“A cage went in search of a bird.”
– Franz Kafka, The Third Notebook, November 6, 1917
In my Senior English World Literature classes, we tackled Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in the last part of the first semester. While the notion of a man waking up as “vermin” did not exactly startle these children of the X-men generation, they were intrigued by the concept of existentialism and all the associated -ism’s (surrealism, expressionism, Freudianism, nihilism, modernism) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The world was changing and uncertain, and the reach by Kafka and others to claim some piece of life as an intrinsically human adventure–private and immutable–resonated with my seniors on the doorstep of their own beginnings.
Mine is a private, Catholic school, and religion is a core subject. Group prayer is as central to the day as the uniform the students wear. Students regularly tackle the mysteries of faith, the Bible as creed, and the challenges confronting a God-centered life. Still, their backgrounds, while diverse, are decidedly urban. They sense or have witnessed the dangerous excesses of human existence, even as they covet the riches and spectacle cajoling from their iPads, iPods, iPhones, and such. Like every generation in the modern era, they want it all–but carefully.
As a young man, I flocked in my college years to courses in sociological theory. I especially enjoyed the notion of life as social theater in which my role was a central part. And it was more than ego. I needed to believe that the injustices I found in the world were man-made and therefore surmountable. As a black man born in the Civil Rights era, I understood the existentialists’ warnings about modern alienation and angst. But I needed to believe that one life could make a difference, even if no other human being knew or recognized the change. If life was a script the young inherited, I needed to believe the terms and plot lines could be shaped anew with courage fueled by prayer. So I understood immediately while my seniors wanted to hear more about the history of knowledge.
A cage in search of a bird. On the surface, the image is dire and foreboding. What good could come from such a predicament? How could this man-made artifact synonymous with capture ever escape its axis and find a canary to claim? And why would a free-flying spirit every acquiesce to such an arrangement? I mean, what’s in it for the bird?
Gregor Samsa, the sad protagonist in “The Metamorphosis,” lived a surface life. He did what he was told he should in order to feed his obligations, but he discovered no real joy in the unfolding. He buried beneath the cloak of his adult responsibilities the beating of his youthful heart. He compromised his yearnings in the name not of art, but of sustenance. He did what he must, but no more.
Somewhere in the realm between God’s will and human toil, I believe there is room for inspiration, ignition, and inscription. Of course, personal flight will always be a challenge, and who’s to say cages were meant to fly? I told my students that Kafka’s warning–his fear–embodies the struggle we all face in a time when technology both rivals and augments imagination. How do we take our cages with us as we tackle the sky?
How do we make our whole lives matter without making matter our whole lives?
‘Oh, that’s deep,” one young lady observed.
“Tell me about it,” I replied.