Friday, October 11, 2013

On an Instance of the Monstrous in Literature

A nasty bipedal daddy longlegs, Sut Lovingood is built to skitter away from foes and wreak havoc. The fictional creation of the Southern humorist, George Washington Harris, Sut is the protagonist of some 30 or so short stories and fables set in the dismal hollows and impoverished forests of the western Appalachian mountains. Harris was an unrepenitent Secessionist and he deployed Sut to arraign Abe Lincoln on various charges in several stories published during the Civil War. Union authorities took notice and pursued Harris, a newspaper man and general jack-of-all-trades, from his home territory near Knoxville across the deep South. Harris eluded capture, survived the war, and continued to pen diatribes against the Union. In 1867, he published a collection 29 tales featuring the vicious Sut Lovingood, most of the stories previously printed in Tennessee newspapers – the book is called Yarns Spun by a Natural-born durn’d Fool, and it is wholly extraordinary, alarming, and grotesque. Two years later, Harris had another book finished, a manuscript that he called High Times and Hard Times. While traveling by train to meet his publisher in Virginia, Harris became gravely ill. He died in a hotel near a train station in Knoxville, apparently whispering the word “poisoned.” The manuscript vanished never to be seen again. With Bruno Schulz’ lost novel, The Messiah, George Washington Harris’ vanished manuscript, represents one of the great mysteries and tragic lost opportunities in literary history.

It is probably blasphemous to refer to the pro-slavery George Washington Harris in the same sentence as the poor murdered Jewish fabulist, Bruno Schulz. (Schulz was a Jewish writer who composed his stories in Polish living in Drohobych, a provincial city now in the Ukraine – he was murdered by the SS in 1942) But, in several ways, the two men are similar. Both men were masters of a bizarre and baroque style. Both writers were strangers to the literary culture of their day and lived in remote provincial outposts. Each spoke a language that seemed barbarous to the literary establishment – Polish and Yiddish in the case of Schulz and Midlands-inflected Appalachian dialect by Harris. Both writers worked primarily in the genre of the short story and created works primarily noteworthy for their macabre and grotesque humor. In terms made famous by Deleuze in reference to Kafka, Schulz and Harris are both the practitioners of a “minor literature – that is, a kind of writing that defines itself against the prevailing literary traditions. Writers of “minor literature” are secretive, hermetic, they cloak their themes in esoteric language and seem to regard the diction and norms of conventional literature as a foreign language.

Savage and lethal, Harris’ creation, Sut Lovingood, is a poor “white trash” trickster whose pranks assume wildly exaggerated and mythic dimensions. Lovingood is the sworn enemy of all authority, beginning, most notably, with his own father – throughout the short stories, he seems intent on humiliating, maiming, and possibly assassinating his own father. He marshals cadavers, fragments of butchered animals, cow-tripe, small African-American boys, hornets and wild-cats and biting serpents to punish and abase his enemies, defined to be just about anyone who crosses his path. Lovingood lives at the center of a madly vicious Hobbesian universe – it is the war of each against all. He mutilates stuffed-shirts, circuit riding preachers, and various agents of the law including sheriffs and judges. Lovingood spends most of his time drunk on moonshine whisky, stuff that he variously describes as “scrimmage seed” since it starts fights, or “split-skull” or “kill-devil” whiskey. Imitating Satan, Sut disrupts judicial proceedings, church meetings, funerals and weddings. Harris’ frames his stories as tall-tales told to “George,” a backwoods newspaperman and obviously a surrogate for the author. The stories are relentlessly similar: Sut selects a target, prepares an elaborate and vicious practical joke, and, then, inflicts the prank on his victim. Each tale climaxes in a kind of wild rampage – someone running amuck either maddened by pain or rage. The portrait of backwoods life that emerges from these stories is too grim for utterance, a filthy, impoverished existence in which the only pleasures are sadistic ones.

