Weird #33: “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum (1949)

The first African writer included in The Weird, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum is a Beninese writer whose story “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” is a visionary journey from childhood to adulthood, from death to new life. Simple in its structure, yet primal in the emotions in conjures, Bhêly-Quénum’s story was called a “rêve a l’état brut” by André Breton, the French Surrealist. It is something of a surrealist ghost story in which the weird penetrates during an experience of being lost in the woods, much as it does in Dante’s Inferno and Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats.”

When an eleven-year-old boy gets lost in the woods while waiting for his father to return, he encounters a woman “wrapped in a white lappa” that conceals her body and discovers her “emaciated face, the face of a fleshless skull” (305). A vision of Death, she follows him throughout the forest as he frantically searches for his father. When he does find him, the child discovers that he failed to re-cross a river that his father re-crossed while trying to return to him–an image that could be symbolic of the child remaining, in some sense, in the realm of death afterwards.

Curious about whether the vision of the woman is real or not, the boy fearlessly returns to the woods to encounter the skeleton again. The child does not fear the skeleton. Despite his sheltered upbringing, he has already known the death of his grandparents and so he does not fear death as others do. He takes the skeleton’s hand and lets her lead him through the forest.

One saying of his grandfather’s resonates for him: that to navigate the forest he must act like a chameleon, “which rarely misses its destination because it knows how to adjust itself to its surroundings and never looks back” (306). The child does not understand what his grandfather meant, but he takes Death’s hand anyway and follows it through the forest, to a cave penetrated with tree roots, to a crypt where the skeletons of people who might be loved ones sit up, crossing their legs and arms. It is a journey to the underworld.

When he returns, he passes through Wassaï, “a house of joy without a keeper,” a place of sexual initiation where he “experienced unforgettable little tremors brought about by girls I did not know” (309). He wakes up on the side of a mountain and descends following a river, where he soon rediscovers the railway line and returns to his village.

Upon his return, his family is having a funeral for him, and he appears to them in the flesh, alive. He reassures his parents that he is not dead, but warns them not to ask him to explain what happened to him. He has come back from the dead.

As a final remark, the narrator says, “How long did this dream last? I shall never know” (310), implying that the dream of death-in-life and life-in-death has continued into the boy’s mature years, when he is narrating the story. Perhaps it is the condition of the human race itself that we must exist in this dream state between life and death.

The story is remarkable in its poetry but also the matter-of-fact way that the child interacts with the skeletal woman who represents Death. He is not shocked–he does not reject the skeleton as an “abject”–but rather accepts death as part of his world, as a part of himself. He claims to have no emotional reaction to seeing the things he sees, even when it comes to the skeletons in the crypt.

What a different emotional arc this story has compared to some of the stories of ghosts featured earlier in this anthology! Where an author like Lovecraft would turn the grave into something horrifying and abject–yawn–Bhêly-Quénum takes it in stride and lets a more profound theme shine through his work like “a light entering the place from heaven knows where” (308).

There’s certainly a Surrealist spirit behind this story, not only in the inclusion of strange and unusual images, but in the attitude the narrator has towards those images. In the same way that the boy takes Death by the hand, the Surrealists take the unconscious by the hand and let it lead them where it wants to go–not matter how strange or disturbing the journey is. In a way, the grandfather’s advice about the chameleon–to adapt to your surroundings and keep going forward, without looking back and becoming self-conscious or fearful–can be applied to the ideal state of mind of the Surrealist at work. It’s also reminiscent of the underworld myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Ouidah, the birthplace of the author, known as “the Voodoo Capital of the world,” is the site of a sacred forest known as Kpasse. Although I don’t know much about Voodoo, it would be interesting to learn how different the perspective of a Voodoo practitioner in reading this story would be from my own. The skeleton woman in this story may be an allusion to a specific figure within this religion. As a Westerner, I interpreted her as a general symbol for “Death.”

I found this one image of an ouroboros, a symbol of the eternal cycle of death and life. It is one of the symbols that the child in “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” sees during his walk with Death, and it’s located in the sacred forest in Benin. The snake biting its tail echoes the circular pattern of the Hero’s Journey and makes a satisfying image to contemplate as an illustration of this story.

Next week, I will be writing about Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950).

A Persian image of a colourful bird

Weird #32: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945)

I have set myself the task of speaking about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” but it would be impossible to tell you the number of ideas that spring to mind when I contemplate the story, since they occur to me simultaneously and human language is only sequential.

Imagine a point in space in which all other points are visible: a point of light that contains all lights, the perfect seeing-stone. Now imagine that the scenes of human life and nature that you would see upon gazing into it. It would be a dizzying experience to say the least, but this is the experience of one who reads “The Aleph.”

