Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Eleventh Hour

This is a year of two anniversaries divisible by one hundred years each. Two hundred years ago, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, in which a man (or semi-man) is assembled from corpses, came out in an edition of 500 copies. One hundred years ago today, at this hour (my local time), the Great War, in which millions of men had been reduced to corpses, came to an end. Both were momentous events. One was a work of art, thus of life and creation. The other was a great and horrifying work of death and destruction. In 1818 and 1918, these were recognized as opposites: life and death, creation and destruction. On a much smaller scale, both had a great influence on the evolution of fantasy and weird fiction. Some people consider Frankenstein to be the first novel of science fiction. From it and similar books--books more properly called romances--came tales by British and American authors, chiefly Edgar Allan Poe, that led to weird fiction. And it is from Edgar Allan Poe that Weird Tales, no doubt named for a collection of his works published in the 1890s, is descended. But would there have been Weird Tales without the Great War? It's impossible to say. But in that war, horror, death, mutilation, and destruction met and in some ways became allied with art. I have recently read a book that makes that claim at least, and I have a hard time seeing that its author was wrong.

The book is called Art and Fear. The author was Paul Virilio, who was still living when I read it a couple of months ago but who has since died, on--of all days--September 10, 2018, the day before an anniversary of mass death and horror could revisit the world. (1) Art and Fear is a slim volume, published in 2006 by Continuum of London. It consists of two essays drawn from talks given by M. Virilio. Here I'll consider the first, "A Pitiless Art."

Four years ago, I wrote a series called "What is the monster of the twenty-first century?" My conclusion was that the zombie, representing mass man, in other words, all of humanity in our mass age, is that monster. Lately, though, I have seen signs that the zombie is fading. For example, we're already into the last season of The Walking Dead (supposedly), and it looks like zombies are going to lose their main television venue. Sorry, zombies. I have also seen signs that another monster for the twenty-first century could be on the horizon. Some people think that Artificial Intelligence (AI) or robots armed with AI will turn against us and seek to destroy us. Maybe. But maybe AI is a red herring. Maybe the next monster will be inclusive of AI but be something else instead.

Maybe the new monster of the twenty-first century will be the transhuman, or, perhaps more accurately, the man who makes him.

Whether it will be or not, Paul Virilio foresaw the coming of the transhuman and the maker of the transhuman in the monstrousness and horrors of the twentieth century, a century in which terror, murder, mutilation, and mass dehumanization of men became like artistic expressions, one in which science and the arts fused in the creation of new ways of representing the human form, not in stone or clay, not on canvas or paper, but in the murdered corpse, the dissected, mutilated, or vivisected body, and in the genetically altered human being himself.

In his essay, Virilio invoked Nietzsche, but he seems to have dated our drive towards teratogenesis to the Great War:
At the dawn of industrial modernity, Baudelaire declared, 'I am the wound and the knife.' How can we fail to see that, in the wake of the hecatomb of the Great War, when Braque and Otto Dix found themselves on opposite sides of the trenches in the mud of the Somme, modern art for its part forgot about the wound and concentrated on the knife--the bayonet--with the likes of Oskar Kokoschka, 'the scalpel-wielding artist', before moving on through the German Expressionism of Der Sturm to the Viennese Actionism of Rudolph Schwarzkogler and his cohorts in the 1960s . . .
ART MAUDIT or Artist Maudit? What can you say, meanwhile, about the likes of Richard Hülsenbeck, one of the founding fathers of Dada, who told a Berlin audience in 1918, at a conference on the new trends in art, 'We were for the war. Dada today is still for the war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelty!' The rest is history. (p. 16)
And so we have had a century not only of cruelty but also of terror, mass murder, self-destruction, dehumanization, and mutilation of the human form and the human person, much of it the hands of scientists (or pseudoscientists) operating beyond any previously observed or acknowledged limits. They are men without pity, practitioners of one of the pitiless arts of Virilio's title. They were and are technological giants but ethical pygmies, maybe even ethical amoebas.

Seven years after the war ended, the French-Jewish art dealer René Gimpel, who would go on to perish in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote in his diary:
The new German painting, naturally, represents current sensibility in Germany and it really frightens me. The Ancients invented and represented the world of witches, but the world of Hate is a modern invention, the invention of Germany, spread out over the canvas. The demons of gothic pictures are child's play when it comes to the human, or, rather, inhuman, heads of a humanity bent on destruction. Furious, murderous, demoniacal heads not in the style of the old masters but in completely modern manner: scientific, choking with poison gas. They would like to carve the Germans of tomorrow out of fresh meat . . . (p. 18)
This is a key insight, I think, for as Gimpel saw so keenly, Hate--a new and special kind of hate--is an invention of modernity, more specifically, a materialistic and thoroughly scientified modernity, one that has replaced God with countless minor gods. "The demons of gothic pictures," as Gimpel put it, "are child's play." The gothic, the supernatural, the romantic, the traditional, the folkloric--all have been overtaken and left in the dust by modernity. This was the greater problem for humanity in the twentieth century, a far lesser one for weird fiction. I have written before about this problem and how one teller of weird tales, Fritz Leiber, Jr., tried to deal with it.

Germans may have been first to sicken from this new disease of modernity--they were after all closest to the source of infection (2)--but the disease has spread throughout the world:
This is how Rothko put it: 'I studied the figure. Only reluctantly did I realize it didn't correspond to my needs. Using human representation, for me, meant mutilating it.' (p. 20)
Rothko killed himself in 1970, "exercising," Virilio wrote, "the most nihilistic of freedoms of expression: that of SELF-DESTRUCTION." (p. 21) In that, Rothko recapitulated other suicides by other artists and prefigured the suicides of many more to come.

