Essay: Charles I. Glicksberg – The Self

Charles I. Glicksberg in his book The Self in Modern Literature discusses different philosophical conceptions of self in modern literature from which I have utilized Cartesian, behaviorist and social constructionist models for discussion with reference to Metamorphosis. The Cartesian model emphasizes duality of body and mind; behaviorist model stresses the importance of animal instincts while social construction model underscores the importance of social relationships in construction of identity. The tri partite structure of Metamorphosis offers a different and opposing theory about the nature of the self and maintenance of personal identity. The first section presents a dualist conception of the personal identity: Gregor is a consciousness disembodied from his original body and locked into an alien organism. In the second section, behaviorist views challenge the earlier theory. Finally, in the third section, both theories are countered by a social-constructionist theory of the self and personal identity.
The first section of the novella highlights not only Gregor’s consciousness but also his capacity for rational thinking. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes discusses two criteria for distinguishing men from brutes, both of which play a role in the Samsa family’s attempt to discover the truth about what is going on in Gregor’s bedroom. First, only human beings quapersons have the linguistic ability to express thought. Secondly, while lower animals can do many things, they cannot act with rational deliberation but only react according to bodily predispositions. For Descartes, deliberate action and the rational use of language are the marks and rest of a rational consciousness. The Samsa family apply both of Descartes’ criteria to interpret what is going on in the bedroom. Gregor seems to be able of uttering sounds and even chirps out a long explanation but that is unintelligible to his family and the office manager. The family and office manager also doubt the rationality of Gregor’s action as they find his behavior irrational and out of character. When Gregor unlocks the door and reveal himself, however, the family and manager are convinced of his irrational behavior. They draw back in horror at his insect epiphany and consider his entrance into the living room to be outrageous behavior. Face with a being they believe to be incapable of linguistic comprehension and whom they see as action irrationally, the family are in a moral and conceptual quandary. As the only being inside Gregor’s locked bedroom who responds to their calls, the creature cannot be condemned simply as alien. Yet neither can it be accepted in its own right as a person. Their response is a compromise: they accept the creature as Gregor but take him to be suffering from a severe incapacitating illness. Adopting this attitude excuses his strange speech and behavior: they believe that he will be his old self again when he recovers. In the second section, both mother and father regularly ask their daughter whether Gregor has shown a little improvement. by believing Gregor to be ill, the family reconciles the opposing beliefs that Gregor still survives and that the monster in the bedroom is something less than a person.
Although the reader initially accepts the dualist perspective, Kafka gradually introduces an alternative to this original position, thereby raising doubts about whether the insect continues to be Gregor Samsa. In the second section, more indications of an insectile nature emerge. He feels a greater sense of well-being when his new body is allowed to behave in its own natural way rather than being forced to stand upright in a human posture. He also discovers the usefulness of his antennae, an ability to crawl up the bedroom walls and a penchant for hanging from the ceiling. Insect patterns of sleep and waking develop: sleepy trances alternate with wakeful periods punctuated with hunger pangs. His taste in food changes. Milk, which had formerly been his favorite drink, is now repugnant to him, as are fresh foods. He prefers leftovers and rotten vegetables. The range of his vision decreases and he also loses sense of time movement. Of course, a change of tastes and habits per se need not show the replacement of one person by another (or a person by an insect). Yet, increasingly in the novella, these changes take place outside the scope and limits of Gregor’s awareness: he either does not understand why the shifts in attitude and preference have occurred, or he is only dimly aware of the new motivation. Increasingly, Gregor acts from animal instinct rather than from self-conscious awareness. This invasion of his private self by a new motivating agency suggests the gradual replacement of his former personality.
With the gradual encroachment of one character on another, the rational conscious self loses its status as sole determiner, and a new motivating agency exercises control. Gregor’s awareness and understanding clash with his new insectile character. The clash between Gregor-as-insect and Gregor-as-consciousness can be seen in the following oppositions. First, the insect-states and behavior do not originate from Gregor’s earlier human character: they are newly introduced and independent of Gregor’s human past. Secondly, insect-character and human-character are unfused: no unified personality integrates both insect and human traits. Aside from a few acknowledgements of their existence, Gregor’s new insectile attitudes and dispositions remain outside his consciousness. No sense of self-consciousness accompanies them. Although at times Gregor ponders their presence, he does not consciously claim them as his own, Thus instead of a unified self, the transformed Gregor is fissured into two characters, clashing yet jointly existing in the same body.
Not only dualist and behaviorist interpretations collide, but a third account of personal identity intrudes. Dominating the novella’s final section, this third conception involves seeing a person as an individual constituted by certain social relationships. Personal identity is maintained by preserving the constituting social relationships. Failure to preserve them, even though an individual maintains psychological or material continuity, he nonetheless erodes personal identity. The third section begins with the family’s seemingly begrudging acceptance of Gregor as a family member. However this tolerance still allows Gregor no positive role in family matters. He eventually disregards both the open door, which the family leave ajar out of their awakened sense of duty, and his earlier resolution to be considerate of his family, especially in keeping himself clean. But lacking communicating with the creature, the family can neither re-forge the familial bond with Gregor nor establish a new one. The sister’s argument against the monster’s being her brother does not appeal to the physical impossibility of his continued existence. o a great extent the family seems to have accepted Gregor’s physical transformation. Instead the appeal is social: given the widening disparity between their two life forms, there is no basis for a personal relationship, Not only has Gregor changed, but the family has changed as well, becoming now more resourceful and self-sufficient. All three of them have jobs. Since the creature cannot maintain the former relationship of being a son and a brother, it must not be Gregor. The sister, however, does allow the creature a limited position in which to be a brother: the monster could disappear and by so doing show its consideration for the family.
Thus by maintaining ambivalence among the dualist, materialist and social-constructionist interpretations Kafka preserves the tension and opposition among all three of Gregor’s identities: as self-consciousness, an instinctual organism and a social person. The sustained opposition and tension among the three positions cloud not only the nature of Gregor’s death but the extent of the family’s moral responsibility toward him. Each of the three theories undercuts the other two positions; this mutual undermining leaves unresolved questions about the limits of responsibility toward those whose personhood is in doubt, just as it leaves unresolved questions about the basis for moral relationships in the face of instinctual behavior and the extent to which social ties create moral responsibilities.

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