On Being More Interesting at Parties: Cockroaches and the Human(ities)

Two Fridays ago, Jim, the chair of our department, presented us with data from our college and some articles from national publications that made my colleagues and me uncomfortable to confront and discuss.  Their general subject: If one chooses to measure the value of a discipline in higher education (especially in community colleges) by the number of students enrolled in its offerings in that discipline and the number of declared majors it attracts, then the apparent value of our discipline of English–or, more precisely, the teaching of literature–is in clear decline.  In our own department’s case, we see the decline in enrollments in–and, thus, the number of sections offered in–our face-to-face literature classes.  Online sections seem to have healthy enrollments, but those sections seem not to attract potential majors to us: there’s an inverse correlation between the increasing numbers of those sections and the number of declared majors in English and the other humanities.

Part of my own discomfort in thinking about this subject is due, no doubt, to the fact that we (okay, okay: I) cannot help but regard the importance of English as so self-evident that any dolt can see that, and so why on earth is our/my discipline in trouble as measured by enrollments and majors?  But then again, we college-prof types, no matter our subject areas, tend to have already been persuaded as to our respective disciplines’ self-evident value, or else we wouldn’t have become college-prof types to begin with.  (Speaking for myself, while no one actively discouraged me from doing so, one and only one person is


The cover art for Melville House‘s edition of The Metamorphosis.

ultimately responsible for talking me into spending two years on earning a masters and four on a PhD, not to mention staying on at this work for 23 years.)  That particular kind of epistemic closure, though, puts us in the very position we find ourselves in: we’re just not accustomed to having to justify what we do even to our own colleges’ administrators, much less more indifferent or hostile audiences; and, by the way, it’s a very cold comfort to me that those scientists arguing about the very real dangers posed by the very real phenomenon of climate change happen to find themselves in a similar position as they seek funding for research from congressional committees on science who are openly hostile to that work.

At any rate, Jim challenged us to make pitches on behalf of our literature courses in our classes, and this past week I tried my best to do so.  As it happened, in my own Intro to Lit class back on Tuesday, right there on the syllabus, I had what I thought might serve as a pretty good entree into that pitch: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

The second paragraph of The Metamorphosis is a model of economical exposition, revealing (mostly by indirection) most everything we need to know about Gregor Samsa.  I have included the whole paragraph (this is John Siscoe’s translation, by the way), but I want to focus in particular on the last sentence-and-a-half of that paragraph:

“What’s happened to me?” he thought.  It was no dream.  His room, a normal though somewhat small human bedroom, lay quietly within its four familiar walls.  Above the table on which his unpacked fabric samples were spread–Samsa was a traveling salesman–hung the picture he had recently cut out of an illustrated magazine and had set in a lovely gilt frame.  It showed a lady wearing a fur hat and a fur stole, sitting upright, and thrusting out to the viewer a thick fur muff, into which her whole forearm had disappeared.

In class, I asked my students first of all to read closely the description of the picture.  We learn that Samsa had found it in a magazine, so we know it is not intended to be some sort of Art, and certainly not a valuable work; yet, he made the time and effort not only to cut it out but make the frame for it and hang it on his wall.  What is more, in a later scene, when his mother and sister decide to move furniture out of his room and Gregor decides he doesn’t want them to do this, he looks around and decides not to lie on the bed or desk or chest of drawers to keep them from moving those but, instead, crawls up on the wall and covers up this same framed picture.

What does all of this signify?

Well, and here I will leave Kafka’s own purposes behind for a bit, it is clear that this image resonates deeply with Gregor.  The illustration itself wasn’t made to be Art, but Gregor’s acts of selecting and then making the means to exhibit it make it Art, if only of a very personal sort.  As a more-romantically-inclined person might say, it speaks to him.  But why?  What exactly is it saying to him?  After some decent speculation from my students, I asked them to try to see in their mind’s eye what this picture must have looked like: a woman whom we know to be a woman only because her eyes are visible to us, a woman who seems herself to have metamorphosed into an animal–and, we learn later, Gregor has seen, cut out, made a frame for and then proudly hung this picture in his bedroom only a few nights before his own metamorphosis.  (As he will say to the office manager a little later, “[A]ctually I did have a slight premonition.  I must have shown some sign of it.”)  Gregor somehow sees his plight in this woman’s picture–a glamorous depiction of his plight, to be sure, but his plight nonetheless–and/but also, perhaps, sees in her someone who would therefore understand him.  And sure enough: the three paragraphs that follow it are Gregor’s litany of his grinding, solitary life as a traveling salesman.  It is as though he is speaking to the woman in the picture as much as to himself.