Virilio continues:
As far as contemporary science and biology go, doubt is no longer an option, for genetics is on the way to becoming an art, a transgenic art, a culture of the embryo to purely performative ends, just as the eugenicists of the beginning of the twentieth century hoped. When Nietzsche decided that 'moral judgements, like all religious judgements, belong to ignorance', he flung the door to the laboratories of terror wide open. (p. 26)
* * *
The expressionism of a MONSTER, born of the labour of a science deliberately deprived of a conscience . . . As though, thanks to the progress of genetics, teratology had suddenly become the SUMMUM of BIOLOGY and the oddball the new form of genius only, not a literary or artistic genius anymore, but a GENETIC GENIUS. (pp. 26-27)
* * *
Sir Francis Galton, the unredeemed eugenicist, is back in the land of his cousin Darwin: freedom of aesthetic expression now knows no bounds. Not only is everything from now on 'possible'. It is 'inevitable'! 
Thanks to the genetic bomb [analogous to the atomic bomb in physics], the science of biology has become a major art only, an EXTREME ART. (p. 29)
* * *
Confronted by such 'expressionist' events [i.e., genocide in the late twentieth century], surely we can see what comes next, looming over us as it is: an officially terrorist art preaching suicide and self-mutilation thereby extending the current infatuation with scarring and piercing. Or else random slaughter, the coming of a THANATOPHILIA that would revive the now forgotten fascist slogan: VIVA LA MUERTA! (pp. 30-31)
* * *
Thanatophilia, necro-technology and one day soon, teratology . . . Is this genetic trance still a science, some new alchemy, or is it an extreme art? (p. 31)
* * *
Where will it end, this impiety of art, of the arts and crafts of this 'transfiguration' that not only fulfills the dreams of the German Expressionists but also those of the Futurists, those 'hate-makers' whose destructiveness Hans Magnus Enzensberger has dissected. (p. 34)
Where will it end? I suspect it won't, as "end" requires limit. There are and will be no limits in men who lack all moral and ethical sense. And so, as Mary Shelley foresaw two hundred years ago, as the men who lived through the Great War foresaw a century ago, and as Paul Virilio foresaw at the beginning of the current century, we will have things among us that cross boundaries, between man and animal, between man and machine, between man and monster. These will be transhuman. But will they be the real monsters among us, or will that role be played by the men who create them? Who in Frankenstein was the real monster, the creature or the creator?

* * *

The problem of transhumanism goes deeper than that, though. If we say that the transhuman or the creator of the transhuman is the monster, we remove the problem from ourselves. We are absolved. We can say to ourselves, Those people over there are monsters. But not us. We are good. Remember Virilio's premonition: "[S]urely we can see what comes next [. . .] an officially terrorist art preaching suicide and self-mutilation thereby extending the current infatuation with scarring and piercing. Or else random slaughter, the coming of a THANATOPHILIA [. . . .]" The signs are all around us. We are full of hatred, each for himself, all for all, all for humanity, for human history, culture, society, and civilization. And because of those hatreds we rush to negate ourselves, mutilate ourselves, destroy ourselves, or else commit murder, mass murder if we can, but murder nonetheless. We can point fingers and say that the transhuman or the men who will create him will be monsters, but what will stop us from rushing to those same creators, begging them to mutilate us, transform us, turn us into monsters, anything so that we might be something other than what we are in this hated thing? Are we not attempting transhumanism ourselves? And if the transhuman is a monster, what does that make us?

* * *

Paul Virilio did not mention Frankenstein in his essay, yet by strange coincidences, the connections are made in this year of a centennial, a bicentennial, and his passing from the earth. I am an artist. I can tell you that what Virilio described among artists is an actuality. I have seen so much hatred, violence, cruelty, nihilism, and destruction in the work of artists I have encountered. There isn't any question in my mind that they hate not only themselves but also life, God, the world, and the rest of humanity. Not knowing what they are or hating what they are, they engage in the everyday self-mutilations of tattooing, piercing, and scarring. And now we have people having their bodies surgically altered. Anything, they seem to be saying. Give us anything so that we don't have to be what we are. These things are the drip, drip, drip of suicide and self-destruction. If they could, these artists might very well commit murder. Short of actual killing, they commit murder in their art. It is an art of extreme cruelty, extreme violence, extreme destruction. Artists once provided warnings against such things. They were human, not anti-human. Artists and thinkers operating within limits foresaw that the transhuman and his extreme-scientist/extreme-artist creator, operating without limits or beyond limits, would prove monstrous. But then, in the twentieth century, the artist joined the scientist and the war-maker as one of a class of destroyers. Those who lived and operated within limits, before limits were destroyed, may have failed to see that we might all wish to be monsters, but we will be. Unless we draw back, unless we recognize limits, unless we say no to death and destruction and yes to life and creation.

(1) The translator's preface to Art and Fear, by Julie Rose begins: "Immediately after September 11--an event that did not take him by surprise--people who had always dismissed Virilio as a pessimist started plaguing him for interviews." (p. vii)
(2) And they're still carrying on quite well, despite their sickness, on their march to self-destruction and the destruction of Europe.

The Wounded Soldier by Otto Dix, 1917.
An illustration for Frankenstein by the American artist Lynd Ward (1905-1985).

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley


  1. You may be interested in my review of two novels that deal with this:

    1. Hi, Randy,

      I tried that URL and it didn't work. Here is a link to your review of Breaking the Skin: