Emile Zola’s – The Joy of Life: A Pessimist’s Life

Emile Zola in The Joy of Life will pit the pessimist and follower of Schopenhauer against his fiancé, Pauline…

“In Lazare the unavowed terror of ceasing to be was, by a logical contradiction, blended with a ceaseless braggart insistence upon the nothingness of things. It was his very terror, the want of equilibrium in his morbid temperament, that drove him into pessimistic ideas and a mad hatred of life. As it could not last for ever, he looked upon it as a mere fraud and delusion. Was not the first half of one’s days spent in dreaming of happiness and the latter half in regrets and fears? He fell back again upon the theories of ‘the old one,’ as he called Schopenhauer, whose most violent passages he used to recite from memory. He expatiated on the desirability of destroying the wish to live, and so bringing to an end the barbarous and imbecile exhibition of existence, with the spectacle of which the master force of the world, prompted by some incomprehensible egotistical reason, amused itself. He wanted to do away with life in order to do away with fear. He always harped upon the great deliverance; one must wish nothing for fear of evil, avoid all action since it meant pain, and thus sink entirely into death. He occupied himself in trying to discover some practical method of general suicide, some sudden and complete disappearance to which all living creatures would consent. This was perpetually recurring to his mind, even in the midst of ordinary conversation, when he freely and roughly gave vent to it. The slightest worry was sufficient to make him cry that he was sorry he was not yet annihilated; a mere headache set him raging furiously at his body. If he talked with a friend, his conversation immediately turned upon the woes of life, and the luck of those who were already fattening the dandelions in the cemeteries. He had a perfect mania for mournful subjects, and he was much interested in an article by a fanciful astronomer who announced the arrival of a comet with a tail which would sweep the earth away like a grain of sand. Would not this indeed prove the expected cosmical catastrophe, the colossal cartridge destined to blow the world to bits like a rotten old boat? And this desire of his for death, this constant theorizing about universal annihilation, was but the expression of his desperate struggle with his terror, a mere vain hubbub of words, by which he tried to veil the awful fear which the expectation of his end caused him.”

—Émile Zola, The Complete Works of Emile Zola

Many of Zola’s own disciples, most famously Maupassant and Huysmans, and later other leading lights of the literary decadent movement in France, not as well-known outside France, abandoned Zola’s “optimism of the intellect” and gave in whole-heartedly to the pessimism of the will and even eventually to nihilism. Schopenhauer was one of the leading intellectual figures for these writers, and his theories became very popular, especially as the general cultural mood in France soured after the catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Zola’s most sustained engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas and its critique is in his novel La Joie de Vivre (a recent English translation is titled The Bright Side of Life). It is not very well known and doesn’t seem to be very widely read in English, but it is one of my personal favorites of his novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of the struggle between the two forces of optimism and pessimism about the nature of life. (see: Alok)

In The Joy of Life pessimism is confronted with optimism but being Zola, this is not about extremes but calibrates positions along a spectrum from the morbid, neurotic Lazare who cannot find any way to live knowing that someday he will die, to his father M.Chanteau crippled with agonizing gout and yet clinging stubbornly to life. At the heart of the book is Pauline Quenu, a personification, I think, of the joie de vivre of the title: ‘she was, indeed, the incarnation of renunciation, love for others, and a goodness extending to the whole of errant humanity’. Being a Zola character, Pauline is no saint: she’s jealous, she loses her temper, she desires a married man, but she finds a way of being not just content but actively happy despite all that life throws at her. Here is Pauline speaking against the ‘disease of pessimism’:

Pauline, however, in the pride of her self-devotion, was determined to gain the victory. She recognised the source of her cousin’s disease, and tried to impart to him some of her own courage by giving him a love of life. But her compassionate kindliness seemed to receive a continual check. At first she made open attacks upon him with her old jests and jokes about ‘that silly, stupid pessimism.’ ‘What!’ she said, ‘was it she now who had to chant the praises of the great Saint Schopenhauer, while he, like all the humbugging pessimists, was quite willing to see the world blown to pieces, but refused to be blown up himself?’

