Grunion Moon (grunionmoon) wrote,
Grunion Moon
grunionmoon

Race 2: What disgusted me into writing


I wonder if I will quite get to my actual point today. Whether I do or I only explain this business about Stoker, I'll be best off writing short. Ha - I never manage short without extensive revision, but it would be wisest. This is all the very opposite of "new ground" - "writing about the racist Other in 19th and 20th century fiction" might as well be an official subsection of "how to write a term paper". I'm just running this through my own Galvanized Pressure Cooker.

I have thought mildly about a tour through racism and literary/fantastic imagination for a long time - titling it something like "the racist fiction I would recommend"(!) - usually in something of a bemused or mischievous mood.

But that notional mood would just have me mumbling happily to myself while pruning the cherry tree.

To actually take it up I had to be jarred into it with a different tone - I had to be revolted.

***

I've been reading a lot of the fiction of the period...

... and Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm is the most virulently racist book I've read in a LONG time. It is not just "they thought like that then", it's volunteer and personal: Stoker has foaming issues with his black character, and he will not shut up about it.

I had only seen the pleasantly lurid Ken Russell film, and was curious about the original story. I wanted to like the book! I should have been able to. The essential myth-concept is fine, and there were more interesting things that were not in the movie. And then, in the middle of the book, unconnected to anything else, there springs forth this unexpected tale of a countryside oppressed by an evil kite?! It's beautiful. It was like a great bird of fantasy launching forth out of the reeds of a monster story. If that were all I found, I'd be writing about the wonderful discoveries you can make among the free books you can find for the Kindle.

But... foul, foul, foul. I wanted to go back in time and call Stoker unspeakable names in front of his associates. Which is angry, for me.

The race stuff doesn't begin with the ugly stuff. It begins interestingly, with the discussion of a family of whites, the Caswall's - referred to as a race, quite seriously, with its own nature and its own physiognomy announcing that nature:

"Now, it will be well for you to bear in mind the prevailing
characteristics of this race. These were well preserved and unchanging;
one and all they are the same: cold, selfish, dominant, reckless of
consequences in pursuit of their own will. It was not that they did not
keep faith, though that was a matter which gave them little concern, but
that they took care to think beforehand of what they should do in order
to gain their own ends. If they should make a mistake, someone else
should bear the burthen of it. This was so perpetually recurrent that it
seemed to be a part of a fixed policy. It was no wonder that, whatever
changes took place, they were always ensured in their own possessions.
They were absolutely cold and hard by nature. Not one of them--so far as
we have any knowledge--was ever known to be touched by the softer
sentiments, to swerve from his purpose, or hold his hand in obedience to
the dictates of his heart. The pictures and effigies of them all show
their adherence to the early Roman type. Their eyes were full; their
hair, of raven blackness, grew thick and close and curly. Their figures
were massive and typical of strength.

"The thick black hair, growing low down on the neck, told of vast
physical strength and endurance. But the most remarkable characteristic
is the eyes. Black, piercing, almost unendurable, they seem to contain
in themselves a remarkable will power which there is no gainsaying. It
is a power that is partly racial and partly individual: a power
impregnated with some mysterious quality, partly hypnotic, partly
mesmeric, which seems to take away from eyes that meet them all power of
resistance--nay, all power of wishing to resist. With eyes like those,
set in that all-commanding face, one would need to be strong indeed to
think of resisting the inflexible will that lay behind."
And, sure enough, the last surviving Caswall will be one of the villains of the piece.

(Another part of the European racist tapestry is - historically was - a business that stretches from phrenology to physiognomy: the business under which people look like what they are like. This is not Stoker's first visit: you may remember how Dracula's skull shape and appearance is that of a criminal, and Mina Harker's scholarly references to Lombroso. Which joins on well to the notion of families being races in a meaningful way, and of aristocratic features, and also joins on to the racist obsession with skull shape, brain size, and Agassiz packing Negro skulls with sand.)

We subsequently meet this Caswall, fresh returned from Africa. Caswall is accompanied by his African retainer, and so we get a look at the latter - and also at how a English gentlewoman (who is also secretly an evil were-snake and pagan priestess, but we don't know that yet) reacts to such a person:

The remainder of the journey was uneventful, and upon arrival at
Liverpool they went aboard the _West African_, which had just come to the
landing-stage. There his uncle introduced himself to Mr. Caswall, and
followed this up by introducing Sir Nathaniel and then Adam. The new-
comer received them graciously, and said what a pleasure it was to be
coming home after so long an absence of his family from their old seat.
Adam was pleased at the warmth of the reception; but he could not avoid a
feeling of repugnance at the man's face. He was trying hard to overcome
this when a diversion was caused by the arrival of Lady Arabella. The
diversion was welcome to all; the two Saltons and Sir Nathaniel were
shocked at Caswall's face--so hard, so ruthless, so selfish, so dominant.
"God help any," was the common thought, "who is under the domination of
such a man!"

