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The Self and The Other: Using Munch to Illuminate Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” Nika Darragan HP133.08 September 30, 2002.

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Presentation on theme: "The Self and The Other: Using Munch to Illuminate Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” Nika Darragan HP133.08 September 30, 2002."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Self and The Other: Using Munch to Illuminate Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” Nika Darragan HP133.08 September 30, 2002

2 Munch and Kafka (along with the rest of the Modernists) wrestle with three main concepts: The Self – Who is the “self”? How does one identify the self apart from others? What characteristics distinguish one from others? What makes one unique? The Other – Who is the “other”? What makes the other different from the self? How does the self recognize the other? Is the other necessary to the identity of the self? The Self & The Other – What is the relationship between the self and the other? What is the depth of awareness and understanding that passes between them? Is this relationship static or dynamic, and who controls its variability?


4 Sass suggests that Modernists have “a sense of being unable to sustain the existence of a world dependent on the self.” (95) Thus, the characteristics of Modernism include “derealization, dehumanization (disappearance of the active self), giddy perspectivism or relativism, and detachment.” (318) Munch’s self-portraits illustrate the Modernist difficulty in discerning the self, while Kafka’s Gregor offers an even more extreme example of dehumanization.

5 Self-Portrait Under a Mask of a Woman (1891-92) Self-Portrait in Hell (1904-05)

6 Who is the subject of this “self”-portrait? Why is the other subject included? Does the main subject connect with the viewer or is he somehow detached? Why is this character a woman – is this a reference to some “other”? Is the woman/other real or imaginary? Why is the mask necessary?

7 The face is a very important part of one’s individual self; it is a visible reminder of one’s uniqueness. One of the greatest differences between Munch’s early self-portrait and his later version can be seen in the face. The eyes alone, which are merely a blurry remnant of their earlier clarity, illustrate Munch’s more general “derealization.” Sass would say the later portrait illustrates the “disappearance of the active self.” However, it is important to examine what has emerged if the self has truly disappeared. Thus it seems that perhaps Munch has merely come to another understanding regarding the self.

8 “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” (67)

9 Unlike Munch, Gregor does not choose the appearance of himself – he simply wakes up one morning as an insect. What kind of self is Kafka trying to illustrate by choosing to turn Gregor into an insect, instead of a hamster, or a camel, or a seal? Unlike Munch, whose definite borders have simply blurred into the background, Gregor is still very much defined, but in an unusual (even terrifying) form. If Kafka is illustrating the same derealization as Munch, why didn’t Gregor simply evaporate? Dostoevsky suggests there is some importance attached to being an insect. The protagonist of the Notes from Underground laments: “I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect…I’ll tell you solemnly that I wanted many times to become an insect. But I was not deemed worthy of even that.” (5-6) What is Gregor’s worth as a bug?


11 Karl St (1890) Karl St (1892)

12 Munch depicts a curious phenomenon in this set of paintings: the human need for the other (there are many figures in each painting) despite the relative anonymity of the other (none of the figures are in any way distinguished). Kafka addresses this perplexity as well, when Gregor says, “Yet at any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were willing to help him. The positive certainty with which these first measures had been taken comforted him. He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle and hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them.” (80)

13 However, Gregor needs the other for more than simply a reminder that he is part of the “human circle.” He says “he was eager to find out what the others, after all their insistence, would say at the sight of him. If they were horrified then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet. But if they took it calmly, then he had no reason either to be upset, and could really get to the station for the eight o’clock train if he hurried.” (78-9) Does Munch also wait for the judgment of the other? His paintings do not seem to reflect this tendency, so perhaps Kafka was unique in this view. In fact, Sass argues that Kafka was haunted by “conscious feelings of vulnerability and inferiority, by extreme self-consciousness, and by a persistent desire for contact with others.” (83) This personal insecurity may be simply mirrored in Gregor.


15 The Scream (1893) “Such a loss of the sense of Being seems especially common in persons with schizoid personalities, and for them too it is often accompanied by a heightened awareness of their own role in experience.” (Sass, 95)

16 “In the works of Franz Kafka the isolation of the human being seems a condition as fundamental and as ineluctable as gravity, time, or human mortality itself.” (Sass, 82) The works of Munch also reflect the isolation of the human being. Does knowledge of this isolation cause the horror of the subject of The Scream? What else would cause such a reaction? Was Gregor’s metamorphosis a reaction to this isolation? Would it be preferable to be an insect or an isolated human being?

17 “For The “others” depicted in The Scream are only marginally acknowledged – the subject is certainly the screamer itself. Why did Munch include the two figures at the edge of the page? Perhaps he wanted to indicate that he was at least aware of the existence of the other. Kafka uses a similar technique with Gregor. As Gregor seems to become less and less human, Kafka is careful to note that “in reality day by day things that were even a little way off were growing dimmer to his sight.” (97) In this way, Kafka too distinguishes between the perceived isolation of the self and the actual existence of others.

18 “It seemed remarkable to Gregor that among the various noises coming from the table he could always distinguish the sound of their masticating teeth, as if this were a sign to Gregor that one needed teeth in order to eat, and that with toothless jaws even of the finest make one could do nothing. “I’m hungry enough,” said Gregor sadly to himself, “but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!” (118-9) What is Gregor hungry for? He is helpless in the face of this hunger, just as the figure in The Scream is helpless. Therefore both Munch and Kafka have created solitary, impotent characters. What does this say about the need for the other? Are either Gregor or the screamer happy? Is there anything that could help either of them, or are they doomed?

19 The End

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