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Monday, April 16, 2012

Colour, Chance and Chronology: the three elements that bind Asterios Polyp

ENGL 492: Image and Text

Colour, Chance and Chronology: the three elements that bind Asterios Polyp

Two types of structures wrestle with each other within Asterios Polyp: one synchronistic, the other diachronistic. The first is intimately personal: it operates along an imagistic dream-like grammar, and builds itself around the associative clusters of memory; the second is narrative, both mythic and classical, and it is driven by sequential cause and effect. Whereas the latter has the hero as its pivotal point, the former stitches individual experiences and emotions together in a manner that doesn’t necessarily fold neatly into a discernible chronology. Even though the main narrative is interwoven with the Orpheus myth making it tempting to read the comic as an allegory, Mazzucchelli complicates this by reversing the events of the Orpheus plot. Rather than losing his beloved, Asterios’s looking back in Chapter “Orpheus” eventually results in the genesis of a new life with his beloved. This is mirrored in the structure of the comic itself: events are recycled, and the comic both begins and ends with a deus ex machina-type event in which the inexplicable pierces the veil of the mundane. The fracturing of Asterios’s eye in the prior chapter (that occurs as the result of his looking back), rather than crippling him, results in an extension of his visual scope, which is reflected in the comic’s expanded colour palette. Ironically, Asterios’s bodily affliction is accompanied by a newfound mental sight: he learns to view the world holistically in a way that accounts for varying perspectives. This mirrors the reading process Mazzucchelli encourages, in which one has to draw deductions from association rather than causality. Events aren’t chained to a pre-determined structure, but rather happen contingently, only having significance when viewed relationally from a removed viewpoint.

The colour palette Mazzucchelli uses reflects the transformation of Asterios’s sight from that of a heroic protagonist whose gaze centralizes and determines relations into that of a more neutral onlooker observing life dispassionately. Every colour scheme has a correspondence to Asterios’s relationship to his past, present, and future. His past is rendered in the rudimentary colours of blue, purple, green and red, reflecting Asterios’s schematic, rational view of the world. The entrance of yellow in the prologue with the sound of the fire alarm introduces a dimension of ambiguity that has to be integrated into Asterios’s worldview; yellow, paradoxically, is noticeably absent from the accounting of Asterios’s past. In the prologue, yellow is used to depict the fire, and can be read within this chapter as the psychological, unconscious currents that flood into Asterios’s world, forcing him to reexamine his priorities or perish. Mazzucchelli’s colour palette accompanies this change: it shifts from using the primary colours of blue and purple to that of yellow and purple. Asterios’s world is literally stripped to its minimalist components, as he is forced to confront the ‘5th element’ of ambiguity that he had hitherto failed to acknowledge. Asterios’s subsequent ‘exile’ as he embarks on a quest for identity begins a narrative trajectory in which Asterios will have to rebuild his world from the rabble of the fire. It is only when he is able to forcibly accept the capricious element of Fate that yellow expands to depict sunlight, possibility and the promise of the future. In such a way, Mazzucchelli utilizes colour as an associative tool that the reader can use to map Asterios’s past to his present and the as-yet-vague future within a fluid temporality.

J.T Mitchell mentions in his essay “Beyond Comparison” that, “figurative labels (“blue” moods and “warm colours”) apply as firmly and consistently as literal ones and have as much to do with actual experience. That images, pictures, space, and visuality may only be figuratively conjured up in a verbal discourse does not mean that the conjuring fails to occur or that the reader/listener “sees” nothing” (119). In this excerpt, Mitchell points out that the readerly experience is not only a translation of signs, but also a bodily experience. In the prologue, yellow contrasts with its complementary opposite purple. The jarring contrast between the images rendered in purple (the city; Asterios’s apartment) and those images rendered in yellow (the fire alarm that jolts Asterios into action; the flames) evokes a visceral sensation of discomfort and anxiety. It contrasts with the portions of the comic when Asterios’s ego is still in tact, which are rendered in the calm, cool tones of blue and purple. This change of palette figuratively shows the transformation of Asterios’s identity after the fire. At the same time, it viscerally draws the reader to an underlying dimension of Asterios’s personality (connected to the body and unconscious states) that the narrative at times hides. By framing his narrative with a prelude that is purely expressionistic in colour and form, Mazzucchelli opens up a layer beneath Asterios’s calm facade that the reader will henceforth have to look for. This, in turn, provides an intuition-based counterpoint to the at times distancing, cold rationalism of the narrative.

In addition, Mazzucchelli mentions in a 2009 Comics Journal interview that he seeks to mimic the “flat language” utilized by the modernists, such as Leger, Matisse and Picasso. Such artists produced images that attempted to view a subject from varying perspectives by reconstructing them upon a single, flat plane. However, the fragmentation of their images was unified by the use of a reduced palette of a few colours. While Cubism sought to depict the complexities of a modern life saturated with a multiplicity of perspectives, it also tied these divergent viewpoints together under a geometric framework by the use of simple shapes and colours. Similarly, Mazzucchelli’s use of colour and form can be considered cubistic. Blue appears to represent Asterios’s male, rational outlook; red stands in for Hana and the other female character’s seemingly irrational emotions, but from a male point-of-view. Mazzucchelli’s combination of different colour schemes reveals the comic’s reality to be the result of the convergence of varying viewpoints. Together, they provide a reading experience that is both flexible and abstract, yet geometrically structured. If the colours themselves evoke in the reader a sensory effect, Mazzuchelli’s limited use of colour keeps his comic within the domain of the fictional, preventing his comic from slipping into the purely expressionistic or naturalistic. The effect that results is one of detachment, in which the reader identifies each character’s state emotively, while maintaining a sense of narrative distance not unlike Asterios’s rational gaze.

The colour scheme Mazzucchelli chooses in this opening prologue sets up a connection between Asterios’s story and the cosmic drama that occurs in the background of the comic. This larger context remains hidden from the reader, but ties the diegesis of the comic onto a looser framework that operates cyclically within motions of creation, destruction and recreation. In such a structure, the human being is one of many microcosmic elements within a macrocosm; his agency is limited, and frequently subject to the whims of an invisible, capricious God (on the local level, this is the artist). Asterios Polyp echoes this idea by opening from an aerial point-of-view with the naturalist depiction of a blue sky devoid of any human trace. A torrent of purple rain pitter-patters down upon the the purple city, and a single white lightning bolt jig-jags its way down through the page’s center, bifurcating the image into two halves. These beginning panels play out the naturalist theme of the enduring landscape absent and ambivalent of humanity. Likewise, the splitting of the image echoes the larger theme of bifurcation that will haunt the comic. However, these comic images are also consciously artificial to the point of being cartoonish, as they are rendered in a two-tone blue/purple colour scheme. Rather than achieving a naturalistic effect, the artificiality of these images prevent us from falling into an existential angst that would have occurred if it were depicted in an overly realistic fashion. In a way, the colour scheme has a distancing effect, standing between us and complete identification.

Initially, Asterios’s presence is alluded to but never addressed directly. His presence is abstracted in the image of two white windows suspended within the purple space of the building and the expansive blue sky. The comic’s eye then zooms in on his empty living room, before moving to the kitchen, desk and corridor. The reader ‘hears’ the sound of the videotapes through speech bubbles before actually seeing Asterios. The videotapes initially stand in for Asterios’s body, echoing Asterios’s bifurcated existence. When we are introduced to Asterios in person, his purple and blue figure merges into the mess of his similarly coloured bed. His supine figure is depicted with a kind of resigned despondence, barely emerging from its surroundings. The objects within his apartment, contrasting with Asterios’s static body, possess an uncanny animated quality. They express Asterios’s relation to his inhabited space: he is simultaneously removed yet present. In this opening sequence, the comic’s eye operates like a close-up, showing us “the faces of things… which are significant because they (reflect) expressions of (Asterios’s) own subconscious feeling” (Balazs 119). It reveals “the speechless face and fate of the dumb objects that live with you in your room and whose fate is bound up with your own” (118). Similarly, Asterios’s objects stand in for his personality, revealing the passivity and lack of purpose in Asterios’s life. Till the alarm sounds on the 7th page, the colours used are that only of purple and blue, tonically reflecting his mental detachment. The lightning bolt’s change of colour from white to yellow in the opening sequence signals the entrance of the individual human drama into the larger cosmic drama: cosmic signs are suddenly imbued with personal significance. Yellow, here, denotes both a personal and textual alterity. For the comic, it represents the entrance of Asterios’s symbolic interior world. For Asterios, it represents a psychological undercurrent that ruptures his numbed life and propels him towards a more engaged existence.

The colour scheme used in Asterios’s opening portrait in Chapter “Asterios Polyp” connects it by association to the previous chapter. On the first page, Asterios is portrayed in a state of detached contemplation smoking a cigarette uncolored, as in classical portraiture. As such, it echoes the schematic framework Asterios initially casts upon his life, as well as his solipsistic outlook. On the flip side, however, Asterios’s is coloured in yellow, echoing the anxiety he experiences as his sense of masculine self-identity is destabilized after the fire. The invasion of the colour yellow in the ‘after’ image reveals a hidden tension between the heroic gaze and his fragile ego. This colour change sets up a visual analogy for Asterios’s transformation from insurmountable hero to flawed hero, as the hero’s calm facade is revealed to be a posture. Asterios’s near-hubristic self-assurance is suddenly shattered, and the reader is forced to continuously juxtapose the events of his past in the light of the lightning strike. Moreover, whereas the first portrait of Asterios is rendered in blue and purple, the latter is yellow and purple. From the start, the continuity of the colour yellow in these two chapters joins the comic’s present moment to the shadow of apocalyptic disaster that came before (the lightning stroke), so the past is always interfering with the unfolding of the present diegesis.

If the portraits of Asterios in this chapter highlights the flimsiness of the heroic stance, the text accomplishes an opposite effect. It stabilizes Asterios’s identity, enabling the narrative to proceed forward along a quasi-linear chronology. Ignazio tell the reader “this is Asterios Polyp”. By linking the image of Asterios to a name, Ignazio establishes Asterios’s identity upon something concrete- that of a name-, situating him within a discernible diegetic time and space. Visually, the word “THIS” is rendered in monumental blue and purple font, linking it in colour and form to Asterios’s larger-than-life Roman-like image of himself. The text, here, operates in an Aristotelian manner, organizing events around the classical hero visually and in content.

