INSECT DREAMS: THE HALF LIFE OF GREGOR SAMSA
The metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa was surely one of the momentous transformations of modern times. Kafka’s burning vision of the future ended with Gregor being swept into a dustbin. But what if Gregor were to survive and live to challenge the wrongs clouding humanity’s horizon? In Insect Dreams, Gregor—rescued by profiteers— will sharpen his mind against the minds of Wittgenstein and Rilke, dance to the crazy rhythms of Prohibition, and appear as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial. Eventually, he’ll meet FDR, join the brain trust, and move into the White House.
But a talking cockroach with an ethical agenda can wear out his welcome, and soon Gregor is reassigned as a risk management consultant for the Manhattan Project. What follows is nothing less than the explosive birth of contemporary existence—and the culmination of a tale that is as intellectually ambitious as it is warmhearted and funny.
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Exhilarated talk went on throughout the game, often yelled over the roaring throng: the history of Ivy League rivalries, baseball as American myth, man love vs. fairy love, Abner Doubleday and the fraudulent American origin of the game, hitting tricks, coaching strategy, fielding technique, pitching philosophy, advertising in the ballpark, comparison with the pros, baseball and the pursuit of innocence, the physics of curve balls, male bonding and its dangers, the new harder ball, why the bullpen is called the bullpen, likely trends of the coming post-Ruth era, the Common Law origins of the infield fly rule, the oppressive labor conditions brought about by the reserve clause, the Taftian origins of the seventh-inning stretch, American transcendentalism, the segregation of colored players to the Negro leagues, and of colored fans to the bleachers, to bleach themselves, perhaps, in the unremitting sun, baseball idioms that have become part of everyday language: out in left field, three strikes, you’re out, off-base, switch hitter, wild pitch, in the ballpark, to throw someone a curve ball, unable to get to first base—with Gregor furiously taking notes.
He asked amazing things like, “Why do the men just sit in the clubhouse?” (He meant dugout.) “Why don’t they run out and try to stop them from catching the baseball?” A not unreasonable question. Or, “What would happen if the batter would run or to first base or to third base—whichever he wanted, and just make the same direction till he makes a home run?” (He meant a runner could advance clockwise, according to the same rules, until he scored.) What an addition that would be. What complex fielding it would cause!
Alice made anthropological remarks about the anthropoids on the field, their sexuality, their gestures, their politics, and about the anthropoids in the stands, their reactions, their sense of good and evil, their piggish eating behavior and slovenly treatment of the seating area, and their “baseball Sadies,” mindlessly along for the ride.
Ives contributed detailed information on technique (he was a pitcher himself), baseball history, anecdote and myth, insurance problems concerning large crowds and fast-moving hard objects, balls and bottles, and also some speculation on crowd noise as a model of complex sound for symphonic composition.
Even twenty years later, Gregor remembered one thread of the discussion, a theme he would encounter, significantly, to the end of his days. It began in the fourth inning when the plate umpire was hit and slightly injured by a ball fouled back. The crowd went wild with cheering. He was puzzled as to why they should enjoy seeing someone hurt.
“It’s not just ‘someone,’” corrected Ives, “it’s the umpire.”
Gregor didn’t understand the distinction.
“The American psyche,” Ives continued, “is stretched between its love of law, and its love affair with lawlessness.”
“Ah, the outlaw-hero,” Gregor observed. “Jesse James, Billy the Kid.”
“The batterer and the rapist,” added Alice.
“Ty Cobb, the base-stealer. Precisely. Americans are a legalistic people, and baseball has a far more elaborate set of rules than any other sport. We like it that way, and we memorize all the statistics that go with it.”
“And the umpires are like judges,” Gregor concluded. “They wear special dark clothing like judges—“
“And the ump is always right.”
“Like men,” said Alice. “You can argue, but they’re always right.”
“Kill the ump!” Ives continued. “We don’t like transcendent authority. We want to make and interpret the rules. So the ump is a perfect target. He embodies the rules, and enforces them. For this, the punishment is death. Oedipal father-fortissimo-furioso. Every damn batter and every runner a litigator. Argue the calls, appeal to another umpire. It’s a loud dumb show of our contradictions. I wouldn’t be surprised if baseball winds up, twenty, thirty years from now, creating a land full of lawyers!”
“I’m sure these thick-necked patrons would like nothing better than a real fight on the field, some unconfined violence . . .” Alice was in gentle high dudgeon.
“It is ironic,” Gregor said, “that these despised villains are the guaranteers of Unbescholtenheit—do you say integrity?”
“In America, freedom is more important than integrity,” said Ives.
Gregor would have cause, often, to remember these words.