Presently his African servant approached him, and at once their thoughts
changed to a larger toleration. Caswall looked indeed a savage--but a
cultured savage. In him were traces of the softening civilisation of
ages--of some of the higher instincts and education of man, no matter how
rudimentary these might be. But the face of Oolanga, as his master
called him, was unreformed, unsoftened savage, and inherent in it were
all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest
and the swamp--the lowest of all created things that could be regarded as
in some form ostensibly human. Lady Arabella and Oolanga arrived almost
simultaneously, and Adam was surprised to notice what effect their
appearance had on each other. The woman seemed as if she would not--could
not--condescend to exhibit any concern or interest in such a creature. On
the other hand, the negro's bearing was such as in itself to justify her
pride. He treated her not merely as a slave treats his master, but as a
worshipper would treat a deity. He knelt before her with his hands out-
stretched and his forehead in the dust. So long as she remained he did
not move; it was only when she went over to Caswall that he relaxed his
attitude of devotion and stood by respectfully.
Well, all right, Oolanga is Ooga-Booga, although the way Lady Arabella doesn't look at him does sharpen the point a little. That's not really unusual, in the literature of the time, and, reading it, one gets used to sidling past it without comment except perhaps with a momentary moue of distaste, treating the racism rather like Lady Arabella treats Oolanga. But Stoker is only getting started with an obsession.

Mr. Caswall, you see, has curious hobbies, like hunting the woman of his intent with mental domination powers. It turns out that Oolanga, who has a background in voodoo, can assist him in the psychic effort. I'll quote a bit of the discussion of this. (The word "nigger" had appeared by this point, and I was looking carefully at it. Certainly the word was used in England; I was curious about what it meant when used, or when used by Stoker, innocently/generically/colloquially or with malice... and Stoker will give increasing evidence that, with him, the word carries full venom.)

"Can you remember well enough to describe Caswall's eyes, and how Lilla
looked, and what Mimi said and did? Also Oolanga, Caswall's West African
servant."

"I'll do what I can, sir. All the time Mr. Caswall was staring, he kept
his eyes fixed and motionless--but not as if he was in a trance. His
forehead was wrinkled up, as it is when one is trying to see through or
into something. At the best of times his face has not a gentle
expression; but when it was screwed up like that it was almost
diabolical. It frightened poor Lilla so that she trembled, and after a
bit got so pale that I thought she had fainted. However, she held up and
tried to stare back, but in a feeble kind of way. Then Mimi came close
and held her hand. That braced her up, and--still, never ceasing her
return stare--she got colour again and seemed more like herself."

"Did he stare too?"

"More than ever. The weaker Lilla seemed, the stronger he became, just
as if he were feeding on her strength. All at once she turned round,
threw up her hands, and fell down in a faint. I could not see what else
happened just then, for Mimi had thrown herself on her knees beside her
and hid her from me. Then there was something like a black shadow
between us, and there was the nigger, looking more like a malignant devil
than ever. I am not usually a patient man, and the sight of that ugly
devil is enough to make one's blood boil. When he saw my face, he seemed
to realise danger--immediate danger--and slunk out of the room as
noiselessly as if he had been blown out. I learned one thing, however--he
is an enemy, if ever a man had one."

"That still leaves us three to two!" put in Sir Nathaniel.

"Then Caswall slunk out, much as the nigger had done. When he had gone,
Lilla recovered at once."

"Now," said Sir Nathaniel, anxious to restore peace, "have you found out
anything yet regarding the negro? I am anxious to be posted regarding
him. I fear there will be, or may be, grave trouble with him."

