HORROR AND ANGER: Told and experienced
Strong feelings fascinate me. Anger is such a state of mind – my own and that of others, but in reality it scares me more than it fascinates. Like so much else I do not understand, I try to find some valid explanations for anger. What triggers it? I assume the root cause must be a frustration generated from an inability to communicate.
But, physically? What happens in our bodies when anger overwhelms us? Science now seems to be quite clear about those physical processes. Anxiety is associated with feelings of hopelessness, despair and mental exertion and transmitted to our bodies through so called stressors; circumstances created by more or less permanent anxiety. Perceptions of being insufficient, a miserable job situation, concerns about the future, chronic illness, bullying, unemployment, poor economy, powerlessness, loneliness. On top of all that there might be major and minor annoyances that unexpectedly throw us out of our routines, our feelings of security and safety ̶ personal mistakes and shortcomings, unpaid debts, unreasonable demands, accidents and scolding. Worst of all are life-changing tragedies, such as war, natural disasters, crime, imprisonment, divorce, bereavement or disappearances of our loved ones.
Stressors inform the brain's amygdala (almond kernel) that it is time to stimulate certain glands (the hypothalamus, pituitary - and adrenal glands) to activate substances like adrenaline and noradrenaline, to increase the production of vasopressin, cortisol and stress hormones, which in their turn release corticotropins and adrenocortritropics (whatever those may be?). Substances mixing with our blood and thus creating respiratory distress and stomach pains, increase the pulse and increase anxieties. We feel fear, want to escape from suffocating, demanding situations. Go to attack or simply ignore everything, give up. This appears to be the scientific explanation for anxiety and horror.
From my understanding this is where we find the origin of anger. A interaction between external and internal factors. Our blood has been acidified by a variety of substances that irrevocably flow around in our organism. A permanent and discreetly increasing level of poisoning; flammable liquids that might explode through sparks in the form of an unpleasant remark, criticism, randomly spoken words, nastiness.
All of us are repeatedly confronted with anxiety and disappointments and such encounters are due their intimate character, their intrusiveness, particularily painful. They require our immediate response. This might be a reason to why I am attracted by literary descriptions of strong emotions. Through books and paintings I am confronted with horror, anger and pain, though these meetings require nothing from me. I find myself far away from what is described. Events make no demands on me. I am an invisible witness with plenty of time and opportunity to scrutinize the intense passions.
Recently I read an essay by the author and augur Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author. Many years ago I had been impressed by his book Mythologies, in which Barthes described the connection between mythology and power. In a collection of short studies he indulged himself in various topics, including American wrestling, striptease, myths about red wine, plastic, milk and chips, astrology and Tour de France as an Epic. He reviewed films and wrote about movie stars (like Chaplin and Garbo) and cars (Citroën). In other words, a reading adventure and an eye opener that made me see everyday life in a new light.
Several years later, an elderly lady, the author Esther Hautzig, who was a great admirer of Japanese culture made me read Barthes´s Empire of Signs in which he, with a stranger's eyes, portrayed a Japan that, according to him was completely different from the “West”. Barthes did not understand the Japanese language and therefore Japan became a world of signs and strange gestures, enclosing both meaning and emptiness. He depicted a modern Japan, which is nevertheless a timeless Zen Buddhist dream world, perhaps not even the real Japan. Barthes´s Japan provokes him and us into new ways of thinking, which, however, did not prevent him from making cocksure and generalizing claims about "Western" thinking.
Although I appreciated both Mythologies and Empire of Signs, I did for a long time avoid The Death of the Author. This was because, as a young student at Lund University I had come across Erland Lagerroth's teaching and his book The Novel in your hand: To read, study and understand literature, which advocated a hermeneutic reading of novels. According to Lagerroth literary works should be perceived as enclosed within themselves. Literary text benefitted from a lack of interest in the author, her/his environment and background. As words and structures moved into the foreground, the reading experience would be enriched, liberated from preconceived expectations.
I have always detested when teachers and others have told me how to approach a book, or a work of art, telling me how I should understand what I read and see. Meeting a book is for me like meeting a human being; looking at and listening to her. No one should explain to me how to behave under such circumstances, what I should notice about the one I meet. Since Lagerroth repeatedly mentioned The Death of the Author I decided to avoid reading that particular essay.
Nevertheless, when I finally read Barthes essay I realized that it recommended something completely different from a straitjacket for novel readers. Barthes seemed to imply that any reading ought to be done unconditionally, like when he as a complete stranger walked through the nameless streets of Tokyo, finding one sign after another that seemed to conceal a host of hidden implications around which he could do nothing else than fantasize, or devote in-depth research.
By “killing the author” Barthes assumed he could leave the field open for a multifaceted reading, an experience of a text "here and now", considering it as floating freely in an "eternity". It is in the reader's mind that the diversity of a text becomes part of that "space" from which all stories originate. Understanding that an author is nothing but a mouthpiece:
this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
Barthes paid homage to the oral narrative where we may find ancient depictions of anger and horror; the boundless unknown. Horror has always fascinated human beings. Weird stories were told by the campfires of the Bambutis, by the open fires in Nordic huts and by children in dark basements and attics. Horror is a fundamental feeling that affects us all. Like anguish and rage it might explode when stressors have been poisoning our bodies for a long time. The horror is hidden deep within us and can suddenly be brought to the surface by any unforeseen event.
Gustav Meyrink, whose hallucinatory nightmarish depictions influenced the young Kafka, have captivated me ever since I read one of them in a magazine, All världens berättare, Storytellers from the entire world, which my father often leafed through. That strange story, The Watchmaker, showed me the way to several other of Meyrink's novels and short stories. I have difficulty assessing their literary value, though they are all endowed with a rare imagery that have been stuck within me. It seems to me that they in an unusual manner contain that mysterious, timeless dimension that Barthes seemed to hint at. The author is present, but his stories have an almost anonymous character.
One of Meyrink's short stories, Der Schrecken, The Horror, which was published in 1913, may illustrate the coarse, threatening atmosphere I associate with an efficient horror story. Meyrink´s short story describes an eerie penitentiary where prisoners await their execution. After circling around a walled courtyard they return to their cells, though the inmates cannot fall asleep since they know that one of them will be executed at dawn. Meyrink brings us through the fortress's humid corridors:
By the middle of the main entrance, where it widens, we find a chest, shielded by darkness. Silently, slowly, the lid opens. – it is at that moment that fear of death begins to spread through the entire building. – words and sighs get stuck in the convicts' mouths. – not a sound in empty corridors. Enclosed by the cells, prisoners feel throbs of their hearts banging inside their ears. Among the park´s trees and shrubs not a single leaf is moving, while naked, autumn branches scratch the murky air. – It is as if everything is getting darker.
After the casket lid has been opened, a leech-like creature emerges, by stretching and retracting the monster slowly crawls through the corridors. That is The Horror! As the beast slithers past their bolted cells, the prisoners curl up in dread. Finally, The Horror glides into the prison den of the wretch sentenced to die at dawn, embracing him in the ice cold grip of its coils.
When we encounter something that terrify us maybe there is a trace of recognition? A revival of past fears. One of the few recurring nightmares I remember from my childhood was obviously inspired by one of the worst horror stories I ever have listened to – Hans and Gretel, which tells a story about how parents send their children into the woods to die. How the hungry and abandoned children get lost in boundless forests just to end up with an old crone who locks them up and proves to be a cold-hearted cannibal.
In my dream a whispering, nauseating voice commented on the course of events: "A path. It winds through the woods. Everything is dark, except the trail that shines white in the moonlight. Behind the next bend lies a decayed hovel. You knock on the door. It glides up. And ... " Before I could see what had been hiding inside I had woken up; terrified and in a cold sweat.
Much later I read in Stephen Kings Danse Macabre that what I had experienced as a child was in fact the true nature of horror. Something I later searched for in all sorts of horror literature. King describes various forms of horror. According to him, the depiction of an escalating terror is a fundamental ingredient in any efficient creepy story, a feeling any horror author should try to maintain throughout his narrative. An ever-increasing, adrenaline-promoting anxiety originating from a notion of the presence of a lurking, threatening unknown. The time leading up to the moment when the gates of horror are opened wide and reveal a frightening monstrosity – i.e. the horror. This meeting with the ultimate horror is the climax of a creepy tale. However, such an indescribably awful event is not the raison d´être of an effective horror story. The inevitable meeting with pure horror might even be conceived as a kind of soothing revelation. It is the tension leading up to that horrifying meeting that is essential to the telling of a shocking story. The climax of a tale about fear and loathing is maybe similar to a burst of uncontrollable anger. The moment when stored stressors explode in an unmanageable mayhem.
