Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: allegory

Pathologic 2 and Ostranenie

Pathologic 2 is a tight-knit confluence of many strange ideas–about bodies and disease, about acting and theater, about community and society, about individual and state, about children and grown-ups, about utopia and transcendence, and (of course) about life and death. Separating the strands is difficult and probably useless; the resulting game is something you accept as a whole, flaws and all, or reject.

And it’s easy to reject. Responses to the game have already divided into those who appreciate the game’s sheer uncanniness but find it hostile and difficult to the point of unplayability, and those who defend those decisions to the hilt as being the very essence of the game.

This dispute isn’t resolvable. A simple description of the game is likely to put off most people, while those who are entranced by it (including myself) can only shrug when presented with its faults, because those faults are what you put up with to get something you can’t get elsewhere—assuming you want that something. I can honestly say I enjoyed it a lot more than Nier: Automata, but I can’t convince you that you will. If it’s something that will appeal to you, you’ll probably know within the next few paragraphs. If it is, I think it’s worth the effort.

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The Binding of Isaac and the Binding of Symbols

In The Stupidity of Computers, I discussed how computers require rigidly defined ontologies, which are then enforced on us. What happens in the collision between slippery life and a fixed ontology? Here is a case study. Here the fixed ontology is that of video games, and the “life” is the Christian religion.

The Binding of Isaac is an indie game by Edmund McMillen (art and design) and Florian Himsl (programming) about a boy, Isaac, with an insane fundamentalist Christian mother. When she hears the voice of God telling her to kill Isaac (as seen in the opening cutscene), Isaac flees into the basement and fights the terrible creatures therein, going deeper and deeper into the basement until confronting Mom herself (and, later in the game, Satan). You, as Isaac, shoot tears at the enemies to kill them. The enemies, which include all manner of biological horrors (fistulae, fetuses, pinworms, blastocysts, and lots of bugs), all try to kill you.

Bosses include Mom, Satan, Pin, Chub, Fistula, Blastocyst, the Blighted Ovum, Scolex, Loki, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (image c/o Binding of Isaac Wiki)

The game itself is firmly neo-classicist. It is a top-down 2D action game that will look familiar to people who played Legend of Zelda. The basic mechanics are the same: you control a character moving from room to room in a maze and killing enemies. There are multiple levels, with difficult bosses at the end of each level.  You pick up power-up items that increase your character’s skills in one way or another: speed, damage, health, etc. (Some items hurt you, some are a mixed bag.)

The game is extraordinarily difficult, requiring way more coordination and reflexes than I possess, and it is unforgiving: death sets you back to the beginning every time. But for the dextrous it is prodigious, and because of the randomly generated levels and a plethora of unlockable items, secrets, and endings, the game has picked up a well-deserved diehard following. While traditional, the game is far more elaborate and skillful than the norm–McMillen clearly has spent a great deal of time thinking about gameplay construction and balance. (McMillen did the similarly neo-classical Super Meat Boy, a punishing platformer requiring utterly precise split-second timing.)

But the story and the symbols are what concern me, and specifically the mapping of the game’s symbols to the game’s functional roles.

Courtesy of the Binding of Isaac Wiki, which has an exhaustive list of items, enemies, and everything else in the game, consider a few game items (that is to say, symbols) and their functional roles in the game :

ItemEffectInfo
Wire Coat Hanger

Wire Coat Hanger.png

Increases Tears by 2.

Found in the Boss Room.

Isaac gets a coat hanger through his head.
Wire Coat Hanger Isaac.jpg
Stem Cells

Stem Cells.png

+1 heart container. It also heals a half heart.Isaac Stem Cells.png

A fetus grows on the side of Isaac’s face.

Wooden Spoon

Wooden Spoon hq.png

Increases speed by 2.

Found in the Boss Room.

Spoon Isaac.jpg

Isaac has beat marks from a spoon.

These power-up items have perfectly traditional functions, making Isaac faster, giving him more health points, or increasing his tear firepower. What’s left for the player to infer is why the items have the functional effects they do. This knowledge is irrelevant to the game’s function but contributes to the underlying “story.” So the Wooden Spoon, as well as another item, the Belt, increase speed because Isaac was beaten and he runs from them. Stem cells are both anti-Christian and associated with health. The Wire Coat Hanger, a reminder of abortion, would make a good Christian boy cry.

(Sometime the notable inferences are not between symbol and functional role but between name and image. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Dessert all increase health, but the item images are of dog food and spoiled milk.)

But some links are left vague or underdetermined. Why does the Wire Coat Hanger go through Isaac’s head after you pick it up? Maybe just for gross-out purposes, or maybe because Isaac’s mother wanted to abort him? Very little exposition is explicitly given in the brief story cut-scenes, leaving ambiguous the extent to which all these horrible things actually happened to Isaac.

Also, the symbolism does not seem to be especially organized: Judeo-Christianity is the dominant note, but bits and pieces appear from other mythologies such as an ankh, a tarot deck, Polyphemus, the Necronomicon, and many references to other games. In addition to Isaac, you can play as Judas, Cain, Eve, Magdalene, or Samson. (References to Jesus in the game, however, are exceedingly rare.) These characters are ultimately just Isaac’s alter ego, with Eve and Magdalene contributing to a strong implication that Isaac likes to cross-dress.

So the mappings from symbol to functional role are fairly piecemeal, constructed with an eye toward gameplay rather than a perfectly coherent story per se. For example, Isaac is able to use “holy” and “Satanic” items alike and in combination with little incident:

ItemEffectInfo
The Bible

The Bible.png

Transforms the player into an angel, allowing him or her to fly over obstacles for the current room only.

Isaac Fate.png

Instantly kills Mom, Mom’s Heart, and It Lives.

Satan or Isaac will instantly kill you for using it, even after death (unless you have The Wafer).

The Book Of Belial

Bookofbelial.png

Doubles damage until you exit the room, just like The Devil tarot card. It also gives Isaac an angry face with empty eye sockets with blood running down his face until he exits the room.

Belialisaac.jpg

Unlocked by beating the full game. Can rarely be found in secret rooms and the devil room. Judas starts the game with this item.
Rosary

Rosary.png

Increases Faith by adding 3 Soul Hearts and increases the chance for a Bible to appear in the subsequent levels of the playthrough.

Found in Item Room and Shop.

Rosary Isaac.jpg

Isaac has a cross amulet.

The Pact

Thepact.png

Increases Damage by 1 and rate of fire by 2. The player also gains 2 soul hearts.

If you have Transcendence when you pick up The Pact, you will have a body again, but with demon wings like the Lord of the Pit item grants.

Available by defeating ‘The Fallen‘ or traded in a Devil Room.

The Pact Isaac.jpg

Turns the player’s body black, gives him small horns, and makes him seem more aggressive.

While using the Bible on Satan (or the final final boss, who is Isaac him/yourself) will kill you, this is more the exception than the rule. I’m not sure to what extent it was intended that possessing the Wafer prevents you from dying if you use the Bible to fight Satan, or even what the symbolic import of it is. There are so many items that the interactions between them (such as Transcendence and The Pact, another baffling combination) were probably determined ad hoc, especially as many items were added in several updates after the game’s initial release.

I don’t mean to say that the symbolism is a meaningless mishmash. The story and content are deeply significant to McMillen: in an interview he discussed his oppressive born-again upbringing, as well as the disappointment he felt upon realizing that the entire world of the Bible was not real. The links between games and religion are very real to him: “I think Catholicism is quite interesting. It’s very close to D&D.”

But I’m not sure that aside from memorably grotesque dark humor, the specific symbol set has contributed that much to the game’s popularity. When you are dodging 15 enemies while shooting explosive projectiles at them, it doesn’t matter whether the enemies are spaceships or aborted fetuses, or whether the projectiles are missiles or your own vomit/tears/urine.

ItemEffectInfo
Number One

Shape3061.png

Sets the player’s tears to their maximum rate of fire and minimum range.

Combining Number One with Technology causes the fire rate to increase significantly and turns the beam yellow.

Bug: Collecting The Mark (and maybe other tear-changing items) before collecting Number One increases your rate of fire to max, but doesn’t decrease your range.

Number one!.jpg

Isaac stops crying and smiles while yellow colored projectiles (urine) come from his lower body rather than his face.

YellowTears.jpg

Ipecac

IPECAC1.png

Green projectiles fired from the mouth causing poison/explosive damage. Shots are fired in an arc, so they will fly over enemies unless extremely close (close enough to take damage from the explosion).Isaac Ipecac.png

Isaac gets very sick and he spits his projectiles.

