The Concept of Self-Transcendence
Life is full of obstacles that thwart one’s ability to discover the true meaning of existence. In The Unheard Cry for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl explains that “An eye with a cataract may see something like a cloud, which is its cataract; an eye with glaucoma may see its glaucoma as a rainbow halo around the lights. A healthy eye sees nothing of itself – it is self-transcendent. ” The concept of self-transcendence requires one to overcome the different “cataracts” of life, and ultimately view the world through an altruistic perspective.
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When one conquers the notion of seeing “nothing of itself”, one can comprehend the true meaning to living a full and healthy life. In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the main character Gregor Samsa has lost himself in his continuous world of routine, in which his grueling profession takes away from his ability to recognize the components that make life meaningful. Thus, his job is the “cataract” that disables him from truly living, and keeps him from establishing relationships with those around him and wholly expressing his creativity. Gabriel Conroy experiences similar feelings of disillusionment in James Joyce’s The Dead.
Gabriel lives in a “cloud” of misperceptions, and constantly suffers from obsessive misinterpretations of how others perceive him. As a result, Gabriel possesses a close-minded and defensive attitude, which affects his ability to experience true love and wholly appreciate his life. Gregor’s obsession with his job, and Gabriel’s constant fear of being judged by others, hinder their abilities to reach self-transcendence. Once they break these barriers, they learn to possess this theory of self-transcendence, and ultimately seek to espy the true essence of life.
Gregor’s physical transformation “into a monstrous vermin” (Pg. 3) frees him from the distractions and obligations that permeate his mindset, such as his responsibilities to earn money, pay off his parent’s debt, and support his family. Prior to his metamorphosis, Gregor is so preoccupied with his “grueling profession” (Pg. 4), that it prevents him from “ever becoming anything closer than acquaintances” (Pg. 4) with the different individuals in his life. After his metamorphosis, Gregor is able to build a relationship with an object to create a link with humanity that his life is lacking.
The picture of the beautiful woman exemplifies Gregor’s desire to create a relationship to feed his hunger for love, and the picture’s frame symbolizes the amount of creativity that Gregor possesses within himself. The picture, which Gregor “had recently cut out of a glossy magazine and lodged in a pretty gilt frame…showed a lady done up in a fur hat and fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared” (pg. 3). Gregor is frustrated that his job never allows “relationships to last or get more intimate” (Pg. ), and is distressed that the individuals in his life come and go without making any sort of impact on his life. Therefore, the woman in the photo may depict Gregor’s desire for love, and his desire to form a meaningful relationship with someone that is important to him. Gregor spends “Two or three evenings” (Pg. 11) carving a “gilt” or gold lined frame for the picture because it temporarily relives him from his desolation. The care that Gregor expresses toward the frame is shown by the degree to which he pays attention to every minor detail while crafting it.
In addition, the time he spends carving the frame also reveals how important the picture is to him. Though he is not conscious of the reason why he values the picture so much, Gregor deeply cherishes the picture because it momentarily enables him to escape his solitude, and experience the love and creativity that he longs for. Music is the creative art form that enables Gregor to rekindle his love for his sister Grete, and also provides Gregor with unknown nourishment that satisfies the need for beauty in his life.
Grete’s violin playing “forces Gregor out of his confinement, and moves him to show his appreciation for the beauty of her violin playing that no one else could express. ” (Pg. 46) Gregor’s persistence to “inch himself farther onto the immaculate living room floor” (Pg. 46), despite being physically soiled and “completely covered with the dust that blanketed his room” (Pg. 45), suggests his dire craving for human love, and his determination to further draw himself to the splendor of his sister’s music.
Gregor’s exposure and admiration to music temporarily moves him from his depression, and his metamorphosis serves as the medium through which he feeds his longing. After Gregor’s metamorphosis, Gregor undergoes dejection in which he finds himself uncomfortable, uncertain, and lost due to the lack of compassion that others express toward him. Once transformed, Gregor realizes that music is the “food” that satisfies his hunger for comfort and hope, qualities of humanity that he has regained after being transformed into a vermin. In pursuing Grete’s music,
Gregor understands that he can cure his melancholy by showing a livelihood that reflects hope in the realization that love and beauty still exist in the world. Through his actions, Gregor triggers the yearning to escape his solitude, and discover his “soul” by pursuing the music that comforts him. At the novel’s end, Gregor’s family comes to the conclusion that they must abandon the notion that the monstrous bug is Gregor. Grete reasons that if the bug were really Gregor, he would have gone away on his own and spared them the torment of caring for him.
In his deathbed, Gregor agrees with his sister and dies while thinking of his family with love and affection. Gregor’s interaction with Grete’s music dissolves the anger he felt in his depression, and allows him to pass from his life with a peaceful and serene mindset. Gabriel’s encounters with Miss Ivors and Greta reveal his habit of misinterpreting how others perceive him, and how this embeds Gabriel with an insecure and defensive attitude. Miss Ivors is introduced as, “a frank-mannered talkative young lady” (Pg. 187), who, at the onset of her encounter with Gabriel states, “I have a crow to pluck with you. (Pg. 187) She proceeds in their conversation by addressing Gabriel’s job with “The Daily Express”, and claims in a jokingly manner that Gabriel is a “West Briton” (Pg. 188) who is too pompous to handle her criticism. This initiates Gabriel’s immediate belief that Miss Ivors dislikes him, though there is no direct evidence of this contempt. Gabriel reflects a solicitous attitude that instantly takes offense toward any statement that threatens his self-image. Flustered by her bold statements, Gabriel’s does not “know how to meet her charge” (Pg. 88), and simply “continues to blink his eyes trying to smile and [murmurs] lamely that he sees nothing political in writing reviews about books. ” (Pg. 188) This initial incidence exemplifies Gabriel’s constant consciousness toward how others judge him, and his tendency to take offense toward any remark against his social status. Miss Ivors continues to “pluck” at Gabriel’s vulnerability through questioning his desire to leave Ireland for vacation, and criticizes Gabriel’s disregard to explore beautiful areas of his own native country.