In another work The Kill the reader is plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. In Zola’s eyes, France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is a dynamic society weakened by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity. Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart series he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter— government, business, religion — of a diseased nation.

Zola’s stance as a naturalist allowed him to study pessimism, decadence, and the world of the streets where the corruption of society had imposed on the working class a morbid and deathly existence without hope or optimism. The superficial optimism of the higher classes was for Zola an easy target, and he would work it for all it was worth in various ways throughout his novels. In later life he saw his own position turning into an anachronism, he would still style himself with irony and sadness over the lost cause as “an old and rugged Positivist”. This sense that the supposed optimistic positivism with its scientific determinism and naturalism had failed him and left him in despair under the sign of melancholy and Saturn, bereft of hope and happiness pervades this last period. And, yet, he’d still avow the hard-nosed line of that dogmatic philosophy to the end.

In our time another writer in France would take up that same battle between pessimism and positivism, Michel Houellebecq:

“Between Schopenhauer and Comte, I finally made my choice; and gradually, with a kind of disappointed enthusiasm, I became a positivist; to the same degree, I ceased to be a Schopenhauerian. Nevertheless, I nowadays rarely reread Comte, and never with a simple, immediate pleasure, but rather with the somewhat perverse pleasure (which can admittedly be really intense once you gain a taste for it) that one often derives from the stylistic quirks of unbalanced minds; but no philosopher, to my knowledge, is so immediately agreeable and reinvigorating to read as Arthur Schopenhauer. It is not even a matter of ‘the art of writing’, or any such nonsense; those are elementary rules that everyone should follow before having the nerve to propose their thought to the attention of the public. In his third Untimely Consideration, written shortly before he turned away from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche praised the latter’s profound honesty, his probity, his uprightness; he speaks magnificently of his tone, that somewhat grumpy good humour which fills one with distaste for elegant writers and stylists. Such, in a broader form, is the purpose of this volume: I propose to show, through some of my favourite passages, why Schopenhauer’s intellectual attitude remains to me a model for any future philosopher; and also why, even if you ultimately find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him. For, to quote Nietzsche again, ‘merely because such a man wrote, the burden of living on this Earth has been lightened.’”

—Michel Houellebecq, In the Presence of Schopenhauer

Reading Thomas Mann’s essays on Schopenhauer, Freud, and Goethe

“An image of the world lived and suffered with the entire human being will carry in its exhibition the wedge of the beautiful; He will not have anything of dryness, of the boredom that produces the mere intellectual speculation to the senses; It will arise as a novel of the Spirit, as a symphony of articulated ideas wonderfully, developed from a core of thought present everywhere; It will arise, in a word, as a work of art, and acting with all the charms of art. And just as, according to ancient grace and gift, according to a deep kinship that exists between suffering and beauty, pain is redeemed in the work of art through form, thus beauty guarantees its truth.”

—Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer

Mann, an ironist, seemed infatuated with Schopenhauer, Freud, and Goethe. Like some latter-day shadow of the Idealists his essay is a little pompous and flamboyant in its overdetermined verbosity. This notion of pain being redeemed through art, form and beauty seems a little ludicrous to many of us now, a quaint nod to a dead era of Idealism. He was better in his stories and latter self-deprecating works like Felix Krull. I’ve tried at times to read through those long tomes Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain but have found them to be too formal and designed like a bricklayer. Henry Mill in his Books in My Life once said of Mann,

“I mentioned Thomas Mann. For a whole year I lived with Hans Castorp of The Magic Mountain as with a living person, as with a blood brother, I might even say. But it was Mann’s skill as a writer of short stories, or novelettes, which most intrigued and baffled me during the “analytical” period I speak of. At that time Death in Venice was for me the supreme short story. In the space of a few years, however, my opinion of Thomas Mann, and especially of his Death in Venice, altered radically. It is a curious tale and perhaps worth recounting. It was like this … During my early days in Paris I made the acquaintance of a most engaging and provocative individual whom I believed to be a genius. John Nichols was his name. He was a painter. Like so many Irishmen, he also possessed the gift of gab. It was a privilege to listen to him, whether he were discussing painting, literature, music, or talking sheer nonsense. He had a flair for invective, and, when he waxed strong, his tongue was vitriolic. One day I happened to speak of my admiration for Thomas Mann and, before long, I found myself raving about Death in Venice. Nichols responded with jeers and contempt. In exasperation I told him I would get the book and read the story aloud to him. He admitted he had never read it and thought my proposal an excellent one.