The symbolism is not irrelevant to the gameplay, however. Seemingly incidental details make a difference to how various pieces of the game interact functionally. For example: Cain only has one eye, so if you play as Cain and he picks up the weapon Technology (an eye laser), he can no longer shoot tears out of his other eye. The other characters still can. Here the symbol dictated part of the functional role.

But the symbolism only inconsistently has such functional impact. One can make deals with the Devil himself (before fighting him later in the game), and while you won’t be able to purchase holy items from him, items like Guppy’s Head and A Quarter lack a certain Satanic elan possessed by other Deal with the Devil items like the Pact, Lord of the Pit, and Whore of Babylon.

ItemEffectInfo
Guppy’s Head

Guppyshead 1.png

Spawns 2-4 Blue Flies to damage enemies. Flies won’t spawn if entering a door while using it.Found in Devil Room for 2 hearts, Red Chests, Challenge Room or as a drop from fight with The Fallen.

If you collect any three of the Guppy’s items (Guppy’s Head, Guppy’s Tail, Guppy’s Paw, Dead Cat), Isaac will becomes Guppy. If it’s Guppy’s Paw or Guppy’s Head, you only need to use it once (you can drop it afterward) to make the game counts you as “carrying” the item.

Whore of Babylon

Whore-of-babylon.png

If you have half a heart, a message reading “What a horrible night to have a curse…” appears on the screen and the player becomes the Whore of Babylon. This increases their damage by 3 and speed by 2 and they will stay in that form until leaving a room with more than half a heart.Eve starts the game with this item.

Found in the Devil Room, Item Room or after defeating The Fallen. Might appear in the shop for 2 hearts or 15 coins as well.

When activated while the player has Fate, the Holy Grail, or the Bible activated, the wings turn black.

Whore of Babylon Isaac.jpg

Isaac becomes a spawn of Satan.

The Mark

The mark.png

Increases Damage by 2 and adds one soul heart.

Will kill you if you have 2 or less hearts when you make the devil deal despite giving you one soul heart.

Available by defeating The Fallen or traded in a Devil Room.

The Mark Isaac.jpg

Isaac sports three 6’s in a circular pattern.

We are very close, then, to a world of allegory, except that in relation to Christian allegory, the terms have been reversed. Instead of mapping a world of secular symbols onto a common and uniform religious conceptual scheme, religious symbols are mapped, somewhat haphazardly, onto the firmly fixed conceptual vocabulary of a video game.

Allegory is only possible (and popular) within a community in which there is a shared conceptual vocabulary to allegorize. Religion is ideal for this purpose, providing such an overarching unity of conceptual arrangement that most members of that religious community stand a good chance of decoding the allegory. Mapping the plot and symbols of William Langland’s medieval allegory Piers Plowman onto Christian concepts may not be blatantly obvious, but it is a process firmly enmeshed in the dominant religious conceptual arrangement of the period.

In the absence of a complex religious vocabulary, certain cultural universals like beauty, sex, and death are also manageable for allegorical purposes, but anything more specific, such as politics, poses a problem. If the reader does not feel the allegorical basis of the story, the allegory may just appear empty and contrived, or even incomprehensible.

In a restricted conceptual vocabulary, such as that of a top down 2D game, the problem of a lack of shared vocabulary disappears. Every player knows the conceptual vocabulary of health, shots, power ups, enemies, and bosses. Their significance within the game is indisputable: they amount to how you play and win the game. They form the ontology of a video game.

As for decoding the allegory, the symbolic mapping is made explicit, even if the meaning of the mapping is not. The Belt and the Wooden Spoon increase Isaac’s speed, but one must then infer that they do so because Isaac has been beaten with them. Having the Whore of Babylon item gives you far more firepower, but only if you’re very low on health. And so players begin to use a Judeo-Christian symbology in a very particular and peculiar way because The Binding of Isaac makes use of them in a rigidly allegorical context.

McMillen clearly feels this allegory quite deeply. But what about players, to whom these symbols may have much less powerful associations? The game must have an influence, however small, on how players will think of those symbols. The computer doesn’t care whether the damaging projectiles are bullets, tears, or urine, but because these terms are used in other contexts, their binding to the conceptual realm of the video game has some impact.

