dingy sanatorium beds by a window

Weird #25: “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass'” by Bruno Schulz (1937)

Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz’s “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” reads like someone telling you a vivid, detailed dream: a dream that they had while mourning the death of their father after an wasting illness.

Not everything that happens in the story makes sense after a first read. But the bizarre things the protagonist encounters seem to be symbols of his psyche, allegories of anxieties related to this period of mourning. When my grandfather died, I had dreams of him still being alive myself. But what if a Sanatorium advertised that you could meet your dead father again, if only you took the long train ride out to it?

This is that story and so much more. It is deliciously slow, languid, and bleak, constructing a mood of deadness and sleepiness from the first sentence onward. Yet the core of the story–a son who desires to meet and comfort his ailing father in the hospital where he’s staying–retains an emotional relateability that makes the story accessible, despite its dreamlike warping of time–and other, stranger appearances.

I think this may be my favourite weird story in the anthology so far. There are no ghosts or eldritch creatures here, unless the father can be counted a kind of ghost. Joseph, the protagonist, arrives at the Sanatorium after traveling a long railway line filled with labyrinthine cabins with almost nobody riding with him. One senses the train to be a kind of Charon guiding him into the underworld to see the shades of the dead.

Joseph has come to the Sanatorium to see his father, who has fallen gravely ill. However, when he meets Dr. Gotard, the doctor reveals that his father has actually died long before. He says, “You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. [But] here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet” (250). In effect, time is relative at the Sanatorium and his father exists in two simultaneous states: at home, he is dead, while here he is alive.

Alive and always very sleepy. Even at the Sanatorium, there are two versions of Joseph’s father: the father convalescing who sleeps in bed and the busy father who runs a small shop in the town centre. In the shop, the son insists that his father should take it easy, that he’s sick and working too hard, but his father resists the draw of sleep. “It was obvious that only the excitement of his feverish activity sustained him and postponed the moment of complete collapse,” Joseph says (253). But his father says the business of the stall beats back his dreadful boredom: “And so one manages somehow to live” (251).

He means it literally. It’s as if his work not only gives him a reason to live, but makes it possible for him to live at all.

This strange doubling of Joseph’s father is far from the weirdest thing in this story, which is filled with atmosphere and strangely jarring images. The door to Joseph’s father’s room opens “like unresisting lips that part in sleep” (250), a metaphor that captures the mood exactly. When Joseph receives a parcel with a letter saying his order for a pornographic book will be delayed, he receives a strange telescope in compensation, which envelops him and advances “like a large black caterpillar … into the lighted shop–an enormous paper arthopod with two imitation headlights on the front” (253). Though the image seems phallic, its sheer strangeness defies any reductive Freudian interpretation. Yet, this surreal transformation seems to follow the logic of dreams.

At a later point in the story, war is declared. The nature of the conflict is unclear, but the enemy emboldens the discontented local townspeople. What follows is an ominous, dreamlike description of a fascist parade. The people

come out in the open, armed, to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants. We noticed, in fact, a group of these activitist, in black civilian clothing with white straps across their breasts, advancing in silence, their guns at the ready. The crowd fell back onto the pavements, as they marched by, flashing from under their hats ironical dark looks, in which there was a touch of superiority, a glimmer of malicious and perverse enjoyment, as if they could hardly stop themselves from bursting into laughter.

(257)

The swastika is not mentioned explicitly, but it’s clear that these men are Nazis. If the black shirts and white bands are not enough of a hint, then the ironic glances and air of superiority are enough. I’ve personally seen these same faces in newspapers and online images, only they were wearing red MAGA hats instead of black shirts. Schulz could be describing a civilian parade in support of the Nazis or the white supremacist mob that demonstrated in Charlottetown–or even the recent mob that stormed and looted the US capitol on January 6th.

The invasion of the Nazis into the bizarre dream world upsets the order of life. Suddenly, his father is in danger. The Nazis appearing is particularly ominous, given the fact that the author himself, Bruno Schultz, would eventually be killed by the Nazis only five years after the publication of this story.

Joseph’s father tells him to return to the Sanatorium, which is when Joseph encounters the most bizarre thing guarding the entrance, a surreal Cerebus–an attack dog that has the form of a man. The man-dog chases him until it reaches the end of its leash. Joseph unchains the man-dog, pitying it, and earning its sympathy. The man-dog then follows him around as Joseph tries to get rid of it and find his father. Then he fears what will happen when his father encounters the dog. This is when he remembers that his father is, actually, dead. The dream is ending. He escapes the Sanatorium by train just as he arrived, and he never leaves it, wandering the many carriages as a beggar wearing a railwayman’s uniform.

