Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Glimpse of Horror in the Arts

Horror is a word whose meaning, and its cousins' meanings, is blurred by current usage. We have a horrible cold. A child behaves horridly at a party. Traffic to the beach is horrendous. And so it goes.

Scholarship from the fourteenth century usage suggests that the word conveyed the meaning of rough or rugged - not terribly frightening unless you favored the easy life among the sophisticated classes. And it does carry the meanings expressed above: frustrating delay, an illness, or disagreeable behavior.

I think that part of our modern connotation of horror is also the unexpected, something well outside the norm, beyond the natural, beyond grief and tragedy. Beyond even taboo. Some part of the supernatural, certainly to be avoided.

This issue is clearly stated in the painting [left], The Garden of Earthly Delight by the fifteenth century artist, Hieronymus Bosch (born Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken (c.1450-1516). The images of feeding here, if not food itself, are most disturbing. People resemble human organs and body parts, a bloated human figure is swallowing a white body, from the anus of which fly black birds. Bosch's visions seems a blend of church doctrine and images from folk legends

One of the obvious functions of introducing food into a horrific tale is to provide contrast for the reader. To set an ambush, so to speak. The author's character is treated to hearty fare and all the trappings of hospitality, good health and nourishment, only to be plunged, sooner or later, into the challenges which threaten his life, perhaps his soul. When these activities are somehow combined, the narrative takes on a rich tapestry of entwined symbols, dramatic contrast and tension.

Which brings us quite naturally to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

It is deliciously ironic that in the first chapter of Dracula, Stoker enriches his narrative with detailed descriptions of the food available as one travels through nineteenth century Transylvania.

As Jonathan Harker, the vampire's initial target, approaches Eastern Europe through the Austrian city of Klausenburg, he stops at the Hotel Royal (and still there today) and dines upon the well-known spiced chicken dish, Paprika Hendl, a national specialty. For breakfast the following day Harker feasts on maize porridge called mamaliga with paprika and eggplant stuffed with forcemeat.

On May 5, Harker is in the Carpathian Mountains and the town of Bistriz, well on his way to Castle Dracula. That night we see Harker being served the local specialty, Robber Steak: bits of beef, bacon, and onion, seasoned with red pepper, strung on sticks and roasted over the fire.

He drinks a wine called Golden Medidasch, "[it] produces a queer sting on the tongue which, however, is not disagreeable. I had only a couple of glasses of this and nothing else."

After this there is little mention of edibles, for the Count eschews human foods and drink.

In the popular films made of this story (some are comedies), Harker always invites Dracula to join him at his evening meal, and the Count is heard to, mutter, almost knowingly for the audience, "I never drink --wine." In Stoker's novel, however, the Count is more guarded and says, "But I have already dined, and I do not sup."

One could explore, too, the unusual appetites of other characters, especially Renfield, the Count's acolyte who is zoophagous (life-eating) and delights in devouring insects, flies, mice and even birds. We learn from Dracula scholar Leonard Wolf that

[Renfield] is trying to absorb as many "souls" as possible:
spiders eat flies, birds eat
spiders, cats eat birds and Renfield
wants to eat the cat. His need to devour
is his salvation."
The Essential Dracula: The Definitive Annotated Edition
of Bram Stoker's Classic Novel,

A very different vampire is found in Chelsea Quinn Yarbrow's Blood Roses (1999) and other novels. Her hero, Count Saint Germain, having existed over many thousands of years, is living in a quiet fourteenth century French village. He always "dines" alone, as is the custom, he explains, in his far-off native land. With courage and high integrity, he unselfishly defends his neighbors' lives and only consorts with lovers when they agree to share his condition.

The elegant, wise and sophisticated Saint Germain compares favorably to another so-called horror, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, created by Thomas Harris. Il Monstro he is called by the authorities but let us examine his pedigree, his character and his tastes.

Born of a royal Lithuanian family, his father is a count and his mother is of Tuscan nobility. His intellectual capacities are far above the norm. He is a medical doctor and a brilliant psychiatrist. He is more than comfortable in the arts and, from all accounts, a medieval scholar. He loves opera and most
libretti, quotes Dante in the original (which is Tuscan) from memory, and seems to know more about cuisine and wine than any known chef.

His one weakness is his fondness for sophisticated living: exotic wines like Batard-Montrachat (about $125 / bottle) and tartufi bianchi (white truffles) which he buys at certain upscale markets. Then there is his passion for St. Estephe, a full-bodied Bordeaux which goes well with quail and artichoke hearts. In one instance, his in-flight lunch is from the Parisian caterer, Fachon, and in another, it's from Dean and DeLuca, though he has added to it a container of human brain, sauteed in cognac and butter.

And what of his victims? He tracks and dispatches only those who diserve their fate. Corrupt police and FBI agents, alcoholic poachers, pedophiles, rapists and worse. One feels a sense of nobless oblige.

At the novel's conclusion we find both Lecter and ex-agent Starling achieving a transformation. On the surface, it seems like the old Pygmalion story of a supposedly limited woman transformed by a wise and sophisticated man. She becomes fluent in foreign languages, attracts the notice of the international press with her stylish costumes, and joins Lecter at the opera which she, too, has come to love. He tends her, comforts her, cooks for her as tenderly and artistically s one can. More profoundly, this tale is the fulfillment of promise, a mutual change between two clever, gifted, admirable and resourceful people.

And besides, the concluding soundtrack is from Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Now that's not horror at all!

Dana Schutz, Self Eater and Face Eater (2004) In soft, child-like colors she depicts dismemberment. She is enchanted with the process of decomposing and, ironically, the process of creating in a god-like manner. Her auto-cannibal figures are her own fantasy

Other Horror films and Literature:

La Grande Bouffe, Marco Ferreri, 1973
Soylent Green, Richard Fleischer, 1973
The Chef the Thief, his wife and Her Lover, Peter Greenway, 1987
Luis Bunel,The Phantom of Liberty, 1974
Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist, 1924
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906
Manjula Padmanabhan, "Harvest", 1996-97 (stage play)
Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare
Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal"
Wende & Harry Devlin, Old Black Witch, 1963

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