Goya, and the Death of Modernity

While there are many paintings in the history of the world, few of them are as disturbing as Francisco Goya’s, Saturn Devouring His Son. The painting is the artist’s depiction of the Greek Titan Cronus, who, after usurping his father, learns of a prophecy: that he is destined to be overthrown by one of his sons. To prevent this, every child born to him and his wife Rhea, he eats. He eats five of his children until Rhea hides away newly born son Zeus. Zeus goes on to fulfill the prophecy, overthrowing his father and establishing a new reign of the Olympians. The Greek myth is well known, but when Goya handles it there are major revisions. In the myth, the mighty titan Cronus kills his young child, a baby. He does this openly, without shame or compunction, and he kills them by swallowing his children whole. In fact, all of his children are alive in his stomach. But here, this painting depicts something else. Saturn, Cronus’ Roman counterpart, is old, hunched over, legs under him at an awkward angle, crazed, bent and withered, and the son that he devours is an adult, with well-defined muscles. Saturn has chewed off the head and arm of his son and his eyes are wide with fear. He looks like his evil deed has just been discovered in the dark. Saturn has bested his son. The future will not come to pass. Whatever progress was foretold, has ended. 

When analyzing the painting within the framework of Panofsky’s three layered structure, the first layer, the “pre-iconographic stage”, is “undertaken when we describe the configurations of form and colour within a particular representation – it’s factual components” (Pooke 68). The factual components are the forms of the painting; therefore, the pre-iconographic stage is a formalist analysis. According to Pooke, the formal parts of a painting include the “line, tone, shape, texture and color” (34). When looking at Saturn Devouring His Son, the most obvious thread to note is the color. The painting is mostly black. Blackness oppressively fills the canvas on all sides but the tone of black varies from the darkest on the outside in, drawing the eye toward the lightest parts of the painting: both the stark white body of Saturn’s dead son, and the wide white eyes of Saturn himself. The only other color in the painting is the red blood around parts of the white body that Saturn has eaten, and faintly around where Saturn’s hands are gripping the body so tight, they’ve ripped into his back. The lines of the central figure, the body of the dead child, are vertically straight while the lines and general shape of hulking Saturn are curved, although the lines are secondary to the stark color differences. The small straight-lined white dead body of the son is diametrically opposed to the large curved hunched body of Titan Saturn. Goya has done everything he could to have these characters be as different from each other as he could.

The second stage is the iconographic stage. It is this in this stage “we would attempt to relate the symbolism of the motifs…with a narrative – what is actually being depicted in this scene (69). The iconographic stage is perhaps the easiest to understand, and the first noticed. Instead of analyzing the “form” of the painting like in the first stage, this stage refers to the “content” of the art. In other words, the iconographic stage is the story of the painting. The looming male figure is eating the body of an adult; therefore, this is a depiction of the crazed titan Cronus eating one of his children. What this all might mean, how the changes from the original myth to this sad and disturbing painting is what the third stage attempts to find.

The final “iconological stage” is an attempt to “ascertain the ‘underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion” (Pooke 69). It is in this stage, after looking at the form and the content, that we examine the context.

Francisco Goya was born on the 30th of March, 1746 in Spain. He attended a school for drawing and by around the age of 12, apprenticed in the workshop of painter Jose Luzan (Gudiol 7).

La Venida De La Virgen Del Pilar a Zaragoza – José Luzán (1765). (Photo via)

He moved to Madrid and on the 4th of December 1763, Goya presented himself to be examined for a student scholarship. The scholarship was awarded to another student Gregorio Ferro, who would go on to best Goya at several points in his career. Goya moved to Italy to study and returned to Spain a professional painter (Gudiol 8). 

Goya’s Tapestries (Photo via). 

His first major job was at the Royal Tapestry Factory where he created tapestry cartoons to decorate the dining-rooms of princes and royals throughout Europe (Gassier 45).

Goya obtains the official title of Pintor del Rey, often painting in the rococo style that was nearing its end (Gudiol 14). Prior to this he often painted in the traditional rococo style: royals or even the “common people of…colourful and passionate Spain” (Gassier 45).


Pastel colors abound, these paintings are elegant, lighthearted, and fun with figures that are “convincingly natural within their landscape setting” (Gassier 45).

Goya doesn’t know it, but the easy times are about over, and his art, in form and content, will change completely.

The Spanish-Anglo wars enveloped Spain from 1796 to 1802, and then again from 1804 to 1808 as part of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1793 Goya fell seriously ill in Seville, and this illness, which would leave him deaf for the remaining years of his life, and had a marked effect on his work. His work became darker and more disturbing and while portraits were always a major facet of his work, witches and monsters will soon begin to dominate. 