According to King, there is also a third element, apart from terror and horror, which use to be present in several horror stories – revulsion. However, this is an easily achieved effect common to so called splatter films, b-movies excelling in depictions of extreme monstrosity, mutilations and frenzied violence. King acknowledges that he is ashamed when his occasionally uninhibited story-telling degenerates into revolting descriptions.
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot terrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.
However, the story-teller King does not write about a fourth kind of horror – documentary horror depictions, in the form of reports, books, movies and photographs. In his Mythologies Barthes pointed out that such depictions are also a form of fiction, not least photographs and films. They represent a selection of events, reflecting the writer's/photographer's/artist's intention to portray a terrifying moment. Barthes described his impressions from a photo exhibition depicting violence and suffering:
Most of the shock-photos we have been shown are false, just because they have chosen an intermediate state between literal fact and overvalued fact: too literal for photography and too exact for painting, they lack both the scandal of the latter and the truth of art …
Conscious aesthetics prevent us from suffering the shock that the images are trying to transmit. According to Barthes the most compelling photos were those that had not been aesthetically arranged, but captured without any particular intention:
Hence it is logical that the only true shock-photos of the exhibition (whose principle remains quite praiseworthy) should be the news-agency photographs, where the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness …
War photography did during the 20th century develop into a special genre, making photographers risking their lives to capture dramatic and often aesthetically attractive images, which could be sold to the highest bidder. In addition to free-lance photographers and accredited war photographers employed by various media companies, several countries now have professional photographers attached to their fighting units. An example of this was Hilda Clayton who worked for The US 55th Signal Company in Afghanistan. She was killed together with four soldiers while she photographed how a grenade thrower was fired. A grenade stuck in the tube and exploded. The image found in her camera was sold to several media outlets.
Photographers are also travelling the world to capture images from various disasters, not the least depicting extreme suffering and starving children. Such photographs generally aim to inspire compassion and make us act on behalf of those in need, or to protest against the conditions that allow such suffering. In an essay Susan Sontag wrote just before her death in cancer 2004, Regarding the pain of others, she explained how the context in which a photograph has been taken provides meaning to the image. A documentary depiction of suffering is an excerpt from reality, depicted in a specific manner and with a clear purpose. Such images might help us to understand, try to imagine the suffering of others, though they can never make us end up in the same situation as the people who are exhibited by the picture. We cannot suffer the same emotional state, the same despair. We are and remain separated from the realities displayed through texts and images.
A horror story is even more of a construction, far removed from the horror it tries to conjure. The domains of horror were long confined to dark forests, deep caves, desolate houses and decayed castles, populated by crazy nobles and monks, vampires and other monstrosities. However, over time fictional horror crept closer to readers' everyday lives. Bram Stokers Dracula from 1897 is not only located to an ancient, creepy castle deep down in Transylvania's dark forests, between overhanging mountain massifs. The story also develops within a most contemporary London, with lawyers and brokers, typewriters, kinetoscopes, telegraphic- and blood transfusion devices. In his amazing stories from the same time, H.G. Wells also paired technological advances with horror and evil, thereby giving rise to a future, popular blend of horror and science fiction.
World War I had a sea-changing impact on horror literature. For sure, horror stories continued to be located to more or less deserted castles and isolated mansions, though authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen opened the gates to more cosmic and ancient horrors. Their stories told us about the presence of entirely amoral, ancient creatures, which lurk not only in the innermost depths of our own mind, but also as an authentic presence within a natural world that is far from being benevolent. It is cruel and unscrupulous. The world of spiders and parasitiod wasps.
Even our own human nature is an integrated part of that world of heartless wickedness, or rather complete lack of empathy. The War proved that our society has the ability to wipe out our personal traits, our ability to compassion and force us to kill and maim individuals who are entirely unknown to us.
World War I proved to millions of people how insane the world really is. How collective madness might repose just under a thin layer of civilization and humanity and at any instant break through fragile crust and rush forward as an avalanche of violence, cruelty and brutality, like infected blood and stinking pus emerging from a punctured abcess. For decades, poison such as chauvinism, racism and nationalism had been allowed to infect entire nations and accumulated venomous substances flushed forth brining with them slaughter and collective madness. In a very short time, humanity had created a hell on earth. The gates of Hell had been flung wide open and dark forces flooded the earth.
