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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Damned Thing": Bierce's Exercise in Existential Absurdity

Copyright 2016 by Gary L. Pullman

The plot of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing” is simple--so simple, in fact, that the author must rely upon a piecemeal presentation, in chopped chronological progression, of the narrative’s incidents. Bierce gives vague, and therefore intriguing, hints of something that has happened that is bigger, so to speak, than what is currently taking place, at the same time withholding details to keep the reader guessing as to what’s going on--and what has already gone on. The first paragraph introduces the reader to nine men, one of them a corpse, who have gathered in a small room. One of the men, seated at “a rough table,” reads from a book, by candlelight. There is an expectation, on the part of the men, other than “the dead man,” who is alone “without expectation.” The men, the reader learns, are locals, “farmers and woodsmen.”

By throwing together, as it were, a group of local men who seem to have nothing in common but their vocations, and informing the reader that something seems likely to happen, and soon, but otherwise withholding details that would create a context by which the action, such as it is at this point, could be interpreted, Bierce creates suspense. In addition, he characterizes the men as unimaginative and pedestrian, which will prove important, given the extraordinary incident that will soon be related by William Harker.

Only the man who reads from the book is unlike the others, a “worldly” man, a coroner, in fact, and the book he reads belonged to the dead man. It is, the reader will learn, the dead man’s diary, which was found in his cabin, which is the location in which “the inquest” concerning his death is “now taking place.” The casual manner in which Bierce presents the purpose of the local men’s gathering--an inquest into a man’s death--makes the revelation all the eerier.

Harker makes his appearance, his manner of dress marking him as a city dweller. The reader learns that he is a reporter; he arrives late to the inquest, he says, because he had “to post" to his newspaper "an account” of the incident concerning which he has been summoned to testify. Harker’s statement that he posted the account as fiction because it is too extraordinary for readers to accept as fact piques the reader’s interest, as does his declaration that he will, nevertheless, swear “under oath” as a witness at the inquest, that the story he tells is “true.” Again, Bierce provides just enough vague clues to keep the reader guessing--and reading.

As Harker begins his testimony, the reader learns that he had been visiting the deceased, Hugh Morgan, with whom he was hunting and fishing. In addition, Harker, admits, he was also observing Morgan, having found “his odd, solitary way of life” intriguing and supposing him to be “a good model for a character in fiction.”

In the second chapter of the story, Harker relates “the circumstances of” Morgan’s “death”: As they hunted quail, they heard “a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes,” and saw that the vegetation was “violently agitated.” Morgan appeared frightened and immediately “cocked both barrels of his gun. . . holding it in readiness to aim.” As the men watch, “wild oats near the place of the disturbance” begin to move “in the most inexplicable way. . . . as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down--crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward” the two men. Morgan fires and flees, leaving Harker to fend for himself. Harker is “thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke,” and something knocks his own gun from his hands. As Harker looks on, Morgan seems to wrestle with an invisible creature. Before Harker can run to his friend’s aid, Morgan is killed, and the ripple and movement of the vegetation betrays the path of the invisible creature’s flight.

In the story’s third chapter, the condition of Morgan’s battered and bloody body is described as the coroner pulls the sheet that covers the corpse away; the dead man's clothing is “torn, and stiff with blood.” Despite the witness’ testimony, which the jury finds incredible, Morgan’s death is attributed to a mountain lion’s attack. Although Harker requests permission to peruse his dead friend’s diary, thinking that the public would be interested in Morgan’s writings, the coroner denies his request, claiming that it is irrelevant to its author’s demise, since “all the entries in it were made before the writer's death.”

Harker may not have been privy to the entries in Morgan’s diary, but the story’s omniscient narrator is, and he reveals to the reader that the journal contains “certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions.” Morgan had become convinced of “the presence” of an invisible intruder, and he had been terrified of the creature. However, he had resolved not to be chased away from his own home, believing, also, that God would consider his fleeing from the creature an act of cowardice. Thinking that he may be going insane, Morgan invites Harker to visit him for “several weeks,” to go hunting and fishing, thinking that, in Harker’s reactions to his own behavior, Morgan may find evidence to support either his own sanity or his own madness.

As if by “revelation,” Morgan discovers “the solution to the mystery” of the creature’s invisibility: just as there are sounds that the human ear cannot hear, there are colors that the human eye cannot see, and the invisible creature, or “the Damned Thing,” as Morgan has come to refer to the monster, “is of such a colour!”

