Wednesday, January 18, 2012

[January 18th, Weird Wednesday] "The Other Side" by Alfred Kubin

The opening story in “The Weird” is an excerpt from “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin, first published in 1908. I have no knowledge of the traditions in European literature at the time of its publication and this is the first time I’ve encountered Alfred Kubin as a writer. I opted for an open interpretation of this text without any prior research, which might have helped me say something accurate as to the meaning of his work. The only text discussing “The Other Side” that I have read is Maureen Kincaid Speller’sexcellent take on the excerpt.

Weird Wednesday’s purpose as a feature is to allow the stories to speak to me and “The Other Side” has proven to be vocal. After the initial reading, I willingly accepted the reality that had befallen the city of Pearl, where an epidemic of sleep knocked out the city’s whole population for several days. However, the mysterious and highly contagious disease functions as a means to set the stage for an inevitable rebellion, instigated and flawlessly executed by all members of the animal kingdom.

In a grandiose and all-devouring display of dominance, the city of Pearl wakes to swarms and herds and prides and packs and flocks of beastly conquerors, who have overthrown humans. At his stage “The Other Side” reads as an environmentalist's wish fulfillment fantasy come to life, yet, reading this excerpt as nothing more than the literal would be insulting to the potency of the prose and its latter direction.  

The 'weird' in this tale has rooted itself within the nameless protagonist's delivery, who serves as a vessel for the reader’s senses. This man collects 'slices of life' encounters between the old and the new citizens of Pearl, neatly chaining one with the other complete with observations. What causes surprise here is not so much the abrupt uprising of the natural world, but the still, calm 'matter-of-fact' reception of these apocalyptic events by the population. It is this peculiar juxtaposition between the dangerous outside world, where one might become prey no matter the hiding place, and the pacified calmness displayed by the citizens, who insist on keeping up with appearances no matter what, that tilts the reader’s perception of how reality functions in the Dream Realm.

This tilted reality can be likened to the absurd logic, on which dreams run. In this direct sense, I'm reminded of Paul Jessup's stories in his collection “Glass Coffin Girls”, where our reality rots and transforms into a reflection from a carnival mirror. Certainly, the sickness that affects manmade objects supports the idea of how reality erodes. Perhaps the denizens of Pearl and the Dream Realm haven't woken from their slumber, but have only achieved consciousness in a never-ending shared dream.

The possibilities for interpretation are countless, because Kubin didn't intend to rationalize the bizarre fate to befall Pearl. However, the strongest association I make with everything that has transpired within the excerpt concerns themes in Bulgarian literature and models in behavior during the centuries of enslavement by the Turks and then decades under the communism. I’m rather surprised how well “The Other Side” is in dialogue with the peculiarities in works by a great number of revolutionary writers and poets as well as the psychological survival tactics the Bulgarian society had to adopt in order for its identity to withstand the occupation during those two periods.

For instance, the concept of sleep on a mass scale, such as Kubin’s sleep epidemic, has a rich history in Bulgarian literary traditions as willful surrender of the conscious mind. During the centuries under Ottoman rule, Bulgarian writers and poets used the 'sleep' to criticize society for their complacency and slave mentality, even though Kubin’s sleep epidemic doesn’t serve as such within the context in the excerpt. Further touching points between Bulgaria and Kubin can be found within the need to maintain normalcy under any and all conditions, even if that is impossible. This persistence to keep a semblance of what Pearl used to be while under the constant animal attacks and demolition can be compared to the same efforts Bulgarians had to make during the Ottoman occupation. The animals represent not only the fear of the citizens, but serves as masks that show the true nature of the human oppressors. For me this association is easy to make, because anthropomorphism has its place in our literary traditions and is still practiced today [even though we use it to bring diversity to our swear language]. Last on the list here is the narrator's psychological breakdown near the excerpt's end. It neatly embodies the inner discord of a person, who hopes and thinks and tries to resist a status quo, even if that desire is expressed through his heart's true intentions.

I will conclude by saying that “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin is an extremely potent story, mainly because it's represented not in its entirety. There is no clear way to define the proper dimensions of this story, which I don’t mind, because it allows for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. As an excerpt “The Other Side” remains limitless, irreal and opulent as a dream. In short, a fine way to open a compendium dedicated to the all-encompassing weird.