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12 Unsettling Facts About The Metamorphosis

It is one of the most enigmatic stories of all time, with an opening sentence that’s unparalleled in all of literature. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman living in Prague, wakes one morning from troubled dreams to find himself transformed into—what, exactly, isn’t clear, just as any clear interpretation of The Metamorphosis has eluded readers for decades. In celebration of Franz Kafka's birthday (the author was born in Prague on July 3, 1883), let's take a look at a few things we do know about his mysterious novella.

1. A TORTURED, LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP PROVIDED INSPIRATION.

In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, an acquaintance of his friend Max Brod, at a dinner party in Prague. He began writing to Bauer, who lived in Berlin, shortly after, eventually penning two and three letters per day. The correspondence was desperate—and pretty much one-sided. Kafka demanded detailed accounts of Bauer’s days, expressed his love for her and visions of their future together, and demanded that Bauer, who would eventually become his fiancé, respond to him in kind. Lying in bed one morning, Kafka told himself he wouldn’t get up until he’d received Bauer’s next letter. A story, he later wrote her, began to take shape.

2. HE WROTE IT WHILE WORKING ON ANOTHER NOVEL.

Kafka was having a hard time turning out his first novel (which he never finished, and which was published after his death under the title Amerika). Once the inspiration for The Metamorphosis came, he seized on it and resolved to write it quickly, in two or three sittings. There were delays—Kafka was, after all, working full time at an insurance company—but he still was able to finish the first draft in three weeks, from mid November to early December, 1912.

3. IT TOOK THREE YEARS TO GET PUBLISHED.

Kafka read a section from his "bug piece," as he called it, aloud to friends on November 24, 1912. They began talking about the work, and soon publishers were expressing interest. Due to his preoccupations with writing Bauer and with Amerika, though, it took Kafka months to write a new manuscript. Then World War I broke out, causing further delays. Finally, in October 1915, the story appeared in the literary journal Die weissen Blätter, with a book printing two months later by publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig.

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS TRANSLATIONS OF THE FAMOUS OPENING LINE.

Over the years, translators have had Gregor Samsa transform into "a monstrous cockroach," "an enormous bedbug," and "a large verminous insect," among other things. While scholars agree Gregor changes into a bug of some sort, the exact entomology remains a mystery. And that seems to be Kafka's intention, as the German word he uses for Gregor’s new form, "Ungeziefer," suggests a bug, a vermin and, in Old High German, an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice.

5. KAFKA FORBID HIS PUBLISHER FROM PORTRAYING "THE INSECT" ON THE COVER.

Given the ambiguity over Gregor’s new form, Kafka argued that its picture should not appear on the cover, as his publisher suggested. Kafka wrote to Verlag, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." He got his wish, with the first edition featuring a drawing of a tormented man wearing a robe. Subsequent editions, however, have interpreted Gregor in all sorts of creepy, crawly forms.

6. IT'S A PRETTY FUNNY STORY, IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT.

Viewed one way, a story about a man who wakes up to find he’s a bug is horrifying. Viewed another way, it’s hilarious. Indeed, scholars and readers alike have delighted in Kafka’s gallows humor and matter-of-fact handling of the absurd and the terrifying. The first pages of The Metamorphosis where Gregor tries to communicate through the bedroom door with his family, who think he’s merely being lazy, is vintage screwball comedy. As translator Susan Bernofsky writes: "I imagine Kafka laughing uproariously when reading the story to his friends."

7. THE LANGUAGE IS FULL OF DOUBLE MEANINGS AND CONTRADICTIONS.

Dream logic and contradictions abound in Kafka’s work. A man is summoned to a trial for an unnamed offense; a country doctor is instantly transported to the home of a sick patient, who tells him he only wants to be left to die. These contortions happen even at the language level, leaving translators to puzzle over the double meanings in Kafka’s German. In The Metamorphosis, he describes Gregor crawling along the walls of his room using the verb "kriechen," which means "to creep" as well as "to cower." Thus Gregor’s meekness as a man is reinforced even as he tries to assert his new insect identity.

8. ITS MANY INTERPRETATIONS INCLUDE A FREUDIAN ONE.

It’s an interpretation of the human condition, an allegory for aging, and a cry of desperation in a rapidly industrializing society. There are many different interpretations of The Metamorphosis, from the oddly specific (it’s all about the dangers of insomnia) to something resembling Lost (it was all just a dream!). There’s also a Freudian theory that states, in essence, the book was Kafka’s way of getting back at his overbearing father.