It’s quite striking how the appearance of the Nazi-like figures presage the end of the dream, as if the threat they pose also disrupts the Sanatorium’s privileged relationship to time. So many images in this surreal piece beg to be interpreted at length, and the whole story proceeds with an inner logic of its own that cannot be easily grasped, but which seems to make sense on the level of dreams.

For example, what could be the dog’s significance? A chained man who appears from a distance to be a dog reminded me of what a dehumanized Nazi prisoner might look like. Yet, the image is sustained: the man-dog is fully a dog, though he has the exterior features of a man: “his jaws [are] wide open, his teeth bared in a terrible growl, … a man of middle height, with a black beard” (258). Why does it attack Joseph and why is Joseph so eager to get rid of it after he frees it from its chains?

In the end, what could the railway itself symbolize, particularly given Joseph’s decision in the end to live on it “continuously”? (259) Does the train represent a return to ordinary life, or to a state somewhere between life and death? It is notable that Joseph is never said to return home, to his native country where his father has died. He remains suspended between worlds, on the heterotopia of the constantly moving train.

“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is a rich story with many dimensions to it, and worth noting for the mood it creates and its beautiful description of the bleak forest surrounding the Sanatorium. This has certainly been one of the genuinely “weirdest” short stories in this anthology so far. It is also a profound exploration of the dislocation of grief.

Next week, I will be examining Robert Barbour Johnson, a pulp writer for Weird Tales magazine, and his weird tale “Far Below” (1939).

The goddess Arachne.

Weird #9: “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915)

The goddess Arachne.
The goddess Arachne.

Trigger warning: suicide.

A series of suicides, carried out in exactly the same fashion, at the same hour of the day, between three victims who should by all account have been happy with their lives, prompts a medical student, Richard Bracquemont, to investigate. The only link between the three men is a black spider that is seen crawling out from their mouths when their bodies are found hanged by the windowsill. The detail is soon forgotten by the investigators.

“The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers is a grim, existential story. The subject matter was probably what caused me to take so long in writing this reflection; I had to be in the right mind space to write about suicide. But this story is not so much about existential despair, as the idea that infatuation and pleasure can be so strong that it overrides the will to live.

While philosophers such as Sartre have pondered the philosophy of committing suicide as an existential act, and in the process perhaps romanticized it to a problematic extent, the fact is that there often is no reason at all for people to commit suicide, though there may be a cause. Depression, for example, is a disease of the mind; the suicidal ideation it may cause is fundamentally non-rational, a chemical process. But this doesn’t stop survivors and witnesses of suicide from grappling for reasons “why” their loved ones kill themselves, even and especially if there aren’t any truly satisfying answers.

It’s this way with celebrity suicides. People look for a reason for why Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain might have committed suicide. But often, there is no answer. They simply had a bad day and made a decision which they might have revoked five minutes later, but which they can now never take back. Often, there simply is not a rational reason for someone to go through with it, although people demand an answer–certainly the newspapers and magazines that have to turn out a story need an answer.

“The Spider” explores the non-rational aspect behind the psychology of suicide. At first, the spider provides a grim comfort by supplying a cause, if not an actual reason, for these three mysterious suicides, which is arguably more comforting than the finding no explanation at all. The spider crawling out from the mouths of each of the hanged bodies suggests that suicide is contagious like a disease, and that this spider has somehow infected these men with suicidal thoughts. (The idea of suicide as contagious does contain a grain of truth. News articles about suicide have been shown to increase suicide rates around the time of publication.) “The Spider” plays off the irrational human fear of literally “catching” a suicidal impulse another suicide.

The spider thus first appears as a supernatural cause that appears to explain the inexplicable. Perhaps the spider’s association with suicide–specifically, hanging–owes itself to the spider’s connection with Arachne, the Greek mortal woman who hanged herself after being punished for winning a weaving competition against the goddess Minerva, who transformed her out of pity into a spider. Was it Arachne herself who caused the deaths of the three victims, the anonymous Swiss traveling salesman, actor Karl Krause, and policeman Charles-Maria Caumié?

In a way, it is.

Bracquemont knows nothing of the spider. However, he spends several weeks in the same room where the men were found hanged in order to write a report for the police. He lies to them, hinting that he’s on the trail of some fundamental clue. He soon feels drawn to the window where the men killed themselves–but not to hang himself. Instead, he gazes out the window at the woman living in the upper room across the street who has captured his imagination: Clarimonde.

Clarimonde is remarkably like Arachne: she sits by the window across the street from him, weaving, while wearing a black dress with purple spots, much like the observed spider. Soon, he begins playing a game with Clarimonde: any gesture of his, be it a smile, a nod, or a complex series of hand movements, she can replicate almost simultaneously. They play this game at the windowsill and, gradually, she seduces him and he falls in love.