Somehow, Borges manages to pull off his conceit of making his readers visualize an object of such absurd but sublime proportions. He does so though a series of suggestive literary allusions to the Aleph throughout history and by making the Aleph the only absurd thing in an otherwise realistic story.

Borges is known as a mystic, a blind sage, and an architect of labyrinths. His writings have inspired surrealists and poststructuralists, with his most famous story being perhaps “On Exactitude in Science,” in which a Chinese Emperor orders the creation of a map that is exactly, point-for-point, the size of his kingdom–a frequently referenced fable of postmodernism.

In addition, countless authors have referenced his work. Neil Gaiman references “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the Sandman comics, through the images of Dream’s massive library and when Destiny’s garden. Likewise, Umberto Eco was inspired by this literary Daedalus when designing the labyrinthine library that burns to the ground at the end of in The Name of the Rose–with the monk Jorges’s name eerily suggestive of the Argentinian author’s.

Though he is not “a ‘weird’ writer per se,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Borges often treats of the “inexplicable” in his fiction (296). Indeed, “The Aleph” probably includes the most inexplicable phenomenon in the VanderMeers’ collection yet.

Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aleph.jpg

The story is simple enough. The narrator, Borges,a stand-in for the author, mourns his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo, and wishes to remember her very facet and angle. Gradually, he comes to know her cousin, Carlos Argentino Danieri, whose last name contains the first and last letters of name of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri.

Like Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a medieval epic of the divine cosmos, Danieri has given himself over to a grand oeuvre: an epic poem known as The Earth, which centres “on a description of our own terraqueous globe” (297)

Danieri reflects that communications technologies like the telegraph have shrunk the size of the world and that it should now be possible to write a poem treating of the entire planet as a subject. If this story had been written today, he might have tried to versify Google Earth. It is an impossible task, yet it is a goal to which he has applies himself, and not without hubris.

The ironic thing is that The Earth, based on fragmentary excerpts provided by the author, is a wholly unremarkable poem. Yet, Danieri praises his own unmemorable verses, to the extent that the narrator realizes “the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting poetry admirable” (298), a scathing critique of criticism that would do Ben Lerner proud (see The Hatred of Poetry). But the tone of the story shifts when Danieri reveals the source of his inspiration: the Aleph.

Danieri’s house is in danger of being demolished to make way for a café expansion. But Danieri needs the house to finish his oeuvre. Why? Because the Aleph is in his basement, “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (300). He has known about the Aleph from childhood and has been contemplating it as he writes his topographical epic.

The poet prevails upon Borges to enter his basement to see the Aleph for himself, at which point Borges realizes that he could be a madman, planning to murder him like in an Edgar Allan Poe story. However, these paranoid speculations are put to rest when he sees the mighty Aleph positioned under one of the basement steps.

What follows is a description of a marvellous encounter, in which the Aleph is compared to the four-faced angel from the book of Ezekiel and to the Simorgh, the bird of Persian legend, “a bird that somehow is all birds” (301). It is Alain de Lille’s “sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (301). Later in the story, it is compared to the mirror of Iskandar dhu-al-Qarnayn–an Islamic name for Alexander the Great–which is supposed to have revealed his whole kingdom at a glance. It is even linked to Merlin’s crystal ball, alluded to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The description of what exactly Borges sees in the Aleph takes up a long paragraph consisting of one of the more memorable list-descriptions in literature:

Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors on the planet, (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years before in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw clusters of grapes, snow, tobacco, veins of metal, water vapor, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand …

(301-2)

The list goes on to pile on potentially infinite details, reduced to a rich series of emblems. By this accumulation of detail, Borges makes it possible for the reader to believe, for a moment at least, that such a sublime object really exists.

Finally, the narrator emerges from the basement, still stunned by seeing the corporeal remains of the beloved Beatriz, whose shrivelled, worm-eaten bones he has now seen from infinite angles. He takes his revenge on Danieri by denying that he saw anything at all, implying he is a madman.

Eventually, the house is demolished, the Aleph lost, and the narrator wanders the world with a feeling of déjà vu everywhere he treads. Gradually, his memories of the Aleph fade away.

In a postscript, however, Borges writes that he suspects he encountered a false Aleph that day in Danieri’s basement. A manuscript penned by Sir Richard Francis Burton confirms that the universe itself is believed to reside in a pillar in Cairo’s Al-Amr mosque. “Does that Aleph exist, within the heart of a stone?” asks the narrator. “Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?” (303) The story ends with his lamenting of his own forgetfulness as he loses his memories of Beatriz.

The allusions to various works of philosophy and literature make “The Aleph” a rich and powerful text. I don’t know if there really is such a legend about the Al-Amr mosque in Cairo, but the present building has been rebuilt and restored several times. The original pillars taken from pre-Islamic temples would have been lost by now, if the universe ever did dwell inside one them.