The text then goes on to tell the reader, “Right now, he’s (Asterios) watching his home burn up” in a comically detached tone, and in smaller font,“today- coincidentally also happens to be his fiftieth birthday”. The spatial arrangement of these two bodies of text echoes a dramatic and metaphysical irony both in content and in form: his house burns up on his birthday; he is not the self-assured figure he is portrayed to be on the prior page. The splitting of the text’s placement also echoes a bifurcation of the narrative voice: the Asterios as he perceives himself to be (as the controlled, heroic protagonist of his own drama) and the Asterios as he is revealed to be within a larger ambivalent cosmic drama.

After the introducing these two contrasting narrative voices, Mazzucchelli inserts the main plot- Asterios’s journey to find himself. The dualistic principles upon which he has hitherto founded his world have proven flimsy, and he will have to henceforth redefine his reality upon something more substantial. The auto-repair narrative, in this light, can be read as a limbo-like space in which Asterios restarts his life and realigns his perspective. It floats in-between Asterios’s recounting of the past, not having any clear causal connection to it. It is rendered only in yellow and purple, echoing a distancing both from reality as we perceive it and Asterios’s previous schematic way of viewing the world that the previous blue, purple and red scheme represents. In its stylistic separation, it operates as a distanced voice commenting from the present, but always in tandem to what has already happened. Unlike the classical heroic narrative, Asterios’s choice of a random path with no clear destination only makes sense when we analyze it in retrospect.

It is, however, tempting to read Asterios Polyp through a dualistic framework in which every colour and artistic style corresponds to a thematic element. Red appears to represent the female unconscious, and blue the male, conscious, centralizing gaze. Purple frames the comic panels, shadowing all of the comic’s content in a semiotic ambiguity (unlike the deterministic black, it hovers between shades of blue and red). Black, to the contrary, never appears except on the cover; here, Mazzucchelli comically reiterates the art school lesson that black is an iridescent compendium of different shades, just as reality is saturated in a multiplicity of points-of-view. The reader is given the rhetorical tools to interpret all of the events happening to Asterios along a single schema- that of the Orpheus and Odyssey plot. This reflects Asterios’s empirical stance towards the world, revealing how easy it is to fall into viewing the world in such a manner.

However, the introduction of a spectrum of colour that is harder to categorize after Asterios loses his eye makes it impossible to read the comic from such an overarching rational framework. Shortly after Asterios damages his eye, the comic’s colour scheme opens up to include subtler variations of green, yellow, and blue while intermittently slipping in and out of the yellow/blue/red colour scheme. The alarm ‘beeps’ in red font; road signs are green. The colour palette, here, doesn’t so much reflect Asterios’s symbolic stance within life as it does his off-kilter emotional state: he is always slightly estranged from his reality. Hana’s new house, unlike any of the other inhabited spaces in the comic, is coloured primarily in earthy shades of orange, yellow and green, reflecting her connection to the realm of the natural. After Asterios turns up disheveled at Hana’s doorstep (the expressionistic depiction of him here echoes this: he is a mess of formless curves and uneven lines), Hana metaphorically ‘cleans’ him up, integrating him into her holistic vision of the world. The comic’s colour scheme and style echoes this reconciliation of male and female, rational and intuitive: speech bubbles entwine, and the colours that Asterios and Hana are rendered in blend together. The ending of this chapter appears to tie everything up into a neat conclusion: the hero is united with his beloved after he accepts the intuitive, feminine voice as equally valid to the masculine, rationalistic worldview.

If such an ending promises closure to the reader, the following chapter shatters such thematic certainty. Stylistically, all shades are reduced to yellow and purple again, before reverting to the same colour scheme of yellow, blue and purple and white that the comic begins with. The comic, by reversing the colour scheme through a second tiered Oedipal ‘double-looking’, ironically suggests that these events may occur again in another lifetime, much like Nietzsche’s cycle of the eternal return. In addition, the panel that follows the neat resolution of the Hana-Asterios story arc abstracts all human figures into distant shapes: we are shown three illuminated yellow windows- the only signifiers of human presence- suspended within a purple house and landscape. The frame then further zooms out in a panel in which the encompassing blue sky fills up most of the page, oppressively weighing down upon the smaller-scaled house and landscape. This melding of the house into landscape (both are purple), and the dominance of the blue sky prepares us from the ending of the comic, in which human agency is proven to be an overall imaginary notion. Hana’s last words within this frame, “What’s that noise?” appears to be the last flimsy effort on the human’s part to establish a lasting presence within the larger, cosmic drama. The comic suggests the fallibility of human existence, by having Hana and Asterios' existence easily erased by the meteorite. This can be read, like the lightning that begins the comic, as the overwriting of the human story by a larger cosmic force; an overwriting that abruptly changes the significance of the whole story. Moreover, the meteorite that falls upon the house is a flaming yellow and purple; yellow, here, widens out not only to define Asterios’s psychological dimension but the larger uncertainty of all life. Closure, here, occurs as the result of the immortalization of Asterios and Hana’s successful union in death, preventing any possibility that their happiness may be disrupted by the mobility and unpredictability of life. Ironically, it is only in death that the couple are immune from Nietzsche’s fated ‘eternal return’.

The last chapter, however, suggests that the semiotic ambiguity of Mazzucchelli’s colour scheme is not necessarily a bad thing. Stiffly’s son calls the meteorite a shooting star, altering the significance of the meteorite’s fall through his magical outlook. The ending, far from being bleak, leaves us with a sense of promise: destruction serves as the foundation for new beginnings and a new way of looking- this time, from a child’s point-of-view. By the end of the comic, the reader is encouraged to embrace a kind of perspectivism, in which the world is viewed not through the hero’s centralized gaze (epitomized by the portrait of Asterios in the beginning), but from a treehouse, like Stiffly’s boy. Likewise, the seemingly straightforward mythic structure the comic hitherto appears to be built upon is revealed to be one of many angles of looking, leaving the reader to come up with their own permutations of what the events truly mean from their individual ‘treehouse’.

1 I refer to Aristotle’s notion of diegesis, in which events are driven by cause and effect and have a beginning, middle and end. His structure confers a development of character contingent on monumental events pregnant with Fate’s intention; it implies a higher agency that arranges events so as to make all details significant.

2 Heroic narratives work within a pre-determined structure in order to deliver a moral lesson: each event has a clear significance within an overarching rational framework. For example, each event is fated in the Orpheus myth, serving to reveal the consequences of Orpheus’s lack of faith.

3 I suggest that the comic begins at two points. While what I will call the prologue introduces the cosmic drama, the first chapter “Asterios Polyp” introduces the human drama.

4 Yellow and purple are, using art school vocabulary, complimentary colours. This means they are diametrically opposite to each other in the colour wheel. When one shades an object, the use of complimentary colors give depth to form when blended together. The stripping down of Asterios’s reality to these two colours reduces his world to that of form and shadow; he himself will have to provide the semiotic depth to his two-dimensional reality.

5 It is interesting to note that the feminine viewpoint is only depicted in red when the blue/purple ‘male’ colour scheme is used. This suggests the use of ‘red’- and its equation to uncontrollable emotion- only represents one point of view- that of Asterios’s. To the contrary, Hana’s femininity is depicted in earthy tones at the end, revealing how Asterios has shifted from a dualistic viewpoint to a more holistic outlook through the progression of the comic.

6 Moreover, Mazzucchelli’s 4-tone colour scheme was also utilized in popular superhero comics to upset high printing costs. By reusing such a palette and giving it an additional symbolic significance, Mazzuchelli subverts the popular notion that such comics were deprived of intellectual and content. This, perhaps, ties in with his own transition from an artist working for Marvel comics to an auteur. It reconciles his cultural ‘elevation’ by revealing his old work in the Marvel assembly line as more similar to his present work than the reader would expect.

7 I use Brecht’s theatrical term. The distancing effect is “a technique of taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labeling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural” (Millet 3)

8 This bifurcation occurs on two levels: Asterios’s self is split into that of himself and his twin (the comic works in parallel to this: the narration is in his twin’s voice, while the images and colours represent Asterios’s present state). Likewise, his ego is split from the self that he is, and the self he creates apart from himself in the videotapes.

9 The bifurcation of the narrator’s voice echoes the thematic bifurcation that when the Orpheus and Odysseus myths are conflated. The former myth belongs to the genre of the tragedy wherein human agency is proved fallible due to the capricious whims of the gods; the latter is a Homeric epic in which the hero, through the strength of his will, returns home and is united with his beloved. The melange of these two divergent myths, here, reveals the lack of any structure governing life, subverting the notion that the comic is supposed to deliver to us a moral lesson.

10 Irony is characterized by a disjunction between reality and perception. The form the narrator’s voice, here, reflects a self-reflexive irony, revealing multiple identities beneath the speaking voice.

11 Nietzsche’s theory of the ‘eternal return’ suggests that until a lesson is truly learned on a local or collective level, the event will reoccur again and again until it is integrated. Nietzsche’s theory is also tied up with amor fatis or love of one’s fate. Nietzsche challenges the underlining intent beneath all of our actions: if we were to live an infinite amount of times, would we be able to make the same decisions with a clear conscience?

Works Cited

Béla Balázs, “The Close-Up and The Face of Man,” The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History, ed. Angela Dalle Vacche (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2008), 117-126. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Beyond Comparison.” The Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 116-23. Print.

Mazzucchelli, David. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Basic writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. Print.

"The Street Scene. A Basic Model for an Epic Theater" In Brecht on Theater. The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1978 (first printed 1964). Web.

"TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw." The Comics Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. . Web.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Fey Threat in Sir Orfeo

Amy Goh

ENGL 456

Professor Michael Van Dussen

1st March 2012

The Fey Threat in Sir Orfeo: The Shadowy Mirror behind the Courtly Dance

Sir Orfeo is a text driven by an anxiety to define inner goodness and truth beyond man-made signifiers of beauty and wealth. The depiction of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom as an earthly paradise seems to ground identity within an eternal fountain of goodness. However, this stability is abruptly shaken by the eruption of Herodis’s hysteria, as the actual breaks into the seeable, bringing to light a realm of inscrutable motivations beyond the earthly veil. This newly uncovered dimension- exemplified by the entrance of a fey realm- is in surfeit of perceived reality and has to be, by Sir Orfeo’s music, woven into a constructed scheme-of-things. Sir Orfeo, in order to accomplish this, has to retreat into the wilderness, shedding all human-constructed systems in order to redefine reality upon the eternal values of love and loyalty. Herodis, in the text, functions as the vehicle for this interior grisly aspect of humanity to manifest within Sir Orfeo’s court. In her irrational display of emotion, she questions the validity of all outward performances of inner virtue in chivalric codes and courtly conduct.

