Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Family For Gregor...

...Or at least a couple to choose from. One of the great difficulties of searching for an insect with a particular description is the sheer number of the creatures that exist. Combine that with the fact that new species are always being discovered and the taxonomic system is in a state of flux, and being sure that you have exhausted all plausible matches is nearly impossible. Any characterization of a Suborder or Family is a description of the traits possessed by most submembers, but there are always exceptions. Sadly, there is really no practical way to incorporate these exceptions into the search, so if any of them is a possible Gregor Samsa, it will fall through the cracks.

That said, the hierarchical taxonomic system allows for the dismissal of many subcatagories at once. First, it is helpful to narrow down the search field to a single Order, as that alone will knock hundreds of thousands of species off the list. Two Orders have the necessary elytra: Hemiptera ("true bugs") and Coleoptera (beetles). One distinguishing characteristic of so-called true bugs is that their mandibles have developed into proboscises. At first this was a feature that seemed to have potential; when Gregor first eats in his new form, he is described as "sucking greedily on the cheese." What better to suck up food with than a proboscis? However, it is directly stated that he has "strong jaws," which he uses to turn the key to his room. Neither Coleoptera nor Hemiptera possess both mandibles and proboscises (bees, incidentally, do have both, but Gregor is certainly no bee). I feel that the evidence is significantly more compelling for Gregor having mandibles, and that the description of him "sucking" the food is meant more to relate the strangeness of eating in a new way.

So, Gregor is a beetle. But what kind? there are over 350,000 species of Coleoptera. Time to return to the attributes list. The beetle must have a relatively broad, rounded body. It must feed on decomposing organic matter. It must be brown. It must be flightless.

Within the Order of Coleoptera, some Families can be quickly eliminated. For instance, the family Elateridea (click beetles) have a mechanism for righting themselves if flipped onto their backs. Kafka describes Gregor having much difficulty turning over from his supine position in bed. Weevils (Superfamily Curculionoidea) have characteristic long snouts, which nothing in the text suggests. More important, though, is which groups do fit the qualifications. Once all the factors are added in, the best match is the Superfamily Scarabaeoidea (the only Superfamily in the Infraorder Scarabaeiformia). Within this Superfamily are contained all the necessary traits. Now the task is to find which subcatagories possess them all, without additional prohibitive traits.

By process of elimination, most of the Families can be discounted. Passalidae have the wrong diet, while Lucanidae (stag beetles) have distinctive horns.* Many of the families have long hairs or are capable of flight. Of the Families within Scarabaeoidea, only two have all the requisite characteristics and nothing prohibitive: Scarabaeidae (scarab beetles) and Geotrupidae (ground-boring dung beetles). Either of these could be Gregor's Family.

Now, if the idea of taxonomic Family doesn't quite fill you with warm fuzzies, consider the fact that from a pool of over 350,000 possibilities, the candidates have been narrowed to a scant 30,600 and dropping fast. While Geotrupidae is a relatively small Family (containing only about 600 species), Scarabaeidae is quite large, incorporating nine Subfamilies. Luckily, of those only one matches Gregor's description, that being the Subfamily Aphodiinae. Within Aphodiinae, few species have the correct diet. The ones who do are mainly found in the Tribe Aegialiini. Within Geotrupidae, information is hard to find. However, the Genus Thorectes fits all necessary qualifications.

And that, I think, is as close to an answer as it is currently possible to get.
I propose that Gregor Samsa is a scarab beetle of the Tribe Aegialiini, or a ground-boring dung beetle of the Subfamily Thorectes. At last, a (more specific) identity for Gregor.

For me, possibly the most delightful part of this conclusion is that the character of the cleaning lady- portrayed as vulgar and uneducated- came closer to the truth than any of the text's many interpreters.

*Note: Many female stag beetles do not have horns. However, in my research I am making the assumption that Gregor's human sex translates to his insect sex.

