Boy by the Water

Oscar arrived at his friend’s house an hour before intended. A problem with the local bus scheduling had left the boy with no option but to catch the early afternoon slot. He peered through the glass of the front door. George, the boy’s friend, didn’t finish work for another forty minutes; nobody was home to let Oscar in. Stepping back, Oscar considered what to do with his spare time.

Earlier in the day there had been a stifling heat. Oscar had sat outside, dowsing himself in water to cool his body. The heat had now diminished somewhat, although a pleasant warmth still hung in the air. He found himself wandering away from the house, possessed by the half-baked idea that he should ‘make the most’ of the evening by going for a walk.

Oscar walked down the road, turning off onto a public footpath. Although clearly marked as a ‘public right of way’, the path seemed to follow through a series of private country lots and courtyards. As he passed by these old farm houses, he reflected on how charming they seemed in the summer light. He felt as though he was in France or Italy (or a place called ‘Puglia’ which he had never been to, but had oft imagined to be similar), far removed from the usual grime and cold of Northern England.

Soon, he was walking along another road, alongside which a steep embankment could be found. Prior to his arrival at this location, Oscar had vaguely been guided by the idea that there was a reservoir or a lake in close proximity to George’s house. He hazarded a guess that, beyond this embankment, cloaked from sight, he might strike upon this water. Oscar was unsure as to whether the lake was on private land. Thus, he waited for any cars to clear from the road before clambering over a wall and ascending the embankment. As the boy passed the brim of the bank, a large reservoir revealed itself to sight. Oscar noted the seclusion of the place and the way the water shimmered slightly in the dusk light. He sat by the lake, far enough forward to be hidden from sight, but still removed by one or two metres from the water’s edge.

The boy watched the lake. He was surprised to see the surface broken occasionally by fish. Time passed. Birds darted down, snatching flies with a graceful violence. It was certainly the perfect spot for relaxation. He hummed and marvelled at how free he felt at that instant in time. The sky held a quiet joy; the colours served to reflect a Summer Mood.

Oscar began to think. He considered whether he might take a swim in the water. A string of recent reservoir-related tragedies had left the boy acutely aware of the dangers of open water swimming. Admittedly, the water did not seem too inviting; it looked cold. And yet, the notion prevailed. Something – probably the sense of foolish self-destruction apparent in all adolescent boys – pushed him towards the lake. It must have been fifty metres across. Deep. Perhaps he could swim a third and then return. Not by any means a large distance. Indeed Oscar had swum further in colder conditions. Still, the danger hung in his mind. He considered whether he might panic and freeze up, sinking to his death. And death was certain. Nobody knew he was here. Nobody to save a flailing body. From his current position he held true anonymity. The grass by the side of the lake was overgrown – it was clear that this was not a regular route for local walkers. He imagined the morbid circumstances. If he drowned in this place, he would disappear from civilisation. Nobody would think to look. His body may never be found. How often might the water-board inspector’s visit this reservoir? Once, maybe twice a month? Even if somebody passed this spot in weeks to come, it was possible that the wind could eradicate all trace of his presence.

A strange feeling of power came over him. Of course, Oscar had been in a position in which death was possible before, but he had never (as far as he could remember) been in a position in which he could wield such powers as to obliterate his entire identity. The image of his own death mingled with the luscious countryside to yield a strange feeling. A beautiful, if dark, notion.

The midges hovered above. He checked the time – he was scheduled to meet his friend in fifteen minutes. With reluctance, he deserted his position, stepping back down the banking and hopping the wall. The road was empty.

As he returned back along the route, he pawed over his recent emotions. He saw the farm houses now in a different light. A part of him wanted to return to the reservoir, to take that long anticipated swim. Over and over death visited his mind. He questioned whether he should share the episode with his friends. Once more he pictured the water. The blue fear. Soon, Oscar had arrived back at the house; upon catching sight of his friend’s face, he smiled.

Kafkaesque: An Analysis of Metamorphosis

Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ is, as the name suggests, a story about change. From the moment that Gregor Samsa awakes from his ‘uneasy dreams’, this theme unfolds. The protagonist finds himself ‘transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’; a change so drastic that it borders upon the absurd. Change manifests in all of the main characters in Metamorphosis: Gregor’s sister transforms from a child to a young woman; his parents are forced to evolve their roles in order to survive.

But it is not change that defines Metamorphosis in my eyes, but lack of change: stagnation. Although Gregor’s physical body changes so utterly that it is unrecognisable as a human form, the protagonist’s mind fails to evolve over the course of the story. Gregor approaches life after the metamorphosis, in a manner identical to life before it; in fact Gregor all but ignores the change of his physical body, spending a disproportionally small amount of time worrying about such a significant event. Before the metamorphosis, Gregor works as a travelling salesman. Despite hating the job, the man feels obliged to continue working there, enslaved by his desire to provide for the family. Similarly, after the metamorphosis, this feeling of unfreedom continues. Gregor suffers from isolation in his room, imprisoned within the flat. Intriguingly, Gregor’s overall lack of freedom (both before and after the metamorphosis) is entirely elective: Gregor has the ability to escape his detestable career, if only he abandons his family obligations; he also has the ability to try and escape the flat, and thus find liberty. Neither of these options even occur to Gregor, consequently, he continues to suffer.