No. 43, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Photo via)

A major turning point for Goya’s art is when he creates Los Caprichos, a series of etchings that satirizes Spanish society.

In 1804 Goya applies to the post of Director General of the Royal Academy and is rejected on account of his deafness. He loses to Gregorio Ferro (Gudiol 65).

In 1808 both Spain and Goya suffer setbacks, France invades Portugal with the blessing of Spain, and confusion takes hold throughout the country. Uprisings begin to demand the abdication of King Charles IV.

Napoleon lures new King Fernando VII is lured along with ex-King Charles, his wife Maria Luisa, and others to Bayonne where they remain political prisoners (Gudiol 86).

The public demonstrates end in bloodshed and executions by firing squad, “a furious orgy of slashing, disembowelling and butchering which Goya was to immortalize in…two pictures painted in 1814” (Gassier 208).

(Photo via
(Photo via)

Napoleon would sign the Treaty of Valençay with King Fernando VII ending the war, but Gudiol describes the situation like this,

[Spain], impoverished by six years of war, disorganized and, bristilling with political rivalries, and with the army and the people divided between the supporters of liberalism and the conservative factions, was offered as its only hope of salvation a treacherous king, egotistical, corrupt, and bigoted, who had spent his years in captivity in France fawning over Napoleon and sending him congratulations on his triumphs and victories in Spain. By an irony of fate he was to be hailed as El Deseado (98).

When King Fernando VII gains his crown back, he reestablishes the absolute monarchy and does away with the constitution of 1812 (Gudiol 100). Prosecution and imprisonment of liberals throughout the country lead to mass emigration (Gudiol 100). It’s noted that in 1816, Goya paints two portraits of nobility, and no more. Goya, old and infirm, moved to a house just outside Madrid, oddly enough called the Quinta del Sordo, the Villa of the Deaf. It’s here where Goya paints what is commonly referred to as “the Black Paintings,” 14 nightmarish paintings which Goya painted on the walls of the house, not intended for anyone else other than himself. In one of these paintings, a young man is being eaten by the father he was prophesied to usurp.

Only within the fuller context of Goya’s life and the tumultuous time in Spain’s history can we begin to understand the work of Saturn Devouring His Son. Because Cronus, time, devours all. Destroys all. And no one is immune to it. And no one can hide from it. And further still, when situated in Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the tumultuous times Spain fell into, this piece suggests more about time and progress. Time continues on. But that progress being a natural consequence of time, is a myth.

This piece suggests that the work of modernity is not guaranteed. That it can be undone. And when modernity dies, it dies in the darkness.



Gassier, P. & Wilson, J. (1971) The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya: with a catalogue raisonné of the paintings, drawings, and engravings. New York: Reynal & Co. / William Morrow & Co.

Gudiol, J. (2008) Goya. Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa.

Pooke, G., & Newall, D. (2008). Art history: The basics. New York: Routledge.


HIV is Not A Crime

On June 5th, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s medical journal, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report or MMWR, issued a one page report documenting 5 young gay men who presented with an odd assortment of infectious diseases typically found in only the most severely immunocompromised (Auleb, 2018, p. 1). These diseases included Pneumocystis pneumonia; oral candidiasis or thrush; and cytomegalovirus infection or CMV, a type of herpes virus (Auleb, 2018, p. 1). A month later, on July 4th, a second MMWR was issued documenting 26 more cases of men in their mid-twenties to early thirties (Auleb, 2018, p. 1). These 26 other men presented with an odd assortment of diseases too, including Kaposi sarcoma; a blood cancer that leaves distinctive lesions on the skin (Auleb, 2018, p. 1). These 31 men were the first documented cases of what would later be known as HIV/AIDS in the United States (Auleb, 2018, p. 1). All of these men died from their illness (Auleb, 2018, p. 1).

Years passed, and as the infection spread and confusion about the disease increased, the public, in their scared state, demanded that laws be passed to punish people that infect others with HIV disease. Editorials in newspapers around the country argued that the severity of HIV necessitated the passage of new laws. It’s the collection of new laws that passed all around the country that are referred to as HIV criminalization. Eric Mykhalovskiy, in his 2015 study, The public health implications of HIV criminalization: past, current, and future research directions, he defines HIV criminalization as “criminal charges for engaging in activities that are presumed to risk HIV transmission” (373). This definition is apt for the purposes of understand the laws because it is broad enough to prohibit behaviors in which the person intended to infect another with HIV while simultaneously prohibiting behaviors like spitting or biting which are neither realistic means of transmission, and the act of which does not require transmission .

