Bats, Nagel, and Kafka

Jason left a great comment on my earlier blog post on the consciousness of bats, pointing to Nagel's essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"  He and I seem to come at many of the same questions from completely different directions, in terms of the things we've read on the way.  So, being on holidays, I was pleased to have the time to read something he suggested.

The Mind-Body problem is not one that usually preoccupies me.  When I am reading philosophy, I'm much more likely to spend time on the problem of Language or Being.  And yet I found Nagel a useful diversion.  I've read about this essay in the past, but never read it until now, and had completely forgotten about it.

Nagel's anti-materialist argument is one I share.  So as I read and nodded in agreement ("It may be more accurate to think of objectivity as a direction in which understanding can travel"), my mind wandered away from his central argument, and picked up on something else.  I became particularly interested in one word, and the ideas it pointed toward:

Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.
and later:
Strangely enough, we may have evidence for the truth of something we cannot really understand.  Suppose a caterpillar is locked in a sterile safe by someone unfamiliar with insect metamorphosis, and weeks later the safe is reopened, revealing a butterfly.  If the person knows that the safe has been shut the whole time, he has reason to believe that the butterfly is or was once the caterpillar, without having any idea in what sense this might be so.
_Metamorphosed, Metamorphosis--_and that was it, just like that, I was off in search of my Kafka.  The irony is I had, only the night before, told Luke that he should strike Kafka's "Metamorphosis" from his list of significant books.  So in response to Nagel, and in penance for my hasty literary judgement, I sat down once more to read.

It is an uneasy read from the first sentence, and one which, despite my comment to Luke, you really should undertake:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed in a monstrous verminous bug.
Reading it through Nagel, I was struck at how little access we have to the experience of a bug that is not mediated through the reactions of others, or even through Gregor's slowly eroding humanity as still another kind of 'other.'  As he is initially locked in his room, hearing his boss question his parents in the other room, we read of Gregor:
He really wanted to let himself be seen and to speak with the manager.  He was keen to witness what the others now asking about him would say when they saw him.
When he does speak to them through the door, his awareness of his own state (and our awareness, too) is available only through the reaction of those on the other side of the door:
Did you hear Gregor speak just now?  That was an animal's voice...All right, people did not understand his words any more, although they seemed clear enough to him, clearly than previously, perhaps because his ears had got used to them.
As he grows more accustomed to himself, the story becomes less and less "What it is like to be?" and much more, "What is like to see?"  Later we see his mother and sister waffle on whether or not Gregor would like the furniture removed from his room completely:
After about a quarter of an hour had already gone by, his mother said it would be better if they left the chest of drawers where it was, because, in the first place, it was too heavy: they would not be finished before his father’s arrival, and leaving the chest of drawers in the middle of the room would block all Gregor’s pathways, but, in the second place, they could not be at all certain that Gregor would be pleased with the removal of the furniture. To her the reverse seemed to be true; the sight of the empty walls pierced her right to the heart, and why should Gregor not feel the same, since he had been accustomed to the room furnishings for a long time and would therefore feel himself abandoned in an empty room.
It's not at all clear that, as Nagel suggests, one can make the leap from caterpillar to butterfly, especially when the progression is the reverse:
“It has to go,” cried the sister. “That is the only way, father. You must try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we have believed this for so long, that is truly our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have long ago realized that a communal life among human beings is not possible with such a creature and would have gone away voluntarily. Then we would not have a brother, but we could go on living and honour his memory. But this animal plagues us.
It's interesting to watch how Kafka deals with the issue of the impossibility of making direct parallels between the observed and the experienced.  Nagel's conclusion is very much the same feeling that Kafka leaves me with, namely, that we cannot access the experience of the other through our own experience.

Show Comments