9. VLADIMIR NABOKOV WAS A BIG FAN—AND CRITIC.

The Lolita author, in a famous lecture he gave about The Metamorphosis, called Kafka "the greatest German writer of our time." Nabokov was also a first-rate scientist and lepidopterist, and he concluded that Gregor Samsa had been transformed into a winged beetle. Despite his reverence, Nabokov the wordsmith couldn’t resist line editing Kafka’s story—or the English version of it, anyway.

10. STAGE PRODUCTIONS HAVE GOTTEN PRETTY CREATIVE.

How do you portray a man who turns into a giant insect on stage? Plays, operas and even ballet productions have done it using everything from distorted sets to animation to buckets and buckets of brown slime. A Japanese theater company did away with the bug motif altogether and made Gregor a robot.

11. IT WAS ON DAVID CRONENBERG'S MIND WHEN HE FILMED THE FLY.

When writing his script for the 1986 sci-fi/horror classic, Cronenberg couldn’t help but see the parallels between his story, in which a brilliant scientist accidentally transforms himself into a grotesque human/fly hybrid, and Kafka’s. In an introduction to a recent translation of The Metamorphosis, Cronenberg wrote that he thought of Kafka specifically when he wrote this line for the unlucky Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum): "I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake."

12. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH READ IT ON BBC RADIO.

Can you imagine a more ideal voice for such a surreal story? The Sherlock actor recently read the novella in its entirety to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Sadly, the broadcast is no longer available for free on the BBC's site, but you can find it here.

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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15 Facts About Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire
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In a sweltering New Orleans, a wilted Southern belle collides with the dysfunctional marriage of her sweet sister and brutish brother-in-law. This is the plot of Tennessee Williams's classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. But the story of its making and legacy is even wilder than Stanley Kowalski's screaming.

1. WILLIAMS SET THE PLAY IN HIS CHOSEN HOME.

The boy born Thomas Lanier Williams III lived in Columbus, Mississippi, until he was 8 years old. From there, his traveling salesman father bounced the family around Missouri, moving 16 times in just 10 years before abandoning them. As he forged a path of his own, Williams wandered from St. Louis's Washington University to the University of Iowa to the New School in New York City, and even spent some time working on a chicken ranch in Laguna Beach, California. But at 28, he found his “spiritual home” in New Orleans. There he officially changed his given name to the college nickname he'd come to prefer. Inspired by the culture of the French Quarter, he wrote short stories and what would become one of his most popular plays. There he became Tennessee Williams, in more ways than one.

2. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL STREETCAR LINE.

Named for its endpoint on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward, the Desire line ran down Canal Street onto Bourbon and beyond. It operated from 1920 to 1948—meaning that shortly after becoming famous on Broadway, it was retired in favor of buses that were quieter and put less stress on the streets and surrounding buildings. Gone but not forgotten, one of the Desire cars was restored in 1967, and was made a tourist attraction. In 2003, the city even proposed resurrecting the streetcars and this famous line's name, but this dream died when federal funding was denied.

3. STANLEY KOWALSKI WAS INSPIRED BY TWO MEN.

The name "Stanley Kowalski" was borrowed from a factory worker Williams met while living in St. Louis. But the playwright's true muse was Amado ‘Pancho’ Rodriguez y Gonzales, a Mexican boxer who was once Williams's lover, and who argued the character he inspired should be Latino, not Polish.

Ten years his junior, Gonzalez met Williams when the writer traveled to Mexico City in late 1945. Entranced by the macho 24-year-old, Williams invited Gonzalez to move into his New Orleans home. Their relationship lasted only two years. By the time Streetcar Named Desire hit Broadway, Williams had moved on to who would be the love of his life, aspiring writer Frank Merlo.

4. BLANCHE MAY HAVE BEEN A STAND-IN FOR WILLIAMS.

As a gay man, the writer had been mocked all his life, called "sissy" by sneering peers, and “Miss Nancy” by his drunken, abusive father. In some respects, he was like Blanche, a gentle Southern soul, thirsty for love and kindness, yet dangerously fascinated by gruff men. Elia Kazan, who directed both the original Broadway production of Streetcar and its movie adaptation, once said of Williams, "If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley….Wasn’t he [Williams] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself? Yes, and wilder. The violence in that boy, always on a trigger edge, attracted Williams at the very time it frightened him.”

The closest Williams came to commenting on this comparison was saying of his work, "I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.”

5. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS WILLIAMS'S SECOND BIG BROADWAY HIT.

In 1945, Williams broke through with his groundbreaking autobiographical drama The Glass Menagerie. Just a year and a half after this acclaimed production closed, A Streetcar Named Desire opened to even greater praise. Reportedly, the standing ovation lasted for 30 minutes after the curtain descended on opening night.