It was during this time, several high profile cases of deliberate infection went to trial and the defendants were acquitted. These incidents of alleged deliberate infection scared Americans to the possibility of psychopathic AIDS carriers spreading disease wherever they go. Around the country, laws criminalizing HIV were enshrined in the criminal code, and in 33 states these laws still exist. In the time that these laws have existed, people who did not have HIV have been prosecuted for breaking these HIV-specific laws. People have been prosecuted for spitting at someone, even though the HIV found in saliva is so negligible that transmission through saliva is virtually impossible. People have been prosecuted for breaking these laws who accidentally infected someone, and not, as the laws originally intended, because of a deliberate infection. And in cases that might even be deliberate, intent is still extremely hard to prove because the person who is accused of deliberately infecting the other would have to both believe they had infected the person and that their infection would cause their death. Once one has a clear understanding of the nature of HIV criminalization laws, it’s clear that the only judicious solution is for a complete abolishment of all HIV-specific laws.

Numerous news reports from the mid-1980’s chronicled failed prosecutions of HIV positive individuals for attempted murder or assault. These prosecutions failed often because homicide statutes require prosecutors prove that the defendant specifically intended to kill. The prosecutors failures, combined with the stigma of those getting sick, the homosexuals and intravenous drug users, made people believe that HIV-specific laws were necessary (Hoppe, 2018, pgs. 109-110). Media outlets repeatedly demanded that legislators around the country pass HIV-specific laws to punish HIV positive individuals from transmitting the disease. When William F. Buckley, a conservative columnist, proposed in 1985 that newly diagnosed HIV positive individuals be tattooed, support for his position just about doubled from 15% to 29% in two years. In 1987, the Los Angeles times reported that 42% of respondents believed that “civil liberties must be suspended in the war on AIDS and 68% favored “criminal sanctions of people who are HIV positive and who remain sexually active” (Hoppe, 2018, p. 104). The Orlando Sentinel editorial argued that penalties were necessary to to discourage “case by case” prosecutorial experimenting with the law in their attempts to contain “today’s version of Typhoid Mary” (Hoppe, 2018, p. 108). In 1987, the editorial board of The Daily News of Los Angeles published a piece called “There Ought to Be a Law” writing that “it is time for Sacramento to exercise the political will needed to prevent unstable AIDS victims from passing on their death sentence to others” (Hoppe, 2018, p. 2). This push by the media to terrify Americans of people who had HIV disease was the attempt of a scared society to grapple with a growing epidemic. In their frenzied state, the media advocated and propagated narratives, like the failed high-profile prosecutions, that marginalized people with HIV disease. HIV criminalization laws were encouraged not just by the media, but by members of the scientific community as well.

In an American Journal of Public Health article, Dr. Victor E. Archer introduced a six-point plan to implement a quarantine system and a called for public health officials to sponsor uniform laws making it a felony throughout the United States to infect someone with HIV. The public reaction to these penalties were mixed, no one was sure what to do. In 1994, a survey asked people in the state health department: roughly a third were in favor of criminalization, a third were opposed, and a third was unresponsive (Hoppe, 2018, p. 109). In October of 1985, the San Antonio Health Department, in their efforts to control the spread of the disease, hand-delivered letters to fourteen of the city’s seventeen HIV-positive residents, warning them of third-degree felony charges, which amounts to a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine, if they engaged in sexual activity of any kind with any HIV negative individual (Hoppe, 2018, p. 106). This was one of the first instances of HIV criminalization in America.

At the time that HIV criminalization is passing in state houses throughout the country, the average American did not understand the basic fundamentals of how HIV worked at all. As Lynda Richardson notes in her 1998 New York Times article, “Wave of Laws Aimed at People With H.I.V.” the stigma of people living with HIV and ignorance of how HIV/AIDS can be transmitted was rising. She writes, “according to the survey by researchers at the University of California at Davis… fifty-five percent of Americans believed in 1997 that they could become infected by sharing a drinking glass with an infected person” (Richardson, 1998). And that compares to the “48 percent in 1991” (Richardson, 1998). Richardson is writing in 1998 about the changing attitudes and beliefs of the average person of people with HIV disease. They only were getting worse.

President Reagan’s administration put together a commission designed put together some recommendations for addressing the HIV epidemic in the United States. When the report was released, they argued that “HIV individuals who knowingly conduct themselves in ways that pose a significant risk of transmission to others must be held accountable” (Hoppe, 2018, p. 109). The commission did not say explicitly that the laws currently forced by states were not sufficient, it did encourage states to review their statutes and determine whether HIV-specific laws were necessary (Hoppe, 2018, p. 110). Federal laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV from person to person were first passed by Congress in the Ryan White Comprehensive Aids Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 1990. It prohibited the Secretary of Health and Human Services from making a grant to a state unless it provides assurances that the intentionally transmitting of HIV is civilly and criminally actionable (Hoppe, 2018, p. 104). The Ryan White CARE Act, while providing much needed money to help HIV patients, forced states to pass laws that prohibit HIV transmission within the context of normal sexual behavior.