A simple tale, “The Damned Thing” depends, for its effect, upon a fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, the piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, the withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, “Chapter I: One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table” (a corpse); “Chapter II: What May Happen In A Field Of Wild Oats” (an attack by an invisible creature!); “Chapter III: A Man Though Naked May Be In Rags” (an aphorism that suggests wisdom but introduces the final existential absurdity of death); and “Chapter IV: An Explanation From The Tomb” (the incongruity of the dead offering an elucidation of a text addressed to the living). Like the titles of Rene Magritte paintings, Bierce’s chapter titles have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant.

Another way that Bierce withholds information, at least for a time, is to use synonymous phrases in lieu of characters' names or occupations.  For example, he refers to "a man [who] was reading," to "the man with the book"; to "the person reading," instead of to "the coroner"; he refers to "eight men," to "that company," to "farmers and woodsmen," rather than to the jurors of the death inquest; and to "a young man" instead of the inquest's witness.  In doing so, Bierce withholds, for a time, the nature of the enterprise in which the party is involved, thereby maintaining the mystery of the story and the tale's suspense.

However, Bierce accomplishes more than the generation of mystery and suspense through the use of these techniques. By employing these strategies, he also creates a metaphor by which he implies the theme of his story. The lack of context can be read as the vague, uncertain, and finite understanding of reality that derives from human perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives.

Bierce’s reference to science is not accidental, for science is the primary and predominant means by which modern individuals ascertain knowledge, if not always truth, and it is science--the science of optics, to be precise--that allows Morgan to understand the nature of the Damned Thing as being of a color imperceptible to the human eye and thus invisible. However, since science, which is empirical, resting upon the senses and their perception of phenomena (including colors), is itself limited to the perceptible world, the nature of the Damned Thing must, in the final analysis, remain essentially mysterious.

Science tells us how to interpret the things that we perceive (see, hear, smell, taste, or touch), but limits upon human perception and the ignorance that results from such limits make certain knowledge problematic even under the best of circumstances and can (and has) resulted in erroneous and fantastic conclusions concerning even everyday matters. For example, before the invention of the microscope, bacteria and viruses existed, but, unaware of these germs or their functioning, human beings regarded demons, not microbes, as the causes of diseases and mental illnesses. Likewise, the Hubble space telescope has increased astronomers’ understanding of the universe exponentially since its launch in 1990.

Nevertheless, to some degree, we can (and do) hypothesize about experiences, even when knowledge about what we perceive (or do not perceive) is uncertain. For example, no one has seen an actual tyrannosaurus rex, but paleontologists claim to know quite a bit about this dinosaur (even if their “knowledge” is tentative and subject to change in the wake of new discoveries and conjectures). These gigantic animals are considered to have been carnivores with extremely powerful jaws, binocular vision, a bipedal posture, and a highly developed sense of smell. The young, some believe, possessed prototypical feathers, although more as insulation than for flight. In addition, they were believed, by some, to have been scavengers and even cannibals. Although they were once considered too slow-moving and “cold-blooded,” because of their massive size and weight, to be good hunters, scientists later revised this conception and suggested that the tyrannosaurus was more likely than not a fleet-footed predator.

One may argue that some features and abilities of the Damned Thing could likewise be determined by observing its effects on its environment. It is likely to be fast and physically powerful. It is obviously predatory. It is apt to be large, for Morgan’s diary reports that its passing momentarily blocked out the stars. Nevertheless, any ideas concerning the nature of the Damned Thing must remain as vague, uncertain, and finite as humanity’s understanding of reality that derives from perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives.

Bierce’s fragmented and vague narration, as it occurs in “The Damned Thing,” despite the presence of his omniscient narrator, is deliberate, symbolizing the limits of the scientific method’s reliance upon empirical data and emphasizing the finitude of human perception, cognition, and knowledge by underscoring his story’s victim’s inability to see the invisible adversary that ultimately slays him. Without a context, interpretation is difficult, if not impossible, and Morgan’s (and Harker’s) inability to see the Damned Thing prevents them from understanding it, just as it also prevents the pedestrian and unimaginative “farmers and woodsmen” who make up the inquest’s jury from accepting Harker’s account of the creature’s existence as true. They conclude, despite Harker’s eyewitness testimony, that Morgan was killed by a “mountain lion.” In short, they are unable to think outside the box, so to speak, that the accepted model of reality, based upon science, provides as the basis, or context, for interpreting perception and experience. Therefore, they conclude that Harker’s story demonstrates his madness.

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