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.

Franz Kafka

Weird #15: “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (1919)

“In the Penal Colony” (translated by Ian Johnston) was an interesting choice to include in The Weird. The obvious Franz Kafka story to include would have been The Metamorphosis (included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Classic Fantasy), which is certainly weird and alienating in the way much weird fiction is, including that of Alfred Kubin, which Kafka’s writer’s group influenced. But perhaps The Metamorphosis would have been too obvious a choice. Which begs the question: What exactly makes “In the Penal Colony” a better choice for this anthology?

The editors state that “the story’s reliance on strange ritual and its luminous clarity are grounded in a modernity that … represented a new approach to weird fiction” (133). Where the supernatural was a central aspect of the weird tale in earlier writers, Kafka has no concern with the past or its superstitions. Instead, it is grounded firmly the mechanistic horror of modernity, the “strange ritual” of which, while not occult, does tend to release humanity’s seemingly innate barbarism.

The elaborate torture device at the centre of the story, through its level of detail, becomes immense, becoming a symbol for more than the brutal task it is meant to accomplish. In fact, the story can be interpreted as an allegory for the cruelty exacted in modern society under the name of justice, and the tendency of good-meaning people to passively tolerate it.

It throws up a host of associations, from the punishing justice systems in the European colonies of the time to the cruelty of Nazi Germany. In contemporary society, it speaks to debates about the death penalty and torture. It can also read as an allegory of how cruelty is enacted and tolerated in prisons, the justice system, and police force, particularly as it affects BIPOCs.

Franz Kafka

The story is about an Explorer who who is invited to the penal colony by the Commandant. There he receives a guided tour of the torture apparatus by the Officer, an old man who has been maintaining and running the machine for years. The machine itself is composed of three parts: the Bed, the Inscriber, and the Harrow, the purpose of which is to lower the tips of needles onto the body and carry out the execution.

The Condemned is fitted into the Bed of the machine, where he is strapped down. Responding to the Explorer’s questions, the Officer explains that the Condemned Man has not been told his own sentence. “It would be useless to give him that information,” says the Officer. “He experiences it on his own body” (136). Indeed, the Inscriber marks the bodies of the criminals with the name of their crime. This exotic form of torture certainly pegs the story as weird, much as the torture in Georg Heym’s “The Dissection” (1913).

The Officer describes his method of ascertaining the man’s guilt:

Guilt is always beyond a doubt. […] If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so on. But now I have him and I won’t release him again.

(136)

This is not “guilty before being proven innocent.” The Officer’s idea of justice is “guilty.” Period. The Officer’s sense of justice is a travesty, and closer to fascism than anything else.

The Officer explains the man was instructed to stand watch and salute his captain on the hour. However, the captain apparently complained that when the man was to salute at two o’clock, he had fallen asleep. The Officer believes the captain’s testimony, calling it “the facts” (136). He doesn’t have to hear anything more, taking the testimony of the captain at face value, without hearing the Condemned’s story.

This reminds me of how Black victims of police shootings are so often presumed to be guilty, or violent, when police are called to respond to a crisis or a disturbance. In such altercations, efforts are rarely, if ever, made to learn both sides of the story. Perhaps the stories are heard eventually, but only long after the Black victim has been needlessly killed. The Officer represents this tendency to take the complaint at face value and use it as an excuse to perpetrate cruel, unnecessary violence in the name of “justice.” Though Kafka’s story was published in 1919, he anticipated not only the injustices of the Nazis but described the dynamics of injustice that still persist in North American society after hundreds of years.

The Explorer, a foreigner in the penal colony, believes that “the injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond a doubt” (139). However, he finds that actually taking action to destroy the machine that inflicts such unjust suffering is precarious. He reflects on his status as an outsider, saying, “It is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. If he wanted to condemn this execution, or even hinder it, people would say to him: You are a foreigner–keep quiet” (139). Non-intervention keeps him from taking decisive action.

Franz Kafka statue (Prague)

Furthermore, the Officer has his own designs. He gives the Explorer a long speech about the machine has seen better days–it has a squeaky wheel, and replacement parts are hard to come by. He waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the old Commander himself would officiate at the executions and crowds of people would gather to see it. And he complains about the current Commander, who he senses is slowly trying to undermine him with the goal of eventually getting rid of the machine. In fact, the Commander may have invited the Explorer to the colony for the very purpose of asking his opinion on the island’s particular customs regarding executions. In short, if the Explorer were to help the Officer and voice his favourable opinion of the machine during a public meeting with the Commander, he would be doing him a favour.

To do so, it would be necessary is for the Explorer to hide his true opinions, before speaking his unshakeable opinion during the meeting. The Officer essentially grooms him to speak like a politician:

Unless someone asks you directly, you should not express any view whatsoever. But what you do say must be short and vague. People should notice that it has become difficult for you to speak about the subject, that you feel bitter, that, if you were to speak openly, you’d have to burst out cursing on the spot. I’m not asking you to lie, not at all. You should give only brief answers — something like, “Yes, I’ve seen the execution” or “Yes, I’ve heard the full explanation.” […] Naturally, [the Commandant] will completely misunderstand the issue and interpret it in his own way.

(142)

The Officer’s instructions are a precise description of how politicians speak complacently about problematic, unjust policies. Rather than risk alienating voters who may approve of such policies, politicians, even those who wish to reform, often speak meaninglessly on the issue, cloaking their own opinion, and they do so in term such as the Officer has just described. This vague language enables the injustice to persist.

The Officer then ask the Explorer to voice his approval of the machine during the meeting with the Commandant. But in the end, the Explorer says, “No” (145). He says that he will be leaving the penal colony on the boat the next day. In the end, his desire not to get caught up in the colony’s affairs outweighs his desire to take action.

The Officer puts on a smile, but inside, he knows his bid has been ruined. Unexpectedly, he frees the Condemned from the machine. Then he strips naked, breaking his sabre in half and throwing it into a cesspit. Lying down on the Bed of the machine, he kicks the lever to begin the torture, setting the machine upon himself. As it spins into motion, the machine begins to fall apart, with gear wheels falling out of the Inscriber. Needles stab his body, killing him plain and simple. In the end, “his gaze was calm and convinced [and] the tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead” (147).

The Officer’s condemnation of himself and freeing the prisoner is striking, and the Condemned is obviously confused by this reversal. I believe the Officer dies because he has seen that the time of his torture machine is at an end. The Officer was simply holding true to his own absolutist idea of justice and applying the same law that he had applied upon the Condemned on himself. Rather than dismantle the model of justice he believes in, he, like Javert in Les Misérables, commits suicide rather than question the worldview by which he has lived.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The White Wyrack” (1921) by the demonologist and Polish weird fiction author Stefan Grabiński, sometimes known as the Polish Poe. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m wondering if in Gabriński we won’t see a kind of precedent for Andrzej Sapkowski and his Witcher books.