A Brief Note on False Clues

There are a couple of details in the text of "The Metamorphosis" that I wish to set aside as not truly applying to Gregor's insect physiology and behavior. The first is when Kafka describes Gregor's feet as having "sticky stuff on them." It is true that insects can climb walls and hang upside down on ceilings, but it is now understood that this is done with the use of minute hairs, and not with an adhesive goo.

Second is the description of Gregor "hissing." It is true that some insects produce hissing noises. In fact, this detail may be one of the reasons so many people assume Gregor is a cockroach (although some beetles also hiss). However, I believe in this case that the word "hiss" refers to agitated, unintelligible sounds. Gregor is struck in the beginning by the discovery the his voice has become incomprehensible to his family, a fact which upsets him greatly. His father (whose speech is still entirely understandable to Gregor), is also said to be "hissing." Indeed, in the original German, the same word is used for both father and son ( "zischen"/"zischte"). Thus I think it is fair to work off of the idea that Kafka was using "hiss" in a broader sense.

Finally, it is necessary for me to point out that the great writer (and renowned entomologist) Vladimir Nabokov discussed the question of Gregor Samsa's insect identity in a lecture on "The Metomorphosis." His discourse on the subject goes as thus:

Now what exactly is the "vermin" into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of "jointed leggers" (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. If the "numerous little legs" mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view. But I suggest that a man awakening on his back and finding he has as many as six legs vibrating in the air might feel that six was sufficient to be called numerous. We shall therefore assume that Gregor has six legs, that he is an insect. Next question: what insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.) Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. In the course of the story he gets gradually accustomed to using his new appendages—his feet, his feelers. This brown, convex, dog-sized beetle is very broad.

While it is certainly poetic to presume that Gregor did indeed have undiscovered wings, I believe his sister's comment introduces us to the tragic truth that he is capable of neither a human's nor an insect's escape. Her words, "for he could hardly fly away," drive home how trapped Gregor is in his dismal reality. Thus, despite my respect for Nabokov, my pursuit continues for a flightless Gregor Samsa.

Therefore, my search for the insect Gregor will not include the qualification of hissing, nor that of sticky feet, but will include the inability to fly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Search for Gregor Samsa

Note: This is the first article in a three part series. The other parts are A Brief Note on False Clues and A Family for Gregor.

Almost everyone, it seems, has encountered Kafka's dark tale of transformation in a high school or college lit. course. Most of us take it as truth that protagonist Gregor Samsa transforms in his bed into a giant cockroach. Indeed, representations of Samsa are universally in cockroach form. I made this tacit assumption for many years. It was not until I costumed a stage production of "The Metamorphosis" in college that I realized that nowhere in the text did the word "cockroach" actually appear. Now, here I must stop for a moment to confess that the words I was reading were not quite Kafka's own. As I do not understand German, I was utilizing various translations of the original text. I understand that much can be lost in translation. However, I am far from the first person to analyze "The Metamorphosis," and luckily for me many of those other folks spoke German. It's pretty clear that "cockroach" doesn't appear in any language. There exists an agreement among most translators that the word "ungeziefer,"(appearing in the first line of the book as what Gregor transforms into, and originally translated as "insect,") is in fact the word for "vermin," a much vaguer term. The German word for insect is the recognizable cognate, "insekt."

Putting aside for a moment the physical and behavioral descriptions Kafka gives of his protagonist, the first and only reference by a character in the book to Gregor being an insect is by the cleaning lady, relatively near the end of the story. She addresses him as "dung beetle," an oddly specific assertion that is not supported by the the book, as I will discuss in more detail later. There are never any such references on the part of the narrator.

All this got to nagging in the back of my brain. Is Gregor really a cockroach? And if he isn't, what is he? Thus I began to sift through the text, looking for hints in those physical and behavioral descriptions I asked you to put aside a paragraph ago. I would like to clarify that my aim here is not to deduce Kafka's intentions (I think it quite likely that the character was made deliberately vague), but rather to discern the possible classifications Gregor could be assigned while remaining scientifically accurate. As it turns out, cockroach is not among them.

