My Name is Marie Bilodeau. I am currently in my fourth semester, studying Visual Art. I plan on going to University in Architecture next fall. I wrote this essay in my third semester at Dawson in my English Class. I was particularly interested in urban gothic themes in 20th Century American literature and how it depicted some of the fundamental issues of our time as individuals and society.
Progress and Destruction: “Tears Seven Times Salt” and
“The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire”
By Marie Bilodeau
The concept of modernity has always been related to a global fragility of the urban condition in gothic literature. A lack of connection and individuality creates a mechanization of the self, and what was once linked to the idea of progress now cultivates a space of regression. The city, a human construct built by the need for connection, drains individuals of their essence and consumes them like an independent organism. Sara Wasson’s book “Gothic Cities and Suburbs 1880-Present” defines this imprisonment as an “experience of disorientation, despair or aching isolation” (136), which constitutes the source of the hunger of the monstrous entity that is the city. This essay will argue that the inner emptiness of citizens is characterized by a fragmented identity caused by the machine’s never-ending cycle of annihilation, which is paradoxically created by people’s need for completion. The two short stories “Tears Seven Times Salt” by Caitlin R. Kiernan and “The Ash of Memory, The Dust of Desire” by Poppy Z. Brite illustrate the idea the only way to overcome the urban condition is to let the body be completely sublimated into the city.
The state of passivity of the characters in Brite’s story demonstrates that modernity creates a space of incompletion and suffocation. Leah’s emptiness is generated by this captivity and is exposed by the complete surrender of her body to the industrial machine. The engine is filled with the sorrow and despair of past individuals that came to be slaughtered. It is a merging of flesh and machinery, which illustrates its connection to the human suffering caused by the brutality of the city. The “row of hooks as long as my leg […] as they should be attached to the wrist-stump of some enormous amputee” (Brite 220) describes how the machine is complete only in the presence of human flesh, the vulnerable and vulgarized body. There are remains of a woman “half buried and half dissolved into the grime and ash of the factory floor. Most of her face was gone” (220). The engines separated her from her sense of individuality by reducing her to a pile of meat and by externalizing her self-destructiveness. The complete calm Leah feels as she is being consciously consumed by this organism shows her internal dissociation and disintegration. “The hook had punched into her back and out through the soft flesh of her abdomen, but her face was perfectly calm […] It looked like nothing but a piece of meat – meat that had ceased to live breathe or suck” (222). She completely accepts her fate as she welcomes death. This brutality exposes the true nature of the chaotic effects of capitalism, and how it feeds off of human suffering.
In Kiernan’s short story, the effects of the urban world’s overwhelming sense of rupture and infection of the self clusters the body in a space of profound lamentation. The echo of Jenny’s emotional fragility is projected into a physical dimension; she almost completely sublimates herself into the environment; her body merges with it. She goes into the sewers, where her repressed self is contained and circulates freely. Society rejects her because she belongs elsewhere; she cannot find meaning within the walls of the city. The protagonist “follows the narrow path between them, and they watch her pass with empty, hungry eyes, shark eyes” (Kiernan 77). The city wants to destroy her. When she finds her “gift”, and “infection”, she lets herself be consciously annihilated. She chooses a place underneath the city where the parts of her true self were lost, and she lets it dematerialize her body. “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” (80 Kiernan/Shakespeare). She desires to disappear, to melt into water and erase her anxieties. The character separates herself from the heaviness of the city’s demands. She lets herself be engulfed and liberates her true nature by resisting the city’s cycle of destruction and goes back where she belongs.
The urban condition of the individuals in the stories is characterized by a feeling of emptiness created by the city’s hunger for destruction. The mechanization of our environment generates a mechanization of our behaviour and cultivates a state of suppression of culture and individuality. The city is a vessel for brutality that stems from the citizens’ isolation and anxieties. The state of regression is caused by a virus – that of humanity itself, drowning any chances of real happiness. The impulse to produce and consume generated a monster, the city, a “metaphor for the psychological darkness of its inhabitants” and the “degeneration and despair” of the urban essence (Wasson 139).
Brite, Poppy Z. “The Ash of Memory, The Dust of Desire.” Wormwood, Dell, 1994, pp. 196-225.
Kiernan, Caitlín R. “Tears Seven Times Salt.” Tales of Pain and Wonder, Subterranean Press, 2008, pp. 69-80.
Wasson, Sara. “Gothic Cities and Suburbs, 1880-Present.” The Gothic World, edited by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend, Routledge, 2014, pp. 132-142.