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.

Weird #14: “Unseen — Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (1919)

Gertrude Barrows Bennett

Content warning: racism, suicide.

Francis Stevens is the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female author of science fiction and fantasy. She has been compared to (and even been mistaken for) A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft wrote approvingly of her famous novel Claimed, which is about the summoning of an ancient god in New Jersey. Her short story “Unseen – Unfeared” is billed by the editors of The Weird as a classic weird tale.

“Unseen – Unfeared” is motivated by a curiosity about the unknown things that lie outside of human experience: a greater unknown which science and religion cannot altogether explain. Like in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” curiosity is rewarded with despair and terror at the realization of the grim condition of the human race. The most merciful thing here is the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” The story can also be seen as proto-Lovecraftian in its anti-humanism, its racism, and in how the two relate together.

The story begins with the narrator meeting a detective in an Italian restaurant by chance, discussing how Holt, an experimental chemist, has been falsely accused of poisoning an assistant. The people in this part of town are suspicious of Holt, given his experiments, and they accuse him of using the Evil Eye. The detective gives the narrator a cigar and goes on his way.

The narrator wanders down South Street, feeling sick from sour wine, and has several encounters in which he voices his disgust of the ethnic minorities of this neighbourhood–a group that includes Black people, Jews and Italians. This naturally gave me pause as I confronted the racist fear depicted in this story. It reminded me of the essay about Lovecraft, “Why We Can’t Ignore Lovecraft’s White Supremacy.” Racial fear disturbs Stevens’s narrator at visceral level, in a way that is disturbing in itself to read, because it convincingly puts the reader in the shoes of a racist walking through a poor, ethnic neighourhood.

Curiously, much of the narrator’s fear at South Street’s “nameless dread” is directed towards Italians. Italians were considered racial others at this point in American history, and as Catholics, they were viewed as being more superstitious than Protestant Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the malocchio, or Evil Eye.

One depiction of a young Italian struck me because of how similar it was to the demonizing language used by police to justify the use of racist violence against Black and Latinx people. The narrator remarks that the young man is “handsome after the swarthy manner of his race, but never in my life had I seen a face so expressive of pure, malicious cruelty, naked and unashamed. Our eyes met and his seemed to light up with a vile gleaming, as if all the wickedness of his nature had come to a focus in the look of concentrated hate he gave me” (126). This look of hatred has no cause, no reason, and so it is attributed to the man’s “nature,” which is a concept not so far removed from his race.

The sense of racial fear is palpable in this description. That Italians are no longer subject to such demonizing descriptions in 2020, but Black people still are, is testament to the unevenness of their experiences of assimilation into white culture. Anti-Black racism in North American society clearly endures today, while Italians and other European immigrants have had the privilege of becoming “racially united through assimilation” into white culture (DiAngelo, White Fragility, 49). (DiAngelo references Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White to develop this point.) However, in 1919, this assimilation had not yet occurred, and this passage reveals what racist fear of Italians might have looked back then.

The racial fear that the narrator experiences, a fear towards all the racialized groups that inhabit it (not just Italians), eventually expands to encompass the whole human race. Like Lovecraft’s fiction, “Unseen – Unfeared” has an anti-humanist philosophy at its core.

An antique camera

To get back to the story, the narrator finds a sign advertising “THE GREAT UNSEEN” (125) and enters the building to sit out his sense of unease and paranoid fear, expecting to find a museum exhibit to distract himself. There he encounters an old man with grey hair and black eyes who shows him inside a laboratory where he has been experimenting with colour photography.

By chance, the old man has stumbled upon a rare, pearlescent-gray plant membrane from South America, which, when applied as a lens to his camera, sets off an abundance of light that reveals the existence of creatures who have never before been observed by the human eye.

The empty air now appears to be crowded with insects, arachnids, and invertebrates–huge, writhing, tentacled creatures who climb all over the room. In addition, there “were the things with human faces. Mask-like, monstrous, huge gaping mouths and slitlike eyes” (129). The fear the narrator has felt up to now becomes a dizzying, as if he has learned to see the panoply of microscopic germs, viruses, and parasites that pervade our world.