However, with her, he feels “a strange comfort and a very subtle fear” (82). Eventually, he discovers that she is not replicating his motions; rather, she is controlling him.

By the time Clarimonde has finished her seduction, Bracquemont is aware that his love for her is “a compulsion of an unheard-of nature and power, yet so subtly sensual  in its inescapable ferocity” (88). In 1920, Sigmund Freud would publish Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he describes the death drive (Thanatos). Ewers, a German writer, paints a psychological portrait of a very similar psychological impulse five years earlier. Seduced by death, Bracquemont finds that he must surrender his will and replicate Clarimonde’s movements, even as she ties a red curtain cord in her apartment into a slipknot. He soon replicates the same action in his own room–and then goes through it, always deliciously copying her own movements.

By the end of the story, it is clear that the spider itself did not infect the three suicides, but, rather, each man was lured by the seductions of a beautiful, supernatural woman. It is not so much that they despaired of living, but that they were so overpowered by pleasure that they gave in to Clarimonde’s game, even to the point where it killed them. In linking Eros to Thanatos, Ewers draws a link between these two impulses in the human mind, suggesting how human beings fall in love with death. “The Spider” is a decadent tale that is also a prescient psychological portrait that convincingly represents the transformation of a rational mind into a self-destructive one.

Next, I hope for a change of mood out of this grim fare. I’ll be discussing “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali polymath.

***

Addendum:

When I step back from this story, I am struck by how it reflects the death drive that exists in Internet culture, especially when it comes to dangerous social media “challenges.” It was recently reported how a fifteen-year-old died playing the Benadryl challenge on Tik-Tok. If Bracquemont and Clarimonde had not been staring out the window at each other, they might have been sharing videos with each other on Tik-Tok. They would share videos of themselves copying each other’s increasingly complex movements until it is no longer clear who is copying who, and it ends in death. The framework of a “game” and a sense of competition are fully capable of making people forget their health. Once the dopamine loops gets started up, it can override the will to live. This makes even doomscrolling on Twitter a form of death, since while you’re doing it, the dopamine is firing in your brain and you’re being subject to an intricate Web not unworthy of Clarimonde, which Twitter users weave through clickbait headlines and polarizing hot takes. Soon, you forget your own sense of free will, and you begin to sense the feed is controlling you, not the other way around, and you don’t know where it’s leading you.

I don’t want to come across as overly critical of social media, but at the same time, I think it’s fascinating how “The Spider” can speak to the psychological dynamics of social media in a very specific way. Social media has a tendency to create copycats, to influence others’ ways of thinking and doing things. In this, it weaves a tangled Web. Sometimes it’s harmless, or even good, since people can be encouraged to perform good deeds through social pressure (for example, when you see posts of friends who’ve donated to a charity and then donate to one yourself). But this copycat tendency in social media has also encouraged the spread of intolerant doctrines and even mass murder. All this goes to show “The Spider” has even more perennial relevance than I thought it did at first.

“Return to Methuselah”

“Return to Methuselah,” one of my short stories, is now available at Dark Fire Fiction!

It’s a dark fantasy of an immortal painter who has become fed up with his immortality.

I came up with this story after reflecting on the classical paradox of living an immortal life. An immortal can live forever, but in repayment, he must die every day, lost within his memories of those whom he has outlived. A moment often comes when an immortal realizes that dying once is better than dying a thousand times, and he asks the gods to grant him death. This story is based on that epiphany.

Although it is published on a “dark fantasy” web magazine, I was initially unaware that this was the genre I had unconsciously chosen. The idea wasn’t to write “dark fantasy,” but to use fantasy to explore themes in existentialism and art, which is what must have made it dark.

This initial premise gained depth when, in university, I learned that art is about destruction and creativity is inspired by pain. Taking classes on Canadian poetry, I learned about Leonard Cohen’s martyr-prophet persona and Michael Ondaatje’s existential struggles with the eventuality of death. The ever-present shadow of doom may cause the artist to fall into silence, but it can also inspire him/her to create art, to become ‘immortal’ as an artist. These teachings resonated with me then, because I could see their truth in the sufferings of certain people I know, who went through life-threatening situations, and afterwards created art–partly as therapy, partly due to the inspiration that a new perspective on life had given them.

But what if an artist were immortal? Would you even bother to make art, if you could expect to live on for decades and centuries? Without death, the enemy of great art is dead–but the artist’s  projects die too. That is the paradox my story explores.

 

Since Dark Fire does not have a comments section, feel free to use this post to leave your feedback. I’m curious about my public’s reaction.

More stories will become available as I send out more short stories. I have an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short that I’m shopping around, along with some longer stories. But for now, I hope you enjoy “Return to Methuselah.”

-M.R.

desert

Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rub_al_khalid_sunset_nov_07.JPG