The introduction of the faerie kingdom provides an alternate mode of existence, in which things are all surface, although, ironically, the kingdom is also embedded within the 'essence'of things, in a rock. When Sir Orfeo enters into the faerie world, he enters into an uncanny mirror of his world wherein ambiguity has been grafted onto the fabric of the landscape and the palace. Beauty, in the fey kingdom, is hollow, needing to be ‘filled in’ by the spirit of Sir Orfeo’s music. Moreover, the place of the faerie kingdom within the rock- an object oft-overlooked- points to the fragility of all vision, and the continual, ongoing need to found society on enduring virtues that lie beyond social constructions. Sir Orfeo’s harping, within this scheme, is the bridge that enables this. His harp reconciles the natural with the man-made. By playing his music, he enraptures both the faerie folk and natural beasts, causing them to forgo their differences by paying attention to the transcendent, holistic realm found in music. He masters the natural world and the breach in understanding the fey represent, metaphorically filling these symbolic crevices and gaps with the depth of his music, which is beautiful both in spirit and form.

From the start, the poem prepares the listener for the opening of a realm beyond the seeable by highlighting the transcendent power of Sir Orfeo’s music, which the poet likens to being “on of the joies of Paradis” (35). The beauty of Sir Orfeo’s harping is placed before the descriptions of his kingly station and the magnificence of his kingdom. “her nothing was”, the poet tells us, “a better harpour in no plas/ in al the warld was no man bore/ that ones Orfeo sat bifore” (31-33). ‘al the warld’ in the poem alludes not only to earthly kingdoms, but includes the tense fey realm that lies between natural wilderness and human civilization. By being ‘bifore’ all things both symbolically and structurally within the poem, Sir Orfeo’s harping founds his social identity and his kingdom upon a transcendental beauty. It also enables him to master the fey realm that opens up within his kingdom when Herodis is struck with hysteria: his music becomes the main instrument weaving all inner inconsistencies into a harmonious whole. The poet, thus, emphasizes the transience of earthly splendor, and the fallibility of all human-constructed structures that we envelop our reality with. The performance of the lay echoes this, reminding the listener in its very deliverance that all outward forms and actions have to be constantly redeemed by the beauty of music, just as one’s goodness has to be constantly founded upon inner virtue, and not only on outward displays of wealth and prosperity.

Within Sir Orfeo’s kingdom, there lies certain liminal points that serve as gateways through which an inner, ungraspable realm can erupt into the present. These points can be identified by their classifiable ambiguity. For example, the grafted tree and the garden mingle the artificial with the natural, emphasizing a permeability within groupings. By falling asleep at such a location at noon- a time in which one shouldn’t be asleep- Dame Herodis commits an unnatural act, paving the way for the entrance of the fey. She is, subsequently, struck insane as the fey realm erupts through the gaps and crannies between the seeable and the unseen. She is whisked away in this temporary lacunae that opens up within the text. When she returns, she is ravaged by an irrational despair. Dame Herodis’s unprecedented hysteria introduces a tension between outward beauty of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom and inward virtue of spirit: do outward displays of nobility found in decorum, gentility and courtly etiquette consistently reflect inner goodness?

The description of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom in the beginning depicts a pastoral idyll full of upright citizens. We are told, “everi feld is ful of flours/ and blosme breme on everi bough”. Maidens “of priis” (64) gather around Dame Herodis while she “play(s) by an orchardside/ to the floures sprede and spring” (66-7). These passages paint a harmonious portrait of a prospering kingdom in which the human and the natural are in sync, and outer beauty of form reflects inner virtue. However, this Edenic capsule is shortly after pierced by Herodis’s cry of horror as she wakes from her noonday nap after her brush with the fey. She proceeds to “crached hir visage” till “it beld wete”, tearing “hir riche robe hye al to-rett” (80-1). The entrance of an foreign, fey element through Herodis causes an ‘awakening’ of the spirit, in which Herodis’s body appears to go out-of-control, becoming a slave to inscrutable interior forces.

The destruction of physical indicators of goodness- Herodis’s ‘fair’ countenance and her ‘riche robe’- creates an anxiety around all appearances of goodness. The skin is literally torn open to uncover flesh. Herodis’s malady can be seen as symptomatic of a deeper anxiety within Sir Orfeo’s country: the skin/surface is proven to be an inadequate arbiter of inner nature. If such a grisly dimension exists underneath all appearance, can goodness still exist in the light of this unsightly interior realm?

The court’s reaction to Herodis’s irrational behaviour is to say she has “awede wold” (87). That is to say, she has shed the skins of civility, having been overtaken by an inner, wilder nature. This unleashing of a natural force cannot be quelled by physical comforts or bound by military effort. Even though they lay her in a “chaumber” (100) in an attempt to soothe her, she is inconsolable. Moreover, when Sir Orfeo arrives at her bedside, she mistakes him for a “fo” (112). Herodis’s confusion of Sir Orfeo points to a flimsiness within all socially constructed identities. Having been confronted with the alternate reality of the faerie world where appearance doesn’t reflect nature (the faerie king is deceptively beautiful, but his intentions are malicious), Herodis loses faith in the security of all external reality, mistaking her beloved husband for her mortal enemy.

Moreover, Herodis’s hysterical symptoms seem to come out-of-the-blue. This is reflected structurally in the narrative: Herodis’s journey happens within the diegesis, yet the content of what actually occurs is obscured. When the fey folk abduct Herodis, she literally disappears “ac yete amiddes hem ful right” (191): within their full sight. Reality is not only affected by exterior forces, but also deeper psychological undercurrents. At any moment, the fey- representative of an interior dimension of shadowy forces- can erupt into Sir Orfeo’s kingdom in random irrational events. Herodis’s sudden madness, overall, can be read as a signal to an inner rift between appearance and reality that occurs on the foundational level: the exterior crystalline shell of kingly splendor has been pierced, and ‘goodness’ will henceforth need to be redefined by the king upon something more essential than aesthetic beauty.

Sir Orfeo’s outburst of loyalty when he proclaims to Herodis that “whider y go, thou schalt with me” (130), likewise, points to another misreading: he mistakes the faerie kingdom for an earthly locale that can be reached. Moreover, he thinks he can prevent Herodis’s abduction using physical prowess. Hence, he sends for his knights in a comical scene in line 185, and they sit around the orchard waiting for the faerie king. Inevitably, they fail because the faerie kingdom lies within the physical realm in those slips that evade human perception, in what one cannot see.

Hereafter, Sir Orfeo realizes the need for a supernatural solution to what is essentially a metaphysical problem around signification: can courtly decorum hide inner malice? As a result, he calls himself to exile “into wilderness ichil te/ and live ther evermore” (213). This line parallels the faerie king’s declaration in lines 167-8 that Herodis would “schalt with ous go/ and live with ous evermo”. However, the hardships that accompany Sir Orfeo’s exile in the wild are in stark contrast to the faerie king’s suggestion of an eternal paradise. The poet’s mirroring of these two lines, here, implies that they are more similar than they seem: perhaps Sir Orfeo, by leaving civilization, obtains the longer-lasting joy of self-recognition. Sir Orfeo also proclaims himself dead, saying “ye understond that y be spent” (215), just as Herodis is described as “al wan, as thou were ded” (108). His newly acquired status mirrors Herodis’s in another way: by leaving their kingdom, one voluntary and one not, they become metaphorically dead to their people. Furthermore, Sir Orfeo’s exile into the forest shows a deeper disillusionment: he realizes that the cause of Herodis’s insanity may lie in a preternatural wildness beneath all forms of civility. In order to integrate this aspect of humanity, he has to retreat into the wild in order to better possess it. He attempts to descend to the root of things, depriving himself to the point he appears close to Herodis’s hysterical state. Only after he has literally ‘awede wold’ like Herodis can he penetrate into the faerie king’s country. The liminal status Sir Orfeo acquires of his own will enables him to follow Herodis figuratively into an underworld of another kind- that of his own psyche.

In order to recover Herodis, Sir Orfeo will have to descend into the cavities of his consciousness and shine a light upon it with his music. The description of Sir Orfeo’s exile puts an emphasis on his abandoning of courtly comforts for an existence as a wild man of the woods. We are told that before he “hadde had castels and tours/ river forest, frith with flours” (246), “fowe and griis” “purper biis” (239-40) and “river, forest, frith and flours”- all pleasant sights and visual signifiers of physical prosperity. However, after his exile, his retinue of knights is gone, replaced by “wilde wormes” (253). Repeatedly, the poem contrasts what Sir Orfeo had before and what he loses after. Even his appearance deteriorates: his beard grows “blac and rowe” (265), mirroring Herodis’s destruction of her face and body. The only signifier of civilization he retains is his harp, with which he plays his music. He keeps his harp in a hollow tree and “harped at his owhen wille” (271). On the personal level, his music tides him through his troubles by reminding him of a transcendent realm. On the symbolic level, his harp signifies mastery through a human-constructed instrument used for good- to create harmony; it is integrated metonymically into the landscape within ‘a hollow’, representing a reconciliation between the artificial and the natural. Additionally, Sir Orfeo’s playing also charms all the beasts of the forest, so much so they forget their innermost wild natures and gather about him irregardless of the natural order. As Sir Orfeo’s music originates from a source that supersedes human and natural structures, it is able to knit all differences into a melodious song, making even wild beasts forget their savage instincts.

The faerie king’s kingdom is in stark contrast to Sir Orfeo’s wild state, but uncannily similar to the descriptions of his kingdom. Like Sir Orfeo’s kingdom, it is likened to “the proude court of Paradis” (376). However, in the faerie realm, physical beauty does not signify anything outside itself. Even though its towers are “clerer and schine as cristal” (258), the physical clarity of crystals doesn’t ‘reflect’ an inner discerning sight. Moreover, the artificial brightness of the crystals replaces the noon sun, saturating all in a daylight that is purely aesthetic. However, the eternal summer daylight of the fey is not paradisal, but frightening. Rather than being a product of an inner harmony between man and nature, the faerie kingdom is completely out-of-sync with the cyclical changing of the seasons. The artificial crystals, palaces and jewels of the fey exist at the violation of the natural; as such, they represent the complete abandoning of the natural for a humanly constructed paradise.

Sir Orfeo, initially, runs the risk of mistaking the faerie kingdom’s outward splendor as a good thing, until he encounters the tableau of the dead in lines 390-400. The Edenic stasis of the faerie world, here, is equated to an unnatural eternal stasis in which one is “thought dede, and nare nought” (390). The descriptions of the ‘zombied’ victims awakens Sir Orfeo to the true significance of the faerie kingdom’s beauty, and its place outside the natural flow and progression of life.

Having uncovered the true appearance of the faerie kingdom, Sir Orfeo puts on a disguise: he goes under the cover of a humble minstrel in order to play his songs to the faerie king. His music has a profound effect. Like the beasts in the forest, “all that in the palays were/ com to him forto here,/ and liggeth adoun to his fete- hem thanketh his melody so swete.” (440-3). Here, Sir Orfeo’s music is proven to be transcendent over not only wild beasts but also the overly civilized society of the fey. The faerie folk recognize that their beauty has an intrinsic hollowness only the depth of Sir Orfeo’s music can fill. Even the faerie king is so enraptured by Sir Orfeo’s music he promises Sir Orfeo anything he wants. When Sir Orfeo asks for Herodis, however, the faerie king’s objection is purely aesthetic: he tells Sir Orfeo that they’d make an ugly couple. Sir Orfeo retorts that it would be a “fouler thing/ to here a lessing of thi mouthe!” (464-6). Even though the faerie king does not possess the same morals as Sir Orfeo, even he has to abide by the courtly rules he has created. This also justifies Sir Orfeo’s use of disguise and lies: if unseemly deeds are done for the right motives, they are permissible, even beneficial.

When Sir Orfeo returns to his kingdom, his citizens have a similar aesthetic objection to his appearance as the faerie king, stating that “he is y-clongen also a tre!” (508). This reveals a predisposition in human nature to judge by appearance, normalizing the faerie king’s actions- perhaps his is a case in which a human tendency is exaggerated so it becomes the rule. However, when they learn he is a harper, they celebrate him in the king’s memory by bringing him into the steward’s court. In doing so, they show an understanding of the harper’s importance as the guardian of an art of which effects are not visually manifested: the beauty of music has no direct monetary value. His people’s recognition of Sir Orfeo through his harping also reveals how his music is a fundamental part of his kingship. For his people, Sir Orfeo’s music is more than just an alluring tune (as it is for the fey and the beasts), but a signifier to his identity. As the king who, socially, defines the values, customs and rules of his people, it is Sir Orfeo’s job to ensure that his people are loyal to him not only in action, but in spirit. His citizens’ recognition of their king through his music, thus, this reflects the citizen’s virtue: they are able to see beyond Sir Orfeo’s ugly appearance to his rightfulness as king. Appearance and reality have been reconciled through the medium of Sir Orfeo’s harping, which serves not only as an aesthetic instrument creating harmony, but a socially integrative tool creating a cohesive collective identity.

Sir Orfeo’s abdication of his kingly station and his descent into the wild implies that all cultivated societies need an occasional invigoration of ‘wildness’ in order to remind themselves of the existence of a realm of inscrutable instincts beneath all civility. Sir Orfeo realizes that there is a gap that opens up when one uses aesthetics, conduct and performance as the sole arbiter of virtue. Just as the hollowness of the tree trunk has to be filled with the harp, this potential deceitful aspect of reality- embodied by the fey- has to be filled with the depth of Orfeo’s music. By delving into the heart of nature, like Orpheus, and enthralling both the natural and fey world with his music, he weaves all existing and potential differences into a harmonious melody.

Moreover, the immortalization of Sir Orfeo’s song at the end makes such a social renewal possible through the very act of listening: the lay is mobile, being able to be played at any historical moment. With each performance, the fey threat is continually kept at bay, as listeners are reminded of Sir Orfeo’s journey ‘there and back again’. Immortalized within the lay like a jeweled core, here, is a stability of virtue that is able to contest the mobility of actual life, allowing redemption through each instance of reading or listening.

1 I use Nietzsche’s term ‘essence’ loosely, which he uses in an attempt to define a deeper, eternal consistent reality beyond all appearance.

2 These inconsistencies include those within the self that manifests with Herodis’s psychological breakdown after the fey enter. The breach that allows the fey to break in reveals a fragility not only of materiality, but of the psyche.

3 Such as language, class, customs and social etiquette. These components structure our reality, enabling a smooth functioning of society. However, an over-privileging of them can lead to hubris, a crime Sir Orfeo is in danger of, being the king of a prosperous kingdom.

4 Herodis’s hysteria is reminiscent of public acts of mourning in certain cultures, or the Victorian ‘disease’ of hysteria, in which the female body goes out of control. This brings about another question: is she prematurely mourning her own death?

5 Herodis slips into the fey world during liminal circumstances that come about seemingly by chance. Sir Orfeo’s liminality, however, is that of his identity. This integration of otherness into his self enables him to possess and triumph over the fey threat.

Works Cited

"Sir Orfeo." River Campus Libraries. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Through the Filmic Maze Blindfolded: Navigating the Spaces between Science and Superstition Nosferatu: Through the Filmic Maze Blindfolded

GERM 365: Modernity and the Moving Image

Professor Michael Cowan

12th December 2011

Through the Filmic Maze Blindfolded: Navigating the Spaces between Science and Superstition

The vampire, in Nosferatu, can be seen as a shadowy index to a world beyond the immediately legible. It posits the existence of an ontologically vague dimension of knowledge not graspable by the human mind. Murnau’s film, through frequent cuts between scientific footage and the supernatural events in the plot, draws a link between scientific knowledge and premodern folk beliefs. The scientist figure, in Nosferatu, is not a pseudo-God attempting to master the world with his gaze through a totalizing system of classification. Rather, he is a sage-like figure who speaks in arcane riddles, dispensing sacred truths about the “secrets of nature” to a secular audience within the scientific lecture hall. Murnau, by collapsing the seemingly disparate realms of science and superstition within the same unfolding diegesis, suggests a monastic vision of the world in which the inexplicable lies under every facet of reality.

By enforcing a dualistic view of the world, Murnau suggests, one oversimplifies reality's complexity, bringing about a 'plague' in the form of a returning repressed consciousness- Nosferatu's Count Orlok, who constantly walks between binaries. The film, ultimately, theorizes a mode of knowing the universe beyond epistemologies and schemas. Instead, it suggests a rhizomatic world in which all elements on every level of existence has an equal ability to affect and influence each other. Count Orlok, in this light, can be seen as a potentially integrative figure who arrives at a "metaphoric crossroads, as the embodiment of a certain cultural moment... incorporat(ing) fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy... (and) giving them life and an uncanny independence" (Cohen 3). He is the “third term that problematizes the clash of extremes” that connects science and superstition, as well as the natural and the preternatural, reminding society of its unescapable primal roots. In Nosferatu, characters have to relearn the premodern mode of ‘knowing’- knowledge they obtain by interpreting the Book of Vampires correctly

- in order to dispel this newly arisen monster of the past.

Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny”, imagines a progressive linear ontology of the mind, in which mankind develops from an “infantile psychology” (145) characterized by “the narcissistic overrating of one’s own mental processes… by the attribution of carefully graded magical powers (mana) to alien persons and things” into an age of rationality. The tools of reason promised to make explicable all natural phenomenon. Under an Enlightenment schema, folk knowledge is reminiscent of a type of primitive magical thinking. However, a tension remains between past and present forms of knowing. Science’s seemingly all-encompassing system failed to conquer the ancient cosmic terror Bakhtin identified as the “fear of that which is materially huge and cannot be overcome by force” (335). The invention of the microscope and the telescope- new technologies for seeing- aggravated this by opening up a new visual dialectic of uncertainty. The ability to master new realms (exemplified by the single ‘eye’ of the microscope’s eyepiece) was always countered by the opening of a new dimension that continually evaded the scope of human vision.

In Nosferatu, Murnau introduces these newly emerged conflicts by crosscutting between scenes of natural phenomena (the rats on the ship, a waterfall, the wild dogs), science shots (the polyp, the carnivorous plant), and the supernatural plot (Nosferatu’s arrival, Ellen’s sleepwalking episodes, Knock’s asylum). From the start, science’s grip on reality is questioned by the continual occurrence of seemingly inexplicable events. The use of montage editing, here, makes it seem as if a third element- Chance (in actuality the filmmaker’s hand

)- has penetrated the binary between the logical and the illogical. Coincidence seems to be the mastering force that draws these supposedly disconnected themes of science and magic together, suggesting a continuity between supernatural events and natural phenomena. This theme is alluded to early in the film. Before Hutter prepares to leave the village, Bulwer delivers a warning to him, stating that, “you can’t escape destiny by running away”. Bulwer suggests that Fate- the ultimate principle of uncertainty- has the power to unravel all attempts at mastering its superseding structure. As such, he advises Hutter that he must accept his position of epistemological vulnerability, as to do otherwise would be futile.

The various spaces within the film also draw metaphorical lines between the known and the unknown, as well as the man-made and the natural. Examples of the former include the lab, the crowded pub, and the domestic interiors of the house. The latter is populated by Nature and beasts, and thus naturally hostile to the presence of humans. Often, these spaces are in close proximity. Bulwer’s laboratory- a space where Nature is mastered- is surrounded by a garden, which can be seen as a liminal space between wilderness and civilization where Man only has limited control. Maps and word-of-mouth stabilize reality by acknowledging the existence of spaces that man has not mastered, such as the night populated by spirits and the Count’s country. Hutter, in the film, crosses a symbolic boundary between the secure lamp-lit ‘daylight’ of the pub and the night where “the evil spirits” are “all-powerful”. By entering the Count’s carriage, he leaves the secure space of the known, traveling into the shadowy valley of the unknown, exemplified by Count Orlok’s castle and its surrounding regions.

Bulwer, in the film, acts as the viewer’s guide between these spaces of increasing uncertainty. He initiates us into the realm of science by bringing us into the secure, known space of his lab. In this realm, scientific equations and diagrams explain natural phenomena. Here, the scientist has secured a position of mastery over the natural world via classification and collection. From this wholly explicable station, Bulwer tells us that the mysteries of nature have “strange correspondences to human life”. He acknowledges that the security the lab offers is easily undermined by the entrance of the third element- that of Chance. Causality, Bulwer suggests, is not always co-relative to logic; there is always an element of uncertainty that governs all of life.