But these are not mere germs or viruses. The old man explains what the creatures are, crying, “Among such as these do you move every hour of the day and night. Only you and I have seen, for God is merciful and has spared our race from sight. But I am not merciful! I loathe the race which gave these creatures birth […] man has made these! By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!” (129)

This revelation can be interpreted as justifying the narrator’s vague disgust about racial others due to the fact the human race is beastly as a whole. But it is also a moment where the narrator comes to hate the sight of his own hate–because it is hate that has created these abominations.

The narrator is immediately seized with terror and reaches such a depth of despair and loathing for the progenitors of these creatures that he wishes to kill himself, to prevent himself from birthing any more of the hideous beasts. However, he ultimately faints before he can go through with the deed. The old man is seized by the same impulse, and succeeds.

When he awakens, the narrator becomes convinced the vision was a dream. The detective revives him and explains that his vision of the old man was caused by the drugged cigar he gave him back at the Italian restaurant. However, when the narrator discovers the pearlescent membrane still in the lab, he becomes tempted to try the experiment again, to see if his vision of the creatures was real. In the end, the detective encourages him to burn it and they do, because “doubt is sometimes better than certainty” (132).

This ending resolves the story’s disturbing anti-humanist claims in a way that would have been palatable for readers of People’s Favourite Magazine, where the story first appeared. There’s no doubt that this is a racist story. However, it is remarkable to see how the narrator’s disgust with specific groups of people soon becomes a generalized hatred for the human race as a whole, including himself: for humanity’s brutishness and pettiness, for its sinfulness and its failure to live up to higher ideals. I’m not sure if the narrator’s realization “redeems” the story of its racism, but just as the depiction of racial others as brutish reinforces the narrator’s anti-humanism, his urge towards suicide could imply that he has recognized the hatred and fear that exists inside himself.

I would venture even to say that “Unseen – Unfeared” can be read allegorically (somewhat against the grain) as a reflection on what it means to notice racism in society. In our contemporary society, racism is almost invisible (much of the time), though it is still enshrined in racist policy and institutions. We (White people especially) need the special lens of an anti-racist education to get better at seeing where racism exists: where it infests our society like so many many-legged millipedes and spiders.

Once we do learn to see and recognize the effects of racism, we must resist the temptation to forget it. Unlike the horror that grips the narrator, witnessing the horror of racism in all its grotesquerie won’t kill us.

This being said, I’m not certain Francis Stevens intended such a message to be made of her story. To the anti-humanist, human progress is futile, if not absurd–including progress towards racial equality. Human beings may strive towards progress, but they will inevitably succumb to their base nature eventually and lose any sense of progress that has been made. This worldview is undeniably bleak, though it must have been radical for its time in its condemnation of sins of the human race.

Today, we’re all too aware of how humans behave like a virus, depleting the earth’s natural resources and slowly destroying our environment through pollution and climate change. Rather than express a bland humanistic optimism, “Unseen – Unfeared” expresses a condemnation of humanity itself. It is a vision of humanity that is so bleak, the only rational response is suicide or to forget that this situation exists, as the author makes clear. In light of this, perhaps humanism and the pursuit of racial equality only makes sense if you forget humanity’s meaningless position in the universe.

Perhaps that bleak situation isn’t such a bad thing to try to forget.

N.B.: I noticed a passing parallel to “Unseen – Unfeared” in Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” in which a woman endowed with a rare power notices her Ivy League date’s ugly thoughts, which are described as being “covered in spines and centipede feet, [glistening] with ancient grudges” (The New Voices of Fantasy, 21). Here, hate and misogyny becomes visibly manifested as insects and vermin to those who can see them. It seemed to me that Wong was either inspired by Francis Stevens in crafting this image or inspired by the same broader cultural associations that inspired “Unseen – Unfeared.”

Speaking of centipedes and cockroaches, next week, I’ll be writing about “In the Penal Colony” (1919) by the iconic Franz Kafka, who wrote the most famous cockroach story of all.

Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Liana

Weird #11: “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini (1917)

a green man waterspout“The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini is a simple enough story of a man whose skin has turned completely green.

He explains how he became infected with this unique illness. Seduced by the mysteries of science’s unexplored frontier, Olivares goes on an expedition to the Brazilian interior in search of new forms of plant life. There he discovers a plant that “seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science,” a plant that cannot wholly be categorized as vegetable, but which has the appearance of “human limbs without skin” (98). Pricked by a thorn, he soon experiences the first subtle symptoms of what becomes a wasting disease that turns his skin green and leads to other mutations besides.

