The Grotesque Agent Of Death In ‘Danse Macabre’

Nahid Moghadam

Nahid Moghadam

Mervyn Laurence Peake’s fiction provides numerous instances of how the realms of fantasy and reality may be blended. His undeniable mastery of the grotesque has been variously asserted, compared and discussed. Rosemary Jackson calls him an “English equivalent to [Rudolf] Kafka” in creating the same “excess of signifiers deprived of meaning […] a universe without end.” Discussing themes in Mervyn Laurence Peake’s fiction, Alice Mills proposes that “his fiction celebrates the oddities of his characters’ behaviour” by manifestations of “fear, horror, sadism, murder, suicidal depression and psychosis.” When characterization is thought to be at the core of his storytelling, he is most often compared to Charles John Huffam Dickens. Duncan Fallowell calls Mervyn Laurence Peake “the most accomplished Fantastic Realist in modern English Literature,” most comparable to Charles John Huffam Dickens in his style of writing. According to Duncan Fallowell, while “[Charles John Huffam] Dickens was eccentric, [Mervyn Laurence] Peake is entirely grotesque.” In ‘Modern Fantasy: Five Studies’ (1975), Colin Nicholas Manlove claims that “[Mervyn Laurence] Peake’s literary indebtedness to [Charles John Huffam] Dickens’ is traceable in his sense of the grotesque.”

In the realm of the grotesque, reality and fantasy can be artistically interwoven. This is what characterizes the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka. Mervyn Laurence Peake displays no less mastery in ‘Danse Macabre’ (1963), which has recently been reprinted in ‘Boy in Darkness and Other Stories’ (2007). In her foreword to this edition, Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris describes the story as one which “takes a familiar image from traditional Gothic tales and gives it a new and sinister twist.” In fact, it goes beyond gothic and represents the grotesque mode with an inclination towards the fantastic.

Classifying “characteristic motifs of the grotesque,” Rudolf Kayser mentions the category of “tools which unfold a dangerous life of their own.” An inanimate object like a mechanical tool can acquire an independent (and therefore dangerous) life of its own in which the organic and inorganic incongruously fuse together. Dieter Meindl calls this commingling of “the animate and the inanimate” in the grotesque a kind of “categorial transgression.” For him, the modern grotesque presents “the blurring of the distinction between the animate and the inanimate, the corporeal and the spiritual, the conscious and the unconscious.”

The motif of the animated object and category confusion are very artistically depicted in ‘Danse Macabre.’ Harry, the main character, sees his clothes become an independent entity that gradually transforms into a diabolic or supernatural being. Although not mechanical, the clothes epitomize the development of a dangerous and fatally grotesque form of life. From the moment when Harry witnesses in disbelief his clothes leaving his bedroom cupboard, taking on a human shape and heading for the woods, to the last encounter in the same bedroom, the clothes are very delicately portrayed in their development into a frightening lethal being. It is noteworthy that Mervyn Laurence Peake’s references to the clothes elaborately evolve from “dress clothes” and “empty figure” to “apparition” and “headless creature.” While Harry describes himself chasing the headless creature into the wood, one feels as if he is following a real being rather than a set of clothes enlivened by some bizarre sense of life. After the final confrontation on the third Friday night, when Harry reaches home and lights a match in the early morning darkness of his bedroom, he faces “a headless man, his shirt front, his cuffs and his collar gleaming.” In this final meeting with death, he encounters a headless man rather than a mere set of clothes in the mirror.

Referring to objects brought to life, Rudolf Kayser also points to a parallel between how these objects are alienated by being brought to life and how a man feels alienated by being deprived of them. In ‘Danse Macabre,’ Harry is gradually alienated from his surroundings. He also begins to experience diminishing enthusiasm for his circle of friends and the weekly gatherings. To put it directly, the more vividly the clothes are brought to life, the more intensely he seems to be drained of life. After witnessing his clothes meeting his wife’s dress, he begins to feel increasingly sick. He seems to be gradually deprived of life and liveliness while the clothes that haunt him are characterized by a growing sense of animation.

Closely interwoven with the motif of animated objects in this story is the occurrence of strange sexual encounters, a concept borrowed from Michelle Osterfeld Li’s study of the grotesque. Classifying thematic resemblances, Michelle Osterfeld Li investigates the grotesque in stories involving weird sexual incidents and experiences. Her discussion of bizarre incidents of sexual encounters derives from Mikhail Bakhtin’s emphasis on the importance of the lower body stratum and acts of copulation in the literature of the grotesque. Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of the grotesque highlights sexuality as a part of the physical side of human life particularly when exaggeration and oddity are involved.

Among other critics focusing on the grotesque in relation to sexuality, Ewa Kuryluk considers the grotesque as a set of anti-worlds opposing the objective world of norms particularly in matters of sex and religion. Ewa Kuryluk believes that Mikhail Bakhtin and Rudolf Kayser restricted the world of the grotesque to “carnivalistic monstrosities” and a “mental asylum” respectively. She extends the grotesque anti-worlds to include the world of femininity in the male-dominated world, childhood in the adult-dominated world, disintegration and war against peace and order, and so on. The anti-world of deviant eroticism and disintegration opposed to normative sexuality and a peaceful order of life is created through strange sexual incidents involving dangerously animated objects.

The strange sexual encounter in the present story can be viewed as an example of an anti-world of the grotesque depicting the fatality of excessive passion. The sexual encounter of the two sets of clothes is of prime significance even though it is to some extent overshadowed by the constant threat of the annihilating force embodied in them. Initially, Harry witnesses the clothes making love after dancing together in the woods. In this grotesque scene, he catches sight of “a little heap of material jumbled untidily together on the sward.” Upon approaching “the lifeless heap,” he observes the “black material intertwined with a lovelier fabric the colour of blue ice.”

Significantly, the incident takes place beneath an oak tree. It precedes and also foreshadows the inevitable meeting of Harry and his wife at the party and their fatal enforcement to the depth of the wood and the same tree. Considering Harry’s confession of cruelty toward his wife for the odd reason of loving her too much, the anti-world of excessive passion has no way but to end in annihilation. Harry seems to have been aggressive towards his wife who had left him, disappointed in “seeing no hope” for their relationship, “only a strengthening of that perverse and hideous thing that drives men to their own destruction, the more the love, the more the wish to hurt.” Their reunion is seemingly doomed to bring about death and destruction. Apart from the possibility of the reunion being some sort of a visitation, the fatality of their being together can be viewed in the light of the fact that “marriages are invariably broken” in Mervyn Laurence Peake’s fiction. In this story, as a possible version of the union of love and death, the couple is reunited only in the face of death.

Accordingly, ‘Danse Macabre’ pertinently portrays a world of the grotesque bordering on the fantastic and the uncanny. In this story, the depiction of the fantastic-grotesque is basically rendered through the manifestation of clothes as the agent of death. With the suit of clothes coming to life, inexplicable events begin to occur and remain in an indeterminate and unresolved state. As the basic image at the core of the story, the clothes take the role of the agent of death vividly portraying the fusion of contradictory elements and category transgression inherent in the literature of the grotesque. They transgress boundaries of being, by enticing and fatally torturing the victims. The distortion and fusion of realms of taking place as the clothes transcend their level of being by exceeding the category of non-existence. Of course, the fusion of contradictory realms is by no means restricted to the eccentric development of a demonic power in the agent of death. More grotesquely incongruous is their trespassing on their victims’ integrity of being, penetrating and annihilating their lives. While they are strangely transformed to an intellectually higher level, the characters involved in the diabolic metamorphoses are dragged down to death.

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