Bulwer acts as both sage and scientist, teaching us a right mode of seeing. This occurs during Bulwer’s lecture scenes. The face of Nature that Bulwer reveals is intrinsically vampiric. Halfway through the film, Bulwer introduces his students to the “vampire of the vegetable kingdom”, the insect-eating Venus Flytrap and the “vampire-like polyp” which consumes its prey with its winding tentacles. Predation, Murnau suggests, occurs on all levels of reality, penetrating even to the macro-worlds of the unseen. Nature is governed by a principle that does not necessarily hold the human interest at heart: the will to live leads each organism to consume at the expense of others. The vampire, thus, has a natural root- its spirit incarnates upon every facet of the universe from the ‘vegetable kingdom’, to the micro-worlds of microorganisms. As such, Nosferatu's predation upon humans is not peculiar in-of-itself, as it can be read as the human incarnation of this overarching principle. Nosferatu’s entrance into the film, likewise, is marked by a slew of natural metaphors: his arrival brings a plague to the town; he has to travel in “earth-filled coffins” taken from “unhallowed ground”; he brings with him a plague of rats

, and himself resembles a rat. Nosferatu's world may seem inexplicable like the “mysterious ways of Nature”, but it is overall natural.

Furthermore, the shot of the polyp has a phantom-like quality to it. The microscope abstracts the polyp so it seems to be floating within a realm displaced from any spatial coordinates. The microscope, here, opens up a dimension of seeing that continuously evades efforts at mastering the image. Like the microscopic shot of the polyp, the establishing shot of Nosferatu below the arches has no familiarity- he is an imposing silhouette swallowed by a mass of white space. Nosferatu emerges from an unknown world: this abstracted, foreign space outside the map’s grids. His castle is suspended above the scenery surrounding it under a blank sky, emphasizing its separation from quotidian reality. The ascending pillars that totter above him in his introductory shot curve to a point, reflecting a collapsing of all binaries between the straight/crooked, day/night

, and natural/supernatural. Nosferatu’s presence as never certain; he is a shadow, a figure in-between binaries. In his very existence, he represents a type of knowledge that cannot be easily contained in categories.

The film then cuts from the scenes in Bulwer's lab to the destabilizing space of the madman's cell. The shot of the polyp consuming its prey is followed by a shot of a spider consuming a fly, and then to Knock’s grotesque figure reaching out into the air, catching flies with his claw-like fingers. An uneasy comparison is drawn between the “polyp with claws”

and the mad Knock who exhibits animalistic characteristics. Count Orlok, likewise, with his elongated neck, pointed ears and consumptive gaze condenses the animal and human within the space of his body. This unearths the root of the viewer’s feeling of unease: when we see the binary between human and beast blur, our ontological sense of personhood is undermined.

In addition, by crosscutting from the lab to the asylum, Murnau transports the viewer from a scientific, discernible space to the uncertain spatiality of the mad mind where our coordinates are suddenly destabilized. From this point, we are told that “Nosferatu held Knock under his influence from afar”. The viewer is momentarily disassociated, and unable to make sense of the connection between Knock, the polyp, the spider and the Venus flytrap. By bringing in the intertitle about Nosferatu’s immaterial ‘influence’, Murnau provides a caption that interprets these series of images for us. In his schema, the vampire’s existence is not supernatural, but preternatural. Nosferatu’s ability to affect the human psyche

stems from a deeply embedded connectivity between nature, animals and humans. The vampire, here, embodies the return to a premodern way of understanding the world, in which man is an arbitrary being, a mere element of a cosmos vastly greater than himself. In this frame, the ‘vampire’ represents how this deeply-embedded principle can express itself in a form of madness within the modern mind when repressed. The roots of the seemingly inexplicable, here, are overly natural.

In contrast to scientific knowledge, the Book of Vampires provides folk wisdom that proposes to free the town from the thrall of the vampire. It is a bridge between science and magic: folk superstition presented in a legible form as cure. It establishes the vampire as a premodern phenomenon with a distinct historical precedent. It tells us that “it was in 1443 that the first Nosferatu was born. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud”. Nosferatu's arrival strikes fear in us because he is our predator, thus threatening our supremacy at the top of the food chain. Nosferatu’s cry is like a ‘bird of prey’; his name has an autonomy from its body, able to instill fear the hearts of man. However, Murnau is also quick to establish Nosferatu’s natural origins. The book tells us that “Nosferatu drinks the blood of the young, the blood necessary to his own existence”. Like the vampiric forms of Nature Bulwer shows us, he is merely trying to preserve his own survival by predating on humankind.

The knowledge the book distills to Hutter promises to save him from the vampire’s spell- if only he takes its contents as fact. However, Hutter’s rational worldview prevents him from correctly interpreting the significance of the document. He laughs in glee, shaking the document with a comical intensity. His rejects the idea that folk knowledge holds any authority and, in doing so, becomes thrall to the vampire.

Ellen’s curiosity, however, drives her to open the book. She does so twice. Upon first reading it, she experiences a visceral convulsion as if struck by lightning

. The knowledge the book contains has a physical effect upon her beyond the words on the page, pointing to the magical quality of the words within it- do they signify something beyond their letters, just as Nosferatu’s name alone has the ability to strike fear into the body? On the second occasion, a look of illumination dawns upon her face as she realizes that it is she who must sacrifice her blood to Nosferatu upon daybreak. She moves past fear into knowledge, authenticating the document’s validity by accepting its authority. Ellen’s successful reading of the book- she follows its instructions- emphasizes the importance of interpreting each text the right way. She ‘breaks the spell’, saving Bremen from the specter of the shadowy past- Orlok. The magical ability of the Book of Vampire’s words to effect change outside its materiality points to a premodern understanding of language, in which words have the power to directly affect reality and the fates of men. Words, here, have effects that supersede their signified meanings. Also, Ellen’s ability to interpret the book frames the female as the guardian of this premodern, magical way of knowing. The true Other, in the film, is the woman, who- with her intuition and subconscious visions- has a direct connection to the shadowy realm of the vampire.

However, the film also posits a third type of ‘knowledge’- that which cannot be known. Knock’s manuscript full of inscrutable symbols appears to be written in the ‘language’ of alchemy. Each character seems to relate to an interior reality that cannot be accessed, whether in the human psyche, or in nature. Alchemy is a ‘science’ bridging modern science and premodern magic. It seeks an overall structure underneath all elements in the universe through the drawing of a cosmic ‘map’. The meaning of this document in the film, however, is never interpreted for the viewer. Its representation is in itself a cipher to its true meaning. It proposes that there is interiority to all texts, a privateness that cannot be penetrated. However, the document’s existence points to an ingrown need to make legible all reality using whatever tools one has, no matter how inadequate.

Knock is our interpreter to this realm, but he is also a false guide. The interpretative act is, here, contingent upon an ideology that does not take into account the ‘greater good’. He controls our understanding of the document by re-appropriating its meaning to his own ends. He delivers false advice, telling Hutter “not to be afraid if people speak of Transylvania as the land of phantoms”. He dismisses the superstitious beliefs of the common folk, while paradoxically consulting a document that points to a sacred knowledge beyond the natural. He instills in Hutter scientific skepticism, causing Hutter to falsely interpret the Book of Vampires. From the start, the viewer is warned not to trust figures who propose to deliver to us the sole meaning of a text. This points to a key issue with all acts of making meaning: in the wrong hands, the power to interpret can be used for ill.

Murnau proposes that all forms of language- filmic, written, scientific, alchemic- has a natural relation to invisible worlds. The filmic script, in a way, is the hieroglyph that has to be correctly interpreted with the adequate tools by the viewer. However, there are different modes of vision that one has to utilize for different situations. If Hutter had read the Book of Vampires as a scientific text, he would have been saved. Likewise, by being able to interpret the book correctly, Ellen saves the community from the returning preternatural knowledge the vampire represents.

However, the willingness to admit the futility of any efforts at grasping the ineffability the universe through the powers of comprehension is equally as important. Knock’s script is never decoded, just as Nosferatu’s intentions are never revealed. The scientist-figure, however, sweeps us into an alternate understanding of the world wherein the “land of phantoms” exists within the controlled environment of the laboratory. He guides us with truths that do not have any logical meaning, suggesting that the separation between natural causes and supernatural effects is at best illusionary. Rather, it is by navigating these vague, shadowy regions in-between (the spaces where meaning is made) that we arrive at any kind of truth at all.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M.. Rabelais and his world. Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1968. Print.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster theory: reading culture. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.

Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny Trans. McLintock, D. New York: Penguin, 2001. pg. 121-162. Print.

Nosferatu (Motion picture) Nosferatu [videorecording] : a symphony of horror / Prana-Film ;

screenplay by Henrik Galeen ; directed by F.W. Murnau. Chatsworth, CA : distributed by Image Entertainment, c2002.

The Architectural Maze in Fun Home: Mirrors, Shadows, and the Space of Memory The Architectural Maze in Fun Home: Mirrors, Shadows, and the Space of

Amy Goh #260354243

ENGL 492

Professor Sean Carney

15th February 2012

The Architectural Maze in Fun Home: Mirrors, Shadows, and the Space of Memory

Fun Home, as its namesake suggests, is a memoir built spatially around the confusing corridors of memory. The book, like the Bechdel house, is a “fun house of mirrors” (Watson 123) cast full of shadows, in addition to being the stage for Alison’s story. Each chapter resembles a maze Alison creates in order to transform the seeming meaninglessness of her father’s death into a meaningful pattern. Or, in her words, to “link (her) senseless personal loss to a more coherent narrative” (Bechdel 196). Like an origami box, each chapter folds a different dimension of their relationship into a larger structure that only rises fully-fledged with the reader’s construction of each individual part into a whole. With each crease, a different connection is forged between her father’s death and her present life as an artist

. Alison’s memoir, however, exists in an uneasy relation to her father’s ‘art’- the Bechdel family home; an infrastructure which, metaphorically, represents a shared familial heritage. By creating and publishing Fun Home, it can be said Alison attempts two paradoxical acts: a memorial of her father, as well as a symbolic Oedipal killing of the looming patriarchal figure the shadow of the house represents.

