Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.
As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.
In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.
What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances.
Henri Michaux’s Demolition Workshop1 has the body demolished, tendon by tendon. The narrator is conscious, the dread subtle, the helplessness clinical; the workmen are blasé in their efficiency.
The Demolition Workshop
…I had been transported without transition to the demolition workshop. Alive. Numb. They immediately set about extracting the tendons from my limbs so as to send them to the depot’s sorting room.
And already they’re tenderizing my back with little blows of a mallet, numbing me even more. “He’s still not tender enough,” announces a voice, and the hammering resumes, intensified.
Already they’re driving awls of some sort, on which they tap.
The fitting, the search for spots is scrupulous. “The whole thing needs to come like a wick,” says the voice that had already spoken. This time I’m going to talk to them. I have some sudden strength. In vain.
I find nothing to say to them. Precisely nothing. Under the continuing blows, I sink into a paralysis of goodbye.
I do not know what motivated this particular sketch, but I can speculate as to its interpretation. As Life in the Folds was published in 1949, an obvious first allegory would be the systematic processing and dehumanisation of Holocaust victims arriving to concentration camps. As a more direct depiction, at least until the final section, it could fit with the systematic processing of animals (still alive and suffering) on an assembly line—especially taking into account the literal extracting of parts, the tenderizing, the driving in of awls, and the particular line, ominous in its vagueness: “The whole thing needs to come like a wick.”
Whatever it is you imagined coming as a wick, please keep it to yourself.
Throughout the demolition the narrator seems disconcertingly alienated from the actual ordeal. His report is clear-headed; he is aware of what is being done and with which tools. This is the hallmark of Michaux’s style. However, this text differs from the others because the tormentors here are physical entities with whom the narrator could plead. And yet he doesn’t. Why?
The last few sentences contain clues.
This time I’m going to talk to them.
So he has tried before, without success. Perhaps he was drugged.
I have some sudden strength.
Perhaps the tenderization has paused momentarily. We can but hope.
Our hope dwindles. In this case it’s only a single try-fail, but in general a repeated try-fail try-fail loop builds towards the absurd impasse of helplessness.
I find nothing to say to them. Precisely nothing.
This is in a new paragraph, signalling a fresh idea. If before we knew his attempt failed, now we know why: the mind within the body can do nothing to change the situation, it has drawn a blank.
Under the continuing blows, I sink into a paralysis of goodbye.
The three last words encapsulate helplessness in its extreme—as a form of mental death.
Even away from the savage, life-ending situations, we all feel helpless from time to time. Depending on the severity of the feeling and the circumstances, some people can “bounce back”, while others sink into depression.
Whichever way, if possible, identifying the telltale signs—the you try (I have some sudden strength), the you fail (In vain), the you have nothing to say (Precisely nothing)—at least means you can consciously seek to escape the confines of the paradox. Side doors, branching corridors, and a world outside the box will very likely exist.
Only in a Demolition Workshop is no escape possible, none, except goodbye.
I hope you never have to say goodbye that way.
No one should have to say goodbye that way.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate: on reverse personification in Like the Sea from Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949).
- Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change: on the process of reverse personification in Michaux’s The Statue and I. (ibid.)
- Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain: on the fine splitting of self in Michaux’s Circulating through My Body. (ibid.)
- The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence: on how the suspense-tension-reveal sequence is reversed in Michaux’s Man-Sling. (ibid.)
- Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words: on how scientific terminology hides the feeling of dread in Michaux’s The Assault of the Swaying Saber. (ibid.)
- Writing Helplessness: