Kafka’s machine

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In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony, 1919), a short story by Franz Kafka

“Yes, the harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveler and bent down. “Yes, it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”

He took the Traveler’s hand and led him over to the bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose in a moment.” The Traveler was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked at the apparatus in the hole. It was a massive construction. The bed and the inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The inscriber was set about two metres above the bed, and the two were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun. The harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.

The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveler, but he did have a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused in his explanation in order to allow the Traveler time to observe the apparatus undisturbed. The Condemned Man imitated the Traveler, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes, he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered.

“So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveler. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” said the Officer, pushing his cap back a little and running his hand over his hot face. “Now, listen. Both the bed and the inscriber have their own electric batteries. The bed needs them for itself, and the inscriber for the harrow. As soon as the man is strapped in securely, the bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental hospitals. Only with our bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be meticulously coordinated with the movements of the harrow. But it’s the harrow which has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.”

(Translation by Ian Johnston)


An authorless construction for The Bachelor Machines, 1975–77, an exhibition curated by by Harald Szeemann

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Kafka: The Execution (1989), a comic strip by Leopoldo Duranona

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Read the full strip.


A page from Introducing Kafka (1993), an illustrated biography of Franz Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb

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In the Penal Colony, 1920, from Franz Kafka: Dreams, Diaries, and Fragments (1994), a print by Robert Andrew Parker

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Zoetrope (1999), a short film by Charlie Deaux

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Franz Kafka: The Peculiar Apparatus from the Story In the Penal Colony (undated), a sculpture by Martin Senn

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Metamorphosis of Mr Samsa, a film by Caroline Leaf
Kafkaesque
Screening Kafka
Designs on Kafka
Kafka’s porn unveiled
A postcard from Doctor Kafka
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
Kafka and Kupka

Weekend links 648

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The Twittering Machine (1922) by Paul Klee.

• “Thinking of ‘writer Twitter’ as more important than writers themselves is an insult to the profession. People have been trading words for money for thousands of years. They will continue to do so after the death of a platform built on manufactured outrage, social hierarchy, unfunny jokes, stale memes, pornography, and spam. I mention this Atlantic essay only because it echoes what so many people are saying in the ether right now, not to pick on its author. The piece reads like a parody of how writers overestimate the importance of Twitter to their work and careers. It’s frankly a little embarrassing. Your work is the product you sell! Not the shitty jokes you tell with people you want to impress.” Freddie deBoer on the kerfuffle du jour. For “writer” see also “artist” or anyone else working at the intersection between commerce and creativity. From what I’ve read this week about potential technical problems at the pestilential birdcage I’d be less sanguine about its immediate survival. Since I retreated from the place as an active user two-and-a-half years ago all I get from it is the inflated subscriber number you see on the right-hand side of this page, a combination of Twitter followers plus email subscribers. The latter currently stand at some 270 individuals so if you’re among that number you can consider yourself part of a more exclusive group. And thanks for subscribing!

• “…the books of the past, besides adding to our understanding, offer something we also need: repose, refreshment and renewal. They help us keep going through dark times, they lift our spirits, they comfort us. Which means that I also strongly agree with the poet John Ashbery, who once wrote, ‘I am aware of the pejorative associations of the word “escapist,” but I insist that we need all the escapism we can get and even that isn’t going to be enough.'” Michael Dirda makes a case for reading classic, unusual and neglected books. Kudos for the mention of Anthony Skene‘s Monsieur Zenith, a character few of Dirda’s readers will have heard of.

• “While Haeckel’s paintings turn the floating phantoms into baroque spectacles of colour and flowing form, Mayer’s medusae are more sober, their tentacles subdued, their umbellate bells transparent.” Kevin Dann on the jellyfish and other “floating phantoms” described in AG Mayer’s Medusae of the World (1910).

• “The passing of time has added potency to the images, giving this interpretation of the Dracula story the feel of a distant fairy tale, a myth emerging from the mists of time, erupting across the world of cinema, its shadow reaching everywhere.” Martyn Bamber on 100 years of Murnau’s Nosferatu.

• At AnOther: Camille Vivier talks about shooting nude models in the treasure-filled home of HR Giger.

• New music: In Concert & In Residence by Sarah Davachi, and Anglo-Saxon Androids by Moon Wiring Club.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Kimono portraits were popular souvenirs for sailors visiting Japan in the 1800s.

• Mix of the week: Saturnalia: Deep Jazz for Long Nights, 1969–1980 at Aquarium Drunkard.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Clouds.

Dark Clouds With Silver Linings (1961) by Sun Ra | Obscured By Clouds (1972) by Pink Floyd | Firmament (Cloudscape) (1995) by Main

A theme for maniacs

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The theme in question.

When did the first few bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 become a signifier of an unhinged personality, and thereby a horror cliché? The question was raised by my film viewing in the run-up to Halloween following a return visit to The Black Cat, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Universal oddity. Ulmer’s film is the best of a trio of Universal horrors packaged by Eureka in a double-disc set, part of the company’s ongoing programme to reissue obscure films starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The three films in the set—Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935)—all star Lugosi, with Karloff co-starring in The Black Cat and The Raven. The Bach piece was impossible to ignore after watching all three films together. In The Black Cat we see a villainous Karloff regaling a potential victim with a performance of Toccata and Fugue on his home organ. Bela Lugosi does the same in The Raven, where he portrays an equally villainous but much more demented doctor obsessed with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. The Universal horror films have been the source of many cinematic clichés of which this is a further example, even if the use of Toccata and Fugue to signify villainy or madness predates The Black Cat.

Wikipedia’s incomplete list of the composition’s cinematic appearances states that Toccata and Fugue was already a theatrical cliché by the early 1930s but offers no evidence for the claim. It’s likely there were silent films using the piece for their scores when so much silent orchestration borrows from pre-existing classical music. But silent films, today as in the past, can be scored in many different ways, the score isn’t always permanently attached to the film. The one silent film that you might expect to use the Bach piece, the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, has a fine score by Carl Davis in its restored form, but no Toccata and Fugue. A brief history of the cinematic life of the piece would go something like this…

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)
Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent adaptation opens with a view through the eyes of Dr Jekyll (Frederic March) playing another Bach piece on the organ; prior to this the film’s titles had been scored with an orchestral arrangement of Toccata and Fugue. An hour later the composition returns when Jekyll plays an extract from the fugue section, an ominous sign despite his joy at his impending marriage.

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The Black Cat (1934)
Despite the title, this one has nothing at all to do with Edgar Allan Poe. Instead of another spurious adaptation we get Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig, cinema’s only Satanist architect. The character is a bizarre amalgam of Aleister Crowley and Hans Poelzig, a German architect who designed the sets for Paul Wegener’s third and best Golem film.

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The Raven (1935)
This one does at least contain a number of Poe references. Lugosi is a brilliant doctor who also happens to be a homicidal maniac, his Poe obsession having led him to fill the secret rooms in his house with torture devices.

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A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Not a horror film but included here because Powell & Pressburger’s war-time drama is about the last time you find the Bach piece being used in an unironic manner, intended to evoke religious awe rather than madness or doom. Prior to this the piece had also been used to soundtrack an abstract animation by Mary Ellen Bute, Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1938), two years before Disney did something very similar in Fantasia. In A Canterbury Tale Dennis Price is a conscripted cinema organist finally arrived at Canterbury Cathedral prior to being shipped to the front. Before he leaves, the cathedral organist allows him to play the music for the departure service which in turn allows us to hear Bach’s piece illustrating views of genuine Gothic grandeur.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Its fitting that the self-conscious use of Toccata and Fugue begins with a supremely self-conscious film. Billy Wilder’s masterpiece isn’t a horror film either but it is a full-blown Gothic drama, being narrated by a dead man whose first encounter with the mentally fragile Norma Desmond sees him being mistaken for an undertaker. The Bach piece is played by Desmond’s butler, Max, a washed-up film director portrayed by a genuine (and genuinely great) washed-up film director, Erich von Stroheim. Max may not be a maniac but his employer (and ex-wife) is certainly unhinged, while Stroheim himself was notorious in his directing days for his megalomania, overspending lavishly and refusing to compromise with the studios over the editing of his films. (The first cut of his mutilated epic, Greed, ran over nine hours.) Since the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was mentioned earlier, it’s worth noting that Norma Desmond’s boat-shaped bed is the same prop that appears in the silent Phantom’s underground lair.

Continue reading “A theme for maniacs”

Weekend links 646

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It’s that lethal book again. A sample of wallpaper impregnated with arsenic, one of many such pages in Shadows from the Walls of Death: Facts and Inferences Prefacing a Book of Specimens of Arsenical Wall Papers (1874) by RC Kedzie.

• “I like to spend time in the now because there I can create something new but in the past I cannot.” Damo Suzuki, former vocalist in Can, on creativity and his resilience in the face of long-term illness. Related: a trailer for Energy: A Documentary about Damo Suzuki.

• “I enjoy Carnival of Souls, but it is a dark form of enjoyment, with high stakes, because the enjoyment is predicated on me being able to shake myself free of the film after it is over, and that can be a struggle.” Colin Fleming on fear as entertainment.

• “Some people like fantasy epics or Regency romance or Sudoku or science-fiction world-building or the gentle challenge of cozy mysteries; I like the undead.” Sadie Stein on encounters with ghosts.

• “You’re now standing on the blocks of the Great Pyramid at Giza. For the first time ever you can explore the entire pyramid interior.” The Giza Project.

• “What do we think about when we watch films set in vanished decades that many of us experienced at first hand?” asks Anne Billson.

• At Bandcamp: Touch celebrates forty years of not being a record label.

• “Why scientists are sending radio signals to the Moon and Jupiter.”

• At DJ Food’s: Retinal Circus gig posters 1966–68.

• Steven Heller’s font of the month is Feneon.

The Pyramid Spell (1978) by Nik Turner | I Am Damo Suzuki (1985) by The Fall | Carnival Of Souls Goes To Rio (2001) by Pram

Marabout Fantastique book covers

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A post for Halloween featuring a selection of covers from the “Fantastique” imprint of Belgian publisher Bibliothèque Marabout. The imprint, which was only labelled “Fantastique” on later editions, was launched around 1969 and ran through the 1970s before petering out in the early 1980s. The uniform cover design—almost always black with titles set in Roberta—is an attraction for paperback collectors even when the titles are very familiar ones, and when the cover art, most of which was the work of Henri Lievens (1920–2000), is sketchy and vague.

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Among the Belgian writers rubbing shoulders with their more famous foreign counterparts are Jean Ray, author of the cult novel Malpertuis, playwright Michel de Ghelderode, and Thomas Owen (the pen-name of Gérald Bertot). Not all of the artwork is credited but most of the examples here are the work of the prolific Lievens, an artist whose cobwebbed eccentricities sometimes exceed the bounds of their brief; that flapping creature on the cover of The White People by Arthur Machen has no analogue in any of Machen’s stories. Later covers in the series saw contributions from Jean Alessandrini, with collages that were the subject of an earlier post. Marabout is still publishing today, albeit in a reduced fashion, having relocated to France where the company is now a tiny part of the Hachette empire.

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Continue reading “Marabout Fantastique book covers”