the cruelty of Kleist: short stories.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins. 1914.

I have just finished reading the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist on the recommendation of a friend, who mentioned their influence on Kafka. I had previously only read “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” in an anthology by Charles Neider about eight years ago. “Locarno” is the only supernatural tale in the lot, but these short works should be of interest to readers of the macabre and strange, because Kleist’s fiction is a literary delicacy of gratuitous cruelty and misfortune, making it something like German Romantic fois gras, I suppose.

Kleist shot his mistress Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on a beach in Germany in 1811 in a murder-suicide pact. They apparently spent their last hours cheerfully. Most of the eight short stories he wrote depict murder and suicide in a variety of sudden ways, with bits of skull glued to wallpaper with blood like fragments of Ming china, arrows whooshing forth out of darkness, propelled on elegant quivers into the ale-fattened hearts of noblemen. Even the two tales with “happy” endings seem to feature uneasy, pasted-on smiles at their conclusion, as if everyone is expecting to catch on fire at any minute. With Kleist, the bad often get their just desserts, and the good get it even worse. He piles on the injustices perpetrated by church, state, and the average everyday bastard, and it feels like something of a miracle if a character exits a Kleist tale without both lance and poison in their belly at the same time. He wrings outrage from the reader when unassailable countesses are betrayed, but when one of his motley of contemptible shits get theirs, it really is tremendously satisfying.

Kleist uses language as a transparent vessel for delivering plot, characterization, and theme; the words do not call attention to themselves, and are not lush or ornamental by any stretch. The sentences, buoyed along on their glassy, modest phrases, unwind to significant but not extravagant length, as if rooting through the detritus of deception to get to the bottom of things. This circuitousness, of snaking one’s hands on and on through the small intestine of the text to find blockages or tumors, is something that can be seen in Kafka as well. In “Michael Kohlhaas,” the longest tale of the lot, there is an exasperatingly long and intestinal apparatus of bureaucracy that is comically explored, interrogated, and exhausted in order to stop the depredations of Kohlhaas. Kleist, in common with much Gothic fiction, sets his works in the past in order to investigate their flaws and barbarities. It makes a good showing of what historical realist fiction can do in estranging the past, and revealing its assumptions to be contingent, arbitrary, and unjust. As one unsurprising example: women are property whose self-determination only exists in so far as it is their fault if they are sexually assaulted.

Though he was a nobleman living during the French revolution, Kleist really puts some effort into making the ancien regime look dreadful. I’m reminded of a statement I read in Chris Baldick’s “In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and 19th Century Writing”: that the ancien regime hoisted its barbarity over itself too, and that primogeniture was a process of feeding one’s young to the devouring god of property, the equivalent of shoving one’s male children into a jar and shaking it around to see who kills who in order to become the rightful heir. The paterfamilias comes off a little worse than shabby in Kleist, such as the Count or Duke (or whatever his christing title is) who is by turns murderously angry and outrageously lustful towards his daughter in “The Marquise of O.” And in “Kohlhaas” we are given Martin Luther writing an epistle to the Emperor recommending that Kohlhaas – an unrepentant murderer and sacker of cities, who is further aggrandizing himself as an emissary of god – be pardoned for all of his crimes. In Kleist, everyone is either awkward, horrible, or a saint about to be pin-cushioned by arrows.

The Marquise of O” is a nihilistic sex comedy from 1808, featuring an unhinged young Russian count who tears around from scene to scene terrifying everyone with his startling and violent behavior. The second he leaves, he is lavished with praise as a “fine young man” of “many good qualities.” Even with the pathological allowances for young noblemen of the time, the count’s behavior is beyond the pale. This is a man who breaks into back gardens and chases marquises around until they escape into the house and lock the door. A man who proceeds in his love affairs as if he is “storming a fortress.” In other words, a fine young man of many good qualities. Not quite as fine perhaps, as the marquise’s father, who as touched on before, spends his final scene in the novella passionately making out with his daughter, “in unspeakable pleasure over his daughter’s mouth.” Translator David Constantine mentions in his footnotes that Kleist intended to offend with this story, which is more or less an exercise in the “forced seduction” genre, but with the normal happy ending strained and touched with greater perversity than even usual.