Soon, Doctor Benito Olivares literally becomes a green man: half-vegetable, half-man.

Appearing in the Italian journal The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea in 1917, “The Vegetable Man” reads like a traveler’s tale from a distant corner of the earth. Like Indiana Jones, Doctor Olivares is an adventure scientist like you might find in a pulp story who is dedicated to “[penetrating] the virgin forests” and pushing the frontier of knowledge (97). However, with that sense of guarded mystery comes a sense of intruding into what nature never intended humanity to see. Twice, the Guaraní Indians try to warn him about the samples he took of the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants.

Perhaps most uncanny are the leaves of this plant. Resembling a prickly pear, they have “two oval scuttulem” on them, resembling “two very human eyes that seemed to stare out at me in an unpleasant and sinister way” (98). When the green man pulls off his gloves, his hands are revealed to have been turned into these same, shapeless leaves, with uncannily human eyes.

Doctor Olivares claims to have been born in Santos, Brazil, and he donates his samples of the Olivara vigilans to the Museum of Natural History in Buenos Aires. This puts Ugolini’s story in the vicinity of another great weird fiction writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Buenos Aires is Borges’s storied home city; in his famous story, “The Aleph,” Santos happens to be the Brazilian town where Pedro Henriquez Ureña supposedly found Sir Richard Francis Burton’s manuscript on the Aleph.

Details like these have me imagining a weird fiction “shared universe.” What would Borges (who suffered from blindness) have thought of Olivara vigilans, a plant he would have been unable to see with his own eyes, even though the plant itself could “see” him?

I was astonished to find tangential links to Jeff VanderMeer and H.P. Lovecraft in Ugolini as well. For one, Olivara vigilans is described in a similar way to how Lovecraft describes the shoggoth fossils in At the Mountains of Madness. Both straddle the uncanny line between the vegetable and the animal. For instance, Lovecraft describes the shoggoth as a “barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature,” defying categorization, such that Lake cannot decide whether they are “vegetable or animal.”

In comparison, Ugolini’s scientist describes Olivara vigilans as “a living contradiction” in terms of classification, a plant that is “in itself an order, family, species, variety …  with palmate leaves that were thick and fleshy” (98). The discovery upends the categories scientists use to classify and order the physical world, throwing such artificial boundaries into doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, the liana, “the octopus of the forest” (98) which strangles trees in the grove where Olivares finds the Olivara vigilans, is almost an echo of the strangling vines that move around in the fungal lettering left behind by the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even more of  a strong echo are the all-too human eyes growing out of the plant’s leaves, which call to mind the all-too human eyes of the dolphin the Biologist glimpses in Area X. The implication in Annihilation is that those who visit Area X somehow get transformed into animals, yet retain uncanny traces of their humanity. In a similar way, this is Olivares’s fate; he becomes “reclaimed” by the natural world after being infected with the Olivara vigilans‘s poison.

As I continue to notice parallels between VanderMeer’s work and the stories he and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, included in this anthology, I am strongly reminded again of what Borges wrote in “Kafka and His Precursors”: every author creates their own precursor. The weird fiction authors included in this anthology may have seen each other as influences, or they may not have done so. But VanderMeer acts as both author and critic, creating the predecessors of the New Weird as a literary movement through his role as editor of this anthology, even as he drops teasing hints as to who his own, personal precursors may have been. Even if “The Vegetable Man” did not inspire Annihilation directly, they are both holding a conversation with the same literary zeitgeist.

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

Next week, I’ll be getting into pulp adventure with Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” I have discussed one of Indiana Jones’s predecessors, Merritt’s The Moon Pool, elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll be in familiar territory when I write about it next week.

Rabindranath Tagore

Weird #10: “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

Rabindranath Tagore, who “is credited with originating the Bengali-language version” of the short story form (91), wrote several ghost stories. However, according to The Weird‘s editors, “The Hungry Stones” (1916) is the most “overtly weird, or supernatural” of his tales. It is the kind of short story known as a yarn, a rapturous tale told by a narrator who is probably making it all up, but who is nonetheless entertaining. Thus, there is no expectation for the storyteller to be believable or realistic, although the narrator’s story is framed through the viewpoint of a more trustworthy “I.”