In some places, Hell was more obvious than in others, like in the trenches along the Western front, stretching from Flanders, where the most intense fighting took place, all the way down to the border with Switzerland. The young men living and fighting there had a feeling that they had been stuck in the mud forever, suffering under a high command that maintained the ultimate control over their lives and death. A superior power whose mad decisions they were incapable of influencing.
Almost all trenches were just as unhealthy, lugubrious and smelly as plague pits. The No Man´s Land that separated them from enemy lines was filled with rotting corpses and decomposing body parts from men and horses. Open latrines were occasionally overflowing, inundating the trenches. Wooden palisades and sand-filled sacks were not enough to keep the dirt walls in places. The soil and mud was scorched by sunshine, cracked and disintegrated under constant drizzle or heavy downpours. The soil of Flanders was naturally marshy, the groundwater was close to the surface. Along the Italian-Austrian front trenches were cut into the solid rock of mountain sides, or through glaciers, in the Middle East they were dug into the sand.
Rotting body parts, dirt and stench, lack of hygiene and poorly treated wounds plagued the soldiers, who felt as if they had been buried among fat maggots and swarms of flies, hordes of fat rats fed on the dead and ate the food of the soldiers. Fleas and lice were everywhere. Constant moisture and pools of stagnant water caused "trench feet", making the skin smell, rot and die. The ultimate “cure” for this condition could be to amputate one or both feet. During winter, "trench feet" were replaced by equally painful and dangerous frost bites. Another scourge was "trench mouth", when the palate became an open wound due vitamin deficiency, a condition exacerbated by constant bombardment.
The earth shook, bullets and grenades wheezed through an air saturated by moisture, smoke and occasionally – thick rolling clouds of lethal gas. When a grenade hit the ground and exploded, it was not only lethal metal debris that were thrown around, but also pebbles and septic soil that infected the wounds and could lead to a prolonged and extremely painful struggle with death. Snipers lay attentive to any movement along the enemy's trench lines and when their bullets hit their targets they tore faces apart. Even if a victim survived a head wound he was condemned to life-long suffering as a deformed being, shunned by others and even feared and avoided by his loved ones as if he had been turned into a loathsome monster.
Millions suffered from mental breakdown, not least from so-called shell shocks, often permanent, mental problems that made it difficult for their victims to return to an "everyday life", which after their time spent in Hell appeared as incomprehensible and even absurd.
The dread of the War turned fictional horror into naïve fairy tales. While the experiences of great post-war authors, like Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Hesse and Mann, were transforming their language and narratives into something new and audacious, writers of horror stories were generally dismissed to obscure magazines and book publishers. Their works were stamped as pulp fiction.
Prominent in this genre, but generally despised by the literary establishment, was the US "science fiction, horror and fantasy magazine" Weird Tales. Like the case often is with horror stories, the contributions to this magazine were a bewildering mix of the flawed and the brilliant. A phenomenon that also seems to characterize well-known and skilled narrators of strange tales, not the least Stephen King, whose work shuttles between masterpieces and wash outs.
H. P. Lovecraft was the leading star among Weird Tales writers. He supported and encouraged young authors like August Derleth, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. During the fifties, the last two came to abandon their master's somewhat encumbered style and approached the kind of storytelling that had made Hemingway admired; sparse, yet adroit and elegant. They left the dark, lugubrious and ancient world of crumbling castles and deep caves, entering a modern world, which celebrated the affluent and happy American nuclear family, as well as all-an encompassing consumer bliss. An utopian lifestyle that came to be known as The American Way of Life benefiting from the dreams and approval of millions and the ever expanding power and influence of mass media. Into this world the horror writers brought fear of Communism, the “Others” (i.e. any unfamiliar group of people – from foreigners and people of another skin colour, to aliens from outer space) nuclear weapons, environmental contamination, brainwashing and the Cold War.
