Monday, October 19, 2009

© Eso Antons Benjamins


40 The Horror (III)

Though stories of horror are not new and have been heightened to the point where the reader can almost feel horror not only in the abstract, but as claustrophobia [Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) is a classic example of this literary genre], the most ancient and horrific horror story is Sophocles’ famous tragedy “Oedipus Rex” or “King Oedipus”.

Heretofore, Sophocles’ tragedy has gained most of its notoriety for three reasons: 1) as a play that has a ‘perfect plot’; 2) as a story that involves a mother and son marriage; and 3) the ‘riddle of the Sphinx’. This writer would like to add a fourth reason for notoriety of the tragedy: 4) Oedipus’ rise to power causes the death of ten persons of his extended family, beginning with his (unwitting) killing of his father, and ending with the death of Tiresias, the seer. As the latter’s death is not an event that Sophocles wrote into the play, let me explain how I came to perceive that Tiresias died.

One may argue that “horror” as a subject matter in popular literature burst on the literary stage of the 19th century for a reason: it had, more or less,. become part of everyone’s daily experience. Perhaps it was the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the decapitation of the French King (1793) that triggered the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) that made terror a subject of daily discussion for the public.

Whatever the history of horror, when Joseph Conrad wrote his novella “Heart of Darkness” (1902), horror, barely hidden, had become a part of a way of life. “Heart of Darkness” is a story of a cynical romantic, one Kurtz, who goes to Africa as a Company agent to hunt for ivory and is ready to kill to get it. See The teller of the story, one Marlow, the captain of a ship sent to return Kurtz from somewhere far up the Congo River, finds Kurtz near death. Kurtz gives Marlow some papers he wants returned to England and a photograph of his Intended (bride) in England. When Kurtz dies, his last words are: “The horror, the horror”. The meaning of these words have been interpreted variously. One interpretation is that the words refer to life itself, as for example when one has a reputation of being a writer, a painter, a musician, a universal genius (Kurtz), yet has little hesitation to kill in order to become wealthy. In short, Kurtz stands for the character of Western civilization. Our civilization is the horror.

Upon his return to England, Marlow meets Kurtz’s Intended to deliver Kurtz’s packet and tells her nothing of Kurtz’s real doings and, as if to top it off, tells the simple minded creature that Kurtz’s last words were her name (whatever that may be). Marlow does all this to save the young woman’s feelings. Thus, Conrad’s story ends on a note of the reader wanting to vomit over the delicacy of falsehood just read and unread.

The story leaves off at a point which leaves the reader feeling that something is missing. One of the obvious things missing is Marlow himself. Though he is the story teller and tells the story while on a yawl named “Nellie” at anchor on the Thames, and though he personally visits the Intended, he acts suspiciously like a nobody, a nobody who has nevertheless a mission to accomplish. What may the mission be? Let us quote some of the last paragraphs of the novella.

“The last word he pronounced was—your name.”

“I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. ‘I knew it—I was sure!’… She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. …

“Marlow ceased and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. ‘We have lost the first of the ebb,’ said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. …” The “I” hear is, of course, the “I” who stands behind the story teller. It is the “I” of the story teller as well as of the reader-listener.

To this reader-listener the novella seems incomplete. Something is missing. It is even obvious. But what may it be?

When I came to think about this, I was reminded of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, “the nurse with the lamp” during the terrible Crimean War. Florence went to the war in 1854. This is nearly a half a century before Conrad’s own horror, which he is expressing through a faceless man named Marlow. The whole world presumably knew of Florence Nightingale. The story of the nurse giving the wounded soldier her breast may not be assignable to Florence alone, but such stories are more than telling of how some people react to violence and brutality. And here we have the male contrast to Florence—Marlow, “‘It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape… the heavens do not fall for such a trifle’ [as my lies and her pain].” What else could I do, but let her die!

The Director had stood up, but now he sat down again. “There is more to the story is it not?”

Yes, I was just thinking what the Director was thinking. I knew his question too. Marlow did not answer.

“You did tell her that Kurtz also had sent you, so that he could fuck her one last time, did you not?”

Given the teller, the question was obvious. Everyone on deck burst out laughing. This is where we make the step from Kurtz and Marlow to Oedipus and the horror story imbedded in the story of Oedipus. The story, too, has a number of unexpected turns imbedded in it.

(To be continued with the next blog.)

These blogs tend to be a continuum of an idea or thought, which is why—if you are interested in what you have read—you are encouraged to consider reading the previous blog and the blog hereafter.

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