My acquaintance with Tagore is limited, but he is a giant of Indian letters. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize and his advocacy initiated a literary renaissance at a time when the Indian independence movement was gaining steam. His Bengali-language novel Ghaire Baire, or The Home and the World, dramatizes the conflict between his love for European culture and his sympathies for the revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, who were revolting against European culture. This novel was somewhat famously reviewed by Gyorgy Lukacs, the Marxist literary theorist, who compared the revolutionary Sandip to Gandhi, even though Gandhi had not yet come into his fame.

In a sense, “The Hungry Stones” is also a revolt against European culture–a revolt of the senses and of the imagination against drab modernism. The order of India’s colonized, modernist present is upset by India’s glorious, sensuous and sensual Mughal-dynasty past.

The story begins with the narrator encountering an eccentric but confidently knowledgeable and talkative man on the train, who claims knowledge of the Vedas and the Persian poets. I had a sense of the narrator as a modern Indian since he has “no pretense to knowledge of the Vedas” despite the fact he shows enough devotion to be returning from a “Puja trip.” The strange man seems touched by divine knowledge. The narrator’s companion, a theosophist, claims he might be supernaturally inspired by an astral body.

While waiting for a connecting train, the two men are held captive by the fellow, who has their attention for hours as he tells his yarn.

The man claims he was a collector of cotton duties in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the city of Barich, in which there is a marble palace built for Emperor Mahmud Shah III’s pleasure. The palace still stands, abandoned. When the man ventures inside, he is confronted with the loneliness of the deserted building. However, at night, he hears, but does not see, the pattering feet and the charming giggles of Persian damsels as they playfully chase each other and bathe in the reservoirs. The speaker feels a thrill of desire and curiosity and becomes raptured by the dream of the marble palace, so much so that his ordinary life, in which he wears a short, English coat and tight breeches, becomes an absurd dream. “It seemed as if a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through,” he says (91), suggesting how the two eras of history are parted only by a voyeuristic veil. In a way, colonial India was also characterized by this sense of the simultaneity of different historical eras, with the modern and the medieval coexisting side by side.

Though this story is certainly more delightful than Hans Heinz Ewers’s grim “The Spider,” it still makes a similar connection between seduction, decadence, madness, and death. In Ewers, Bracquemont’s fate is at one point compared to that of a spider who lures another spider into her web and eats him. In Tagore, the cotton duty collector is lured by one Persian maiden in particular who “beckoned [him] with her five fingers bedecked with rings to follow her cautiously” into “one of the thousand and one Arabian Nights … a trysting-place fraught with peril” (93). He becomes ecstatic with the richness of this new world, where he dresses like a prince, shedding his modern clothes. The Arab maiden treats him with “a caress and many a kiss and many a tender touch of hands,” seducing and entrapping him so that he gives up his “queer English coat and hat for good” (94). The palace consumes him like Ewers’s spider. Only the cry of Meher Ali, the madman whose cry is “All is false!” brings the speaker to his senses and saves him from staying a third, fatal night.

“The Hungry Stones” is an orientalist fantasy of desire, which may appear strange coming from an Indian, rather than the usual European living out his exotic sexual fantasies. However, I propose that if Tagore does participate in the orientalism of the European literature he admired, then it can be argued he simultaneously reclaims those fantasies for his own, native tradition.

Tagore’s story merits the label “weird fiction” partly based on the description of the marble palace, whose hungry stones consume the speaker. “I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice,” he says (91). This description of architecture as a living organism devouring the trespasser reminded me of editor Jeff VanderMeer’s description of the Tower in his weird fiction novel, Annihilation. In Annihilation, a biologist is drawn deep into an underground tower where a dangerous monster lurks in its depths. She notices the walls are not stone, as she previously thought, but some kind of organic matter, and that the Tower could be an organism itself, swallowing her. Although Tagore does not use this image as literally as VanderMeer does, the emphasis placed on the palace having digestive juices is visceral and strikingly similar.

The speaker goes on to describe the palace at the end of the narrative: “The curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach” (96). The speaker was not the first man to be enraptured by the ghosts of the palace; it has long been a place of death and heartache.  The horror of joining the multitudes of men who have experienced frustrated desire is equivalent to the horror of consumption. However, rather than join them, the speaker alone manages to hold onto his sanity and tell his story, much like the protagonist of a Lovecraft story.