6. THE PLAY WAS DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FROM ITS BROADWAY CONTEMPORARIES.

In her historical essay on Williams, critic Camille Paglia notes that A Streetcar Named Desire was a total change from The Glass Menagerie. Where the former had a "tightly wound gentility," the latter boasted "boisterous energy and eruptions of violence." But more than that, "Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals." She adds, "the shocking frankness with which Streetcar treated sex—as a searingly revolutionary force—was at odds with the dawning domesticity of the postwar era and looked forward instead to the 1960s sexual revolution."

7. IT CEMENTED WILLIAMS'S REPUTATION AS A MAJOR VOICE IN AMERICAN THEATER.

The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson proclaimed, "Mr. Williams is a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human." A Streetcar Named Desire went on to run for more than 800 performances, and would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jessica Tandy earned a Tony Award for originating the role of Blanche, and Williams was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

8. STANLEY KOWALSKI LAUNCHED MARLON BRANDO.

At 23, Brando was a method actor who was drawing praise in a string of Broadway roles. The year before A Streetcar Named Desire debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York critics had voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" because of his powerful performance in Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Café. His portrayal as Kowalski delivered on that promise, and then some. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that he seemed "a tiger on the loose, a sexual terrorist … Brando was a brute who bore the truth." And this intensity was captured in the 1951 film adaptation, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination for what was only his second film role.

9. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE REDEEMED WILLIAMS'S HOLLYWOOD REPUTATION.

Following the success of The Glass Menagerie's Broadway run, Warner Bros. hired Williams to draft an adapted screenplay for a movie version. But seeking a more commercial offering, they hired another writer to tack on a happy ending, behind Williams's back. The result was a critically panned dud that the playwright denounced as a "travesty." Nonetheless, Williams returned to Warner Bros. with A Streetcar Named Desire. This time, however, the director and most of the cast from the Broadway show were kept on for the film, which went on to earn an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter) and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).

10. JESSICA TANDY WAS THE ONLY LEAD OF THE BROADWAY PLAY NOT CAST IN THE MOVIE.

Hollywood didn't care about her Tony or her rave reviews. Warner Bros. needed a big name to assure the film's success. So Tandy was dropped in favor of Leigh, who'd played the role of Blanche in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but more importantly was a household name thanks to her first Oscar-winning role, that of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's historical epic Gone With The Wind.

11. THE FILM WAS TAMER THAN THE PLAY.

With mounting pressure from a public concerned about the influence movies have on children, Hollywood created The Motion Picture Production Code, a series of guidelines about what was acceptable and not in film. Thus, A Streetcar Named Desire's movie adaptation was forced to tone down some coarser language, and cut some of its most scandalous elements, like Blanche's promiscuity and her late husband being a closeted homosexual. For instance, in the play Blanche demands of her sister, "Where were you? In bed with your pollack!" In the film, she says, "In there with your pollack!"

12. WILLIAMS FOUGHT TO KEEP BLANCHE'S RAPE FROM BEING CUT.

Following their climactic confrontation, the play implies Stanley rapes Blanche. But Warner Bros. felt this was too dark for the movie. Williams and Kazan sparred with the studio over this. The former argued, "[The] rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." Like in the play, this grievous crime occurs between scenes, but its implication is clear by the violent events that lead up to a fade to black.

13. ONCE AGAIN, HOLLYWOOD TACKED ON A HAPPY ENDING.

The compromise on including the rape was that Stanley would have to be punished for the act. So just as they did with The Glass Menagerie, Warner Bros. softened the end of William's acclaimed tragedy with a script change. In this case, a line is included, where Stella declares she won't go back to her abusive husband. It's a stark contrast to the play, which concludes with the stage direction "He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse," as Stanley coos to her. Williams would go on to say the adaptation was "only slightly marred by [a] Hollywood ending."

14. THE FILM MADE A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE ICONIC.

Brando's tour de force performance may not have won him the Oscar, but his brutish performance, tight white t-shirt, and signature "Stella!" cry made the movie one that would not be forgotten. Today, the play is considered a classic, and has been revived on Broadway eight times. In 1999, the movie adaptation was added to the National Film Registry, which aims to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically" works of cinema. And in 2005, the American Film Institute included Kowalski's agonized scream of "Stella! Hey, Stella!" among its 100 greatest movie quotes of the last 100 years. It came in at number 45.

15. EVERY SPRING, NEW ORLEANS THROWS A FESTIVAL IN HONOR OF THE PLAY.

Called the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the annual five-day event celebrates Williams's world-famous work, showcases emerging writers, and provides educational opportunities for literary students. It also offers tours of the French Quarter locations where Williams walked, conversed and worked, like the Hotel Maison de Ville, the restaurant Galatoire's, which gets a mention in Streetcar; and the apartment where he lived with Pancho, which overlooked the Desire line.

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