Please check out this link to my essay in the inaugural issue of Mantid Magazine! They’ve just published the first issue and hope to do more! It’s a brand new e-zine featuring weird fiction and art with a focus on diversity in media. It’s a passion project for many artists and writers, and we’d really appreciate the support! Thanks!
A central theme to this novel is illusion, and the many façades – both physical and metaphorical – used as examples of illusion appear to make the world complex, but that supposed complexity is the larger illusion. Nathanael West’s message is that the people of the world are inherently awful and put on the appearance of being good. That itself is an oversimplification, but that’s the point of the novel’s outlook on the world. People are simply awful. They hide the fact that they have repressed sexual desires that can turn violent, and West shows them as only having these two sides: the fake exterior and the true, depraved interior. How characters react to this dichotomy sheds more light on this worldview.
The protagonist of the novel, Tod Hackett is a painter that judges everyone around him based on the position they fill, mostly because he’s planning to used them for a painting of Hollywood. This is the main embodiment of the dichotomy: seeing people as they are, as opposed as to how they appear to be. A painting will only depict something as it appears, so Tod wants to delve deeper into the illusions everyone creates for himself or herself. He doesn’t see people as complex and assumes they all fit into a role, even if they don’t want to. That’s where the repression comes in; Homer Simpson is meek because an awkward sexual encounter leaves him repressed. He feels strong desire for Faye but can’t express it. His façade is that shyness and his true self is the sexual violence that explodes at the end of the novel. Homer represents the Hollywood illusion shattering when prodded ever so slightly (when Adore throws a rock at him).
Faye is an important character because she sits at the core of everyone’s sexual desires that they leave pent up for most of the novel. She enjoys it however, using her mature sexuality as the façade that gets her through the world, when in reality she is a naïve child trying to make it in a world of men fawning over her. When she finally has sex with Miguel, Earle fights him (echoing the cockfights from before). This foreshadows the climax of the novel: when the illusion gives way to reality, violence erupts. Other characters that represent façades include Adore the bratty child that is supposed to be a cute child actor, Harry Greener who keeps up the image of a funny clown while working as a failed door-to-door salesmen, and “Honest” Abe Kusich who usurps the expectations of his own name by being a dwarf. He compensates his height by being belligerent and scorning Faye’s terrible acting. Like Homer, he hides his sexual desires, but with anger rather than shyness. Anger is the byproduct of Homer’s repression.
The last scene of the novel is the most important for the dichotomy; the hidden side of Hollywood bursts forth and the street flood with sexual violence. Tod tries to escape from the real-life violence by thinking about the fantasy violence he wishes to paint, which is almost identical to the reality before him. The dichotomy has come together, and reality can no longer be extricated from fantasy. To fully embody this occurrence, as Tod is pulled away from the riot, he cannot tell the wailing of the police siren from his own wailing and finds it hilarious. He used to be able to call everyone’s bluff and separate the illusion from the truth, but now he can’t. The once superior intellectual finally shows his true colors as a madman.
Kenzaburo Oe explores the animalistic side of humanity in this grotesque work about a man trying to escape the horrible consequences of having a deformed child; by the end Oe makes a clear distinction that humanity is separated from the animal kingdom by responsibility. Bird greatest wish from the opening of the story is to go to Africa, the cradle of humanity, where he can be among animals and adventure. On the surface, there is an abundance of animal/human comparisons, most notably Bird’s nickname as a comment on his physical appearance. He’s grounded in a world where he’s not allowed to fly. Throughout the novel, the human body disgusts him. Even when he’s naked and alone he feels shame. Bird fumbles through awkward human encounters and envies the silently understood relationship his American friend shares with a young Japanese girl.
The descriptions of human deformities (the baby’s head, the doctor’s glass eye) and even human normality (sweat, pimples, fat) are shown to be repulsive. All from Bird’s perspective, this makes the reader wonder exactly what Bird wants from life. What is it about Africa that is so much more appealing than family life in the city? I observe that Bird views humans being separated from animals by shame, and he wishes he had the freedom from that entirely human shame. His failure at the arcade games inspires a childish shame in him that pervades the whole story. If he were free from it he wouldn’t have to hate his body and the bodies of his lovers; he wouldn’t contemplate infanticide because of the baby’s abnormality. His hatred of shame is so strong that the idea of passing the baby’s death onto someone else feels worse than sullying his own hands with its blood. He continues to make shameful decisions, like cheating on his wife and showing up to work drunk, and nearing the end he begins to make that lead him toward a less shameful path. He admits to being drunk and offers to resign; he takes the baby from the hospital, and his time with it wrenches sympathy from him. He names the baby after a friend who ran away from his own responsibilities, and to see himself do that and in the process end a life, is too much shame for Bird to handle.
At the end, in the last two pages, Bird makes the snap decision to face the problem and take responsibility, and he immediately feels better. The kids he fought in the beginning don’t even recognize the weak man they tried to victimize. The theme of transformation and humanization is important to this work because Bird first sees the baby as a wretched monster worthy only of a merciful death, and as he recognizes its human features and names it, the shame of killing it becomes too much to bear because he finally sees his son as a human being, and only then does he recognize the ultimate crime in murdering him.
I think a key moment in the story is the flashback to Kikuhiko, when he says the line, “I’m sorry, Bird, I was afraid!” after shirking his responsibility. Bird is now faced with the choice of ending the life of his deformed son named Kikuhiko, and the only explanation he can give is, “I’m sorry, I was afraid.” He’s terrified of the prospects in raising this child, so he decides avoiding that shame is more important than the baby’s chance at life. In the end, Bird decides that its life is more valuable than his and saves young Kikuhiko’s life, breaking the cycle of fear and shame in his own life.