I shall never forget this experience. Before I had read three pages Thomas Mann began to crumble. Nichols, mind you, had not said a word. But reading the story aloud, and to a critical ear, suddenly the whole creaking machinery which underlay this fabrication exposed itself. I, who thought I was holding in my hands a piece of pure gold, found myself looking at a piece of papier-mâché. Halfway through I flung the book on the floor. Later on I glanced through The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, works I had regarded as monumental, only to find them equally meretricious.”

—Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

That tells us more about Miller than Mann for sure, yet there is some truth to it. Mann and Miller were opposing types of writers, the one harbored a need for order, structure, and formalism; the other was a ‘from the hip’ chaotic rogue of the street worlds of New York and Paris. Mann was a master craftsman while Miller like his mentor Walt Whitman created a larger-than-life persona to run the streets and pull in the living breath of a vitalistic world. Mann lived through the Mind, Miller the body…

Erich Heller in his study of Man The Ironic German says the novelist “tells a story about people who live in a world philosophically interpreted by Schopenhauer (and re-interpreted on the basis of identical metaphysical assumptions by Nietzsche-with considerable effect, as will be seen, upon Thomas Mann). Schopenhauer’s philosophical system itself reads like an imaginative invention, profoundly felt and contemplated, persuasively told, and in its own way as ironical as the best stories written by Thomas Mann.” (24) He’d go on to say this of Schopenhauer,

“The plot of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, like the plot of all good stories, turns upon a contrast and an opposition: the conflict between the world-a world the true nature of which is the Will to be what it is, a will willing itself without sense or reason-and the mind of man; for the mind of man, the result of a mysterious accident in an otherwise smoothly-running universe, is endowed with the gift of recognizing the Will for what it is; it is free to take offence at the Will’s unreason and senselessness, and oppose all its works. It can will against the Will and, in an act of heroic self-realization, withdraw from the ‘World-as-Will’ in order to settle somewhere where there is no Will, and therefore no world, and therefore-nothing. It is at this point that Schopenhauer’s philosophical system issues in paradox, with irony taking over from logical consistency. For this nothingness which is where the Will ends-and logic must indeed insist upon this nothing if the Will is to be truly the Alpha and Omega of everything which has any real existence-:- reveals itself as the fullness of the spirit; and Schopenhauer’s prose, the prose of a great writer, rises to dithyrambic heights in praise of this ‘nothing’… ” (24-25)

Mann himself would say this of Schopenhauer: “Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy has always been felt as an eminently artistic philosophy, even more, such as the philosophy par excellence of artists. And not because it is in such a high degree, to such great extent, a philosophy of art – of fact its “aesthetics” occupies a quarter of its total extension; nor because its composition possesses clarity, transparency, such perfect coherence; Neither because his exposure has a force, elegance, precision, a passionate ingenuity, a classical purity and a great serene rigor in his literary style, all of them who had never seen themselves before in German philosophy: all that is just “Phenomenon,” is only the necessary and connatural beautiful expression of the most intimate essence of this thought, of its nature. This is a nature full of tensions, an emotional nature, which oscillates between violent contrasts, between instinct and spirit, between passion and redemption; It is, in sum, an artistic-dynamic nature, which cannot be revealed more than in forms of beauty, which cannot be revealed more than as creation of truth. And that creation of the truth is something personal, something that convinces by the force of its character lived and suffered.”

All this metaphysical humbug gets a little grating when he speaks of ‘truth’ and its creation. In our age such veritable have lost their bite when our sciences as our politics is bound to the moneyed classes, and philosophy turns inward toward the analytical and speculative regions of mathematics hiding among the layers upon layers of elite thought rather than the existential lives of actual humans in the street. Most of us seek something that speaks to us at a personal level, at the level of our actual lives-as-they-are-lived in the pain, squalor, and existential zones of war and death. We don’t want these realms of beauteous truth and form, but the nitty-gritty sustenance that feeds our lives and keeps us going in this world of ruins.

Vladimir Nabokov: The Wood Sprite

“With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touched the back of a shabby armchair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly.

“It’s so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each other for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?” His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy— I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness.…

No, it can’t be: I’m alone.… It’s only some capricious delirium. Yet there really was somebody sitting next to me, bony and implausible, with long-eared German bootees, and his voice tintinnabulated, rustled— golden, luscious-green, familiar— while the words were so simple, so human.…

“There— you remember. Yes, I am a former Forest Elf, a mischievous sprite. And here I am, forced to flee like everyone else.”

—Vladimir Nabokov, The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s tale of the wood sprite that finds him in a modern city in America becoming a vehicle for the everyday fantastic or weird, a way of conveying his nostalgia for a lost Russian childhood, of a world now under tyranny and the grind of Industrial destruction. The wood sprite complains of his own loss of the ancient forests which have been chopped down, of his search for a new home, of his terror at every turn as he runs into humans who are impinging on his and others of his kinds last refuges. It’s a tale of the slow and methodical destruction of the natural order that has been a part of our heritage for millennia and is now almost dead and buried under degradation, corruption, and modernity. Thomas Ligotti once stated that Nabokov was a major influence on his on tales: I did my best to ape the lavish language and maniacal first-person voice of Vladimir Nabokov, as well as copping his brilliant strategy of using a fantastic narrative to tell a fantastic story. It’s a simple idea, really, although few writers before him had employed this very commonsensical approach to fantastic fiction. Nabokov conjured a spectral world right before the reader’s eyes, often, I’m sure, without many readers noticing that he had done so. Of course, there are any number of authors with fancy prose styles and intricate, though not necessarily fantastic, narrative structures, but Nabokov’s works also conveyed to my mind a profound perception of a perilous and senseless cosmos upon which art may pose a temporary, though ultimately helpless, order. There’s a line in his short novel Pnin that goes, I hope I’ve got this verbatim: “Harm is the norm; doom shall not jam.” It’s the background of bleakness with a foreground of hypnotic artistry that has appealed to me in Nabokov…”1


  1. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. “Triangulating the Daemon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Esoterra No. 8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 14–21.

Michael Cisco and Weird Fiction

When writers, readers, and critics bring together the elements of the supernatural, the bizarre, and destiny, they produce weird fiction together by means of the genre. The genre produces individual stories as well as their “environment,” which is not only their audience or “theatre” but also the creative climate that perpetuates the genre.

—Michael Cisco;. Weird Fiction: A Genre Study

Michael Cisco in his new academic study of Weird Fiction insists that,

“Instead of thinking of a canon in terms of provisionally fixed genre boundaries, this approach will think of canonizations; whenever a certain culture of weird fiction develops, it organizes its own canon, and as new kinds of weird fiction are created, new canons arise and old ones adjust.”1

I’ve always seen Weird fiction as a sub-genre within the umbrella genre of the Fantastic. A lot of battles have ensued as to what the fantastic entails, but Todorov’s base idea that it falls somewhere in-between the two extremes of the ‘Marvelous’ (Supernatural literature) and the ‘Uncanny” (Psychological literature). The Fantastic gathers within its umbrella the various extremes of the grotesque, horror, weird, eerie, satire, etc. As Italo Calvino a postmodern member of that fantastic tribe which derives from authors like E.T.A. Hoffman, Jan Potocki, Poe and his mimics, Lovecraft and his circle, Machen, Blackwood, Jorge-Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, William Kotzwinkle, and so many others tell us,

“The fantastic tale is one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth-century narrative. For us, it is also one of the most significant because it is the genre that tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols. As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria. We are inclined to enjoy them in another way, as elements in the spirit of a bygone era.”

—Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales

Calvino would divide the various forms of the fantastic into the Visionary Fantastic and the Everyday Fantastic. In the first would be such authors as Jan Potocki, Joseph von Eichendorff, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, Philarète Chasles, Gerard de Nerval, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, andJoseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the second, Edgar Allan Poe, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Guy de Maupassant, Vernon Lee, Ambrose Bierce, Jean Lorrain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. This is a diverse set of authors from the Nineteenth century that would influence later authors of the various sub-genres within the Fantastic.

The great theoretician of the Weird Tale is without doubt H.P. Lovecraft whose views in his study of that genre suggests,

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect,[9] or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means,[10] is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this— whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.”2

For Lovecraft the expressive mode is the proper form of the weird tale. Expressionism is a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Northern Europe around the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. As Ligotti a major weird tale author in out moment says, “I most identify with Expressionism. All of my stories have had their origins in a mood or attitude that I wanted to convey to the reader. When I first began writing, I realized that my subject matter would necessarily derive from my own life. I’ve never been a worldly person. Thus, I never had at my command either much in the way of practical knowledge or a wide range of lived experiences.”3 This subjective and personal approach through mood, atmosphere, and sensation that seeks to convey a view onto the world of the weird as a mode of fear, dread, and cosmic horror connects us to the modern and postmodern secular-atheistic visionary fantastic and its singular apprehension of reality and the Real/Unreal. Ligotti sums this up nicely in one of his own tales,

Now standing before the window, his hands deep in the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. Though unspoken, the word unearthly reverberated in the room. In that place and at that hour, the paradoxical absence, the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of unreality, or perhaps of a reality so saturated with its own presence that it had made a leap into the unreal.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Spectacles in the Drawer (First published in Etchings And Odysseys #10, 1987)

Harold Bloom divides tale writers into those like Anton Chekov (Realists) and Kafka (Phantasmagorists): “If the primary tradition of the short story is Chekhovian, the alternate mode is Kafkan-Borgesian, nightmare phantasmagorias. Lawrence and James have recognizable qualities that are Chekhovian, and neither were precursors of Borges.”

Rosemary Jackson in her study Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion says,

“The fantastic is predicated on the category of the ‘real’, and it introduces areas which can be conceptualized only by negative terms according to the categories of nineteenth century realism: thus, the im-possible, the un-real, the nameless, formless, shapeless, un-known, in-visible. What could be termed a ‘bourgeois’ category of the real is under attack. It is this negative relationality which constitutes the meaning of the modern fantastic.”3

Northrop Frye in his early allegorical study of modes of genres ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ defined the fantastic as a mode of Romance:

“Romance peoples the world with fantastic, normally invisible personalities or powers: angels, demons, fairies, ghosts, enchanted animals, elemental spirits like those in The Tempest and Comus. Dante wrote in this mode, but not speculatively: he accepted the spiritual beings recognized by Christian doctrine, and concerns himself with no others. But for a late poet interested in the techniques of romance— Yeats, for instance— the question of whether and which of these mysterious creatures “really exist” is likely to project itself. The high mimetic projects mainly a quasi-Platonic philosophy of ideal forms, like the love and beauty of Spenser’s hymns or the virtues of The Faerie Queene, and the low mimetic mainly a philosophy of genesis and organism, like that of Goethe, which finds unity and development in everything. The existential projection of irony is, perhaps, existentialism itself; and the return of irony to myth is accompanied, not only by the cyclical theories of history mentioned above, but, in a later stage, by a widespread interest in sacramental philosophy and dogmatic theology.”4

Frye sees it within the mode of the fantastic the extremes of High-mimetic and Low-mimetic forms. On the other hand, Michael Cisco frames his notion of the Weird within the postmodern world of Derrida and Deleuze, favoring Deleuze’s affirmative stylistics over Derrida,

“The genre of weird fiction is a means of production. With it, a writer produces stories which, as commodities, have a dual orientation, both use and exchange values. While, in this monograph, the orientation towards a use value will be more important— and rightly so, since it is the use value that involves something immanent to the work of art— the use value of a weird tale can’t simply be divorced from its exchange value without a word or two about it. Here use needs to be understood as the realization of desire, rather than the narrower realization of practical utility.”