“Contempt of Court – Almost” is a specimen of Harris’ literary art. Sut tells George that he often feel a hankering to kick helpless baby animals or small children. He describes planting his boot in the rear-end of a dandy that he met in a “doggery (tavern) whar I wer buzy a-raisin steam, ‘an had got hit a few poun abuv a bladder bustin pint.” This last phrase, characteristic of Harris, means that the protagonist had been drinking and had elevated his ever-present homicidal rage “a few pounds above bladder-busting point.” (Fascinated by machines of all kinds, Sut favors up-to-the-date metaphors that involve steam engines, threshing equipment and boilers.) In this state of mind, Sut kicks a well-dressed man who, then, threatens to gun him down with a derringer loaded with a bullet as big as a hen’s egg. Sut uses his spindly long legs to run away and this anecdote triggers another recollection in the storyteller – a tale about a blacksmith who gets drunk, attacks the courthouse with a leg of venison in one hand and a “ten-year-old nigger” boy in his other, and, generally, “ruinates” the county seat. The ensuing rampage results in the destruction of a watchmaker’s shop and a window shattered in the courthouse. Pitching the “mortul buck’s hine leg” (the venison haunch) through the window, the enraged blacksmith bellows “that’s a dried subpener fur yu.” An inkwell is spilled and Judge Smarty is spattered with a “rain-storm ove ink.”

The most extraordinary aspect of Harris’ writing is the bizarre dialect in which his stories are presented. A longer quotation is necessary to demonstrate the sinister force of Harris’ prose:

...that’s human nater the yeath over, an’ yere’s more universal onregenerit human nater: ef ever yu dus enything tu enybody wifout cause, yu hates hem allers arterwards, an’ sorter wants tu hurt em agin. An’ yere’s another human nater: ef enything happens sum feller, I don’t keer ef he’s yure bes’ frien, an’ I don’t keer how sorry yu is fur him, thar’s a streak ove satisfackshun ‘about like asowin thread a-runnin all thru yer sorrer. Yu may be shamed ove hit, but durn me ef hit ain’t thar. Hit will show like the white cottin chain in mean cassinett; brushin hit onder only hides hit. An’ yere’s a little more: no odds how good yu is tu yung things, ur how kine yu is in treatin em, when yu sees a littil long laiged lamb a-shakin hits tail, an’ a-dancin staggerinly onder hits mam a-huntin fur the tit, ontu hits knees, yer fingers will itch tu seize that ar tail, an’ fling the little ankshus son ove a mutton over the fence amung the blackberry briars, not tu hurt hit, but jis’ tu disapint hit. Ur say, a littil calf, a-buttin fas’ under the cow’s fore-laigs, an’ then the hine, wif the pint ove hits tung stuck out, makin suckin moshuns, not yet old enuf tu know the bag aind ove mam from its hookin aind, don’t yu want tu kick hit on the snout, hard enough tu send hit backwards, say fifteen foot, jis’ tu show hit that buttin won’t allers fetch milk? Ur a baby even, rubbin hits heels apes’ one each uther, a-rootin an’ a-snifflin arter the breas’, an’ the mam duin her bess’ tu git hit out, over the hem ove her clothes, don’t yu feel hungry tu gin hit jis’ one ‘cussion cap slap, rit e ontu the palce what sum day’ll fit a saddil, ur a sowin cheer, tu show hit what’s atwixt hit an’ the grave; that hit stans a pow’ful chance not tu be fed every time hits hungry, ur in a hurry?
(“Cassinett – cassinette – is a cloth with a cotton warp and a wool woof.)

Now, I submit to you that this text is monstrous. This montrosity is expressed in four dimensions. The meaning of the passage is morally monstrous. The tenor of the quotation is politically monstrous. The writing is a textural monstrosity. And the monstrous nature of the discourse can be well-measured by the response that others have to the proponent of these words.

Harris’ view of existence seems to be that it is a hideous mistake. Although it may seem pretentious to compare this obscure Southern humorist to Arthur Schopenhauer, I think, the two writers cast light on one another. Schopenhauer also regarded human existence as an irremediable error. He makes this point dramatically in the essay “On the Suffering in the World” published in the German philosopher’s Studies in Pessimism. Schopenhauer also invokes a lamb to make his gloomy points about the ubiquity of suffering: “We like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eyes of the butcher who chooses first one and, then, another for his prey.” Life, in Schopenhauer’s view, “is a disappointment, a cheat – a perspective that echoes Sut’s justification of his torture of the baby lamb; he flings the “son ove mutton” into the thornbush not to hurt it but “jis tu disapint hit.” But Schopenhauer draws a very different conclusion from his perception that the world is a sadistic slaughterhouse. To the German writer, the cruelty of world requires that human beings respond with “tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor.” Instead of greeting others with honorifics like “Herr, Monsieur or Mister,” we should salute one another as “fellow sufferers.” In Schopenhauer’s view, the suffering intrinsic in the world compels us to “compassion” and “pardon all.” Indeed, Schopenhauer extends this doctrine beyond the sphere of human ethics into application to domestic and wild animals – being truly human requires that we endeavor to lessen the suffering of our fellow beings and this imperative is most powerful with respect to animals.