This impact was not calculated, nor is it easily grasped. The symbology is based on the Judeo-Christian mythos while not being beholden to it. The Binding of Isaac is striking because it is such an extreme case and uses a symbology that has rarely (if ever) been put to such use in a video game before. But in participating in a mapping from symbols to an ontology, we participate in the mutation of the meaning of those symbols. The individual functional roles of video games bleed into the symbols they use and stay with us every time we see a wafer, a fistula, or a Bible thereafter.

Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!

III.ii

Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.

I.i

I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.

III.i

The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .

III.i

The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.

IV.iii

These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.

V.i

Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

The Guinea Pigs, Ludvik Vaculik

[This is an old review which I’m bumping because Open Letters has recently republished this book, for which I am grateful. It has stayed with me as one of the greatest Communist allegories I have read.]

Ludvik Vaculik has very little in common with Milan Kundera, or Ivan Klima, or Josef Skvorecky. Those are three of the biggest names in modern Czech writing, and they all combine a historical awareness with a fondness of heavy allegory. All deal with political subjects explicitly, but the material isn’t polemical, especially with Kundera.

The Guinea Pigs is different. It shuns any specific realism and has a surrealistic streak that has more in common with the samizdat literature of Czechoslovakia, like that of Lukas Tomin, but it is handled with such steely calm that surrealism doesn’t predominate.

Very little predominates over anything else; Vaculik applies Kafka’s style of ambiguous symbolism to totalitarian allegory with huge success. Next to the more explicit and/or fanciful allegories of Koestler, Makine, Pelevin, and others, Vaculik’s book is more intimate, less graspable, and far more striking. Kafka wrongly gets posited as a political or humanitarian allegorist, when his stories are rather personal series of images and processes that cannot be conclusively unlocked. Vaculik really is an allegorist.

Vasek, the narrator, works as a bank clerk in Prague, where people regularly steal money to make their living. He buys some guinea pigs for his children, but becomes obsessed with them himself: specifically, with their responsiveness (or lack thereof), their tolerance for adverse situations, and their seeming absence of personality short of gut reactions (like biting).

Halfway through the book, he is torturing them. The tortures aren’t beastly; what makes them acutely discomfiting to read is the narrator’s sickly mental state:

As the water rose, the guinea pig rose too, although it ordinarily doesn’t stand around on its hind legs, but rather squats like a hare or a rabbit. Now it stood on its hind legs, though, and raised its body above the water level. “Well, how are things?” I said gently. “Not so hot,” it replied, and rocked slightly in the waves. But it was still standing on its feet. It raised its head, up, in my direction.

I turned off the water. The silence was a relief. Only the sewer gurgled. I became aware of a pressure in my skull, a drunken excitement that I had never known before, a tremor of the nerves. I reached into the pit. With my miraculous power, I lifted Ruprecht into the air, he grabbed my hand with all his claws, he hung on. I picked him up to my cheek and I could hear his tight, thin, wheezing breathing. I also whispered to myself, “We’re saved.”

Vaculik walks a very fine line between a symbolism that is too schematic and intrinsically arbitrary, on the one hand, and an overdramatization of the Vasek’s treatment of the guinea pigs, on the other. Sometimes he loses control and takes the easy way out, as when Vasek tells his wife that he’s turning into a guinea pig. But much of the time he carefully piles on the ambiguities and mysteries.

Vasek’s strange relationship with his workplace and his superiors, including the venerable Mr. Maelstrom, whose name signifies the slow degradation of the surrounding environs, as money disappears after it is confiscated from the workers who stole it, as the guinea pigs meet random fates in the face of Vasek’s disinterested curiosity, and as Vasek meets his fate as he loses all his emotional capacities.

The end of the book is an explicit reference to the end of The Trial, and there are other segments that resemble it, like Maelstrom’s discourse on circulation, which could be a first cousin to the speeches of the lawyer and the priest of The Trial. The flow and process of the book is not as effortless as in Kafka, but Vaculik manages a stricter version of a process Kafka never fully embraced, that of removal. It’s not there in his novels, and the two short stories in which the process of removal predominates–“The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist”–are actually atypical. By placing the senseless guinea pigs front and center, Vaculik sets his aim quite early, and follows the arc without error. What remains at the end is not language, as with Beckett, but a physical void.

Books like these that strive for an almost noetic effect can have an initial impact that is not lasting, but guardedly, I will say that it ranks far beyond any of the other Czech writers mentioned, and alongside Kleist and Gogol.

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