There is something magical about how texts, through the sheer power of references, can make readers believe that a thing as absurd as the Aleph can really exist, in a geographically precise location. In a sense, “The Aleph” is thus not only a fascinating “What if?” story: it is a story about how references and allusions between texts can change our perception of reality, whether the reality of a space below a basement step or of the literary quality of a mediocre poem.

Borges demonstrates that language bears no resemblance to the Real, since it is just as impossible to describe what the Aleph reveals as it is possible for language itself to alter one’s perception of reality. In this way, “The Aleph” questions and, indeed, mocks, our construction of consensual reality. (See what else I’ve written about Borges’s critical irrealism.)

The richness of these allusions makes them fascinating to contemplate, in the way of benign conspiracy theories and pseudo-archaeological theories about “the secrets of the Pyramids” and other such “hidden histories.” Maybe the real Aleph is out there, waiting to be discovered by an intrepid adventurer. However, delving deeper into these allusions does reveal real, hidden connections that are suggestive of how Borges came up with the idea for “The Aleph.”

For instance, though Hebrew legend and the Kabbalah played a role in Borges’s conception of the Aleph, another source behind it comes from Sufism, by away of Sir Richard Francis Burton. I discovered that although the Burton manuscript that Borges mentions does not exist (to my knowledge), Borges may have learned the legend of the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay,” which accompanies his translation of the One Thousand and One Nights.

Burton became a Sufi while stationed in Sindh and would have read The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar while writing his Kasidah. Burton explains his understanding of Attar’s work in what Edward Rice calls “a short, very arcane two pages” (Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, 462). In this passage, the British explorer explains in detail how the Conference is an allegory of the Sufi path to achieving oneness with God, a solution to the question of “We and Thou” (qtd. in Rice 464).

Borges may have thus learned about the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay” and not necessarily directly from a translation of Attar. This could be another case of a reference taking precedence over the original, to the point where what’s significant for Borges is not so much Attar as Burton’s two pages referencing Attar.

This opens the discussion to the connection of the Aleph to Sufism more generally. When confronted with Sufism, I think immediately about Usman Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” a novella with more than a few parallels to “The Aleph.” In this Tor.com novella, which has been recently published in a short story collection, Malik, a Pakistani Sufi author, tells a modern fairy tale about the famous jam-e jam, or the Cup of Jamshid. The Cup has Aleph-like properties, allowing users to see the world of the jinn and explore the depths of dimensional space. I’m not sure Malik was directly inspired by Borges (though it is likely); however, he did take inspiration directly from Islamic Sufi sources such as Ibn Arabi, whose Meccan Revelations are the source of the novella’s epigraph. The Cup of Jamshid is Malik’s Aleph.

This is fitting since Borges mentions “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khosru,” another name of the Cup of Jamshid, as being among the Aleph’s analogues (303). Furthermore, it is Burton, the Sufi, who supposedly provides this analogy. Thus, each of these images–Cup of Jamshid, Simorgh, and Aleph–are linked.

Alif, the fist letter of the Arabic alphabet. (SnappyGoat.com)

Given these connections, it might be possible to read “The Aleph” as expressing a Sufi mystical conception of achieving oneness with the Infinite (God). This is fascinating because it provides a link between weird fiction (the subject of this blog series) and mysticism.

Is it possible to read weird fiction texts as mystical texts? Does such a reading work for some texts and not for others? The Arabic poet Adonis’s book Sufism and Surrealism may be suggestive and useful to advancing such a thesis, since it argues about a connection between Sufism and one of the literary streams that have influenced weird fiction. It is doubtful that a category as resistant to labels as weird fiction can be called mystical, but an answer to this question will be a topic for another another time.

At risk of beginning another tangent, it is time to move on from Borges. However, if you’re interested in reading more about what I think about this story, you can read my essay “The Criticial Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.”

Next week, I will be writing about Beninese writer Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1949).

Weird #31: “The Long Sheet” by William Sansom (1944)

“The Long Sheet” by William Sansom hits in a personal way. It is a Kafkaesque and Dantesque journey through a prison where a detailed method of torture serves as a reflection on different social attitudes towards work. When you read it, you may also feel criticized about your work habits.

As the editors indicate, it was published before the English translation of “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka was published, yet takes a very similar approach. It can be thought of as “weird fiction” for the same reason as Kafka’s story: it uses “weird ritual to illuminate society” (290). Instead of a mechanical torture device, however, the method of torture in Sansom is much simpler in outward appearance.

The story opens with an appeal to a common experience:

Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone dry–with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captives at Device Z when the warders set them the task of the long sheet.