The act of telling the family memoir can be considered an act of attempted narrative mastery. By writing Fun Home, Alison revises the ‘family story’ to include her own struggle as an art-maker. By examining the book’s “architecture of narration” (Watson 124)- how it is both like and unlike Theseus’s labyrinth

- and exploring the various forms the ‘minotaur’s shadow’

takes on, a complex portrait of Alison rises through the ashes of her father’s death. This portrait is more akin to a mirror artfully placed at an angle, revealing the uncanny congruencies between Alison and her father’s seemingly divergent selves.

Nebulous, shadowy presences often lurk about the maze-like walls in each chapter of Fun Home

. This shadow takes on various forms throughout the novel: the larger-than-life father who reverberates with a mythic resonance, the Bechdel house, and eventually Alison herself. This recurrent shadow can be taken as a loose metaphor for the disconnect between reality and perception present in all representational forms, an anxiety that continually assaults Alison both psychologically and artistically. By undertaking to write a history of the Bechdel family, Alison attempts an act of self-mastery by creating a ‘fixed’ self on the page. However, she does so while having to contend with the mobility of identity and the violence her narrative may do to her family members. Here, the house is the mythic stage linking blood and creativity from which the self attempts to emerge underneath the “generational, personal, psychosexual, and political entanglements of family life” (124). It is the site on which the familial drama takes place, in addition to being the foundation Alison builds her story upon.

Alison’s father Bruce experiences a similar internal need to balance his constructed self with his ‘intrinsic’ self. His architectural ambitions exists in tandem to his ‘artificial’ performance of heterosexual gender identity. Being of an older generation, he perceives society to be segmented on the foundational level. Thus, he chooses to fit into the normative social structure by ‘compartmentalizing’ his interiority to accommodate the social standard. However, this is always done in tension to his repressed individuality, which manifests in his obsessive decoration of the house. The various shadows within the book are a signal of the ‘trace’ or disconnect between Bruce’s two selves. Linguistically, the title of the first chapter “Old Father, Old Artificer” mirrors this, showing the relation between the genealogical- which cannot be controlled- and the creative- a controlled pursuit. The title holds a multiplicity of meanings: Bruce is the aged father (to Alison), the conscious creator of his identity (to himself) and a skilled craftsman, building and managing the family home. Like the visual trope of the shadow, Alison reveals that language is malleable, capable of being molded according to the meaning-maker’s intent.

The first appearance of Bruce’s shadow on page 12 as he reprimands Alison for breaking a lamp emphasizes Alison’s father’s monstrous, minotaur-like aspect. As a child, sensuous reality is amplified: her father appears larger-than-life and incomprehensible to her childish mind. However, on page 7, panel 4, we are shown another image of Alison’s father, this time silhouetted by the house. In this image, the shadow of the mansion is an extension of her father’s personality, an element of his psyche he constructs to gain agency over his own convoluted interiority. The elaborate interiors of the Bechdel’s Gothic Restoration house exemplifies the tension Alison perceives between Bruce’s private and public personas. It is an anachronistic building, signifying an era of social repression. Incarnated in ‘70s Suburbia, it becomes a cipher to a milieu that has lost its significance for the younger generation, but still continues to haunt the present like an oppressive shadow. Bruce’s architectural shadow, here, expresses the impenetrability of Bruce’s psyche to Alison, as well as a fracture in time: it is the spatial manifestation of an age-old conflict which Alison senses, but never fully comprehends.

On page 12, the shadow morphs again, taking on the shape of the Bechdel house’s portico. Alison leaves the silhouetted pillars of her family house and walks into a scene of open fields only for the landscape to merge back into the structured porticos of the Bechdel house. Even though she seeks to escape her father’s influence- represented by the sombre pillars of the Bechdel house-, her efforts initially fail. Lastly, on panel 3 of page 21, the shadow takes on another meaning. It sings Alison to sleep in the shape of her father, easing her into the nebulous dream realm. Bruce, here, stands at the threshold between darkness and light and Alison, nervously, tells him not to turn out the light in the hallway. In this act, she both embraces his inscrutable interiority and implores him not to abandon his role as caretaker. Within the first chapter alone, the shadow metamorphoses from being a menacing presence to being the harbinger of the repressed self, to being a mediator between familiar and foreign realms. Her father, from the very beginning, is multi-dimensional. He is shown not only as the negligent paterfamilias, but also as an impassioned creator and a benevolent father guiding his children into life’s darker regions. By refusing to inscribe a set meaning to the shadow trope, Alison accounts for the multiple facets of reality, allowing the reader to build his associations and recollections upon the vehicle of the metaphor. Just as the political is always personal, the autobiographical can be paradoxically collective. Similar to a shadow show, Alison’s comic relies on an “interplay of views… in the reflexive exchange of hand, eye, and thought” (Watson 124), the strings of which she hands to the reader.

Fun Home itself resembles a piece of architecture, mirroring the Bechdel home not only literally in its namesake, but also figuratively in form, content, and methodology. The act of opening the pages of the book is akin to opening the doors and windows of the Bechdel home. By flipping the book artifact open, we enter spatially into the Alison’s narrative maze. On the textual level, the pages function like the corridors of the Bechdel house, hiding family heirlooms (archival photographs) buried in the dust of disuse and silhouettes that distort as soon as the eye seeks to possess it. These abundant human and architectural shadows blend the figurative and the literal, the subjective and the objective, the mythic and the intimately personal. They make binaries non-existent: an image can be read both ways. The act of reading is, with Fun Home, always a collaborative effort between reader and writer. While it offers a privileged glimpse into the components that make up Alison’s artistic and psychological self, it also calls upon a readerly engagement wherein one has to piece together, like Alison, a story out of archival photos and literary fragments in an attempt to make sense of the past chapters in light of the present.

Alison’s motley technique is a manifestation of a need to tell her story using whatever means possible. Like her father, Alison is only able to express herself using the tools her father hands her- in acts of building spaces. Just as the Bechdel home is constructed from furniture collected from varied sources (some literally from the garbage heap), Alison accumulates literary, mythic and photographic references to build a fictive reality. She is a conscious creator using “descriptive devices” (67), rather than mortar, frames and furniture. Her use of the comic format combines time and space, so architectural corridors become symbolic intersections in which characters meet alternative selves, figures from the past, or their own memories. By arranging spaces upon the page in a deliberate manner, Alison expresses the interiority of characters through their interaction with the spaces they inhabit within the panels. Like her father, Alison seeks connections with those around her through the act of creating, “retelling personal histories that replicate the non-linear, open-ended, associative clusters of memory itself” (Watson 127).

Alison also uses the architectural metaphor to depict her personal struggle to express emotion, a trait her father shares. The child Alison is unable to express her love for her father both because he is emotionally inaccessible and because she lacks the tools to do so. She builds this “embarrassment” about expressing feelings spatially, as “part (of) a tiny scale model of (her) father’s more fully developed self loathing” which “inhabited (her) house pervasively and invisibly” (Bechdel 20). Ironically, the defensive wall Bruce builds around himself incarnates in his daughter in her attempt to express emotion. It is one of the threads connecting her to her father within the network of personal and spatial relations of the house, in which her father will always be a corridor away.

The rest of Fun Home explores this dialectical connection and fracture between Alison her father. A tenuous thread persists through the web of each chapter connecting Alison’s life to her father’s death like a double helix. As Alison concludes later on, “you could say that my father’s end was my beginning/ or more precisely, that the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117). Although Alison states she was “spartan to my father’s Athenian/ modern to his Victorian/ Butch to his nelly/ utilitarian to his aesthete” (15), these are, in the end, permutations of the same binary, only in reverse order. Alison is her father’s mirror image. The book’s structure mimics this: it begins with the mythic image of the father holding up his daughter

which is then inverted at the book’s end, mimicking the cyclical temporality of Alison’s narrative: things inevitably end up where they begin.

The scene in front of the mirrors on page 98-99 visualizes this relation. In this panel, the Bechdel family is shown dressing up in front of a massive mirror that takes up most of the frame. They are choosing the way they want to present themselves to the world. Bruce’s dainty adjustment of his tie is mirrored by Alison’s defiant frown and boyish stance. An arrow points to Bruce’s coat and to Alison’s dress: his is velvet, hers is the “least girly dress in the store”. Furthermore, Alison and her father are dressed diametrically opposite: she is in white, he is in a dark suit. The father/daughter duo are shown as “inverts… inversions of one another” (98) not only linguistically, but visually. Linguistic expression, here, is inseparable from outward displays of dress and behaviour. One’s personality is both expressed verbally and performed socially. Alison goes beyond the homogenous definition of ‘invert’ as ‘homosexual’ to a larger distinction that accounts for the differences and similarities between Alison and her father. Even though they are visually (in dress and stance) and compositionally (upon the page) presented as opposites, they are symmetrical in the method in which they choose to stage their life and express their interiority.

In addition, Bruce, Alison and her mother do not look at the mirror, but at each other through the mirror. The mother, here, is an intruder into the father/daughter relationship- she is posed at the edge, as a mere footnote in the familial drama. She states dryly “you’re going to upstage the bride in that suit” (98) at the edge of the page, whereas Bruce and Alison’s speech bubbles are at the forefront, diametrically framed as symmetrical opposites to each other. This reveals a disturbing truth: Alison’s writing of her story about her relationship to her father is told at the expense of her mother. In choosing to privilege her relationship to her father, she also commits a violence by eliminating her mother’s side of the story. By building linguistic and visual mirrors into the ‘corridors’ of her narrative maze, Alison is able to explore the tension between the illusional fixity of architectural spaces and the fluidity of life. She allows greater flexibility of meaning, lessening the violence her story inflicts in eliminating her family’s perspectives.

In the resulting chapters, Bruce’s shadow diminishes in size as Alison gradually finds herself through the text’s various subtextual mirrors (Joyce’s Ulysses, in particular). Congruently, the house metaphor widens to include literary and geographic landscapes, reflecting how Alison’s growth as a human being is accompanied by the expansion of her horizons. On page 128, Alison is shown in focus holding a camera against the silhouette of the landscape. By taking a picture of her environment, she also masters it with the camera’s single eye. Finally, on page 209 of the last chapter, Alison is shown returning to the silhouette of the family home. However, this time, she is the same size as its shadow, signaling her newfound narrative mastery over her father’s legacy.