Though this Tagore story is explicitly supernatural, in the end, the frame narrative adds grounds for deniability. The yarn-spinner, like Scheherazade, finishes his story only to hint that he will soon begin a new one about the secret misery of the Arab maiden. However, the connecting train soon arrives, and the two friends must move on to Calcutta. The frame narrator claims that the whole story is a pure fabrication, while his theosophical friend disagrees.

Their argument permanently ends their friendship.

Next week, we’ll be travelling to Italy to discuss “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini, a children’s author who wrote a sequel to Pinocchio. It was translated for The Weird into English for the first time by Brendan and Anna Connell.

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.

Georg Heym

Weird #8: “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913)

“The dead man lay alone and naked on a white cloth in a wide room, surrounded by depressing white walls, in the cruel sobriety of a dissection room that seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.”

So begins the bleak tale of “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), a German poet and playwright who foresaw his own drowning death in a dream. Heym was a critic of romanticism and industrialism. His refusal of modernity’s optimism comes through in “The Dissection,” through its exquisitely detailed body horror and unflinching irony.

Georg Heym, author of “The Dissection”

The story, to some extent, reads like a Saw film, save for the poetic sensibility that elevates it. Some of the best lines include his body being compared to “some gigantic flower, a mysterious plant from Indian primeval forests that someone had shyly laid at the altar of death.” The cold urine of his punctured bladder glistens “like yellow wine.” The instruments of the doctors are “like vultures’ crooked beaks forever screaming for flesh.” A dissection has never been described in such rich horror.

It seemed to me a little too rich at times, but the worst part of the horror is arguably understated. It comes down to a single word: the doctors are described as “friendly men.” In other words, they were not the sort of people you could point to and say, “That’s a villain.” They were sociable people, like you and me, performing a horrible experiment motivated by nothing more than simple curiosity about the human body.

Heym died before the First World War. But if he had lived to see the Second World War and the rise of Nazi Germany, he may have heard reports of medical experiments like this in the concentration camps and recognized that his story had anticipated the worst depredations of the twentieth century. The fact the doctors in his story are “friendly” men reminds me of the observation made by Hannah Arendt and others that most Nazis were ordinary folks who passively decided to “just follow orders.” The Nazis were like the doctors in this story–“friendly men” who perpetrated war crimes.

Heym’s story also criticizes a wider trend in modernity. He indicts Enlightenment science’s drive to section up and divide, split apart, dissect, and, ultimately, destroy what it studies. In short, he critiques science’s blindness to the human consequences of knowledge gathering.

Archaeology, which as a discipline was founded on colonialist forms of knowledge, is a prime example of this. In archaeology, knowledge is produced by destruction, in the same way that medical knowledge is produced by dissection. Digging a trench to excavate artefacts destroys the context in which the artefacts were found. But at the same time, that destruction is necessary for the production of knowledge. This may be less true today, with radar and remote imaging techniques. But traditional archaeological techniques involve a dissection of the soil which results in the destruction of sites considered important to living societies who derive their cultural identity from them. In short, archaeological knowledge gathering has human consequences, even if the archaeologists are blind to them.

In “The Dissection,” Heym’s critique of science’s ethics is accompanied by a critique of romanticism. Eventually, the man being tortured escapes the horror of his situation in a vivid dream of his beloved. “I’ll see you again tomorrow. Here, under the window of the chapel, here, where the light of the candles falls about you,” runs his stream of consciousness. The passage appears at first to embody the Romantic idea that the mind and imagination can be a refuge against the travesties of the material world.

But then comes bitter irony. At the moment the man has this dream, the doctors take hammers and chisels to his brain, splitting apart the very organ that produces consciousness. The man dies quivering in happiness as “the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple.”

The scientists cannot learn the mechanism of the body which produces the mind without killing what they want to study. In the end, the mind is no refuge; it is dependent on the body. A romantic escape from the mechanistic realities of the modern world is impossible, or, at best, a temporary dream, a deceitful illusion.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915), yet another bleak, German weird tale, this time about a series of mysteriously linked suicides. (Here’s hoping the stories stay weird but cheer up a little in the future.)

Masquerade, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Weird #7: “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Mayrink (1912)

Gustav Mayrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” is a short, decadent tale. It takes place at a masqued ball in the court of a Persian prince, Mohammed Darasche-Koh, who is gravely jealous of the Count de Faast for the hand of a beautiful princess.