In this sense he sees the weird within the literature of desire rather than subversion (Jackson), more in the Paterian and Wildean tradition of aesthetics of desire than under the auspices of those like Adorno and the Negative Theology of existential thought (Heidegger-Derrida). Ultimately for Cisco Weird fiction as a genre is generalized,

“Weird fiction involves the supernatural. This can then seem to be determinative for the genre, such that every story is understood in terms of a logical duel between the supernatural and whatever is considered to stand in opposition to the supernatural— generally, science or materialism. Weird fiction isn’t anti-science, may indeed be very much pro-science, but characteristically objects to imposition and dogmatism, to the arbitrary limits that our ideas of the world, humanity, and ourselves impose on imagination and desire. The major mode identifies two opposing poles, generally in order to identify the pretender and elect the real thing. Minor literature doesn’t do this— instead, it occupies the major work and makes use of it for its own ends. A story that frankly affirms the supernatural over materialism or science, or vice-versa, may be weird, but it is not minor. The minor form takes existing clichés, scientific or supernatural, and makes new use of them. Weird fiction isn’t an anti-capitalist genre, either, but it does often register an objection to the way capitalism not only forecloses choices but misrepresents the loss of possibilities as a kind of liberation. In its particular interest in destiny, weird fiction also addresses the way that capitalism divorces people from any grounding, by staging a kind of revenge of the ground. Weird fiction is not feminist or anti-racist and is often filled with prejudice, but it does also at times undermine the confining categories of sexism and bigotry.”5

Cisco updates the weird for our age’s sensitivity to issues of race, sex, and politics and yet moves beyond these to explore both the roots and the possible future of the (sub) genre as well.  As he suggests,

“Weird fiction walks a line with a conservative idea of a transcendent moral order as an important instrument for maintaining a political status quo on one side, and, on the other side, a radical idea of a cosmos that is inherently inimical to any status quo. It would be stupid, though, to miss the utility of the chaotic cosmos for a conservative status quo, or of the idea of a transcendent moral order for the radical side. Radicals call on eternal verities all the time, as Dr. King did, and conservatives have pointed to cosmic chaos to validate the importance of invented stability, as Lovecraft did. So the line weird fiction walks divides two tendencies in thought, but each tendency is itself able to go in two directions.”

Cisco’s book moves through a focus on the Supernatural, Bizarre, Destiny, and various Case studies to help further a more expansive notion of the Weird as a genre. Ultimately, he contends that a “weird tale involves a bizarre encounter, which is the self-difference of the ordinary, that marks a character with a destiny, which is change, in order to produce the supernatural, understood here to mean a sense of the infinity of experience involving the limits of reality, for the reader. In a way, this supernatural production amounts to the mark of destiny being found on the reader as well. The weird tale can unfold in a major or minor way. In the major mode, it will develop into a judgement against those who do not maintain and desire the standards of the everyday, while in the minor mode, the tale issues a warning: do not cling to identity, all experience is infinite, and so you will no longer be who you now are.”

Sadly, the book is an academic one published in an academic press (Palgrave) so the price is exorbitant for the average reader. I received a copy for review otherwise I, too, would not have invested in it. Too bad they offer such interesting studies at outrageous prices. I guess one will need to gain access to it through university libraries or local library inter-state loans. It’s definitely worth careful study if you’re a scholar, but for the average reader it’s a little dry and dusty reading like most academic studies. I still enjoyed it but then I’ve read most of the critical classics in the field and apprehend its update to that world of academic study of the weird and fantastic.

You can find it on Springer: <https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-92450-8&gt;


  1. Cisco, Michael. Weird Fiction: A Genre Study. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2021 edition (March 22, 2022)
  2. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged . Hippocampus Press. 2012
  3. Ligotti, Thomas. Interview: Thomas Ligotti and Xavier Aldana Reyes (June 2019)
  4. Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (May 19, 2020)
  5. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 26). Taylor and Francis.