When Allison is portrayed in conversation with her father on pages 220-1, they are on level ground within a series of three by four square panels. This signals a newfound similitude between father and daughter gained through the accumulation of shared literary and personal interests in the prior chapters. The resolution of the shadow conflict takes place in an ironic ‘face-off’ between Alison and her ‘doppelganger’ father. Alison, here, is able see an uncanny double of the self she would have been had she been in her father’s position by measuring her experiences against her father. However, father and daughter are unable to connect through sexual identification: the captions state “It was not the sobbing, joyous reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” but “like fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom” (221.7-8). Even though they are connected visually through their similarity in posture, expression and dress, the panels separate Alison and her father into tight boxes, so a heightened tension persists between them both dramatically and textually on the page.

Within these series of panels, Alison questions “which of us was the father?” (221.10). This rhetorical question is answered by the images themselves, that show Alison and her father looking ahead with the same wry expression towards a hazy destination: Alison has become like her father. However, this transition into her father's role is not an obstacle-free one- Alison still fears being out-staged by her father, and the arrival at their destination (the theatre) does not bring along an epiphany. Rather, the sentimental endnotes of the movie they watch is openly bathetic- Lynn cries out "yes you will, Daddy" when her father mourns “I ain’t never gonna see you again” (1.222). After the fraught complexities the comic has addressed in the father/daughter relationship, this simplistic ending is hardly satisfying. Like Alison, it results with the reader driving back in “mortified silence” (223.4).

In a way, Bruce’s hidden ambition to become an artist successfully incarnates in Alison’s creation of the family memoir. However, this warrants a sacrifice of the father figure as his death rejuvenates the foundations of the Bechdel home. The ending Alison proposes is not a joyous one, but rather open-ended, requiring the reader to provide his or her own closure.

In writing Fun Home, Alison paints a complex picture of a man who both father, lover, and impassioned creator. Like the shadow, her characters hold an ambiguous form, needing the reader to give them form in the act of interpretation by holding the strings of the figures behind the textual screen. Likewise, the placing of mirrors within Alison’s architectural maze allows for a flexibility of meaning. Dead ends act as a convergence point in which Bruce and Alison’s differences are mirrored, providing a locus of vision for the reader. By refusing to inscribe a fixed meaning onto her tropes, she weaves her story into a larger, infinitely more complex history that will always be in the making. She accounts for the multiplicity of real life, allowing the reader to build his or her meaning upon her ‘set’ history. The final juxtaposed images we are left with are jarring: an imagined truck hurtling towards us as Alison’s body falls (away from us) into her father’s arms. In combining these images in a mirror-like fashion, she suggests death and life are inextricable, and it is our imperative to make sense of it by contributing to a collective mythic and interpersonal history, or get hit by a truck.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun home: a family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Watson, Julia. "Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home." [cluster on graphic memoir, ed. Gillian Whitlock] biography 31:1 (Winter 2008), 27-56. Reprinted in Graphic Subjects, ed. Michael A. Chaney, University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming 2010.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Aesthetics of Violence in The Penal Colony

Amy Goh #260354243
GERM 129-197 Images of the Other
Professor Bernard Deschamps
24th November 2009

The Aesthetics of Violence as seen in the Colonialism Trope in The Penal Colony

Even though “In the Penal Colony” does not explicitly state that it is a parable on colonialism, an intertextual layer of motifs underlies the text, revealing a surprising similarity between its fictional happenings and the mechanics of actual colonialism that was rampant in the 19th century European world. What is achieved is a complex interweaving of aesthetic, literary and religious elements that, ultimately, reveal the driving force behind all colonial aspirations, as well as the brutal instruments the colonizing force inflicts upon the colonized in order to 'communicate' his desires. Through the language of pain and punishment, exemplified both by the name of the text- Strafkolonie, meaning ‘the punishment colony1’ in the literal sense- and the central object of the narrative, the “remarkable apparatus”(Kafka, 532) of the machine, the colonizer is able to deliver a totalizing system of technical, political and psychological dominance.

This essay will seek to unearth the methods by which colonialism holds its power, as well as the grand ideas that drive the colonizer to conquer more land through the figures of the officer, the condemned man and the machine. Lastly, I will show how Kafka provides the reader with a
harsh criticism of colonialism by displaying the deterioration of the colonizer's ‘grand narrative’ 3, in which the colonizer is inevitably destroyed by the sheer unreality of the ideal itself, underpinning the stark irony of all colonial aspirations: that colonialism, in essence, is unsustainable.

1 Penal colonies existed in actual reality and were usually situated on a remote island, or on inhospitable land. Prisoners were sent to these places as a form of punishment, and were often subjected to harsh lives under a severe prison regime. Many often died from neglect, hunger, excessive labour, or in an escape attempt.

The machine, the grand apparatus “like no other” (53), consists of three parts: a bed, a harrow and a sketcher. The condemned man is laid on a bed of cotton wool naked, his mouth stuffed with a piece of felt. The harrow possesses two needles, a long and a short one. The long one inscribes the sentence of the condemned man upon his skin, while the short one squirts water to wash away the blood. The bloodied water then enters a system of grooves that flows into a pit in the earth. It is stated the condemned “deciphers (his sentence) with his body” (63) through the language of pain. The sentence itself is described as illegible, consisting of “maze-like lines in complicated criss-crosses, covering the paper so completely it was hard to see the white spaces between them” (60). In ideal, the machine imparts the divine revelation of the condemned man's sin via the medium of unnameable pain.

3 The term ‘grand narrative’ was coined by the French philosopher Jean--François Lyotard in his 1979 work “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” to explain the form of thinking that shaped the modern mind. It refers to the uniting truths and worldviews people subscribe to.

In the mechanics of the machine, colonialism is revealed as an unnatural system involving, firstly, the invasion of the colonizing force into the land of the indigenous. In order for the colonizer to successfully colonize the people, he needs to, firstly, erase the existing history of the colonized, and to replace it with his own narrative. This narrative is born out of the particularities of the political and social milieu of his European Imperial roots and the Western rational ideas he is a product of. Only when this replacement has taken place will the spirit of the colony be successfully harnessed, and the colonizer free to exploit the land for his own ends through the construction of a mobilized workforce bound by psychological and physical chains. Labour generated, thus, serves in realizing the colonizer's goals, whether it is economic profit or military prestige on the world front. As this invasion is intrinsically unnatural, the methods by which it is characterized have to be, likewise, unnatural- that of the medium of violence, which is in its purest essence an irrational disruption of the natural order of being. The colonizer, thus, communicates with the colonized in the language of physical violence, which can, like a mechanized arm, take the form of material apparatus such as the chain with which the condemned man is bound in the text, or the whip that was used in actual colonialism to subjugate the locals by the British (Bernault, 1944).

In the text, this is executed by the machine which, by an intricate system of punishment, serves to communicate the colonizer's 'narrative' in the language of pain. By inscribing the sentence on the condemned man's back, the officer- and likewise, the colonizer- rejects all that has come before, erasing the past, cultural history of the people who were born of the land and replacing it with his own discourse which, like the illegible text the machine inscribes, is only understood by the colonizer. As Fanon puts aptly, the history the colonizer writes is “not the history of the country which he plunders, but the history of his own nation in regards to all that it skims off, all that it violates and plunders”5. In the execution of this corporal punishment, the machine acts as the ultimate silencer. The bloodied inscription the machine delivers serves a two-fold purpose, 'enlightening' the guilty to the fact he is disrupting the 'grand narrative' of the colonial idea by speaking out in his native voice (for the condemned man in the story is punished solely for retorting to his superiors), as well as to enforce the existing order by serving as a deterrent,
ensuring by its physical presence this prevalent silence is maintained, and thus, the colonizer is free to exploit his acquisition to further his own ends. Inscription, as Albert Memmi states, is the medium by which a “colonial system of obedience both on the outer surface of the colonized, as upon her inmost being”6 is etched into the souls of the colonized.

The machine's harrow by which the needles of inscription are attached, thus, can be interpreted as an additional symbol of exploitation. The harrow was an agricultural tool used by farmers who toiled the soil in order to reap a source of livelihood. Likewise, the colonizer reaps the flesh of the native people by means of blood, sweat and labour. The harrow and the needles are inseparable in colonialism, for as the blood of the condemned man flows into the pit, colonialism involves the necessary shedding of the indigenous people's blood into the earth, thereby fertilizing it for the colonizer and serving for his advancement. 7 As blood transmits life, stories ensure the identity of a people is preserved. Blood, here, symbolizes the cultural history of a people transmitted by language. Similarly, the harrow can be considered a technologically inferior tool, marking the simpler agricultural lifestyle of living purely from the land, a lifestyle prevalent in many colonized nations. This contrasts with the machine's artistry, which marks a more complex system of reaping profit via the mechanics of political and military strength and supremacy. The harrow, thus, also denotes the colonizer's supreme dominance both ideologically and technologically over his colony. This supremacy, naturally, is vital in ensuring he is able to pursue his colonial goals fully without disruption.

The colonial model Kafka presents has a parallel in the actual colonial practices of King Leopold in his acquisition of the Belgian Congo. When King Leopold first invaded the Congo, he declared them 'vacant lands'. Vacant, in this sense, denotes a blank script, free for the re-writing of the colonizer's narrative. The land, subtracted from the indigenous people, is in the colonizer's eyes a piece of prime ground for the cultivation of his economy. In disregarding the voice of the natives, the colonizer rejects their language. Oral heritage, in African tribes, was an important part of their identity, functioning as a transmission of thought and vital ideas. Storytelling, rather than the written word, was tradition, the passing on, of culture and oral lore to the next generation, ensuring the inheritance of a unique cultural history and literature.8 The robbing of language its replacement with words illegible to the colonizer, thus, serves as the ultimate antagonist: the destroyer of the soul. Kafka's machine exemplifies this in etching a bloodied tattoo on the skin of the condemned, which embodies the voice of colonialism's dissenters. It is the silencing of the “No!” that cries out in opposition to this oppressive system of punishment. In other words, it is the inscribing of the colonizer’s narrative onto the blank canvas of the native land.

8 Ki-Zerbo, Joseph: "Methodology and African Prehistory", UNESCO International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, James Currey Publishers, 1990; see Ch. 7; "Oral tradition and its methodology" at pages 54-61; at page 54: "Oral tradition may be defined as being a testimony transmitted verbally from one generation to another. Its special characteristics are that it is verbal and the manner in which it is transmitted."

