Sunday, September 14, 2014

2. This Means War

Killology is a modern name for an ancient field of study, only recently given the “—ology” suffix.  This identifies it as a subject in which a professional can develop expertise, and perhaps eventually certification.  Killology seeks to understand the emotional and psychological effects of combat on individuals, with the specific aim of helping individuals circumvent their natural inclination to avoid killing their own kind. 

It is felt by some experts that human beings are insufficiently prepared for this activity, and so are vulnerable to traumatic anxiety, guilt and depression—to “post-traumatic stress disorder”—for a long time afterwards.  However, it does seem that a large number of people are quite capable of killing others without special training or certification—calls for more stringent licensure to protect the profession go unheeded.

In The Interlopers, (1919), Saki, also known as H.H. Munro, has his character of Ulrich Von Gradwitz explain the psycho-historical background of his conflict with Georg Znaeym:

“A famous law-suit, in the days of his grandfather, had wrested it from the illegal possession of a neighbouring family of petty landowners; the dispossessed party had never acquiesced in the judgment of the courts, and a long series of poaching affrays and similar scandals had embittered the relationships between the families for three generations.”

The struggle is over land, but there is also an element of class warfare, too.  Znaeym has lost a legal battle with Von Gradwitz, his social superior, and effectively denies the legitimacy of the decision.  Here is an example of class differences creating distance and a more comfortable psychological space in which to do harm against one’s neighbor.  As in Robert E. Howard’s The Man on the Ground, (discussed in the previous post), the two combatants have hated each other for a long time, and have “premeditated” upon how best to do each other in.  Von Gradwitz offers this killological insight:

“The two enemies stood glaring at one another for a long silent moment.  Each had a rifle in his hand, each had hate in his heart and murder uppermost in his mind.  The chance had come to give full play to the passions of a lifetime.  But a man who has been brought up under the code of a restraining civilization cannot easily nerve himself to shoot down his neighbor in cold blood without a word spoken, except for an offence against his hearth and honour.”

Though published several years after his death, Saki’s story almost certainly is a reaction to the onset and subsequent horror of World War I.  It has the same quality of unavoidable doom that the war itself had, with its concatenation of grim treaty obligations and ominous mobilizations of troops.  Unlike Robert E. Howard’s story, The Interlopers contains the idea, if not its realization, that things could turn out differently with a change of perspective.

As in The Man on the Ground, the land appears to reflect the psychological state of the two men’s minds.  They confront each other in a dark, windswept forest in the dead of winter:

“The roebuck, which usually kept in the sheltered hollows during a storm wind, were running like driven things tonight, and there was movement and unrest among the creatures that were wont to sleep through the dark hours.”

The forest lands, nominally in the possession of the Gradwitz family, are an earthly opposite of the Garden of Eden, the mythological paradise our ancestors were cast out of in what may have been the first great ecological disaster for mankind. 

And yet Nature remains active in the fate of humanity, and in that of Gradwitz and Znaeym: a freak tree fall traps both men on the ground in close proximity to each other. They are near enough to talk, but too encumbered by the branches and their injuries to harm one another.  Their mutual suffering creates the conditions for empathy and dialogue.  It is the classic battlefield vignette in which combatants, sharing an awful predicament, can no longer see each other as abstract symbols but must acknowledge their shared humanity. 

Gradwitz offers to share a flask of wine with his enemy to ease their misery.  Forgiveness and mercy are also offered, and the two enemies begin to reconsider their relationship.  Each agree to call off each other’s men depending on who arrives first to rescue them. The suspense shifts from determining who will succeed in killing the other to which of the men will be the first to offer peace.  Despite the surrounding darkness and chill there is a flicker of hope, insight and wisdom.  However, this being a Saki story, any happy reconciliation will be complicated by the author’s characteristic mix of dark irony and cynicism.

Justice and vengeance are no longer in view at the end of Saki’s story, only irony and world weariness.  It may be too late for peace, and despite their intentions, Gradwitz and Znaeym in the end are doomed, perhaps even damned.  If anything, their demise is much more gruesome and prolonged than the fate they had planned for each other.  This was also the experience of the combatants in the Great War that ended in 1918.

H.P. Lovecraft offers a different perspective on the theme of revenge in one of his earlier stories, and this will be the subject of the next post.  

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