They described a growing alienation that threatened to wipe out individuality and a soothing feeling of community, replacing it with fear of exclusion, marginalization, confusion and an wide-ranging sense of failure. Their horror stories take place in a contemporary world of phones, washing machines and soul-killing office work. However, through authors like Lovecraft, they had been taught that ancient horrors were lurking under the fake and comfortable surface of consumption and security, threatening to arise from sewers and swamps of discharged chemicals, or even appearing from washing machines and water closets.
This narrative style was further developed by writers like Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, who increasingly worked as scriptwriters for b-movies and TV serials, especially the quite remarkable The Twilight Zone, which had its apogee between 1959 and 1964. I watched most of the classic Rod Serling produced Twilight episodes while living in New York in the nineties. During my childhood a random episode from this series had infrequently been aired on Swedish TV, where on the other hand I had regularly been frightened by the often nifty Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which included several episodes originally written by the above-mentioned authors. For example did Robert Bloch provide the novel that was the basis for Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho, the master director closely followed Bloch´s original tale.
Charles Beaumont was a prolific and quite typical provider to Weird Tales and The Twilight Zone. His actual name was Carles Leroy Nut and he also published his tales in "men's magazines" like Playboy and Rogue. Beaumont smoothly mixed science fiction, fantasy, myths, horror and the supernatural. Sometimes the results were less successful, but just as often they were quite astonishing and completely unexpected. In his short story The Howling Man Beaumont succeeded in transferring a gothic/romantic legend about the Devil´s collusions into present time, turning it into a strange tale about the rise of Nazism and the ultimate reason for World War II. In his civilization-critical The Jungle, Beaumont depicted how a colonial, utopian metropolis and its citizens became extinguished by the encroaching wilderness, while the native inhabitants survived and continued to live their way of life just as before.
Beaumont wrote his short story The Vanishing American in 1955 and it appears to precede Robert Putnam's revealing study Bowling Alone, published in 2000. Putnam described how all forms of human intercourse are being eroded and maybe even disappearing from the US. It is not only the traditional family life that is vanishing in favour of single parents´ households, where children are forced to spend more and more of their time in front of computers and on their mobile phones.
Different forms of joint activities, which that many Americans earlier have built their lives around, are also disappearing - trade union engagement, joint sports activities, religious communities, shared hobbies, community life, common political engagement, shared traditions, neighbourhood- and school associations, etc. Putnam assumes that such a development not only isolates people from one another but also undermines the active commitment required for a true, cooperative democracy.
In Beaumont's short story an office clerk, Mr. Minchell, sits alone in his workplace while hitting the keys of a calculator. He cannot get the numbers to match. It's Minchell's birthday, but nobody has noticed it during the day, not even his wife and son. Mr. Minchell's colleagues have left the office. Nobody has taken any notice of him. Finally, the numbers coincide in an acceptable manner and Mr. Minchell is free to return home after leaving his report on his supervisor´s desk. The boss will during the following day take a look at the report and write the results in a ledger. The head of department will not pay any attention to the report. Managers and colleagues do only react if Mr. Minchell made any mistakes, he never does.
In the elevator Mr. Minchell encounters the man who once hired him, in addition to the night receptionist these two appear to be the only ones left in the building. On the way down they stand next to each other, but the staff manager ignores Mr. Minchell´s greeting. Not even the receptionist condescends to answer Minchell´s “good evening” with his usual nod. In a nearby tobacco shop Mr. Minchell buys a packet of cigarettes and places the coins on the counter, the vendor gives takes the money ad hands him the packet without looking at him. Back home Mr. Minchell´s son and wife ignorehim, being involved in some kind of quarrel. His wife threaten their son:
̶ Just you wait until your dad comes home!
Mr. Minchell begins to doubt his own existence. Maybe he is dead? However, he has repeatedly assured himself that he is wearing his suit and that the cigarette package is in his pocket. Accordingly, Mr. Minchell, receives a shock when he enters the toilet and is unable to detect his mirror image. Mr. Minchell has become invisible and realizes that other people cannot even hear him. He rushes out into the street, rambling around without any goal, repeatedly assured about the fact that he is actually invisible.
The only consolation Mr. Minchell finds in his predicament is the realisation that he now would be able to something bold and slightly insane. Since he is a discreet and modest man he decides that the "bold" action would be to climb on one of the great marble lions flanking the wide staircase of Mid Manhattan Library, something he has wanted to do ever since he was a child. It turns out to be a quite difficult task to reach the lion's back, but when he finally sits astride on it Mr. Minchell notices how a small group of people has gathered on the sidewalk below and that they are looking up at him. A little boy points to Mr. Minchell and shouts encouraging:
̶ Ride him, Pop!
