Friday, August 06, 2010

Reflections: Metamorphosis

My imagination has taken me down several weird roads. I can’t help it. I vividly indulge in thoughts that are absolutely useless, and sometimes frighteningly weird. I have woken up to face several mornings with a sinking feeling that I have to get up to another monotonous day when the birds and the squirrels scurrying and chirping away near my window have such a free and happy life, filled with sunshine. Of course, this is primarily just my early morning grogginess, but I would still drift off in sleep and imagine how life would be if I were a little bird - the ecstasy of flying and sailing in the wind, of being above the clouds and the tips of trees, looking down upon the earth, and leading a simple and delicate life. But then, would I also look forward to eating worms, and no longer have any appetite for foods I currently love? Would I still be the same person inside - with thoughts, feelings and ideas that were part of me as a human? How much will I be a bird, and how much will I still be “me”? And other such round-about questions on the distinction between the mind and body, soul and consciousness.

Honest to God, I didn’t know about Kafka’s Metamorphosis then. In his story, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning and is jolted by a rude shock - his body is turned into a revolting cockroach-like-beetle-like insect. While I dreamed of turning into a cute little bird, Gregor Samsa lived the nightmare of being an unsightly insect. Kafka discusses the changes this transformation brings about in Gregor’s behavior, and in his family’s consideration and treatment of him. Gregor’s family struggles to accept their son’s fate, but revulsion keeps winning over affection. We are strongly programmed to associate physical appearances to the person inside. We have been wired to be repelled by pesky insects, to act on the impulse to drive them away from us. However, if we are forced to acknowledge that the despicable being is indeed the person whom we love, would we still treat it with the same sentiments?

As a nice test to this question, I tried to imagine how I would react, if, by some cruel spell, my loved ones were turned into giant lizards (frogs are more bearable on my scale). And I screamed inside. As shallow as it might sound, it would take me concerted efforts to get over my revulsion. It would be even more difficult if I started to see their human traits erode in their new body form. Then what could be/should be left of their identity that still made them the being I loved in human form?

This is the fundamental question of our existence. We are pulled by so many deterministic forces, that when it comes down to defining that little unchanging, unique speck in us, it elusively keeps breaking down and slips away. Inside a bird, I may be dominated by the instinct to peck at worms and relish it, but then what part of me would remain the same no matter what I was turned into, regardless of the instincts I’m plugged into? Is there even such a part of me that’s so resilient and unique?

I have always believed in dualist philosophy of our mind and body. I view the mind to be independent of the body, although both interact with each other. However, I’m slowly reconsidering such a sharp distinction. I still can’t reconcile to the reductionist idea of relating all aspects of our mind and body to the physical being. But some parts of the mind/personality seem to be reducible to the physical states - down to chemicals and ions.

I am reminded of Somerset Maugham’s view on the mind-body philosophy, which I am just paraphrasing - Imagine a scenery amongst the woods. A little brook runs through the trees. The brook could be the mind, and the trees, the body. The brook sure has properties of its own, independent of the trees and the forest, while the forest stands on its own, independent of the brook. However, the two merge in ways that make the scene unique. And over time, the brook flows in a certain path, in a certain pace and rhythm, because of the nature of the undulations and terrain of the forest. And the forest slowly erodes to accommodate the brook. Viewed thus, the brook and the forest coalesce neatly with one another that they cease to exist separately. This is perhaps the most reasonable explanation of the mind-body dilemma at this point. The body and the mind are each theoretically independent, but they interact so closely with one another, that the harsh boundaries blur and they bleed into each other, creating a personality and a mind that can only be utterly unique in a certain body.

I’m not sure if this is one of the subjects that Kafka tried to explore, but these are my reflections on the story. Apparently, Gregor’s transformation is literally a “negative transfiguration, the inversion of the Transfiguration of Christ..”, and is supposed to hold religious connotations and symbolism. But, they all go over my head.

This slip of a book conveys an interesting thought experiment on our mind-body interaction.

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