In other words, I told my students, Gregor has found some small comfort in those basic things the humanities offer its students.  He has entered imaginatively into an illustration and found meaning in it–indeed, he found a version of himself in it–and then spares it from the trash heap (which is to say, he canonizes it).  During all the time that he made the frame for the picture and then gazed at it, he was not Gregor Samsa, down-on-his-luck fabric salesman,  but Gregor Samsa, human being, speaking back to his daytime condition as down-on-his-luck fabric salesman.  That comfort doesn’t save him, to be sure, but it is no less present and genuine.  And for all that, maybe, just maybe, if Gregor had discovered earlier that art moves him, maybe a different fate would have awaited him.  He may still have been stuck with a lousy job and an unappreciative family, but maybe he would also have acquired a sense of self less bug-like than the one we see him transform into–something his job, any job, no matter how humane, sure as hell isn’t going to provide in and of itself.  We are, or should be, more than what we do for a living, I told my students, and a good college education should make us alive to that fact.  You should insist that it do this, and you do that by taking some humanities courses.

The world is larger than the walls of our offices, or the fields (literal or figurative) we work in, or even–especially–the Web.  “The Brain–is wider than the Sky–” Emily Dickinson tells us, and we know this to be true with absolute certainty, even though it can’t be proven empirically. We also know, though, that those of us who can read, write, and think clearly, no matter our chosen profession, tend to do a little better than those of us who cannot.  Those skills tend to get developed more in the humanities.

So often, though, especially of late, Those Who Know Better want what our students are taught to begin with the assumption that if it can’t be proven or measured or weighed or tracked, or doesn’t result in their earning an extra few thousand dollars a year, it is of little or no lasting value to them (that is, to either the students or Those Who Know Better).  Well, as I told my students, what we’re discussing in this class probably won’t land you a job, but it may very well make you more interesting to talk to at parties.  And to those who see that as a cheap thing, I say, Well, have I got a story for you to read.

One thought on “On Being More Interesting at Parties: Cockroaches and the Human(ities)

  1. Here’s a story for you all:

    Back when my Introduction to Humanities classes were still making, I offered an optional field trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and encouraged students to bring along friends, family, and/or Significant Others so as to make committing to the trip a little easier for them. One year, one of my students brought along his father. In one of the Renaissance galleries, I happened to notice them standing in front of a painting and appearing to talk about it in some detail; it was the father who was doing most of the talking, but his son was listening intently. I didn’t want to be intrusive, so I observed them from a distance. When we saw each other in class the following week, I said to my student that his father seemed to have enjoyed himself and seemed to be knowledgeable about what he was looking at. My student said something like, “You know, I didn’t have any idea that he was interested in art.” He didn’t say this scornfully; he was clearly moved by this experience he had had with his father. To be sure, this wasn’t the stereotypical father-son bonding moment, but it was one, no question, and I was and remain thrilled to have witnessed it.

    Even now, thinking back on this makes me a little misty-eyed: when my brother and I were boys, my father, a self-trained photographer and, later, jewelry-maker, would take all of us to the University of Texas’ art museum fairly regularly to see what there was to see. At the time, I frankly found these trips boring; I wanted to see the dinosaur skeletons at the natural history museum next door. Art, despite my father’s various encouragements, didn’t do much for me when I was a boy. It wasn’t until I took my first art history classes, which I didn’t take until well after my father had died (during my first semester of college), that I found myself responding to art in both intellectual and emotional ways. I miss my father for many reasons, but I find myself missing him keenly indeed when I am visiting a museum and looking at something and feeling myself respond to it and wishing I could turn to him and say, “Daddy, _now_ I get it. I understand now.”


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