THE DEVIL'S ASSHOLE
As much as The Other Side defies any easy description, Alfred Kubin, best known for his influential dark fantasy illustrations, was definitely very attracted by the cryptic motif of Hell. The “Dream Realm” Kubin portrayed in his sole novel, first published in 1909 and only recently translated from the original German by Mike Mitchell for Dedalus European Classics, is a haunted city, complete with hostile supernatural phenomena and an incredibly sinister Devil figure. After reading the book Wassily Kandinsky immediately posted a concerned letter to his friend in which the abstract painter called the story “practically a vision of evil.” Although Kubin had close friends among the Expressionists and Surrealists, his art is far too eccentric for such historical pigeonholing. So too is his novel. Long since a cult classic in Europe, The Other Side offers an idiosyncratic perspective on the psychological connection between structure and horror.
The haunted house motif on which Kubin expanded for his story remains a staple in gothic horror. Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (which caused quite a stir after it was marketed in the late-’70s as a “true story”) begins by, perhaps over-simplistically, proposing that our response to superhuman phenomenon generally takes the form of one of three distinctly different attitudes. One can adopt the view that the universe is governed by unvarying laws that have been discovered, or are at least discoverable, by scientific investigation. There is the equally extreme “superstitious” attitude characterized as the belief that empirical reality is shallow and meaningless. Lastly, there is the “religious” stance, which supposedly takes the other two into consideration. While Kubin was definitely trying to describe unseen spiritual realities, his position is probably best represented by a combination of mythological and philosophical influences. The trouble with taking such a “religious” approach is all the strange conflicts and outright preposterous theological contradictions with which one has to consider and ultimately contend.
Among the greatest of these ironies is that our culture is apparently devil-centric! At least it once was. Before Copernicus, as J. A. Cuddon points out, it was widely held that the Earth was at the center of the known universe. Hell, it was believed, was at the Earth’s center. At the very bottom of Hell, at its very core—so folks were led to believe—sat Satan, the Devil, himself, bathed in an eerie red glow. It is easy to imagine how difficult it must have been to refrain from seeing all the potential for humor in the perfect geometry of diabolocentrism. Geoffrey Chaucer definitely found the temptation irresistible. He proposed that Satan’s most prominent feature was his Superdome-sized anus. By implication then, the true center of the universe was not really the Devil, but the Devil’s asshole. In other words, the medieval religious position, irrelevant of the great potential for morbid satire, was that evil was somehow central to any concept of structure.
The extremely pessimistic allegory of The Other Side is basically a story of a world ruled by a demonic madman. Kubin easily recognized the great, untapped comic potential in ridiculing our diabolocentrism. Like Chaucer, the morose artist could not help but lampoon our more sacred religious tenets, especially when they explained so much about the general state of organized insanity in the world. Claus Patera, the novel’s evil figurehead, was updated to fit with our changing attitudes. At times, Patera is portrayed with the standard embellishments of the Dark Lord. “His eyes,” we are told, “were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity.” The narrator wonders if Patera is “not alive at all.” “If the dead could look,” he contends, “that is what their gaze would be like.” Kubin, however, quickly fragmented his image of Satan. The artist was well aware that the demon of the Middle Ages was long gone, an emblem of the past. Evil, as a concept, had since become de-centered. It had not had a stable form for quite awhile.
Kubin’s portrayal of Patera continues to influence less conventional depictions of Satan. The suburbanized take on the haunted house motif in Anson’s The Amityville Horror notably gave Satan two different forms: the phantom is intermittently represented as both a giant, cloven-hoofed pig and as a bearded and horned freak in a white hood with piercing red eyes and half his face blown off by a shotgun blast. Still, Anson’s version does not compare to Kubin’s earlier depiction of the Devil, which was way more radical. “It’s expression,” as the artist described it, “changed like a chameleon—unceasingly—a thousand, no, a hundred thousand times. In lightning succession it was the face of a youth—a woman—a child—an old man... Now animal faces appeared. It was a lion, then it went sharp and sly like a jackal—it changed into a wild stallion with nostrils dilated—took on the appearance of a bird, then of a snake.” The ideal geometry of medieval devil-centrism had, of course, long since become destabilized, totally exploded in the popular imagination. Likewise, Kubin’s Satan, more than any other, is polymorphous, infinitely changeable, and does not keep any single shape for too long.
The great potential of a thoroughly de-centered diabolism, as far as Kubin was concerned, was that Satan could conceivably be everywhere all at once. Every aspect of Kubin’s fictional city of Pearl is constantly pervaded by the malicious demon. Kubin would never have pretended that Hell on Earth was his unique symbolic invention. The modern city portrayed as a monstrous architecture of vertiginous confusion and anxiety would soon become high spectacle. Take e.e. cummings’s sadomasochistic description of Manhattan as prime example: “The phenomenon was a telemicroscopic chimera, born of the satanic rape of matter by mind; a phallic female phantasm, clothed in thunderous anonymity and adorned with colossally floating spiderwebs of traffic.” What distinguishes Kubin’s version from such an intimidating display of concrete, glass and steel is the way Pearl is represented as a pathetic hodgepodge of decrepit old junk. While writing The Other Side, Kubin recollected in his memoirs: “I came to the complex, mature realization that the greatest values lie not only in the bizarre, exalted, and comic moments of existence, but that the embarrassing, the indifferent, and the everyday and prosaic contain the same mysteries.”
