation Trinity: "At Trinity," he said, "Gregor, the bomb, and the world were all being tested."

Oppie was barely understood by others. For his "second thoughts", Truman called him a "crybaby" and refused to have anything more to do with him. But for all his moral and intellectual depth, he remained, first and foremost, a scientist. It is sad, but appropriate, that his famous comment on the explosion cited not a moral vision of cosmic apocalypse, but a purely cosmological cataclysmic show, Lord Krishna's Best-Ever Fireworks Display.

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Gregor's choice of farewell performance was even more significant than it first appeared. It was Teller who pointed out the Zoroastrian doctrine underlying Gregor's offering. His dance was not just a simple critique of bugbear Science, with a self-congratulatory coda of "cure" from its contrapuntal snare.

The religion of Zarathustra preached to pre-Islamic Persians a dualistic doctrine of struggle between light/good, and darkness/evil. Though equally balanced, it was two against one: the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, had as adversaries two demons, a good-cop/bad-cop deal, a one-two punch at humanity. Humans were free to do evil or good—as they chose. The two tempters were Lucifer and Ahriman.

As we know even in Christendom, Lucifer whispered in man's ear: "You are like the gods, knowing good and evil." Lucifer, the master of delusion, tempting men to believe they are more powerful, more effective, more beautiful, more benevolent, more admired than they really are. Lucifer, appealing to man's pride and ambition, counseling disregard of limitations. Hence, the Tower of Babel, the Flight of Icarus, the Birth of Dolly. Lucifer started men and women out on the path to freedom. Not unsimilar to the Judeo-Christian story. Lucifer brought the gift of Art.

Ah, but then there is Ahriman, a character dutifully unmentioned in our covetous times. Ahriman whispers in the other ear, "You are only man with no divine element in you. But you can turn to your own use the entire world, and everything in it. There is no limit to the knowledge, goods, or power you can acquire. The material world is all there is, so make the most of it." Knowledge of the world is Ahriman's realm; he is constantly whispering information, suggesting new machines to invent. Ahriman wants humanity to advance at breakneck speed, long before ego and moral nature are ready. The future is already here, the sky's the limit, humanity's job is to create an earthly utopia here and now, crammed with sensual and intellectual enjoyment, and endless material possessions. Ahriman brought the gift of Science—the cold, razor-sharp intellect of Science.

To address the crying future, Gregor, like Zarathustra, reached beyond the limits of language with its lexical-grammatical, imprisoning past, and resorted to dance, music and song. He invoked an escape from both Lucifer and Ahriman on that high-summer night in the blockhouse. His choice of Strauss and Nietzsche, was designed to help us understand the distinction. The twelve strokes of "O Mensch, gib Acht!" named our current marker in spacetime: midnight, and eternity.

This was a curious friend, my Gregor Samsa. I am still trying to understand him.

Marc Estrin

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