Due to its decadent literary influences, and its preoccupation with themes of surface and concealment, I feel like this story can be best described visually. Were this story to be produced for the screen, it would be a contender for the Oscar for Best Costume Design for sheer extravagance. And if animated in the classic, shadowy style of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley–who is directly referenced as an influence in the text–it would win for Best Animated Feature.

Masquerade by Aubrey Beardsley, cover design for The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894

At the centre of this story is a marionette show staring the Persian prince, the Count de Faast, and the princess together–a production designed by the jealous Prince himself. The Count is placed in a thick glass bottle, alone, while the Prince sits cross-legged above it. What follows is a prime literary example of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” in which the cruelty becomes genuine, no longer an act.

In short (spoilers ahead), the masquers watch the Count’s real distress as he slowly suffocates to death for lack of air in front of their very eyes. The masquers are unable to tell where the Count’s part in the “Man in the Bottle” marionette show ends and where his genuine panic begins. In effect, the Count’s panic and subsequent death is the evening’s entertainment.

Only at the end of the play, when the princess as “The Lady in the Sedan Chair” finally appears before the audience, do the masquers fully realize the “nameless horror” of what they witnessed (74). In short, the Prince plays the audience and actors like marionettes, executing the perfect vengeance.

This story appeared to me, on a first read, to be witty, decadent, and highly aesthetic in a way that seemed difficult to write about. However, when during my second read, I was reminded of Artaud, I started to see how this story has continuous relevance today, when we think about cruelty and spectacle in the news we consume.

I’m not well-versed in Artaud. But to me, “The Man in the Bottle” suggests that cruelty to another human being becomes normalized when it becomes part of a spectacle. People are uncertain whether they should intervene in a crisis, because the cruelty becomes perceived as part of the “act.” Only when the “mask” of performance comes loose does the full scale of the cruelty become apparent to the audience.

It got me thinking about the idea of “entertainment media” and how certain news shows play up real acts of cruelty as spectacles of entertainment. It also got me thinking about how some people tried to console themselves in 2016 by joking that Donald Trump’s election run was just an art project, as if that could make his boorishness and cruelty more tolerable or normal.

When cruelty is represented as a spectacle in the media, it becomes socially normalized. At what point do we cease to perceive the news as representing the suffering of real people, and at which point do we start viewing the news primarily as a spectacle, seemingly divorced from human suffering?

The masquers watch the Count de Faast slowly suffocate for lack of air, thinking it is part of an elaborate stage production. The times being what they are, I cannot ignore the parallel between this method of execution and the suffocating chokehold placed on George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. People who continue to deny systemic racism exists seem to me to be an awful lot like the masquers, in how they may prefer to think of police brutality as some sort of illusion–not that they deny police brutality happens, but that they prefer to deny the systemic nature of it. In treating systemic racism as an elaborate masque, they, through their inaction, tolerate and enable the cruelty perpetrated before their very eyes.

I would like to think that most people regard the suffering of black people at the hands of the police with a more morally engaged and empathetic attitude than the frivolous masquers regard the Count. However, it would be foolish to ignore the wider point this story is making about the cruelty of human nature. The message of “The Man in the Bottle” could be taken as a cautionary tale not to let spectacle and illusion blind us to the inhumane cruelty happening before our eyes. But the tale also seems to suggest something darker and more indicting–that such spectacles of cruelty are a fundamental aspect of our experience of modernity in the first place.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), which, as I am sure you can imagine from the title, is a charming, happy-go-lucky story of love and loss with no body horror whatsoever.

Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part II): How the History of Medieval Romance Shows Us Why Representation Matters

–This post is a continuation of my reflection on “Why Writing the Other is Always Radical”

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.

Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.

Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.

However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.

Always Historicize

As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”

The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.

In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.

For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?

In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.

Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.

In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.

It was this ideology, or some modern form of it, that inspired the Christchurch mosque shooter, who wrote slogans on his guns. “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” commemorated the heroes of the chanson de geste and the historical events they reference (Elaine Graham-Leigh “Far-Right Terrorists and the Meaning of the Battle of Tours”).

In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.

The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.

The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight

I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.

From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.

The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.

Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.

This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.

What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose

“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.

[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste

(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).

At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.

The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.

Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.

Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.

In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.

Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.

This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.

If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Beat the Drums of Peace

The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”

Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.

When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).

Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.

To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.

If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.

Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF


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Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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