I’m thinking about our attraction (or my attraction) to stories that don’t quite make sense. Take for example, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. Gregor lives with his family and one night, during uneasy dreams, becomes transformed into a gigantic scarab, or dung beetle. His family treats him with contempt, and as he spends more time hiding in his room out of deference to his family’s feelings, his thoughts become more and more insect-like. One night he is drawn out by the family’s informal musicale. His father becomes angry, forces him back into his room, and throws a hard apple at poor Gregor which lodges in his chitin, causing him eventually to sicken and die. The cleaning woman who lives with them cheerfully announces that she swept that thing out with the trash, and the family, relieved, goes and has a picnic.
It’s a good story but it’s missing a piece. Why does Gregor transform into a beetle? That doesn’t happen in real life. People don’t become insects and if they did it would be for a reason.
What if we fixed it?
What if halfway through the story someone brought in a doctor and the doctor said that Gregor while he was out selling brushes to make extra money for his mother’s foot surgery offended a scientist who injected him with a drug? Another scientist informs the family that they can cure Gregor f one of them is willing to be a dung beetle for one second. One by one they all refuse. And Gregor dies, as in Kafka’s original story.
Worse, right? But why?
Why is Kafka’s story with a piece of sense missing better than my “fixed” version? I think my story carries some of the pathos of the original — Gregor after all became a beetle because he was trying to do something nice for his family, and as in Kafka his family is extremely horrible to him. But mine is worse, because it provides an answer where Kafka’s provides none.
Wallace Stevens once said that a poem should resist the intelligence, almost successfully. And maybe something like that is operating here. Because another version of Kafka’s story where at the end his sister gets transformed into a piano, and the apartment where they are living sprouts feet like Baba Yaga’s hut and runs off to Mongolia to do battle with the similarly be-footed palace of the Great Khan, would also be worse than Kafka’s, in an opposite direction. It would make too little sense. So is Wallace Stevens’ principle (like Aristotle’s, like Goldilocks’) the correct one, that Kafka’s story is good because it is just mysterious enough?
No, that is idiotic (and a cop-out) because we don’t have in our heads some sort of balance-detecting organ that responds to too much mystery, not enough mystery, and just the right amount of mystery.
Maybe my restating of Stevens’ principle misses what is good about his formulation. He doesn’t say a poem should be “almost unintelligible but not quite”. He says a poem should resist the intelligence. In other words it should be active. It should push back.
I think Kafka’s story works, unlike either of my fixes, because it pushes back against us as we try to imbibe its telling. It flirts, teases, and fights us.
I think we like that. Or I do.