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.