Gabriel becomes extremely frustrated by Miss Ivors’ frank statements and exclaims, “To tell you the truth…I’m sick of my own country, sick of it. ” (Pg. 190) Gabriel immediately feels the need to cover “his agitation” through such a remark, because he fears that Miss Ivors will see his anxiety and look condescendingly upon him. After the party, Gabriel continues to misinterpret his interactions with others, demonstrated by resentment in his failure to physically and mentally connect with his wife. Gabriel’s superiority, shown through desires such as longing to be “the master of Gretta’s strange mood” (Pg. 18), feels threatened after learning that Mr. D’Arcy’s performance of The Lass of Aughrim reminds Gretta of a “gentle boy” named Michael Furey. An initial “dull anger begins to gather at the back of Gabriel’s mind” (Pg. 220) to hear that this is the source of her morbid state, and he begins questioning his wife in an ironic and detached tone. Gabriel feels emotions of jealousy, humiliation, and anxiety; spurred on by the menace that Michael Furey poses after hearing that he may have influenced Gretta in the past.
Gabriel’s reaction reveals that his “socially polished” way of life feels threatened by the thought of Michael Furey, no matter how “delicate” of a young boy he had been, and Gabriel resumes to question Gretta’s past and present intentions in a satirical and subtle manner. Gabriel does not understand how a dead boy manages to disrupt his ability to become closer to his wife. Gabriel’s insecurity and defensive attitude evaporates when he begins to see the world outside himself, and acknowledges his shame in feeling threatened by a young, passionate boy in the gasworks. Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead” (Pg. 221), and suffers from a “shameful consciousness of his own person that assails him” (Pg. 221). Whereas his initial tone of interrogation was cold and ironic, his new tone changes to one of humility and indifference. Gabriel sees the senselessness in his original motives of sexual advancement, and goes on to comfort his wife by “caressing” her hands, and empathizing with her sadly over Michael Furey’s memory.
Though it is evident that Gregor’s prior tendencies of insecurity and defensiveness exist, demonstrated by his initial reaction of jealousy upon hearing that Michael Furey died for Gretta, he learns to repress this emotion through reason and compassion. Whereas Gabriel had originally expressed a type of superiority complex about him, he diverges into feelings of generosity and friendly pity for his wife. Gabriel also expresses respect toward Michael Furey’s bravery, and honors his memory by commenting that it is “better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. (Pg. 224) As Gabriel reflects in the hotel room, he sees his soul “approaching that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead…His own identity fades out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling” (Pg. 225) In such a way, Gabriel’s soul is leaving the “solid” world he is used to, a world of disillusionment and self-gratification, and is beginning to view the world in a more sensible manner.
Within the Holy Bible, archangel Gabriel is known for expressing a gentle and caring nature, and is also known for serving alongside archangel Michael during the birth of Jesus Christ. Also following the theme of birth, Michael Furey’s story of relentless passion serves as the message sent to rebirth Gabriel from his life of solicitude, and enables him to see how his close-minded attitude paralyzes his ability to connect with others. Gabriel begins to view the world through humble eyes, without his own personal facade blurring the image as it once did.
He states, “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland…It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried” (Pg. 225) The snow serves as a recurring symbol throughout The Dead to reflect the purity that Michael Furey’s passionate love represented. Gabriel views the snow as a facet that unifies elements of the dead, such as Michael Furey’s story and the memories of all those deceased, with the lives of the living.
He finally understands that the distance between life and death is closer once an individual accepts the constant messages sent by the dead, and self-transcendence can only be reached by living a fervent life such as the life of Michael Furey. Both Gregor and Gabriel reach self-transcendence by breaking down the barriers that permeate their abilities to see the meaning of life. The moment their characters learned to disregard prior obsessions, they were able to see the world in a way that appreciated qualities of love, passion, and beauty that they never took the time to notice before.
In the same way, Emily Dickinson created this feeling of awareness in many of her poems by describing ordinary objects in an extraordinary manner to reveal their significance. In “This was a Poet”, Dickinson indicates that poetry compels readers to break through the barrier of ordinary thoughts, and remove the “film of familiarity” (Coleridge) on all aspects of life by exploring the significance of everyday happenings. This “film of familiarity” can also refer to the “cloud” of obstruction that
Frankl discusses in his metaphor comparing a non-healthy eye to a healthy eye. By viewing the world through non-healthy eyes, this “cloud” creates a hazy perception of the world and distances one from finding out the meaning of life. External or internal forces push individuals to reach a state of self-transcendence, which like poetry allows them to lift the “film of familiarity”, and dispel the clouds that once obstructed their vision and view life in an altruistic manner.
Wallace Stevens once said, “Let’s see the very thing itself and nothing else, let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight. ” When an individual sees the world through healthy eyes, they are able to see the very qualities of life that make living meaningful, and in turn focus their full attention toward pursuing these qualities. For both Gregor and Gabriel, a submissive revelation saves both their lives, and leads them to see the importance of love and passion with the hottest fire of sight because of the self-transcendence that has transformed them.