"Yes, sir, I've heard a good deal about him--of course it is not
official; but hearsay must guide us at first. You know my man
Davenport--private secretary, confidential man of business, and general
factotum. He is devoted to me, and has my full confidence. I asked him
to stay on board the _West African_ and have a good look round, and find
out what he could about Mr. Caswall. Naturally, he was struck with the
aboriginal savage. He found one of the ship's stewards, who had been on
the regular voyages to South Africa. He knew Oolanga and had made a
study of him. He is a man who gets on well with niggers, and they open
their hearts to him. It seems that this Oolanga is quite a great person
in the nigger world of the African West Coast. He has the two things
which men of his own colour respect: he can make them afraid, and he is
lavish with money. I don't know whose money--but that does not matter.
They are always ready to trumpet his greatness. Evil greatness it is--but
neither does that matter. Briefly, this is his history. He was
originally a witch-finder--about as low an occupation as exists amongst
aboriginal savages. Then he got up in the world and became an Obi-man,
which gives an opportunity to wealth _via_ blackmail. Finally, he
reached the highest honour in hellish service. He became a user of
Voodoo, which seems to be a service of the utmost baseness and cruelty. I
was told some of his deeds of cruelty, which are simply sickening. They
made me long for an opportunity of helping to drive him back to hell. You
might think to look at him that you could measure in some way the extent
of his vileness; but it would be a vain hope. Monsters such as he is
belong to an earlier and more rudimentary stage of barbarism. He is in
his way a clever fellow--for a nigger; but is none the less dangerous or
the less hateful for that. The men in the ship told me that he was a
collector: some of them had seen his collections. Such collections! All
that was potent for evil in bird or beast, or even in fish. Beaks that
could break and rend and tear--all the birds represented were of a
predatory kind. Even the fishes are those which are born to destroy, to
wound, to torture. The collection, I assure you, was an object lesson in
human malignity. This being has enough evil in his face to frighten even
a strong man. It is little wonder that the sight of it put that poor
girl into a dead faint!"
"He is in his way a clever fellow - for a nigger." Must have that modifier. And there's the first mention of how black men have certain main concerns, base ones. (Stoker uses, or has his character say, "aboriginal savage" twice in that last paragraph - surely not as colloquial-use as "nigger"; it's like an organ key held down.)

By this time I was getting the notion that Stoker was himself not one of those men who "gets on well with niggers." I'm curious to what extent he had ever met or seen any. Now that the word has come up I am mentally contrasting this with Conrad's book The Nigger of the Narcissus, that book that I've never succeeded in recommending out loud and probably never will. There and in Heart of Darkness Conrad confuzzled me by, while apparently having racist perceptions and pre-conceptions, still seeing his black characters as individuals, tinted by their race or not. (Also, through his work (I'm also thinking of Lord Jim), Conrad's view of non-European cultures, though definitely still affected by the firelit vision of savagery, is relatively loose and nuanced, or, no, well, at least somewhat - well, compared to Stoker's.) Then again, Conrad had been a sailor and world-traveller, including captaining a Congo steamship, and certainly had both met black people. When I try to imagine Stoker's encounters with black people, I imagine something like Agassiz' full-blown phobic reaction to the Negro waiters at a Philadelphia hotel. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There is a second occasion of attempted mental domination, in which not only Oolanga but Lady Arabella join in Caswall's evil psychic effort against Lilla - and, in the section I'll quote, there is a sentence that is just thrown in for no reason, a comment that has no explanation for its inclusion other than that it reveals the state of Stoker's own mind:

"I found Lilla and Mimi at home. Watford had been detained by business
on the farm. Miss Watford received me as kindly as before; Mimi, too,
seemed glad to see me. Mr. Caswall came so soon after I arrived, that
he, or someone on his behalf, must have been watching for me. He was
followed closely by the negro, who was puffing hard as if he had been
running--so it was probably he who watched. Mr. Caswall was very cool
and collected, but there was a more than usually iron look about his face
that I did not like. However, we got on very well. He talked pleasantly
on all sorts of questions. The nigger waited a while and then
disappeared as on the other occasion. Mr. Caswall's eyes were as usual
fixed on Lilla. True, they seemed to be very deep and earnest, but there
was no offence in them. Had it not been for the drawing down of the
brows and the stern set of the jaws, I should not at first have noticed
anything. But the stare, when presently it began, increased in
intensity. I could see that Lilla began to suffer from nervousness, as
on the first occasion; but she carried herself bravely. However, the
more nervous she grew, the harder Mr. Caswall stared. It was evident to
me that he had come prepared for some sort of mesmeric or hypnotic
battle. After a while he began to throw glances round him and then
raised his hand, without letting either Lilla or Mimi see the action. It
was evidently intended to give some sign to the negro, for he came, in
his usual stealthy way, quietly in by the hall door, which was open. Then
Mr. Caswall's efforts at staring became intensified, and poor Lilla's
nervousness grew greater. Mimi, seeing that her cousin was distressed,
came close to her, as if to comfort or strengthen her with the
consciousness of her presence. This evidently made a difficulty for Mr.
Caswall, for his efforts, without appearing to get feebler, seemed less
effective. This continued for a little while, to the gain of both Lilla
and Mimi. Then there was a diversion. Without word or apology the door
opened, and Lady Arabella March entered the room. I had seen her coming
through the great window. Without a word she crossed the room and stood
beside Mr. Caswall. It really was very like a fight of a peculiar kind;
and the longer it was sustained the more earnest--the fiercer--it grew.
That combination of forces--the over-lord, the white woman, and the black
man--would have cost some--probably all of them--their lives in the
Southern States of America. To us it was simply horrible. But all that
you can understand. This time, to go on in sporting phrase, it was
understood by all to be a 'fight to a finish,' and the mixed group did
not slacken a moment or relax their efforts. On Lilla the strain began
to tell disastrously. She grew pale--a patchy pallor, which meant that
her nerves were out of order. She trembled like an aspen, and though she
struggled bravely, I noticed that her legs would hardly support her. A
dozen times she seemed about to collapse in a faint, but each time, on
catching sight of Mimi's eyes, she made a fresh struggle and pulled
through.

"By now Mr. Caswall's face had lost its appearance of passivity. His
eyes glowed with a fiery light. He was still the old Roman in
inflexibility of purpose; but grafted on to the Roman was a new Berserker
fury. His companions in the baleful work seemed to have taken on
something of his feeling. Lady Arabella looked like a soulless, pitiless
being, not human, unless it revived old legends of transformed human
beings who had lost their humanity in some transformation or in the sweep
of natural savagery. As for the negro--well, I can only say that it was
solely due to the self-restraint which you impressed on me that I did not
wipe him out as he stood--without warning, without fair play--without a
single one of the graces of life and death. Lilla was silent in the
helpless concentration of deadly fear; Mimi was all resolve and
self-forgetfulness, so intent on the soul-struggle in which she was
engaged that there was no possibility of any other thought. . . .
Now - never mind Adam's visceral urge to murder the black man like a spider - though that is a piece of the same picture - what is this comment doing in there:

That combination of forces--the over-lord, the white woman, and the black
man--would have cost some--probably all of them--their lives in the
Southern States of America. To us it was simply horrible.
The white woman next to the black man! And the Southern States knew how to handle these things. Here my struggle to read the horror novel for enjoyment was finally defeated, because it became clear that this was not just a preconception; this was a business. And the black man, and his position among others, was a horror figure in the horror novel, as such, as a black man.

I believe I cackled angrily aloud. I know I said to the air, "Bram - you put the two of them next to each other - calm down!!"

And I did not ceremonially pitch the book across the room, because one does not do that with a Kindle, especially when it belongs to one's girlfriend.

I'd have had to go get it anyway, because I continued reading for a bit. There is more to say about Oolanga, his fascination with a cache of cruel weapons, and so on. We soon get to Oolanga's ambitious advances to Lady Arabella, for both reasons of desire and to get ahead. The title of the chapter in which this occurs is "Oolanga's Hallucinations", which refers to Oolanga's delusions that those around him see him as attractive and worthy - as opposed to the hideous thing that he is. Stoker's obsession insistently interjects itself - for example into a sentence that does not need it: "Being unscrupulous and stealthy--and a savage--he looked to dishonest means." Lady Arabella's response to his plighting his troth to her: anger and disgust in a moment, but first - "no man or woman of the white race could have checked the laughter which rose spontaneously to her lips."

The consequences of that meeting in the dusk of Diana's Grove were acute
and far-reaching, and not only to the two engaged in it. From Oolanga,
this might have been expected by anyone who knew the character of the
tropical African savage. To such, there are two passions that are
inexhaustible and insatiable--vanity and that which they are pleased to
call love. . . .
... At this point my will to continue was gone.

***

EDIT: Moment of curiosity, I was positive that there was more just as nice past that point, which was about halfway, so I went back in and glanced ahead a little. I was right:

Forthwith [Lady Arabella] proceeded to tell [Caswall] about Oolanga and his strange
suspicions of her honesty. Caswall laughed and made her explain all the
details. His final comment was enlightening.