Joseph Conrad: The Nameless Woman – Queen of Night and Darkness

“And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.”

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It’s late, I’m tired. Okay, finished Conrad’s Heart of Darkness again after a few decades. Sadly, for me it was ultimately an aesthetic failure. Why? Because the whole thing is based on deception and self-deception from end to end. Marlow, the Narrator, Conrad, Kurtz, Kurtz’s finance… the only one in the whole book that was undeceived is the “Woman” who is never named. Over and over, I come to the conclusion that she was Kurtz’s lover and her very control of the tribes and even him become the focal point of what remains unsaid in the novel. Even Marlow is left in the dark about this unknowing of this secret love-hate relationship. Even when Kurtz is carried into the Pilot House and is confronted by Marlow, Marlow seeks some answer that is not the answer he seeks; one that is left unsaid in the saying:

“We had carried Kurtz into the pilot house: there was more air there. Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.

“Do you understand this?” I asked.

He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips that a moment after twitched convulsively. “Do I not?” he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.”1

It’s all in that “Do I not?” Of course, Kurtz understood. This is H. Rider Haggard’s She-Ayesha, the woman as Queen of Night and the World. It’s her, not Kurtz who is the power of darkness in the book, the lover and daimon which haunts the book and is it’s creative agent. And, yet, the narrator, Marlow, and Kurtz’s fiancé are left in the dark obscurity of never knowing, but only lost in their own illusions, deceptions, and self-deceptions. What makes it weak is that Kurtz is just the poor boy trying to make good, trying to become rich… the poet like Rimbaud who woke up out of his dubious childhood of delusions and sailed off to African to become rich. The whole notion of Kurtz’s eloquence, his voice, the whole argument by Marlow of the man’s greatness is a wash out, a lie, a self-deception. The man is nothing but a seeker of riches for all his supposed solitude, he returned to the tribes because of his love-hate relation to ‘The Woman’ not because of some mission or sustained preoccupation with solipsism. Marlow is deceived the whole way through, even at the point of lying to the fiancé when at the end she asks about Kurtz’s dying words: “‘ The last word he pronounced was— your name.’

What Kurtz actually said in the final moments and Marlow’s on thoughts:

“”Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror— of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—

“‘ The horror! The horror!’ ”

I blew the candle out and left the cabin.

We’ll never know what that horror was, but I suspect it is more about the ‘Woman’, the nameless ‘Woman’ he could not rid his mind of her hold was that great on him. Here is the scene we first encounter the helmeted woman:

“Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest, and near the river two bronze figures, leaning on tall spears, stood in the sunlight under fantastic headdresses of spotted skins, warlike and still in statuesque repose. And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.

“She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

“She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water’s edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims murmured at my back. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene.

“She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared.” (55-56)

This is the goddess of Night and Darkness, the Witch Queen herself who is the center and circumference of Conrad’s vision as seen through Marlow’s eyes. She is Kurtz’s mistress, lover, and goddess. One imagines Robert Graves the poet who worshiped the goddess in all women reading this passage and saying: “Ah!, yes, this is her, my Queen, the Goddess!” Strangely I have yet to find any critic whoever took this slant on Conrad’s book. She is the embodiment of the earth whose power comes from “the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life” at the heart of all things. Maybe, the heart of Conrad’s darkness is the vitalist will of the cosmos in all its dark power and immensity.

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean –
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.
—Robert Graves

The only two other women in the novel are the Aunt who helped Marlow gain the position and the ‘intended’ wife or fiancé who mourns his death. One Critic in Women’s Role in “Heart of Darkness” suggests “the African lover, represents darkness and the raw savageness of Africa, while the other, Kurtz’s intended, portrays trust and naivety of European women.”2 This critic goes on to say:

Joseph Conrad portrays women characters simplistically in black and white. The white European women are innocent and ignorant. They are misinformed by the men, and Marlow believes this is for society’s sake. In his society, the women are powerless and misinformed, and society is civilized.