Over and over again, women in Kleist are the recipients of false accusations and misunderstandings, and over and over again, we see them thrown out of their homes without getting a single word in against their apoplectic parents or brothers, who are too emetically furious to do anything other than vomit out execrations or tears. This is the state of things for women in his fiction (a state he is not critical enough about to even anachronistically be feminist, but critical enough to emphasize its negatives): they are pieces of genetic furniture with no more say over their destinies than an antique tapestry of family history over where it gets to hang. Their courtships by and large result in their being raped by their suitors, whether in “O” or in “Betrothal in San Domingo.” Constantine mentions that Kleist loved to put women on trial in his tales, using their plight to interrogate oppressive social norms, most of which are related to sex. The effect is without doubt even more horrific to modern readers than to Kleist’s contemporaries, because the norms Kleist finds acceptable and within moderation are still terrible.

The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is a three page exercise in the traditional ghost story. A rich nobleman comes home to find a sick old woman has been given shelter in his house, and in annoyance, asks her to move to the other side of the room away from the warm stove. In doing so, she falls and hurts her back severely, but gets up again and lays down on the far end of the room, dying shortly after with a groan. The room becomes haunted by her ghostly appearance and re-enacted death every night, thus making the house unsaleable (almost everything in Kleist is about sex or property). Other writers might leave the spectral revenge at that, but Kleist takes it farther, so that the nobleman falls into a fit of rage one night over the ghost and burns the house down, reducing himself to a cinder after a protracted death agony. From the perspective of 2016, at least, whether it’s a ghost story or the awful “forced seduction” story, Kleist really can’t do anything straight.

The Chilean Earthquake” is a vicious tale about the possibilities of utopian society in the wake of a disaster and its leveling of the social classes and the infrastructures of church and state. This utopian glimpse is squashed, and the cruelty returns with accelerated force. “The Foundling” is another perverse tale, this time a sex tragedy rather than a comedy: out of pity, a businessman picks up a wandering young boy infected with the plague, thus causing the death of his own son who catches the disease. This occurs in the first half page, and events only worsen from there.

With scheming relatives, horny young psychopaths, a diverse cast of landed gentry stricken by their obsessions with sex and property, incestuous patriarchs, and a proliferation of suicides, there’s a lot to appreciate in Kleist. These and his intensely negative portrayals of church, state, and the ancien regime seal it for me as one of my favorite reads of the year. It is reductive as all christ, but I am reminded of John Llewelyn Probert’s classic description of the work of Charles Birkin: “No nonsense cruelty delivered simply and economically.” There is a lot more to him than this, and a lot more I could write here, but I’ll leave this posting with the observation that if I ever get around to compiling an anthology of conte cruels, Kleist will be one of the first entries. 


Note: the edition I have used for this entry has been Hackett Publishing’s “Selected Writings,” translated by David Constantine. This collection also features Kleist’s plays, selected letters, and a few of his short, pungent anecdotes.

striking when the iron is cold: recent reads.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections.

This is now my favorite Delany novel, beating out Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. It might also be my favorite Delany book, beating out the magisterial memoirist critique of city planning and gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It concerns Arnold Hawley, an aging black poet in New York, struggling to survive in penury, incapable of coming to grips with his sexuality. Dark Reflections is the publisher-imposed title of one of his collections, and it seems to me a few weeks after digesting the novel’s piercing misery that Hawley is in a number of ways a dark reflection of Delany himself. Hawley is a black writer, but a poet rather than a novelist; Hawley is a gay cis man, but rather than being sexually exuberant and adventurous as Delany himself has been, Hawley has never in his life had a real partner and only briefly experimented with other men; and, like Delany, Hawley marries a woman for a period of time. Hawley’s literary tastes also bear out a resemblance to Delany’s, encompassing high modernist poets like Hayden and Crane and out of fashion writers (out of fashion in the post-9/11 NYC of the novel) such as Gass and a few others I’ve seen Delany reference in interviews.

I described the novel’s sadness as piercing, and it is. I remember calling Joyce’s own sexually repressed James Duffy of “A Painful Case” “an entirely doomed personality,” and in a number of ways Arnold Hawley is very much that. Unlike Duffy, Hawley has literary endeavor to redeem his existence, which teems so avidly on the surface with failure, but even this redemption is small beer. There are several scenes of Hawley at various ages, doing small acts to cement his reputation and clear the way for future biographers, like notating the backs of old photographs, “The poet Arnold Hawley, Coney Island, 1939.” I was just reading Helene Cixous yesterday, and she talks about Flaubert renouncing life for the “the beautifully written,” and how all of his human relationships were “monstrous.” She wonders if it is necessary for art that the artist renounce their existence. The worst thing of course, about Hawley, is that he essentially renounces his existence but gets no recognition in return, and can only hope for a posthumous revival. Yet the text seems to suggest that Hawley’s near inscrutable works (never excerpted) and their clumsy, abstruse titles are not really ripe or likely for posthumous celebration. They are unfashionable, difficult. Hawley’s fastidious concern for leaving behind documentation of his life is probably in vain.