"Let me give you a word of advice: If you have the slightest fault to
find with that infernal nigger, shoot him at sight. A swelled-headed
nigger, with a bee in his bonnet, is one of the worst difficulties in the
world to deal with. So better make a clean job of it, and wipe him out
at once!"

"But what about the law, Mr. Caswall?"

"Oh, the law doesn't concern itself much about dead niggers. A few more
or less do not matter. To my mind it's rather a relief!"

"I'm afraid of you," was her only comment, made with a sweet smile and in
a soft voice.

"All right," he said, "let us leave it at that. Anyhow, we shall be rid
of one of them!"

"I don't love niggers any more than you do," she replied, "and I suppose
one mustn't be too particular where that sort of cleaning up is
concerned." Then she changed in voice and manner, and asked genially:
"And now tell me, am I forgiven?"

"You are, dear lady--if there is anything to forgive."
Jesus. Did Stoker ever want to move to the Southern States?


***

So that's what gave me the bug. As I say, I had been up to my neck in more minor manifestations of old unvarnished own-sake racism recently. But this was unexpected naked special enthusiasm for it. (To spot-analyze Stoker, he was an Irishman who spent a lot of time on the proposition that the Irish race belonged in civilized English society and could be a revitalizing influence on it. This sort of intense involvement with a great status-ladder of human nature can go with a special kind of view of the "lower rungs"...)

In Dracula, Stoker worshipped English gentlemen and gentlewomen, threatened with being stained with unclean influences. The idea of there being noble white bloodlines at the highest end of the spectrum, race mixed with class status and position mixed with family in aristocracy, can begin to have a sickening tinge when looked at in light of the complacent racism amidst which it sat. It was not all from one cause, it was not, but it came together as one total picture; it worked as one.

What Stoker does in The Lair Of The White Worm makes it heavier to think about other connections, that are less viscerally nasty and more just assumptions of the time. For example, to take this foreword to Allan Quatermain, that H. Rider Haggard wrote to his son,

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain -- the state and dignity of English gentlemen.
and juxtapose it with this line from King Solomon's Mines that Haggard has a dying black woman sadly say (without coaching from the outside world; just from her own seeing of the nature of things) to Quatermain, whom she calls Bougwan, about a white man,

"Say to my lord, Bougwan, that--I love him, and that I am glad to die
because I know that he cannot cumber his life with such as I am, for
the sun may not mate with the darkness, nor the white with the black.

"Say that, since I saw him, at times I have felt as though there were a
bird in my bosom, which would one day fly hence and sing elsewhere.
Even now, though I cannot lift my hand, and my brain grows cold, I do
not feel as though my heart were dying; it is so full of love that it
could live ten thousand years, and yet be young. Say that if I live
again, mayhap I shall see him in the Stars, and that--I will search
them all, though perchance there I should still be black and he
would--still be white. Say--nay, Macumazahn, say no more, save that I
love--Oh, hold me closer, Bougwan, I cannot feel thine arms--_oh! oh!_"
- (oh, to have the darkies speak the lines about no marrying the High Ones!) - and that Quatermain later respectfully quotes:

Ten days from that eventful morning found us once more in our old
quarters at Loo; and, strange to say, but little the worse for our
terrible experience, except that my stubbly hair came out of the
treasure cave about three shades greyer than it went in, and that Good
never was quite the same after Foulata's death, which seemed to move
him very greatly. I am bound to say, looking at the thing from the
point of view of an oldish man of the world, that I consider her
removal was a fortunate occurrence, since, otherwise, complications
would have been sure to ensue. The poor creature was no ordinary native
girl, but a person of great, I had almost said stately, beauty, and of
considerable refinement of mind. But no amount of beauty or refinement
could have made an entanglement between Good and herself a desirable
occurrence; for, as she herself put it, "Can the sun mate with the
darkness, or the white with the black?"
I can almost hope that Haggard intended to be subtly subversive with that, rather than the reverse. But, if he did, he did it right, on little cat feet, so that I can't assume it; I think I must assume otherwise. ... But, anyway, that no-miscegenation thing is only an assumption-level, not the full toxic article. ... And I'm exhausted at thinking about all this.

... *sigh* The ruminations on racism and fantastic/literary imagination that I have been thinking about, that I will theoretically now get to, have involved, at least as they've rumbled around in my head, a fair bit of humor. I hope they will come out with that in them. But I find it impossible to be in a humorous mood when thinking about this sour, vilely vigorous business that Stoker set to on the page.

Good night, what a monster it all was.
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