Franz Kafka - (Honorary) Scientist of the Day
Franz Kafka, a Jewish Bohemian writer, was born July 3, 1883. Kafka doesn’t make it into most history of science surveys, which is too bad, because he wrote one of the great entomological short stories of all time, “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”, published in 1915). As everyone knows, even those who have never read the story, Gregor Samsa awakens in the first sentence to find that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect. Actually, the term that Kafka uses for the end product of Gregor’s metamorphosis is an Ungeziefer, which means “an unclean animal unsuitable for sacrifice,” or, colloquially, a “bug.” Critics have had a field day adjudicating exactly what kind of bug awoke in Samsa’s bed; they have pretty well rejected “cockroach”, and “dung beetle,” but since Kafka was deliberately obscure on the matter, it is hard to say. All we know for sure is that Gregor was roundish, with tiny legs, and mandibles strong enough to open a door.
So on this vital matter, we will side with Vladimir Nabokov, not only a great writer himself, but an avid bug collector as well, and in a lecture he regularly gave at Cornell (he was on the faculty there from 1948-58), Nabokov argued for Gregor’s having been transformed into a beetle. You can read Nabokov’s lecture here if you would like (you may skip over the first part, on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), but it is much more fun, if you have 30 minutes to spare later tonight, to watch Christopher Plummer re-enact an abridged version of Nabokov’s lecture, a performance that was recorded in 1989 before a willing student retro-audience at Cornell. It is quite a riveting performance. Sometimes I think we teachers should just retire and turn the classroom over to stage actors—they really do a much better job. We may think we know more than they do, but who can tell, when they have a great script, and possess stage skills that push us back deep into the wings.
The beetle image above, one of the loveliest renditions of a beetle ever made, is from Edward Donovan’s Natural History of the Insects of India (1800). We see also the title page to the first printing of Metamorphosis, and a bizarre monument to Kafka—one might well call it Kafkaesque—that you may find in Prague.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City