Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sleep, shadows, secret lives: Murakami, Hoffmann, Stevenson

Sleeping Beauty Edward Burne-Jones 1870

The days close early, and soon they’ll change the time on us and darkness will fall before we even leave work. October brings with it a surplus of night, but not, for some of us, any extra sleep. Me, I wake up in the wee hours, and most often pass the time reading. Come autumn I get hooked on spooky stories, and I got to thinking on stories about sleep itself. A favourite from Haruki Murakami—you can find it in
The Elephant Vanishes—is actually called ‘Sleep.’ A seemingly normal middleclass woman stops sleeping. She reads Anna Karinina. The problem is that she never catches up—I’m told by experts that no one ever actually “catches up” on sleep, but it’s a handy expression—and she kinda likes it, the freedom, the hours no longer spent idly—think of all the gigantic Russian novels to read. She feels energized, renewed, as though undergoing some transformation. But into what?

E.T.A. Hoffmann

I don’t know if E.T.A. Hoffmann had trouble sleeping, though it’s easy to imagine how the writing of ‘The Sandman,’ first published in 1818 in a collection entitled, aptly enough, The Night Pieces, might have troubled his rest of the author. “Something terrible has entered my life,” writes Nathaniel to his dear friend Lothario—the first part of the story is delivered through a series of letters. He recounts a childhood marked by his mother’s nightly demands that he be off to bed lest the sandman come and find him, and indeed, he hears him mounting the stairs as he lay awake in the dark. This sandman is eventually discovered to be a lawyer—like Hoffmann—and colleague of Nathaniel’s father, a man with hairy hands who scares children away with the mere threat of his touch, “a repellant, spectral monster bringing misery, distress and earthly and eternal ruination wherever he went.” Nathaniel believes him to be the murderer of his father. Now Nathaniel is an adult student, living in another city, but he claims the sandman has reappeared in his life, posing as a seller of barometers.

Hoffmann, with friends

Clara is Lothario’s sister and Nathaniel’s fiancée. She reads the letter intended for her brother and writes back to Nathaniel, assuring him in so many words that he’s basically just a little crazy. She suggests that he simply endeavour to “be cheerful.” But Nathaniel’s caught up in something clearly beyond Clara’s understanding. He’s convinced his will is subject to some power mysterious and vast. He’s confronted again by the barometer seller, who covers a table in glasses, and later telescopes, one of which is purchased by Nathaniel, who begins to feel foolish about his suspicions and becomes fascinated by the object. And it strikes me as interesting that this fascination with seeing, specifically with seeing through the aid of a mechanical object, is what seems to lead Nathaniel to his downfall. He falls in love with another woman, one not so cheerful as Clara, but whose strange stillness is transfixing. She’s more like a coveted object than a person. Something inside of Nathaniel begins to split apart. The ending of ‘The Sandman’ is rather ambiguous, and brilliantly chilling. It’s referenced at length in Freud’s ‘The Uncanny.’

Grave of Hoffmann

Hoffmann himself has been characterized as a guy with two distinct faces, and the theme of man’s dual nature is given further expression in ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry,’ his most famous story, one often considered the prototype for detective fiction—it predates Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by 20 years. It certainly must be the first example of this odd convention of having mysteries solved by old ladies—its title character petitions numerous local authorities to reconsider their assumptions about the murder of a celebrated maker of jewelry named Cardillac in 1680 Paris. Cardillac is actually the story’s most memorable character, with Hoffmann’s portrait compelling us to draw parallels between virtuosity and villainy, art and evil. Cardillac claims to have been followed all his life by an “evil star,” and we start to see how the jewels he so admires twinkle just like that heavenly eye. Of course ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry’ isn’t terribly macabre, which is what I’ve been in the mood for and, with Halloween approaching, what I aim to steer you toward. But it led me to finally read a horror classic I’d previously neglected, one regarded as the definitive narrative investigation into the multiplicities of self, and the beast within.

Portraits of Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

Imagine you have an old friend so beloved to yourself, held in such high esteem by others, that were he to change radically, to alter his behaviour in a wildly grotesque fashion, you wouldn’t even recognize him standing before you. That’s one of the questions that lingers with you after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson was inspired by the true story of Deacon Brody, respected businessman by day, burglar and thief by night. But the story of Dr Jekyll and his slow surrender to his shadow self also lends itself to being read as a parable of drug addiction, and it’s notable that after having his manuscript destroyed Stevenson rewrote the whole thing during a six-day cocaine binge. The work lends itself to so many interpretations, and nearly all of them work because Stevenson’s storytelling is so geared toward realistic detail and the rich evocations of its relationships. His is a world of bachelors, of intense male friendships, allegiances that defy law or even logic in the actions that inspire. (There’s surely a queer reading out there, too.)

“I have lost confidence in myself,” Jekyll tells his friend Utterson—another lawyer. Indeed his self is not what he thought it to be. The cruel and murderous Mr Hyde is the result of some fantastic experiment, but he was surely waiting within Jekyll’s psyche all along. It takes a drug to shake “the fortress of identity,” but the more important ingredient in Hyde’s birth was surely Jekyll’s urge to let loose his demons and to do so without punishment, to have his evil other hide in plain sight. Stevenson closes the novella with Jekyll’s own words, which elevates its horror by leaving us not with Utterson’s “I thought I knew the man…” but with something rather more frightening: the man never really knew himself.

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