I disagree with this. Conrad’s whole use of understatement and misdirection throughout the novel points us to Marlow’s misreading to the whole affair rather than a black and white reading of women. Marlow never recognizes the truth of the African Witch Queen whose power of the Kurtz and the tribes goes unsaid. Conrad’s critique is not of women but of the whole white supremacist male dominated view of reality that overlooks women and forces them into such roles to begin with. It’s a critique of the patriarchal philistine worldview that Conrad displays. Kurtz is a man torn between a world he resents and hates, and a world of darkness that tempts him and awakens in him that ancient vitalistic force of the feminine sacred that pervades this world of jungle and river. In the end it is Marlow who is unknowing, bound to the simplistic world of men who are civilized and full of mental Idealisms. Kurtz could care less about these Ideas of his, he uses them as a defense against his fear of the unnamed Woman and what she is. She is the ‘horror, the horror’. She is the darkness at the heart of Conrad’s story. She is the incarnation of the dark will central to this gnostic story.

I doubt that Conrad ever knew much about Gnosticism consciously, but many of the patterns that shape his fictions form a dark gnosis that follows the Valentinian allegories of Sophia and her son, Ialdabaoth (Old Testament: Yahweh): “This creation is structured according to the archetypal pattern of the higher Pleroma, for Ialdabaoth contains this pattern in himself by virtue of being Sophia’s son. It is now Ialdabaoth’s daydream that takes on the con,sistency of matter, emerging from the bottom of his unconscious, which guards in itself the buried treasure of his genetic memory.”3 As Couliano interprets the mythos:

Demiurge continually stumbles upon transcendent models that are imprinted in his thought, which means that the world of the conceited creator still preserves a weak trace of the Pleroma; yet these archetypal phantoms are deprived of Reason and Light, “they are the product of nothing,” and they will revert to nothingness. The Archons themselves are shadows of pleromatic entities, and if they fight one another all the time it is because each one of them has a faint memory of a distant and noble origin, and therefore each one is persuaded of his superiority over the others. (97).

Throughout the book we have the interplay between the omniscient narrator (Conrad) and Marlow. Marlow is an unreliable narrator caught in the demiurgic cosmos of ignorance and error seeking to understand the dark demiurge of this tale: Kurtz. He stumbles from ignorance to deeper error never truly understanding Kurtz or the women who are aspects of Sophia in her various manifest forms. The unnamed woman is the dark side of the mythos: Lilith – the wife and sister of Ialdabaoth (Yahweh). Lilith is a demonic character in Judaic mythology, supposedly the earliest she-demon and the wife of Adam. She is mentioned in Late Antiquity in Mandaean Gnosticism mythology sources from 500 CE onwards.

Her house sinks down to death,
And her course leads to the shades.
All who go to her cannot return
And find again the paths of life.
— Proverbs 2:18–19

Kurtz cannot return to civilization he has succumbed to her power and her domain. His very act of defiance leads to his death. The horror he speaks of his is his discovery of who she is, but he can speak her name. She is part of the ancient silence. When Marlow describes the scene of the tribesman in the bush, he says,

The consciousness of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quiet— as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the hill— made me uneasy. There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs. The woods were unmoved, like a mask— heavy, like the closed door of a prison— they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence.

This ‘hidden knowledge’ – the dark gnosis of the tribe who harbors the first Eve, Lilith, in their midst. She who cannot be named. In Mandaean scriptures Lilith inhabits the World of Darkness. What is referred to in the Bible as Sheol. This is the heart of darkness: ‘the horror, the horror.’

I don’t have time to go through all the various traces in the book that imply such a reading. It’s late, and sorry to say I need sleep. I hope to take this up again at some future time. Hopefully my reading if nothing else has been interesting for you.


  1. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Dover Publications; 1st edition (February 29, 2012)
  2. Women’s Role in “Heart of Darkness” <https://englishliterature.net/notes/womens-role-in-heart-of-darkness&gt;
  3. Couliano, Ioan P. Tree of Gnosis. Harper Collins. 1992.