Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Existential Horror of Sheridan Le Fanu

“ .... as the tip of the little finger caught in a mill crank will draw in the hand, and the arm, and the whole body, so the miserable mortal who has been once caught firmly by the end of the finest fiber of his nerve is drawn in and in, by the enormous machinery of hell, until he is as I am. Yes, Doctor, as I am, for while I talk to you, and implore relief, I feel that my prayer is for the impossible, and my pleading with the inexorable.”    
-- Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, "Green Tea."


Of the few essential writers who over the last two centuries established the art of supernatural fiction, perhaps the least well known is the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – and this despite his being considered the “father” of the modern ghost story and the writer who introduced realism to a form once dominated by Gothic and Romantic conventions. Literary reputation is to some extent a matter of accident. How many today would know Le Fanu’s American contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, if Poe had not been embraced by the French avant-garde in the 1850's? Sheridan Le Fanu has long been the horror writer’s horror writer and readers coming for the first time to Le Fanu’s monumental 1872 collection, In a Glass Darkly, will find themselves “face to face” (as the biblical reference of the title has it) with horror writing at its most original, accomplished, and intense and with a vision of the horrific that may well be more accessible, if no less disturbing, today than it was in the middle of the Victorian Age.

There is much distinctly modern about Le Fanu’s style and sensibility and the stories of In a Glass Darkly seem to anticipate many of the most important developments in supernatural fiction of the subsequent century. Here is the black humor of Ambrose Bierce, Henry James’s recognition of terror as contagious, and H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic malice. Here too is M.R. James’s detachment and meticulous control of the effective detail, narrative structure, and crescendo, as well as most of the formal innovations associated with the 20th century’s greatest writer of ghost stories: layers of narration, pseudo-scholarship, and literary pastiche (none of this is coincidental; James considered Le Fanu the “master” and was largely responsible for reviving interest in the Irish writer). The collection’s opening tale, “Carmilla,” is often named the greatest of all vampire stories; the inspiration and model for Dracula, Le Fanu’s story is more melancholy, psychological, and explicitly erotic than Bram Stoker’s more straightforward novel. But then, Le Fanu’s perspective often seems more appropriate to our world – the world after Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, and the horrors of two World Wars – than to the certainty and orthodoxy of the 19th century.


Although we know that great works of imagination have an existence independent of the lives and minds of their creators, it is hard to resist seeking in an artist’s biography a “key” to his work. But while an author’s life rarely explains his work, the work often creates in our minds an image of the author that we then seek to have confirmed by biography. Sheridan Le Fanu’s biography is almost ideal: what we know is enough to make him an archetype of the horror writer (if not, indeed, the model for his own characters) but is too little to clarify the profound and disturbing ambiguities which lay at the heart of his tales.

The Le Fanus were French Huguenots who fled France for England and, later, Ireland, after Louis XIV revoked the rights of Protestants in 1685. Le Fanu’s grandfather and great-uncle married sisters of the renown dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan whose name and, on occasion, literary gift would be passed down to generations of Le Fanus. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was born August 28, 1814 in Dublin and he would live most of his life in that city. He spent much of his youth in rural County Limerick where his family faced considerable danger during the “Tithe Wars,” an uprising of Irish Catholics enraged at having to pay tithes to support Anglican clerics such as Le Fanu’s father. Some claim that Le Fanu absorbed much Irish folklore during his years in Limerick but there is little specifically Irish about the folk elements in Le Fanu’s tales. M.R. James, one of the first to study Le Fanu, does find in the author’s writing a distinctively Celtic melancholy, imagination, and feel for evocative landscapes.

Le Fanu earned a law degree (as well as a reputation as a fierce debater and quick wit) at Trinity College but by the time he passed the Bar in 1839, Le Fanu had already published his first story and chosen a life of letters over the law. He would be primarily a journalist, editor, and publisher, owning in whole or part a series of Dublin periodicals. In addition to his horror tales, Le Fanu wrote verse, humorous stories, and a dozen or so novels. The novels lack explicitly supernatural elements but nonetheless display Le Fanu’s genius for mystery, suspense, and intense atmosphere and his most famous book, Uncle Silas, remains in print today. Le Fanu was during his lifetime a popular if not famous writer. Charles Dickens, who as an editor had a major influence on the rise of the ghost story during the Victorian Age, was impressed by Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” and published it in All the Year Round in 1869. In the generation after Le Fanu’s death in 1873 one reads disdainful references to horror writers who imitate but cannot match Le Fanu’s style, and the narrator of Henry James’s 1887 short story, “The Liar,” remarks of a typical English country house, “There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.”