If the machine serves as the ultimate articulation of the colonizer's system of violence, this language is also displaced to the relations between the condemned man and his superiors. Whereas the officer and his (European) contemporaries communicate sensibly in French, this does not extend to his relations with the condemned man and the soldier. When the condemned man failed to promptly to “get up every hour on the hour and salute in front of the captain's
door” (58), the captain immediately “went for his riding whip and struck him in the face”. Likewise, the officer “(takes) a clod of earth from the mound and (throws) it at the soldier” (59) when he inquisitively looks at the machine. The whip, like the chains that bind the condemned man to the soldier, serve as the instruments of colonialism by which the colonizer wields his power and 'communicates' his desires to the colonized. In the establishment of his technical superiority- for the whip, chains and the machine are technological innovations of the Western world- the colonizer is able to exercise full control over the colonized, upholding and sustaining the new order.

Similarly, as the officer and the condemned man do not communicate in any discernible language beyond that of physical violence, African chiefs were forced to sign lengthy treaties concerning the acquisition of land without any comprehension. Christian de Bonchamps, a French explorer who served Leopold in Katanga, parallels the explorer in the narrative, expressing disapproval regarding such treaties, stating the treaties “are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment"9. The colonizing force disregards the perspectives of the colonized, only interested in his self-interests. He is concerned with the continuation of his ‘Odyssey’ 10, even if this means the sacrifice of the native's sacred narrative. Language, in this sense, is the beacon of power enforcing order, dictating what will occur. At the hands of the colonizer, it is a weapon like the whip. Kafka's machine, in its material reality,
draws together the two-fold nature of colonialism: the physicality of its invasion, as well as the psychological consequences that come with the erasing of a cultural heritage.

Moreover, there is another deeper layer that characterizes colonialism, a layer that approaches the spiritual in depth and reaches beyond material gain. This is what I will call the aesthetic motive that underpins all colonial aspirations. It is the seeking of and the surrender to an idea larger than oneself. In religious terms, it is the search for God- a Narcissus11- who will reflect, faithfully, man's own image in its ideal light. As Rey Chow states in his article “Ethics after Idealism”, “the most important sentiment involved... is not a negative but a positive one: rather than hatefulness and destruction, (it) is about love and idealism12”. In 19th century colonial reality, this was most apparent in the intellectual discourse of Social Darwinism which undercut the many aspects of social and civic life, going so far as to influencing the nature of the colonies European settlers chose to conquer13. Social Darwinism’s concept of ‘natural selection’ posited a evolutionary hierarchy of human types or races, whereby all biologically and culturally 'inferior' races were fated to be replaced by the superior race, the latter of which was, naturally, embodied by the white, civilized man14. Social Darwinism justified the European imperialist project, providing the Western imperialist with the excuse that, by the acquisition of land, he was serving the greater evolution of the human species as a whole into a nobler form by destroying the backward, barbaric man. Darwinism's 'ape', in Western colonial reality, was the black 'savage', who pervaded the lands of Africa. This overarching narrative served as the 'biblical doctrine' by which the colonizer acceded to. In this sense, the aesthetic and the religious can be united for, as Kafka's officer seeks the ultimate surrender to the image of a God-like image (the machine, here, serves as a medium of communication between him and God), the colonizer surrenders to the grand narrative of imperialism: that, in essence, it is beneficial to humanity for it serves to advance the evolution of man. Social Darwinism supports the latter theory, making the imperialist feel a sense of spiritual satisfaction that his economic and military conquests are for the greater good, and hence making him overlook easily the atrocities he commits. Similarly, the artistry of the machine highlights the aesthetic ideals that underlie all colonial enterprise: that of the furthering of the colonizer's epic narrative.

10 I am making a comparison to Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, which represents an instance in which history has been transcribed into a form of literature providing aesthetic pleasure for the masses. The colonizer, similarly, writes his own epic in order to extend the literary history of his own people, replacing the traditional history of the colonized.

11 Narcissus is the Greek mortal who fell in love his own reflection. In making this comparison, I am making an allusion to a concept James Kirwan states in his book “Beauty” in which he describes as the search for the aesthetic ideal to be a desire for “the splendour of God shining through the body. It is a desire like that of Narcissus, that can never be satisfied” (Kirwan, pp73) Similarly, man is described as being made in the image of God in the bible, drawing a connection between the search for God and the seeking of beauty.

However, as the machine, like the intellectual discourse of Social Darwinism, is man-made, it is flawed. It is a secondary channelling inevitably coloured by human nature, acting more akin to an idol than an authentic source of divine revelation. In Kafka's text, this religious dimension is most fully articulated in the figure of the officer, who is described as a 'devotee' of the machine, religiously tending to all its operations. His attire, consisting of a “tight parade jacket, laden with epaulets and covered with braid” (55), separates him from the soldier and the condemned man, marking his superior status as guardian of the machine. Like the Judaic high priest who wore a 'Breastplate of Judgement' adorned with twelve precious stones, he is marked apart from the 'congregation' by the adornments on his garments. He does not question the preachings the machine imparts through the linguistic instrument of the needle-pen, possessing a stubborn resilience even in the face of the explorer's doubt to the practice's morality, stating verbally, “I know the machine best. Guilt is always (Amy's emphasis) beyond doubt” (57). In addition, he calls all who do not possess the same religious devotion to it as 'uninitiated', giving the machine the divine aura of a religious object. In other words, he fetishizes the machine, treating it as the authentic voice of God delivering judgement on the guilty. In addition, the ritual of pain around
the machine also possesses a religious hue. The officer, in his discourse (and as his is the only account the reader has, the reader is forced to believe him), states that under the old commandant,

“The machine was freshly cleaned and glowed... In front of hundreds of eyes—all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there—the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What nowadays has to be done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and it was an honour for me.” (64)

In addition, the crowds that gathered were so dense that “it was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to watch from up close” (64). Here, the reader sees the ritual in its optimal height, in a time when the doctrine preached by the old governor was fully believed. Then, the symbolic temple of colonialism gleamed, much like the machine was “freshly cleaned and glowed”. If the power of a doctrine is characterized by the devotion of its followers, the fanfare connected with the public ritual of violence can be seen as indicative of the power of belief. People appeared to devote themselves body and soul to the practising of the ritual, feeling a religious satisfaction in the delivery of judgement. Judgement, in this lens, serves as the enforcing of a holier, supreme law that presides and overpowers human judgement, the latter of which is flawed, thereby upholding the current religious order. However, the account we have of this ritual is obtained from the officer, whose voice we cannot trust, for he is a devotee of the old governor, and naturally, is blind to the reality of the actual situation in the Penal Colony- that the language of communication executed by the machine is not pure, but tainted. The picture he paints is that of the ideal image of things as he hopes they were and hence, it is indicative of a deeper resilience to the inevitable crumbling of the old system- that of which is colonialism.

In reality, the colonizer faces many predicaments in the conquering of land. Even though the colonizer believes- for the sake of his faith- that his rituals of punishment have resonance in the colonizer, this punishment is removed from understanding. It is, like the inscription of the machine on the condemned man's back, illegible. The discourse that justifies colonialism- that it benefits the greater good- lies feeble in the reality of colonialism, as exemplified in the destruction of the machine and the figure of the officer who feebly clings on to the ideal, eventually sacrificing his body in what can be called the ultimate surrender. With the explorer's appellation of a single “No”, the officer can no longer exist, for his belief system- the spiritual dimension of the system of colonialism- has been proved false. Either his God is a 'graven image' or his doctrine of justice is innately flawed. In sacrificing himself, the officer rejects the reality the new law posited by the new governor presents. Likewise, the failure of the machine to faithfully etch a sentence on the officer and its subsequent destruction can be interpreted as a failure of the system of beliefs the whole machinery of colonialism is based upon. The grand narrative underlying colonialism has crumbled. Justice, with a capital J, falls flat on its face. Here lies the irony of colonialism: even though the colonizer aspires to serve a greater cause, he inevitably fails in the megalomaniac nature of his ideas. The foundation for colonialism is thus squashed in the face of reality. In the destruction of the machine, Kafka prescribes the fate of colonialism: that it is, due to the illegitimacy of its claims, unsustainable.

The explorer, in his role, is similar to the reader. He is an outsider to the system, and thus serves as its judge. Like much of Kafka's audience, he is European, “travelling purely with the intention of seeing things and by no means that of altering other people's legal codes” (62). However, he maintains a detached tone, standing away from the action. He merely observes, making comments when required. Like the reader, he does not or cannot physically intervene with action. However, he is able to destroy the whole old, 'barbaric' system of torture via a single verbal appellation. Kafka, thus, seems to imply that, in the reading of his story, the reader, too, has to make his own judgements regarding the legitimacy of the claims colonialism makes. The explorer's utterance of a single “no” is, thus, not only reflective of Kafka's disapproval of the ideas behind colonialism, but also Kafka's insistence that it is, in the end, up to the masses to support or to denounce a practice. As action is propelled by thought, words are the vehicle by which power is channelled. In the text, this power is given to the audience, and the reader has to make the necessary decision himself whether, after seeing the brutal consequences of colonialism in the analogy of the machine, he should remain passively silent, or actively denounce its practices. Belief holds the optimum power in the system of social and political life, propelling both the atrocities carried out, and, conversely the good that can be achieved. Kafka's novella, thus, serves ultimately as a fable or a parable, wherein the reader can step into the story, and fulfil his role in the greater drama of life.

Kafka's “In the Penal Colony” shares many parallels to the practices prevalent in actual colonialism. However, Kafka does not merely address the physical tools of colonialism, but reaches beyond, revealing the complex network of ideas that underlie colonialism and drive it toward fruition. “In the Penal Colony”, thus, is similar to a dream in its weaving of symbolic motifs heavy with meaning that need to be deciphered. Through the reaping of these symbols- the separation of the meaning from the metaphor-, one uncovers a stark portrait on the brutal nature of colonialism and the devastating effects it has on the colonized.

Works Cited

Bernault, Florence. Enfermement, prison et châtiments en Afrique du 19e siècle à nos jours. Karthala
Editions, 1999. Print.

Brunton, Deborah, ed, Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe 1800-
1900. Manchester University Press, 2004, pp211-238. Print.

Chow, Rey. “Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading Ethics after Idealism:
Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Print.

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