People laugh while grateful tears roll over Mr. Minchell´s cheeks. He can be seen! People pay attention to him.
I do not know if Beaumont's short story really can be called a horror story, though the specific style with which it is written and its connection to concerns about being ignored, becoming an insipid nonentity, makes it into a fairly good rendition of a common nightmare. Beaumont's own life ended in a creepy manner. Only thirty seven years old, happily married and able to support his family through a modest success as author, he was unexpectedly affected by a rare form of Alzheimer's disease. In six months´ time he shrunk, lost his hair, his entire body became hideously wrinkled, while his eye vision deteriorated. In the end, he had lost all his mental functions before he died.
The title of Beaumont's novel, The Vanishing American, suggests that he hinted at a social dilemma typical of the US, probably the growing American alienation that Putnam wrote about. At the same time as I read Beaumont´s short stories, I was immersed in Victor Serge's impressive novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, in which he describes the general fear that overwhelmed the Soviet Union during Stalin's purges and show trials throughout the years that followed upon the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934.
The anarchist and revolutionary Serge described the Soviet society from a variety of points of view, always with the individual human being at the centre. Victor Serge (Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) wrote his novels in French. He had been born in Belgium by Russian parents and had known all the key actors of the Russian Revolution, as well as influential authors like Maxim Gorky, André Gide, Romain Rolland and Nikos Katzantsakis. He had participated in the revolutionary struggle in Russia, as well as in Europe (including in Spain, Berlin and Paris), had been persecuted by Stalin, deported to Siberia, pardoned, escaped from Europe just before World War II, ending up in the Dominican Republic and finally in Mexico City where he helped Lev Trotsky's widow to write her memoirs.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev describes Stalin's terror regime through a series of episodes, occurimg in the corridors of power in Moscow, during the civil war in Spain, among exiles in Paris and isolated prisoners on the Siberian tundra. We meet men and women from all walks of life, as well as Stalin himself. Their lives are intertwined and described with a descriptive language that makes us aware of the depressive atmosphere on the Siberian steppes, among starving peasant in Ukraine, the panic of the final battles in Barcelona, as well as the constant anxiety among Stalin´s henchmen and acolytes, not the least the continuous escalation of persecution mania of the Great Leader himself.
Like Beaumont, Victor Serge describes a sense of total exclusion, a feeling of invisibility. However, the apparent indifference demonstrated by people around them does not at all originate from the fact that the victims are not being noticed. On the contrary, people close to them, for example as in the case of Ivan Kondratiev, old armour-bearer to Lenin and Stalin, former General but now degraded to Director for the Fuel Section at the Department for Military Equipment, do not avoid closer contact with him because he is a armless and insignificant human being, but because he is out of favour with his old friend Stalin. Everyone close to him knows that Kondratiev will soon be ousted and executed. Kondratiev is experiencing the same empty hopelessness that spreads around a bullied wretch, or someone who has been condemned by those rulers who have the ultimate control over yours and others' lives.
People around Ivan Kondratiev lower their eyes, sneak away, avoid him. Soon Kondratiev begins to have doubts about his own existence. Considering himself a walking corpse. Like Mr. Minchell in Beaumont's story, Kondratiev scrutinizes himself in front of mirrors. He realizes that he is not invisible, but feels like a stranger in his own body.
Can I be contagious? He went to the wash-room to look at himself in the mirror and stood there before himself for a long moment, almost without thinking, in a forsaken immobility. Absurd, really, that grey sallow face, that ugly mouth, those rust-red lips tinged with grey, myself, myself, myself, the human apparition, that phantom in flesh! The eyes recalled to him other Kondratievs whose disappearance roused nor egrets in the Kondratiev he now was. Ridiculous to have lived so much, only to have come to this! Shall I be very different when I am dead? They probably don´t take the trouble to close the eyes of executed men. I shall stare for this forever, that is to say for a little while, until the tissues decompose or are cremated.
Kondratiev had been fighting throughout his entire life. As a young Bolshevik Terrorist, as a soldier and an officer, he had been in constant danger. He had killed innocent people and ordered executions, but as a senior official, a cog in Stalin´s enormous power plant, Kondratiev learned what real fear was like.