To begin with, although never stated by the narrator, Gregor is an insect. Descriptions of his body (including segmentation, leg structure and properties, body structure and sensory organs) are not mutually consistent with any other creature.

Good. Now that its been narrowed down to a scant 30 million possible species, this should be a piece of cake.

My next step was to start with the easiest solution; could he really be a cockroach? Sadly, the easy answer didn't pan out. Unlike beetles (members of the order Coleoptera), cockroaches do not posses elytra (hardened wing-covers made of chitin). Post-transformation Gregor is described as having an "armour-hard back," a characterization that (while aptly depicting an insect in possession of elytra) would not apply to the bare-winged cockroaches.

Back to square one. Time to look at what there is to go on. Gregor is either a beetle or a so-called "true bug" (the two orders with elytra). He is brown in color, with a divided abdomen. He is flightless. (At one point his sister comments that, "he had to be somewhere or other, for he could hardly fly away.) He only feeds on rotten organic matter. Each of this things narrows down the possibilities, but the search for the real Gregor Samsa is certainly far from its conclusion.

So ends the first installment of my quest for the true identity of Gregor Samsa, a man burdened for so many years with the ill-fitting body of a cockroach. Stay tuned for chapter two!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thats How The Elytron Crumbles

...or, more accurately, splinters disastrously. The last year or so i've been working with a wonderful batch of Torynorrhina flammea jewel beetles (here are pictures of the top and bottom to give you an idea of their body structure and beautiful iridescence). Originally, the modifications I was making only required cutting into the abdomen on the bottom side of the beetle. Using a sharp x-acto knife and some care, this proved to be no problem. However, a more recent project necessitated cutting into the elytra. In doing so, I discovered that the chitin has a distinctive grain. cutting lengthwise wasn't too problematic. However, once I began cutting diagonally and widthwise, things got trickier. It seems the wing covers weren't too keen on being swiss cheese. After extensive struggle and fudging some rough edges with glue (also, I must admit, an unkind word or two to the beetles I was hacking at. Most people talk to dead insects, right?), the project was completed. However, I swore never again to attempt cutting shapes out of elytra. No sir. never. not gonna happen.

Well, that was about two months ago. Last weekend I found myself staring mournfully at the belly of a beautiful 5-horned rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracillicornus), my fateful vow echoing in my head. This was all supposed to be so simple; Cut a window into the abdomen of the beetle, empty out the body cavity, and transform the inside into a light-box with ultra-miniature diorama. Easy as pie, right?

But there before me lay the pitfall of my lack of foresight. I had thoughtlessly assumed that the belly-side of a rhino beetle would be the same as that of my earlier jewel beetles. Oh, what fools we mortals be! While the jewel beetles had lovely, workable, wide-open spaces between where the two rows of legs anchored to the body, the rhino beetles' legs emerged directly from the center of the thorax. Not only this, but the abdomen was a stubby thing, making any chance of simply cutting below the legs impossible. I would have loved to have cut into the top side of the beetle (thus being able to show off its full beauty), but for the issue of those pesky elytra. Because of my previous experience I had written it off as a lost cause, and resigned myself to working on the belly.

Here's where I owe a friend of mine a great debt of gratitude. He suggested using a Dremel rotary tool with the thinnest cut-off wheel. I was afraid a power tool-even one as small-scale as a Dremel- might destroy the beetle's fragile desiccated body. However, it worked brilliantly! On a medium-low setting, taking great care not to cut too deep, I was able to cut a nearly perfect rectangle out of the elytra. Once they were out of the way, my trusty old x-acto knife could get through the wings and the exoskeleton. Victory was mine! 

(A victory I celebrated with about 30 minutes of scooping out dried beetle innards.)