(290)

The prisoners of Device Z have been placed in separate rooms within a tunnel-like steel box, across which is stretched a long, white sheet soaked with water. They are given the task of wringing the towel bone dry–not just dry enough to air out, but completely purged of moisture–in order to earn their freedom. This is a task not of a few minutes but of months and years. What’s more, the warders employ cruel tricks to complicate it, such as releasing just enough steam into the room to hinder them and ensure the prisoners will make no progress unless they work constantly.

Given this Sisyphean task, the prisoners in each room develop their own culture of work. The rooms become like circles of Dante’s hell–circles where the punishment administered is the same, yet the prisoners’ suffering varies, according to their attitude to the work. In a sense, they are prisoners of their own minds as much as prisoners of the steel box.

For example, in Room Three (Sansom presents them out of order), there are two couples and a Serbian grocer who develop a routine to accomplish their task. However, the attention they pay to their routine becomes too habitual, to the extent that they lose sight of the task itself. They “put in their time at the office” and then return home to give themselves a well-deserved break, with the result that the towel stays wet and they remain prisoners. A child is born to one of the couples, a child who will never be free due to the influence of the constricting routine their parents have established.

As if that wasn’t enough to drive you to despair, Room Two and Room Four contain equally hopeless people. In Room Two, there’s a man who tries to take as many shortcuts as possible, which are each thwarted by the wardens to his own detriment and that of his fellow prisoners; a man with deep-rooted childhood fears of wet towels who “will never be free” because his fear hinders him (292); a distracted man who fumbles his grip on the towel constantly; and a man who enjoys wringing the towel dry only to watch the steam dampen it again, who “liked to watch the fruits of his labour rot” (293). Each of these men are imprisoned as much by their own attitude as by the metal walls of their cubicles.

In Room Four, there is a group of people, including a twelve-year-old girl, who have already given up on freedom. They take no risks and are resigned to their fate. They put no effort towards wringing the towel at all, to the extent that even the young girl, who may have harboured ambitions, has absorbed Room Four’s slackness (put intended).

Finally, in Room One, Sansom presents a glimmer of hope. There is a group of men and women who are reluctant to engage in unproductive labour but choose to do so anyway, because at least, by applying themselves, they can achieve their freedom eventually. Their philosophy runs like this: “it is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production” (294).

The towel wringing is an essentially pointless task. These human beings have been alienated from any productive value their work can give them. But they can feel a certain amount of freedom by applying themselves to their work with a go-getter attitude. Under this energy, they apply themselves, and refine their technique, constantly evaluating the best way to wring the towel. They work hard in shifts, without tiring themselves out, and refine their technique.

Applying their full energy and creativity to the problem at hand, after seven years they succeed in wringing the towel dry and earning their freedom–only for the warders to drench the towel with a blast from a hose. The wardens do this because the prisoners already have their freedom. “Freedom lies in an attitude of the spirit,” say the wardens. “There is no other freedom” (295).

That last line crushed me as I was reading it. Sansom seems to suggest that there really isn’t any freedom at all, aside from one’s personal attitude. The warders’ actions represent this reality: we work our whole lives at school or at a job and dream of freedom, but ours is a world of work. Even when, or if, we retire, we’ll never be free from work. You need to look for freedom inside yourself instead.

In a way, writing this blog feels like wringing our a wet towel week after week. Will it bring me any benefit? I’m not sure, but I do it anyway because I have faith that I’ll get something out of it in the end. Perhaps this is the only freedom there is.

This story seems particularly well-suited to a Marxist interpretation as well. It can be seen as exposing the capitalist lie that a go-getter attitude and “positive thinking” really makes you free. After all, perhaps this idealism only makes a more docile and more materially productive workforce, labouring strenuously on tasks that produce commodities, but not on tasks that directly benefit them. Believing that freedom lies in attitude of spirit may comfort the worker, but really it distracts them from their real condition of alienation. Real freedom can only happen when workers control work for themselves and seize the means of production. The fact the warders can “dampen your towel” at any time shows the real relation between worker and employer, and that what may really be needed is a revolt against the warders, rather than playing the game by their rules.

The limits of this would be that even after a communist revolution, we would still need to work. Attitude may well be all the freedom we can exercise. At least, if one applies oneself to the task of towel-wringing with faith, tenacity, and ingenuity, one will not become a prisoner to oneself, like the inmates of Rooms 2, 3, and 4. In Camus, it’s the inner attitude of defiance that gives Sisyphus his sense of dignity; in Sansom’s “The Long Sheet,” there’s a similar existentialist observation about the human condition.

Next week I will be turning to a story that has obsessed me for a long time: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945). I could easily turn what I have to see on this story into a series of posts, but I will try to keep it brief.