The author Vasily Grossman, who had been an eye witness to the ruthless fighting and living hell during World War II, and furthermore experienced Stalin's terror, knew how to write about it all in a masterful manner. He had been a confidant to common soldiers and famous commanders, fighters who without any qualms whatsoever could throw themselves into lethal battles, but who became terrified when they ended up face to face with powerful politicians, and not the least Stalin himself. Grossman explained to his daughter:
Just as there are two kinds of courage [to fight without fear and express your own opinion while facing an oppressive power], I think you should learn to distinguish between different kinds of fear – a physical fear which is fear of death, and a moral fear which is fear of disgracing yourself in front of others.
Like a body poisoned by stressors, did the sick societies that had been created by and around Hitler and Stalin explode in uncontrollable convulsions of callous violence and destruction. As war reporter Vasily Grossman had been accompanying the Red Army during its initial defeat and retreat from invading German Armies. He had then participated in the fighting in the Caucasus, in Stalingrad, Kursk and all the way up to Berlin. With great power and empathy and not least, a compassionate attention to suffering individuals, Grossman did in his war diaries not only describe the unhinged barbarism of the German troops, but also cruelties, robberies and mass rapes committed by revengeful Russians during their course through Poland and East Prussia.
Grossman describes the devastated landscape after a bloody battle outside the Belorussian town of Bobruisk, which is still burning after being wrecked by a retreating German army unit, which majority of soldiers had subsequently been massacred by civilians and Russian soldiers
With difficulty, our car finds it way amid scorched and distorted German tanks and self-propelled guns. Men are walking over German corpses. Corpses, hundreds and thousands of them, pave the road, lie in ditches, under the pines, in the green barley. In some places, vehicles have to drive over the corpses, so densely they lie upon the ground. People are busy all the time burying them, but they are so many that this work cannot be done in one day. […] A cauldron of death was boiling here, where the revenge was carried out – a ruthless, terrible revenge.
Grossman was in the midst of a victorious army, which by an American eyewitness has been described as a
teeming host, mingling the modern and the medieval, drawn from a hundred races and tribes, burdened with equipment and loot, accompanied by horse-drawn carts, civilian vehicles, bicycles, trucks and of every shape and size interspersed with tanks and guns: Holy smoke, you wondered how the hell they marched all that distance with that kind of stuff.
Feelings of both horror and relief were blended during the arrival of this hordes of Russian soldiers, whose behaviour appeared to be just as erratic as their hodgepodge equipment. Germans and Poles testified about unrestrained plunder, meaningless murders, rape and of other forms of mass violence, as well as how several Russian soldiers and officers demonstrated their compassion and shocked reactions to the inhumane suffering that the civilian population had been exposed to. Grossman soon discovered that
There are no Jews in Poland. They have all been suffocated, killed, from elders to new-born babies. Their dead bodies have been burned in furnaces. And in Lublin, the Polish city with the biggest Jewish population, where more than 40, 000 Jews have been living before the war, I haven´t seen a single child, a single woman, a single old man who could speak the language that my grandparents spoke.
By the beginning of September 1944, Grossman reached one of the absolute cores of all the heartless violence and terror of this pitiless war – the extermination site of Treblinka. The camp, or rather death factory (one of several others), had been put into operation in early July 1943. Soon, twenty-five SSmen and a hundred Ukrainians “guards”, Wachtmänner, were enabled to efficiently ensure that a Sonderkommand, Special Commando, constituted by approximately a thousand prisoners could sort out the possessions, as well as gold teeth and hair, from an average of 12,000 people they had killed and burned during the day (this continued during all the days of the week). Members of these death commandos were generally given a month to live before they also were killed and burned by a new Sonderkommand.
On August the 2nd, 1943, the Sonderkommand in Treblinka revolted, killed several SS men and Wachtmänner. 750 of the insurgents managed to escape through the cut up barbed wire fences. They were hunted down by hundreds of dogs, while German Army units searched the surrounding areas and terrorized the civilian population. Only seventy of the rebels survived and could later be identified by the Russians, when they arrived in the district a year later. In an attempt to eradicate the traces of the mass slaughter, the Germans had cleared out and burned Treblinka, though all over the place Grossmann found numerous remains proving that terrible crimes against all humanity had been committed in this sinister place.