All the elements of the city—inhabitants and buildings alike—have been carefully chosen by Patera for their marked imperfection and deformity. “Dreamlanders” are dressed in thrift store clothes, and the town is itself a dusty and moldy patchwork, accumulated entirely from disowned garbage and discarded antiques. Only, there is a chilling secret about the collection of seemingly unimportant human detritus. It turns out that scarcely one of the dilapidated houses has “not been defiled by crime, blood and infamy before it was brought to its present site.” Patera’s own Palace is constructed from the bits and pieces of ruined buildings that have been the scenes of “bloody conspiracies and revolutions.” The dairy is a former “thieves den,” there was a terrible fratricide in the mill, and so on. We discover that hardly anything in the “Dream Realm,” no matter how inconspicuous, has not been touched in some way by evil. Even the most humble keepsake has been present at the scene of some unimaginably wicked tragedy. It slowly becomes apparent that the haunted city of Pearl is nothing short of a virtual Devil’s trophy chest filled past capacity with the anonymous artifacts of untold atrocities.
Moreover, psychoanalysis is based, at least in part, on the concept that we are, in some sense, all haunted by our own personal demons, and that there are, figuratively speaking, many Hells inside us all. Like the film The Haunting (1963), in which it is never made entirely clear whether the unexplained events in Hill House really take place or are only the twisted and distorted perceptions of the disturbed spinster character, some of the more bizarre aspects of Pearl can be attributed to the fanciful creation of the main character’s wayward imagination. Our habit of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects is thoroughly exploited. Kubin focuses our attention on the human qualities of run-down buildings whose windows “squint with malice” or resemble the black sockets of skulls. The narrator elaborates: “It was the buildings that were strong, the real individuals. There they stood, mute and yet eloquent. Each one had its own story to tell, you just had to be patient and wring it out of the edifices bit by bit.” The narrator talks about the animation-style “moods” of the houses. Some were “crabby,” others “saucy.” We cannot help but psychologically project ourselves onto these objects. There is no surface that does not invite us to invest ourselves emotionally. Kubin understood clearly the potential for objects to generate empathy and sentimental attachment. The façade of a house, for example, with its dark windows begged for personification and, like those in The Haunting or The Amityville Horror, the edifice is only made that much more conducive to characterizations, evil or otherwise, after its particular history is revealed.
Combined together all the many different ways in which horror and infamy are depicted throughout the novel are overwhelming. The Other Side is a criticism of the shortcomings of a morality that must always distinguish good from evil. Our Devil-centrism, Kubin proposed, is nothing more than a “mass psychosis,” like “a nightmare you can’t wake up from.” Kubin did not limit his cartoon-terror to psychological interpretation alone. Whether or not the artist was, himself, an occultist is unclear. Some of his closest friends, like Kandinsky and Gustav Meyrink, definitely were dedicated Theosophists. Meyrink, it is well known, was a founding member of the Blue Star Society in Prague. A number of Kubin’s drawings in The Other Side were, in fact, originally meant to illustrate Meyrink’s cabalistic novel, The Golem. At the very least, Kubin was clearly attracted to the artifice of representing the supernatural. He was more than happy to elaborate as many possibilities of misapprehension in his novel as he could conceive. There are moments similar to The Haunting in which weird events in Pearl are seemingly only embellishments by the narrator’s twisted inner logic. At other times, we are clearly witness to supernatural activity such as the “wailing and moaning” in every “major and minor key” that emanates from barred windows and cellar-doors. In yet another passage, the narrator is flabbergasted to find two men behind his house loudly playing rattles and drums. Asked why they are making such a racket, they glibly reveal they were sent by Patera to make “background noise.”
There is no sure way for “Dreamlanders” to determine with any certainty the exact nature of what they are experiencing. Sometimes evil is perceived as fact, sometimes it is recognized as fantasy, and at other times it is revealed as nothing more than plain old trickery. Towards the end of the story the truth about Patera’s demonic public image is finally revealed: “The head—it was actually a wax model—had burst like an eggshell. The eyes had been glass balls filled with mercury, the ceremonial attire stuffed with straw.” Kubin’s character is shocked to learn “The Master had been a hoax, nothing more.” The allegory of The Other Side is entirely about a deceit perpetrated on the grandest scale. There is a sense in which our natural emotional investment in objects has been abused: it does not seem at all far fetched to find Chaucer’s assessment of the flaw of our religious bias sympathetic. If there is anything at the center of it all, intuitively, there is more than a little merit in the belief that it would probably be Satan’s asshole. Kubin just gave it his own touch: if Devil-centrism is recognized as duplicity, then exposing his own fraud, the artist ironically offered, could likely be Satan’s final act of ultimate betrayal.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in X-Tra, Volume 6, Number 4, Summer 2004