When faced with any of the diminutive or great tragedies of his life, Hawley often stands in front of his bookshelf, gazing at his collection of first editions of his own works. In the sense that Hawley exteriorizes himself into words, this is Narcissus and his reflection. But in the sense that Hawley lives for his work, it is his reminder of his purpose, and that the grubby, messy things of life, such as sex and companionship, are no more than grist for the monstrous mill of words. The novel is beautiful and almost unbearable, and serves as a reminder, among other things, that the vast majority of lives in human history have had all happiness and sexual satisfaction squashed, thwarted, crushed, diverted, deceived, and destroyed. One thinks of all the charwomen and chimney sweeps in Victorian novels who have never kissed another human being, scrubbing and scraping and inhaling all the dust of the miserable world, their Holy Communion of industrialization. One can’t help but feel poorly about Arnold Hawley, but what is remarkable is not that one life is bereft of human sexual and emotional companionship, but that so few in history have not been bereft. Unlike the red faced and raw handed specters from Victorian works, Hawley makes his own decision to live for his art, but his view of his sexuality (“It’s not worth worrying about something that was already ruined to begin with”) comes from the time and place that shaped him. Yet Delany makes clear, not only by his own memoirs displaying an alternative, but within the text, that Hawley chooses, again and again, to let the social forces that shape him continue to own him.

Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents.

On the subject of industrialization and coal scuttles and crude oil and tar paper, here comes Fritz Leiber attempting to kidnap the horror tale and drag it inside a garbage bag into the city. Other writers had dealt with modernity and it’s waste products and leprous slums before (Dickens with “The Signalman,” Wells with “The Cone,” for starters), but none had been so fetishistically obsessed with coal and refuse and all the pornography of industrial effluvium. “Smoke Ghost” is the classic here, and deserving of the recognition. What I had forgotten about the story since I last read it was that the entity in question demands worship, and that the unfortunate ad-man who becomes haunted by it sees it as the epicenter of the forces of war and totalitarianism. Or perhaps the smoke thing is some kind of excretion of those forces, akin to the cancerous runoff from paper mills. In the parlor game of “What is this textual figure a metaphor for?”, I would suggest it has something of the utterly mad drive of technological progress – the blind striving and groping for increasing mechanization and bureaucratization, regardless of whether this manifests in superfluous electric pepper shakers or in Belsen and Sobibor, in laundry machines that whine jingles while they wash or in the atom bomb. That it demands worship also connotes a traditional criticism of money, which suggests it could also be capital at the same time.

Other stories are of less interest, such as “The Automatic Pistol” which mostly acts as an updating of the “familiar” from witchcraft and demonology, a point Leiber is not afraid to baldly and unnecessarily state in dialogue. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” forgoes the oozing closeups on drainage ditches or the burbling sacks of sentient detergent that demand tribute, and instead opts for a more cosmic route, although Leiber still manages to tie everything into Hitler once again. A brilliant chess player prone to wastreldom and fuckery has a series of dreams where he is playing some kind of interdimensional board game (somewhere between chess and Go) against an unidentified malignant force. The whole narrative is feverish and absorbing, but I think its final culminating image was a little amateurishly written, winding up more silly than anything else. This is rather surprising, as Leiber is a very capable prose writer, but there you go. And the two stories I was most excited about (“Diary in the Snow”, “A Bit of the Dark World”) are excised from my defective Berkeley edition. Cocks and balls.

Alan Garner, The Owl Service.

Garner draws on the Welsh Mabinogion for this young adult novel from 1967. The owl service in question is an old dinner service with floral patterns that, when traced together in a certain way, form the images of owls. This parallels the tale from the Mabinogion of someone enchanting a meadow to turn into a woman, who becomes furious and seeks revenge because all she wanted was to be flowers and not disgusting horrible humans. This flower-spirit has been imprisoned in various forms over the years, in wall-paintings and now in a dinner service, always making the transformation from flowers to owls in order to go “a-hunting.” British class society plays a prominent role in tensions between characters, chiefly in a romance between a working class Welsh boy and an upper class English girl. The names of characters from the Mabinogion are truly unfamiliar (like Bloduwedd, who I call “Bloody Wood”), which makes me wonder why science fiction so often opts for Roman language rather than Welsh when attempting to construct the alien. In any case, it was an enjoyable read but I have very little that’s intelligible or intelligent to say about it.

connecting links.