The premature death in 1858 of Le Fanu’s dearly loved wife Susan was a watershed event for Le Fanu, although it is not clear that it greatly affected his writing. His distinctive vision, style, technique, themes, and even plots (like many hardworking writers, Le Fanu was known to recycle good ideas) are apparent in his earliest stories, although the author’s most intense and controlled work, including the stories of In a Glass Darkly, were written after his wife’s death. Le Fanu the man did change dramatically after 1858. A well known figure in Dublin, Le Fanu withdrew from public life, confining his relationships to family, close friends, and colleagues. So remarkable was the change that he was nicknamed “The Invisible Prince.” He was rarely seen, and then only in the evening, “looking like the ghost of his former self” as he returned from his newspaper to his home at 18 Merrion Square or haunted book shops in search of ghost stories and volumes of Astrology and Demonology. Le Fanu’s interest in the occult grew during these years but it seems doubtful that he was a true believer. Le Fanu’s use of esoteric ideas read more as satire and parody than earnest belief and at least one of Le Fanu’s friends reports such to have been the case.

While the widower Le Fanu carried on with life and the work of running a newspaper and raising four children, he developed some odd habits. According to his son, Brinsley, the author did his writing in bed very late at night, fortified, like the Rev. Jennings of the eponymous tale, with copious amounts of green tea. He became increasingly troubled by dreams and in particular by a recurring nightmare in which a large Victorian house collapses on him while he sleeps, killing him. In 1873, shortly after writing a novel entitled Willing to Die, Le Fanu was discovered in his bed, dead of a heart attack, his eyes bugged out and his face contorted with a look of terror. “I feared this,” his physician is reported saying. “The house fell at last.”


We cannot know whether Le Fanu believed in or experienced the supernatural but it does not seem excessive to suggest that his sensibility and experience allowed him to imaginatively enter into the hearts of characters caught in the “machinery of hell.” A major element of Le Fanu’s greatness is his unmatched ability to portray, in a manner both ruthless and deeply compassionate, souls haunted not only to a state of terror, but beyond, to despair. And La Fanu’s exploration of the reasons – or, perhaps, lack of reason – for the persecution experienced by his characters is even more disturbing. While a writer such as M.R. James attempts to make the supernatural real by taking it for granted and completely eschewing all philosophy and explanation of his demonic entities, Le Fanu’s stories burst with the speculations and diagnoses of the distraught victims, their family, friends, and the various “professionals”, physicians and clergymen, from whom the afflicted seek assistance. Every kind of explanation for the victim’s distress is explored: medical, psychological, theological, moral, metaphysical, etc. Le Fanu once wrote of a story that he was striving for “the equilibrium between the natural and super-natural, the super-natural phenomena being explained by natural theories – and people left to choose which solution they please.” This is accurate as far as it goes but while Le Fanu never offers an authorial statement as to the evil that haunts his characters, he is unrelenting in undercutting the explanations and theories offered by his characters.

Indeed, the various explanations for horror are a source of dark comedy for Le Fanu and in no case more than with the self-serving prognostications of the sometime narrator, Dr. Hesselius, the advocate of “Metaphysical Medicine” whose fictional papers and case studies are the “source” of the tales of In a Glass Darkly. A classic 19th century spiritualist, Hesselius offers contradictory and wildly speculative diagnoses and insists that his therapy is always successful when in fact he saves no one. Le Fanu is hardly less severe with conventional “scientific” physicians – or with religious authorities. In “The Familiar,” Barton, harried by a demonic figure, seeks help from a renown theologian who advises the desperate man that his depression is caused by “purely physical causes” and he should try a “few tonics.” Not that devotion, prayer, or faith prove more effective. In “Green Tea,” rightly regarded as one of the greatest horror tales, a good and pious clergyman is haunted to a horrible end by a malevolent invisible monkey. When science, religion, and even occult pseudo-science fail them, Le Fanu’s protagonists tend, in a desperate need for some – any -- explanation of their persecution, to blame themselves and believe that they are being punished for some transgression. But the guilt rarely feels justified and even the guilt-ridden victims sense that the retribution, if that is what they are experiencing, fits no discernible moral equation. In the end they feel damned by a force that is omnipotent but malevolent rather than divine, a force whose reasons and purposes, if it has any, are incomprehensible.