The earth is casting up fragments of bone, teeth, sheets of paper, cloths, things of all kinds. The earth does not want to keep secrets.
Grossmann interviewed local residents and survivors from the rebellious Sonderkommand whom the Russians had managed to identify. He compiled a detailed report, an extremely painful reading. Parts of it were read during the Nuremberg process. Grossman's descriptions and testimonies have proved to be entirely truthful and his data has subsequently been confirmed by several survivors, not the least by Franz Stangl, who had been the commander of Treblinka from September 1942 until the activities ceased in August 1943.
Among other things, both Stangl and Grossman have told us about the difficulties associated with the cremation of more than 10,000 human corpses a day. No ovens had enough capacity to burn such a large amount of bodies. Deep and vast pits were excavated, gas and gasoline were poured over the bodies, though this procedure was far too cumbersome and expensive. It was found that it became more economical if the corpses of obese men and women were placed on top of the tightly packed carcases, the fat they released made the other cadavers burn faster. However, not even this was enough to cremate such huge amounts of amassed dead bodies. The stacks of unburned corpses grew, their stench was unbearable and they attracted swarms of flies and rats. Then, "a thick-set man about fifty”, an SS-officer, arrived from Germany "a specialist and expert." He organized the arrangement of three large, burning pits. A huge excavator was used to
dug a pit 250 to 300 meters long, 20 to 25 meters wide, and 6 meters deep. Three rows of evenly spaced reinforced concrete pillars, 100 to 120 centimetres in height, served as support for giant steel beams that ran the entire length of the pit. Rails about five to seven centimetres apart were then laid across the beams. All this constituted a gigantic grill. A new narrow-gauge track was laid from the burial pits to the grill pit. Two more grill pits of the same dimensions were constructed soon afterward; each took 3,500 to 4,000 corpses at once.
After that the nauseous work of burning the dead continued day and night. The fire pits have been described as resembling giant volcanoes. The terrible heat burned the faces and bodies of the slave workers, while the flames rose up several meters into the air. The fat-saturated smoke remained as thick clouds over the entire neighbourhood. The stench of burned meat spread all around and during the nights it was possible to see from a distance of more than thirty kilometres how flames rose above the pine forest that surrounded Treblinka. The cold-blooded sadism and cruelty that characterized the entire endeavour reached its culmination after the ghetto uprising in Warsaw.
The women and children were taken not the gas chambers, but to where the corpses were being burned. Mothers crazed with horror were forced to lead their children onto the red-hot grid where thousands of dead bodies were writhing in the flames and smoke, where corpses tossed and turned as if they had come to life again, where the bellies of women who had been pregnant burst from the heat and babies killed before birth were burning in open wombs. Such a spectacle was enough to rob the most hardened man of his reason, but its effect – as the Germans well knew – was a hundred times greater on a mother struggling to keep her children from seeing it.
Such horror is beyond imagination and even worse – Treblinka was far from being the only place where such human bestiality reigned during the most despicable times that ever have befallen humanity. No fiction, no boundless imagination, is capable of describing such cruelty, the absurd sadism and paralyzing horror that prevailed in Eastern Europe during the War years and their aftermath. It is also incomprehensible that the affected areas have recovered from a visitation of such enormous monstrosity and that so many have been able to forget what happened, and even deny that it occurred.
In Grossman's brief description of Treblinka's inferno, which every nationalist crackpot and holocaust denier should be forced to listen to, the reader will recognize Barthes's description of what a narrative should be like. Grossman's distinctive voice includes a choir of dead victims and executioners. Through him a brutal reality makes itself known, an unimaginable terror and cruelty that struck down people like you and me. Through his testimony these unconceivable crimes have been preserved – if we might learn anything from it and become better human beings through Grossman´s depictions of Hell on earth remains questionable. After what he had heard and seen in Maidanek and Treblinka Grossman became ill He was never entirely cured.
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P.S. After writing this blog entry I receieved the following comment from a friend of mine and since I fully agree with her I feel I have to include it here:
"To me horror = my very physical body as well as my mind react to threats of bodily as well as psychological harm to myself or those creatures I care about while my anger rises from my frustration when I cannot react, or get somebody else to react adequately in even rather banal, but also profoundly important issues."