Adolf Hoffmeister's "The City of Lost Time."

Adolf Hoffmeister’s “The City of Lost Time.”

In the staid and venerable blogging tradition, here are a series of links which may be of interest to those who find this blog to be of interest.

1) I Want to Believe. First up is an excellent essay about a topic I’ve been kicking around in my own empty and whistling skull for the past few days: conspiracy theories. In particular, their relation to reality-based theoretical concepts and narratives. Do they, in fact, taint systematic critique by a kind of association, so that talk of corporate power and structures of control become mingled in people’s minds with glutinous, carb-based alien lifeforms from the planet Sillkkkkksh? Above and beyond the obvious differences, what are the similarities these theories have to things as they actually are?

As it turns out, according to Jarrod Shanahan, these non-reality based conspiracies can actually be useful for helping people to think around the thicket of received opinion about democracy and freedom and the “free market.” It ends on a very simplistic paean to the power of the working class and the need to rise and so on, but it’s a good read, and better written than some of the obtuse stuff the New Inquiry posts. And I’ll take optimism any day at this point, over bog-standard reflexive defeatism. In one of the more interesting paragraphs, Shanahan says:

“The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple….whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds….beneath the purported chaos of a modern world seemingly driven inexorably toward its own destruction, a secret logic hums away, unseen, yet steering with the circumspection of a protective father. In this way the conspiracy theory is a secularized monotheism which replaces our dearly departed God with an equally shadowy intelligence serving the same omniscient function. Sometimes it even lives in outer space and knows what we’re thinking.”

This point of conspiracy theories reflecting (or refracting) the logic of monotheism is an interesting one, although I am somewhat skeptical at a moment when many so writers today find the logic of monotheism everywhere. I might suggest that the theological frameworks of some conspiracy theorists are more polytheist than monotheist, simply because the various absurd or racist figures that fill them (Freemasons, Jews, Illuminati) are not privileged over one another, but often co-exist in the same conspiracy, cooperating within or vying for control of the power landscape. And this analogy seems to shrink monotheism into something which has no function other than to console believers that there is a direction and underlying purpose to the planet’s shoddy state of affairs.

More importantly, he suggests the succinct thesis: “The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism.” The modern conspiracy theory then, is a mythologizing and obfuscating theory, rather than one that has literally no basis or interest in reality, such as those stemming directly from Public Relations campaigns, like “America promotes freedom,” “Capitalism is the only way,” “The Democrats support unions and the working class,” and “Republicans want less government.”

2) “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” written by David Graeber for Strike! Magazine. It discusses the discarding, off-shoring, and out-sourcing of productive labor, and its replacement with un-productive clerical and administrative jobs, as well as service work. Graeber argues that the uselessness of certain professions creates a psychological violence on those performing it, and in tandem with a “mobilizing resentment,” results in meaningful work (that of teachers, garbage collectors, longshoremen and women, mechanics) receiving low pay and general disdain. Nothing earth-shattering, but worth the read and well-written.

“While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.”

3) “You Can’t Hurry Love,” by Subashini over at the wonderfully named Blog of Disquiet. This is a wide-ranging essay that covers topics such as: the “Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple,” with their “gym-toned bodies” and “identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-but-ourselves faces”; the disappearance of the individual into image; the colonization of desire; and Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna. Really an excellent piece of writing.

4) “Fantasy and Revolution,” an old interview from 2000 with China Mieville on the relation of fantasy and SF  to left politics. A relevant excerpt: “Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the ‘escape’ that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it’s precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it’s not nearly fantastic enough. It’s escapist, but it can’t escape.”

5) Fallen Master of the Macabre: Jessica Amanda Salmonson discusses the life and work of Vincent O’Sullivan, a lesser known writer of late 19th and early 20th century horror fiction, who knew Oscar Wilde, and died in a “pauper’s grave.” Here she tantalizingly mentions a difficult to find tale of his, seemingly a conte cruel, which will bother me endlessly until I can read it:

“Additional Decadent tales are “Will” from The Green Window (1899) & his rarest story, “The Monkey & Basil Holderness.” The latter appeared in only in the Yellow Nineties journal The Senate which Vincent regarded as superior to the Savoy & the Yellow Book. It was published by two brothers of Manchester who forever after retained Vincent’s affection, for he wrote of them: “The two Bynges who, unlike most of the Yellow-Bookites, had a strong sense of humour, regarded the whole thing as a huge joke, & one day they defied me, who was the shocker of the affair, to write a story which would explode all their subscribers. I accepted; & the story, called ‘The Monkey & Basil Holderness,’ had certainly had the desired effect.”