Senseless is a novel about various aspects of modern times and how they relate to the theme of connecting with people. The Internet allows every individual in the world to communicate with anyone else with Internet access. Economic globalization brings countries together in trade, sharing products and currencies that bring the world under one blanket. The terrorists of this novel show the potential horror of these things and reveal that despite all this connection, humans are still selfish beings that fail to empathize with suffering, even when modern marvels like the Internet bring it close to their faces. Eliott Gast doesn’t know what the world is like, just like the world doesn’t know what his cell is like. This disconnect characterizes him and the world he lives in; our world.
The visual grotesque elements are throughout and increase the more Gast gets tortured: the alien masks, the brief nightmare sequences, and Gast’s changing perspective the more senses he loses. But going past the purely physical, Eliott faces the fully grotesque side of human beings. He couldn’t imagine normal people around the world would not only stand by and do nothing to stop his punishment, but would also donate money to ensure its continuation. His isolation on a farm cut him off from the changing world, and Blackbeard puts him in an ironic reversal as he is isolated but fully connected to the entire world. It’s also ironic that a businessman who travels the world and has shaped its economic state knows so little about what people are capable of. Having all his senses couldn’t inform him of the true nature of people, but losing them taught him more than he could have learned with them. Another ironic reversal comes from the weapons used to handicap him; they are always commonplace objects, usually kitchen-related he has used routinely to serve his senses. Here they are repurposed for sinister routines that remove his senses and open his eyes to the grime possibilities of the world.
Culpability is another theme in the novel. Blackbeard calls Eliott a collaborator in their little “project” and if he wants to be freed quicker, he should do his part. Gast shouts at the camera that the viewers are as much collaborators as the torturers, and that’s when I realized that I, the reader, am also to blame. Watching this man’s torture while still enjoying my own senses. It was a very compelling moment that forced me to reflect on the real suffering I have witnessed and let continue. Our society of overexposure has numbed us to the pain of others. If we felt empathy for every injustice we saw, we wouldn’t be able to function, so we become desensitized to the commonplace horrors of the modern world. Blackbeard states that he must go over the top in order to get anyone’s attention, and they do capture the attention of the world, but not its empathy.
The ending is great. I feel like Gast’s complete journey taught him more about flawed humanity than his punishment. His tormenters were also imperfect and it was their infighting that saved him. He doesn’t know if it was cruelty or the kindness of dissenters that allowed his freedom. Again he is uninformed about the potential of human beings. It’s interesting that while on the street Gast briefly mentions that he is “freed from it all,” referring to his senses as if they were a burden before his imprisonment. Now he can enjoy the world free of sound and smell and pursue that blue fire that’s as mysterious as the kings under the water. Senseless is a harrowing novel that brings up themes of endless visual connection with the world but a shrinking emotional connection to it.
Four stories by Frans Kafka: “Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Report to the Academy,” and “The Hunger-Artist.”
What struck me in all the Kafka stories was not the absurdity, but the recurrence of themes like imprisonment and how one lives in such a state. The prison-like complexes of average life are exposed when bizarre types of prisons and slavery crop up to juxtapose them in Kafka’s stories.
In “Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s job is like slavery, and his family is fully dependent him (making them slaves to him as well). Once he transforms, he becomes a prisoner in his own room, being fed scrapes and regularly terrifying his family. Gregor is so mentally imbedded in his job that his transformation doesn’t worry him; he frets endlessly about making it to work on time even while he’s a monstrous cockroach, which shows how institutionalized he is to his financial situation. A reality-altering existential crisis can’t even shake his devotion to his job that he hates. He becomes completely dependent on his family just as they used to be on him, but they express no sympathy for him, only reasoning their mercy with that he used to be Gregor. This reversal exposes their dwindling humanity, which is ironic when Gregor is the non-human creature in the story. His humanity remains intact on the inside, and it only leaves him as his family shows less mercy throughout the story.
“In the Penal Colony” also features themes of imprisonment but more directly in the character of the condemned man, who must be strapped down and tortured to death. The reversal of roles is also a big part of the story, as it was in “Metamorphosis.” The officer is a proud supporter of the torture device and the philosophy of its use, and when the sentence is laid upon him, he proudly becomes its last victim. It seems senseless to us, but it means very much to the officer, and that’s another important theme of these works.
These characters are convicted in every sense of the word: characters are very dedicated to ideals and goals while also being prisoners sentenced to death and despair. The hunger-artist lives in a cage that he chooses to maintain as his livelihood, and he eventually dies for it. The ape in “A Report to the Academy” tells the story of being in a cage and dedicating himself to discovering how to be free, but in a truer sense. The ape is a prisoner of his lower faculties and becomes free when he develops into his humanity. The defining moment is when he downs a bottle of rum and speaks his first word of English. Rum is a substance capable of imprisoning men, and it ironically frees the ape. But he’s just entered a different kind of prison when he identifies with humanity. These characters are in physical and psychological prisons that blend during the absurd stories.
It’s interesting how Kafka explores these different types of prisons, sometimes using characters that either choose to inhabit them or aren’t even aware. The condemned man in “In the Penal Colony” doesn’t know his sentence and isn’t even afraid of the machine that will execute him. He is curious about the machine and hardly struggles when he is strapped into it. The officer represents the reverse when he willingly climbs in despite there being no sentence against him. Kafka understands that many things imprison humanity, and even when we yearn for freedom, it’s only an illusion or an escape into a different kind of prison. Death is the only thing that sets Gregor, the officer, and the hunger-artist free. The mysterious plane of existence that is non-existence is the only unexplored frontier, and many of Kafka’s characters escape from life into it.