Saturday, August 6, 2011

trapped in the shadowless valley

It occurs to me that I've been in Las Vegas for a while now but I never write about it -- so -- during summer, which is where we are now -- the sky dominates the landscape, larger than any mountain, more significant, and a massive penetrating pure blue, unstained aside from a thin heap of dirty pillows over to the right hand side of the view, next to a stiff peak (other clouds rise over this mountain sometimes and impersonate it, but they are too soft, too billowy, and the peak is too hard, too straight, too angular, and nobody is fooled) and the air is hot, so hot that even the shade is hot, every atom of the air is hot, and each nucleus needs a drink of water and a rest, each electron spins around with its tongue out. It's nine o'clock at night as I'm writing this and the temperature outside is thirty-seven degrees. During daylight hours it goes up to forty and beyond. But Eye Rack is even hotter, said Skip Martin when we saw him play his horn at the Freakin Frog on Tuesday night, oh yes, in Eye Rack, where he has been entertaining the troops, it goes up to fifty degrees. The troops house themselves in jackets and helmets and the heat is fiendish.*

His pronunciation, the idea of a rack, and a human body part on that rack, and the implication of torture, dragged my mind away to Kafka's short story, In the Penal Colony -- dragged it there as we were sitting in the bar, and the band was running off into a tune that had something to do with the US marines. (The marines have a theme song, M. said, and this was a version of that theme song.) I was thinking of that hot area where Kafka located his Apparatus. "The sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley, and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts." There was the Apparatus in my mind, sitting like a small dark house against the overlit sand, which was the same colour as the sand in the southwest North American desert, and the cliffs of the valley were something like the slopes of the mountains in the background here. And the horror of that story, which is a Gothic horror, but it takes place in the dazzling sunlight. Weak and confused people are trapped in a sinister place, and terrorised by a mysterious authoritarian force, which is pretty much the go in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho as well.

The uncanny atmosphere that a writer like Radcliffe might want to distribute into castles, mountains, cliffs, bandits, storms, ghosts, cobwebbed paintings, and so on, becomes focussed, dark and a single thing: the Apparatus.

In fact the uncanny is really the contact point between these two. They are both unheimlich.

Then the head Officer of the penal colony dies, the Traveller leaves the island, and the suffering of the characters has ended for now, so the story ends too. Thinking about this, and thinking about a few sentences at the end of the second paragraph in my last post -- the ones saying that if Freda couldn't have been made to suffer then James wouldn't have written about her -- and she wouldn't exist -- I wonder if it's not better, if you're a fictional character, to be tortured, to be born into the wrong place at the wrong time, or to the wrong family, or to be poor, or to wish you had a lover, in short, to be unhappy, otherwise who writes about you? And if they don't write about you then how do you exist? A dilemma for the fictional character. To be unhappy or to not exist. And then, when you are happy -- when you are assumed to be happy -- when David Copperfield finally marries Agnes for example, or when Louie Pollit escapes from her father -- your author isn't interested in you any more. Your happiness is worthless, they say, go away, vanish, bring on the next sufferer for my rack, and down you go into the grave, and a new victim heaves into view, ho ho, says the author, rubbing both hands, what a relief --

* He said it in Fahrenheit. There's footage of him at the Freakin Frog online, here, for instance. A great night, if you're in Vegas. They start at about ten thirty, but if you arrive early there's a jazz duo and that's all good too.

The version of the Penal Colony I've quoted was translated by Ian Johnston.

No comments:

Post a Comment