This continuation of suffering, this mental indifference towards an evolving environment, poses an interesting idea: Gregor’s metamorphosis was simply an illusion. Before the metamorphosis the man was already an insect, (a fact unknown to both Gregor and the outside world). Gregor lacked friends, failing to even accomplish intimacy with his own family. In short: his life was meaningless, his body merely an empty shell (not dissimilar to an insect’s exoskeleton). The physical change, the metamorphosis, marks the falling of the Gregor’s veil; a chance for the world to finally observe Gregor for what he really is. Gregor, on the other hand, only accepts the metamorphosis at face value; failing to acknowledge the significance of the change. To put it crudely, Gregor is a ‘closet insect’, in so much denial that he fails to even perceive the closet around him.

Whilst I was reading Metamorphosis I was struck by an interesting and philosophical thought regarding human perception: we are blind until we are shown. Kafka was trying to alert us to the fact that we are living amongst illusions. Gregor masqueraded in human form only to discover himself to be an insect. And yet, despite his insect (insectual?) qualities, Gregor’s continuing love for his family and particularly, his sister’s music, demonstrates more humanity than any other character. An illusion within an illusion? The haughty bearded men who see the music as a short-lived muse; surely these are more likely impostors? Gregor’s sister’s journey into adulthood is hidden from her parents until the very final paragraph; yet another illusion? These illusions hide us from one another, but more importantly, they hide us from ourselves.

As humans we fail to look beneath the obvious, just as Gregor’s family fails to see their son and brother for who he really is. Our understanding of human identity is skin-deep; should our bodies change, our identity is also distorted and lost.

It has long fascinated me how, despite the brain’s control of all bodily organs, we are almost completely unaware of their presence beneath our flesh. If our organs were laid out before us, we would fail to recognise them as ourselves. This juxtaposition between our mental perception of reality and the physical truth of it, strikes disharmony between the mind and the body (an argument often used to support the existence of the soul). Indeed, Metamorphosis is as much about change (or lack thereof), as it is about this disconnection between the mind and the body.

Personally I do not believe in the existence of a soul (for reasons I shall not currently discuss), but the existence of this disharmony between the conscious mind and the body is undeniable. This disconnection becomes all the more prominent in the case of transgender individuals (people whose psychological gender identities do not match their assigned sex). Sufferers of Body Identity Integrity Disorder hold even more puzzling attitudes towards their own body, utterly believing that a particular section of it (i.e. a limb) does not belong to them.

Unfortunately I cannot answer with authority as to why our bodies seem to be so out of sync with our minds. Somehow I fear that, like the characters in Kafka’s tale, the answer is disguised: cloaked in illusion…

“Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

Walt Whitman – I Sing the Body Electric

Closed Door Democracy

In the past week, allegations have arisen relating to attempts by Prince Charles to influence government policy. Supposedly, the heir to the throne tried to persuade the former education secretary, David Blunkett, of the importance of grammar schools in the UK. Charles went onto communicate with other ministers during the Blair government, offering his ‘advice and opinions’. The content of such political activism is, ultimately, irrelevant: the main issue highlighted by these allegations is the fact that a member of the monarchy tried to wield more than he is constitutionally entitled to. The Prince is of course not a stranger to political controversy; in recent years he has been particularly vocal, expressing opinions regarding government failings, foreign hostility, architecture, the list goes on. Reactions to said activism have been predominantly negative: one republican campaigner, Graham Smith, went as far as to claim that the Prince’s meddling is “completely unacceptable in a democratic society”.

For me, this quote beautifully illustrates everything that’s wrong in the way that we approach and treat monarchs: here stands an advocate of democracy, stating that a citizen should be unable to actively participate in democracy. The hypocrisy?! And yet, Smith isn’t alone in his opinion: countless other articles and activists have condemned the activity as ‘wrong’.

I can’t help but disagree.

When I speak, I speak from the perspective of an anti-monarchist: I hold the inexorable belief that the monarchy (an icon of aristocracy and privilege) should be dissolved. I am willing to engage anyone in deep discussion as to why I am inclined towards such beliefs, but for the purpose of this text all that needs to known is this:

1. I believe that all people equally share the right to participate in democracy, and thus shape the future of their own lives.
2. The concept of a monarchy (in my opinion) exists in contradiction with the above principal.

So, why would I defend the British monarchy? The answer to this question lies in how we define a monarchal system. According to the little dictionary on my computer, a monarchy is: “a form of government with a monarch at the head”. In this regard, when I use the word monarchy, I am simply referring to the ‘concept’ of blood-related ruling family. I could not care less for the physical manifestation of this system (i.e. Charles and Elizabeth and the like). The leaders of a monarchy, regardless of their aristocratic tendencies, are but citizens in my eyes: just like you and me. Citizens which deserve the right to influence government policy.

For this reason, the reaction of the press to Prince Charles’ political activism is exactly the opposite to what I would desire to see. If we wish to dissolve the monarchy, to reduce them status of ordinary human beings, we must first begin by raising them to a platform upon which they can speak equally amongst the other citizens of the UK. Make no mistake, political negotiation should not happen in shady rooms behind closed doors: for this the Prince is at fault. But by creating separate rules for a monarchy, we are reinforcing the idea that the royal family are somehow ‘special’. And in doing so, we are jeopardising the very system which we seek to protect: democracy.