In a Glass Darkly is the rare work of horror that becomes more weird, more disturbing with every re-reading as one discovers (albeit less painfully than do Le Fanu’s protagonists) how the author meticulously undercuts not only every effort to explain the horrible events but the very idea that there is an explanation. Le Fanu creates what one might call existential horror, a terror whose literary history is as old as the Book of Job and Oedipus Rex and but which we tend to associate with such modern masters as Franz Kafka and (another Irishman) Samuel Beckett. To read Sheridan Le Fanu is to experience, in the famous words of (yet another Irishman), William Butler Yeats, that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

© 2006 Christopher Breyer

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Edward Albee's Existential Vertigo

“Well, first of all, anybody who doesn't carry a certain amount of existential angst with them throughout their lives is either a dumb brute or, by choice, insensitive …. If you think of yourself and the world around you, you have to participate in that. You have to have these anxieties and these fears, especially if you come to the conclusion that you're going to go through it only once.”
                                                                          – Edward Albee

A subject which inevitably comes up when doing (or reading or seeing) A Delicate Balance is 'fear' – or 'anxiety' or 'dread' or, as I prefer because we are really dealing with a philosophical term of art, angst. Anyone attempting a concise definition of this much explicated and exploited notion could do worse than consult Søren Kierkegaard, the idiosyncratic and indispensable philosopher who both figuratively and literally wrote the book on subject (The Concept of Anxiety, 1844). Kierkegaard compares angst to the dizziness, the anxiety, many experience when looking over the ledge of a high building, a sensation that is not the ordinary fear we feel when confronted by a threat (such as the possibility we might fall) but a response to something quite different: the recognition that there is nothing preventing us from leaping into the void. Angst is “the dizziness of freedom” we feel when we stand on the (metaphorical) ledge overlooking our life and consider all the distinct possibilities of what we could be and become if we would dare to choose one and make the leap.

The disabling vertigo, the need to maintain balance, is understandable: every choice we make has consequences (including the loss of other choices) for which we are fully and solely responsible. But not choosing has consequences, too. And our freedom is not infinite, not least because it is (in the jargon of our age) “time sensitive” – in time our freedom, our being, all our possibilities, will end. There is a tradition, of which it is safe to say that Edward Albee is a part, that considers the 'problem' of angst not the sensation itself but our compulsion to evade it, to deny freedom and instead seek refuge in withdrawal, estrangement, distraction, fantasy, self-delusion, self-medication, servitude, resignation, routine, naïveté, compromise, etc. etc. Ultimately, however, we face the question: “What did you decide?”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hall of Mirrors: Jodie Foster plays “Jodie Foster” in a short play written and directed by Jodie Foster(?)

The histriologist has parsed many a complex text in his barren time but few as tangled as Jodie Foster's much bruited Golden Globe's speech (“performance piece”? “character monologue”? “comic skit”?) in which the convolutions, and interlocking convolutions, of the concept, writing, and performance produce myriad and redundant layers of irony (and/or masks) that are no more or less obscure for being redundant.

This is the scenario: in accepting an award, a veteran actor (and director) makes – reading from a teleprompter – a speech notable for its forced garrulousness, faux bonhomie, lame (or poorly delivered) gags, and, most of all, arch explanation of why the honoree is not directly addressing an issue she [IMO quite reasonably] feels is not really the public's concern.

But, but, but ...the circumlocutionary avoidance is so ostentatious and so teasingly near-explicit that it draws far, far more attention to what is (just barely) unsaid than could possibly have been achieved had the actor simply noted, “And I want to most of all thank my partner, the love-of-my-life, ____.”

To reduce the complexities to their most simplistic, the question for the viewer is: was the forced-ness and faux-ness qualities of the performance – i.e. of the “real” Jodie Foster being under-rehearsed and/or nervous and reading a clumsy and/or convoluted script? Or are the forced-ness and faux-ness deliberate and intended elements essential to the high-concept of the piece and character -- “Jodi Foster” -- performed by the real actor/author, Jodi Foster?

Because the real Jodi Foster is not only a hugely gifted and experienced performer perfectly able to smoothly deliver a speech but also an educated and pretty sophisticated mind,  it is not so far-fetched that what we saw was a meticulously conceived, rehearsed, and delivered performance-piece meant to provoke exactly the debate, discussion, and questions that it has in fact produced, and produced to a degree that a more direct declaration might not have achieved -- because, really, acknowledging her sexual preference would not (for a number of reasons) in itself be today as charged or, in social or career terms, as consequential an act as it might have been five or ten years ago.

I will never know the lady's true intentions nor need to; she is by all accounts happy and I'm enough of an admirer to be happy for her. The Histriologist is not interested in the psychology of the celebrity but in understanding the work and whether there are in the work details which help the reader/detective untangle the mystery.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

“Well played at the NAACP, Candidate Romney, exactly the strategy I would have recommended, were I so morally debased (or financially blessed) as to be advising you. The 'boos' were especially propitious, so much so that I suspect they were voiced by stooges you hired for the occasion ….” After all, the NAACP was not Romney's audience; they are not going to vote for him no matter what he says. No, Romney was playing to the Reagan 'moderates,' the self-styled 'independents' and 'centrists' with their quiet forty-year-plus resentment towards agitating minorities, displaying himself as the 'reasonable' and 'gracious' statesman while making the mau-mauing Obamanistas appear as angry radicals stuck in the 60's. Clever. Ugly, but clever.