Indeed, Vincent’s tale made such a stir that the journal was censored, matrons no longer submitted their rhymes, while Vincent was declared “morbid & unhealthy” & castigated as “no English gentleman,” the day’s supreme vituperation. The magazine ultimately folded on account of the reaction. The story of Basil & his monkey has lost none of its shocking nature in the century since, & is probably the grimmest & most perverse of all “beauty & beast” variants ever penned.”

All I have read by Sullivan so far is “The Master of Fallen Years,” from John Pelan’s Century’s Best Horror, “The Abigail Sheriff Memorial” out of F. S. Greene’s Grim Thirteen anthology, and “The Next Room” in a Richard Dalby antho. The first two were excellent, the latter, not nearly as much. I look forward to reading more.

the micro-history of things.

Listening to Nick Papadimitriou talk about the ‘interzones’ and liminal landscapes within a city is sort of like walking onto the set of an old dream, for me. When I was younger, those kinds of in-between places were the places I dreamed about. The dreams that featured those places are the only dreams that I still remember more than a decade later, and wish I could dream again but can’t. One of these imaginary places has embedded itself in my consciousness so deeply that even today I’m not sure if it was actually real or an invention.

The crass materialist inside me smirks somewhat when Papadimitriou talks about some underground, rusted pipe vibrating in emotional resonance to his presence*, but his poetry of these passed-over, neglected spaces has power to me. He is concerned with the history of places, and in particular the micro-history of places; he says he wants to have a history that includes a spider that drowned in a rain barrel in 1965, etc. This sort of micro-history resonates (again, that word) with me, and coincides with the fascination I have always had for micro-things; the life and history of ponds, the rise and fall of algal growth, the daily lives of oarsmen and boatmen insects, the spires of rotten wood and grass creating unmapped forests on pond-floors.

There is also a sort of pantheism in Papadimitriou’s conception of the city and his place in it. He talks about wanting to become the tarmac under a freeway bisecting drainage ditches, about becoming the rusted fence into a purification facility, becoming thick beetles waddling in a pile of piss in an alleyway opening up into a canal.

As an American coming very late to the party, it is uncertain to me how influenced the psycho-geographers/deep topographers were by the earlier work done concerning ‘edgelands’ by environmentalists like Marion Shoard. It is also unclear to me how much their interest is aesthetic, and how much is an environmental concern for ‘wildscapes’ which actually serve an ecological function. This whole concern with edgelands possibly feels played out in England; partly in its aspect as a protracted argument between the traditional, moorland lovers and the wildscape advocates, but also as a pop-cultural phenomenon well known enough to somehow include Russell Brand in an annoying and minor role. Yet it seems for the most part unfamiliar in the states, whose fetishistic self-concern extends little to its own ecology and landscapes.

I think the closest U.S. pop culture ever got to engaging with its own edgelands and in-between spaces came during the furor over what was called the “ruin porn” photography of Detroit. This was when photographers (often not native to Detroit) went into the city to snap its estimated 20,000 abandoned homes, its derelict school houses with their classrooms full of poignantly empty chairs, and so on, and then set up art galleries to display their work, or finagled book deals to publish it. What became known as ruin porn photography had one common aspect with edgeland and wildscape photography in that it depicted a certain languishing of human influence alongside the resurgence of nature. Yet the differences between the two are important: what was called ruin porn was mostly focused on interiors, on shattered glass on old floors and stunted trees growing in operating rooms; edgeland photography is more focused on exteriors, on outside habitats. Edgelands, and wildscapes in particular, are about growth, rejuvenation in unexpected places, the humming of life in furtive areas. American ruin porn was superficially interested in the sunflowers growing in the cracks, but all of its energy was actually invested in decay.

Nonetheless, it makes sense that this concern not only with micro-history, but with the genius loci of places, would interest me as a reader and would-be writer of horror and ghostly fiction. The fiction of haunting is just as much the fiction of place, and the haunting subject can’t be severed from the site which holds it in a sort of ontological escrow. The following statement from Simon Sellars makes this point clearer: “Throughout the Western world, edgelands form the same relationship to the built environment as the unconscious does to the human mind: as a repository of fear, desire, and repression.”

* When Papadimitriou says things like this, it reminds me of object oriented philosophy, although I have no idea if he has any interest or awareness in that.