I cite Schopenhauer’s wisdom on this point to demonstrate the moral monstrosity of Harris’ demonic Sut Lovingood. Lovingood entertains himself by torturing animals – many of his stories feature the crucifixion of domestic beasts, including man’s best friend, the dog. Lovingood’s sermon tells us that human nature is so unregenerate that it necessarily expresses itself in perverse fits of sadistic violence. The little lamb is clawed from its mother’s teat and hurled into a bramble bush; the calf, after a deceptively sympathetic description, should be kicked in the snout so hard as to be hurled a full fifteen feet. And, not excluding human beings from his rampage, Sut longs to spank the baby hard enough to show the child that the course of human existence is defined by pain and disappointment. Instead of exercising compassion to reduce the suffering of sentient beings, Sut Lovingood desires to impose more suffering, more disappointment, more pain on those around him. The horror in this morally monstrous point of view is that we can recognize Sut’s perverse motives as being common in the world and, in fact, concealed in our own hearts.

The political monstrosity of Sut’s discourse on human nature arises in the context of the Civil War. A popular justification for federal participation in the War between the States was that the conflict was fought to preserve the Union. Although this “Union” can be imagined in any number of ways, it seems fundamental that the United States is a polity sharing a common language. Americans speak English and our laws and institutions rely upon that language as affording a common basis for understanding. So what do we make of Sut’s almost impenetrable dialect? Sut’s words establish a limit as to what can be considered English, the common Mother Tongue. Harris character’s argot, his barbarous-seeming, if supple, speech is an insult to the very notion of unity. Harris’s hero doesn’t speak English of the kind used by the Yankee carpetbaggers. The texture of Sut’s speech is perplexing, intensely local, “pagan” is the root sense of that word – stemming from the customs and mores and folk wisdom of an isolated rural people. Sut can’t interact with Northerners – or, at least, can’t interact civilly with them – because he speaks a different language. His manner of speech is a political insult to the Union for which so much blood was spilled, a private regional dialect essentially secretive, hermetic, indecipherable to outsiders.

The political monstrosity associated with Sut’s dialect is closely associated with the fact that, as it appears on the page, the Lovingood narratives are a textural monstrosity. Standard literary discourse is transparent – the marks on the page comprising letters and words are not meant to stand in the way of an understanding of the meanings presented. Modern people read to themselves and the speech on the page that they translate into their thoughts is ordinarily designed to be fluent, simple to grasp, a system of arbitrary signs that does not rely in an integral way on the sound or shape of those words. I recognize that 19th century reading was different in some ways from the way that we experience a text – printed material was relatively rare, shared by being read out loud, and the “performance” of the written word as a spoken utterance was more important than it is today. Hence, it was common for some forms of comic writing to be presented in dialect. But Harris’ Sut is represented as speaking in a way that defies common dialect practice and that represents the horizon of intelligibility with respect portraying the sound of words as actually spoken. As in other categories, the textural monstrosity of Harris’ prose is an outcome of its extremity, that is, the really severe distortion that the diction in the Lovingood stories demonstrates by reason of the writer’s obsessive attempt to showing how words sound as actually massaged into sonic vibrations by the action of tongue and lip and palate. The silent utterances of the written word are projected into actual speech. The text is typographically monstrous, a wild melange of puns, misspellings, and bizarre words that make sense only when they are spoken aloud. This textural grotesquerie foregrounds what is ordinarily assumed and implicit in the background of our reading – we are forced to focus on the spelling of the words, their literal shape on the page, and on the way they sound when we phonetically pronounce’s Sut’s speech. The monstrosity of the Harris stories lies in the fact that they are neither fish nor fowl – that is, neither speech nor the printed word, but a horrific hybrid: print pretending to be speech. This characteristic of the text explains Harris’ weird opacity – we see the antics of his characters through a thick, syrupy veil of obstruction, the transcription of the dialect forcing us into a realization that there is a distinction between written discourse and the spoken word, a distinction that ordinary literary practice systematically effaces.

Monsters are fearsome and threatening. A mob of frightened peasants bearing torches and pitchforks typically harry the poor and hideous monster to his death – at least, this is what happens in Frankenstein movies. We can identify the monstrous by our response to it. And that response is typically a loathing approaching the homicidal. We either flee from a monster or try to kill it.