Tag Archives: cruelty

The Birthgrave

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Birthgrave [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tanith Lee, introduction Marion Zimmer Bradley, book 1 of the Birthgrave trilogy, 80s cover by Ken Kelly.

Lee The Birthgrave 80s cover by Ken Kelly

The Birthgrave was Tanith Lee’s first published novel for adult readers, and the first novel of hers that I’ve read. The Publishers Weekly review excerpt in the jacket copy stresses its size, and compares the protagonist to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. But it’s not such a very big book by today’s fantasy standards. At just a little over 400 pages, it’s fairly modest among the doorstop novels the genre has come to produce. 

The acute storytelling might justify the comparison to Conan, but the central character actually couldn’t be more dissimilar. A much closer comparison would be Moorcock’s Elric, who is in many ways a schematic anti-Conan. Lee takes that reversal one step further with the change of gender. For style, pacing, and mood, I found myself more reminded of Gene Wolfe’s multi-volume fantasies — but it appears that Tanith Lee got there first, so I can wonder if she influenced Wolfe.

The protagonist is a nameless survivor of her own cruel, sorcery-wielding race, who adopts different identities in the course of her interactions with humanity. She is obscurely cursed, and brings misery and death to her casual and intimate contacts alike. There is an allegory here, for those who want to read on that level, made especially plain in the anagnorisis of the final twenty pages. (Feuerbachian philosophy, Freudianism, and feminism can each be useful to interpret the message of the story.)

There are a number of passages of hallucinatory vividness, and I found the entire novel quite engaging. The ending is almost too tidy, and I can see why some readers resented its deus ex machina qualities, along with what might seem like an abrupt shift in genre. But at the same time as it imposes that dislocation, the book returns to the business of its beginning in a way that makes it whole.

Cruelty has a Human Heart, and Jealousy a Human Face, Terror the Human Form Divine, and Secrecy the Human Dress. The Human Dress is forged Iron, The Human Form a fiery Forge, The Human Face a Furnace seal’d, The Human Heart its hungry Gorge.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, quoted in Thomas Harris, Red Dragon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Blake Harris Red Dragon cruelty human heart jealousy face terror form divine secrecy dress iron forge furnace gorge

Masochism

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs by Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch:

Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Masochism

 

This volume reprints the masochistic literary paradigm Venus in Furs, but prefaced to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel is a theoretical essay by Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, of about the same length as the Masoch text. I read the volume cover-to-cover following the page numbers, but I think I would advise other readers to take on the Masoch first, and then the Deleuze.

The unnamed narrator of Venus in Furs (Masoch himself?) begins by relating a dream to his friend Severin, who responds by presenting him with an autobiographical manuscript, so that the story of Severin’s amorous enslavement forms the body of the novel. The novel is vivid and fast-moving, and I would count it a pleasure to read regardless of one’s sympathy or antipathy for the characters and their behavior. To the extent that there is sex, it is not at all explicit. What is described is the intimate context of the relationship, along with the participants’ emotional reactions. Those should fire the reader’s imagination to the extent that one takes away the impression of a highly salacious account. At the end, Severin, now an abusive tyrant over his wife, claims to have been “cured” of his desire for subjugation, but the narrator expresses some ambivalence on the judgment.

As for Masoch’s own views, these are somewhat clarified and confirmed by a set of appendices: an autobiographical essay on a formative childhood experience that parallels one described by Severin in the novel, a pair of contracts in which Masoch subjugated himself to his partners, and a fragment of memoir by his wife that details their curious encounters with someone who may have been Ludwig II.

The Deleuze text is decidedly less entertaining, but certainly has some value. He is at pains to criticize what he calls the “sadomasochistic entity,” i.e. he disputes the functional overlap and identity of sadism with masochism, insisting instead that the two phenomena transpire on different planes and concern themselves with different objects. As I digest his thesis, masochism is the carnal application of dialectical imagination, while sadism is that of critical inquiry. “In trying to fill in the gaps between masochism and sadism, we are liable to fall into all kinds of misapprehensions, both theoretical and practical or therapeutic” (109). Deleuze discusses and argues with the relevant theories of Freud, Reik, and Lacan. I am reasonably persuaded by the essay, although I think it may overstate its case with a measure of polemical absoluteness. [via]

 

 

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