Several of our canon’s most prized works of literature are about rape. I struggled with that fact in two humanities courses this semester as I delved into Ovid’s ancient collection “Metamorphoses” and W.B. Yeats’s 1923 poem “Leda and the Swan.” “Metamorphoses” features one mythological female after the next enduring or evading rape, while “Leda and the Swan” graphically describes the Greek god Zeus raping a woman while disguised as a swan. Both works are gorgeously composed and offer much more, of course, than rape-centric plots. But in my professors’ and classmates’ eagerness to discuss the intellectual genius behind these texts, the topic of rape has been avoided or glazed over without the care the subject necessitates.
I’m troubled by this casual treatment of rape for two reasons.
In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks, “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life / in our bodies, we are determined to rush / to see the sun the other way around?” I boarded a plane to South America last Thursday with Bishop’s poem in my canvas bag. My journey to Brazil is the latest of several cross-continental undertakings that have led me, in less than three years, to Jerusalem and Glasgow and Venice and Krakow and Budapest and New York and Berlin and São Paulo. I’m graduating in two months, still looking for a job, and utterly unconvinced that globetrotting is the answer to my most pressing questions. But I can’t stop traveling.
Perhaps my excursions into the global wilderness spring from the childishness that Bishop identifies in her poem. Bishop, a true citizen of the world, asks questions of travel that reflect years of exploration. She grew up in Nova Scotia, spent half her childhood in Boston, graduated from Vassar and traveled Europe while living in New York, moved to Key West, relocated to Brazil for 14 years, and then taught at Harvard upon returning to the States. She stayed in places long enough for wonder to pass, doubt to emerge, and wisdom to triumph.
For writers at work, punctuation can slip from a matter of convention to one of obsession. I just finished my poetry thesis last week, and I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I changed periods to commas, replaced colons with dashes, and struck out semicolons—only to routinely second-guess my revisions. An ill-placed period felt as dangerous as stopping the car on the highway, while a missing colon felt like pummeling through a scenic pass without the requisite anticipatory pause.
The comparison of a speck of ink to the brakes on a 4,000 pound vehicle might sound extreme, but my devotion to punctuation is hardly radical on the spectrum. Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas, a far more esteemed (if less jovial) grammarian than myself, once grew so distressed about the authenticity of his punctuation that he claimed to want to die. His contemporary author László Krasznahorkai professed to avoiding periods because “periods are for God.” In my favorite authorial statement on punctuation, German theorist Theodore Adorno stares into these small black dots and sees history flicker: “It is history, far more than meaning for grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation,” he writes.
In Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” a salesman named Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a giant beetle. The human-turned-arthropod despairs at his inability to leave bed for work, and he struggles to master his new physique. Though Gregor’s family is dismayed by the event, his parents submit to their son’s fate. Rather than seek a cure for Gregor or wonder at the root of his metamorphosis, they handle the beetle at a distance, doling out empathy until their disbelief turns to anger. Eventually, Gregor’s disgusted father beats back the roaming insect with apples—one of which remains painfully lodged inside Gregor’s shell. By the end of the story, Gregor’s beloved sister insists that the family purge the beetle from their home.
Reading “The Metamorphosis” this summer was my first encounter with Kafka. I was subletting an apartment from a couple who had “The Metamorphosis” on their bookshelf, and I pulled out the novella on a weeknight when the New York humidity left me lazing next to their fan. I was less troubled reading about Gregor’s transformation than about his family’s reaction, which haunted me first in its resignation and then in its cruelty. Why did his parents so helplessly accept their son’s misfortune? How could they not ask questions? Why did their aversion to the beetle override their empathy? I realized that in Kafka’s literary Coliseum—my metaphor for the author’s strange, bleak arena in which surreal events overtake innocent characters—the victim is only half the spectacle. The audience, sitting back and watching the unbelievable unfold, becomes its own unsettling display. I closed the book, but my discomfort lingered.