In the article “Toward rational criminal HIV exposure laws” by Galley and Pinkerton (2004), they point out that common sexual behaviors engaged in with a person who is HIV positive (for example: manual or digital stimulation, mutual masturbation, or using sex toys) have zero chance of transmissibility. Yet states like Michigan and Arkansas includes language in their laws which criminalizes these sexual behaviors by a person with HIV, punishable by six to thirty years in prison (Galley and Pinkerton, 2004, p. 329). Furthermore, Burris and Cameron (2008) note in their article “The case against criminalization of HIV transmission,” there have been prosecutions based on acts that pose no risk of transmission including a 2008 case in which the HIV-positive defendant received 35 years in prison for spitting at a police officer (p. 558). For example, one year after Lynda Richardson’s New York Times article runs, an article appeared in The American Criminal Law Review titled “Apprehending the weapon within.” Author Rebecca Ruby (1999) accounts the effect of these HIV specific laws in praxis: “In Polk County, a woman was arrested when she solicited an undercover policeman, after which she told the officer that she was HIV-positive. She was charged with criminal transmission of HIV. This case was the first time the statute had been used in the county, and was one of the rare times it had been used anywhere in the state. In Florida, an HIV-positive prostitute can be charged with criminal transmission of HIV for mere solicitation, even if there is no actual transmission of the virus” (Ruby, 1999). Before this case, criminal transmission of HIV had never been used against someone who had not actually transmitted the disease to someone. But this case was seminal, and prosecutors all around the country began prosecuting HIV positive people who had, in many cases, did nothing to warrant their corralling into the justice system.

In Galley and Pinkerton’s 2004 article, they explain that within the language of these laws like Nevada’s statute which identifies prohibited behavior that is intended or likely to transmit the disease to another person is guilty of a category B felony, the phrase “likely to” often appears (p. 330). However, “likely to” means the likelihood of something happening is greater than it not happening. In these cases the law is still too vague because even the riskiest sexual behavior like receptive anal sex, while having a larger chance of transmission than other forms of sex, still has a transmission rate of about 1 in 50 or only 2%. Even the riskiest forms of sex is not likely to transmit HIV. They note that in no law does having “safe” or “protected” sex figure into the law at all, even though use of condoms which can reduce transmission up to 99% when used properly, would indicate the deliberate attempt at protecting the person from getting infected (Galley & Pinkerton, 2004, p. 327). Meaning, if a man with HIV used a condom and had sex and his partner came to be infected, he could be prosecuted all throughout America even if he was honest about his status and deliberately attempted to prevent his partner from getting HIV as demonstrated through his use of a condom.

No law takes into account the use of condoms as a signal that a person with HIV did not want to transmit the virus to someone else. Similarly, in no laws are the medical advancements of the past 10 years taken into account either. In the article The case against criminalization of HIV transmission, Burris and Cameron (2008) note that “The risk of HIV transmission may be decreased in those receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART)” (578). If a person’s viral load is low because their HIV disease is well managed with medication like HAART’s, than the HIV disease is known as “undetectable,” meaning the HIV is undetectable in the bloodstream. In these cases, not only is the viral load undetectable, it is untransmittable as well (“Science validates undetectable,” 2018). Even though this medical advancement means that an undetectable person has zero chance of transmitting their virus to anyone else, they could still be prosecuted were they to have sex.

Even though the proponents of HIV criminalization laws are primarily concerned with deliberate infections, in the majority of cases that is not how a person gets infected. The truth about HIV and how it has been transmitted was best put in an article by Burris and Cameron (2008), “In the overwhelming majority of cases, HIV is not spread by criminals but by consensual participants in a sexual act, neither of whom know their HIV status: individuals, in short, acting in ways that most would recognize as ordinary” (581). This epidemic is being spread, not through a few bad actors deliberately infecting people; but rather, through normal sexual behavior by individuals that do not know their status. Normal sexual behavior should not be criminalized. People should not be prosecuted for criminal transmission of HIV if they do not have HIV. People who take appropriate steps to protect their partner from HIV disease by informing their partner of their status or by using condoms or other forms of protection should not be punished if those methods fail. People who live with HIV disease deserve to live lives full of the dignity and grace that we afford to all people in this country. The only way forward is a complete dismantling of all HIV criminalization laws.

Auleb, A., Auleb, L. & Ingmire, P. (2018). Biology 327 AIDS: The Biology of a Modern

Burris, S. & Cameron, E. (2008). The case against criminalization of HIV transmission. JAMA, 300 (5), 578-581. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.3…

Galletly, C.L. & Pinkerton, S. (2004). Toward rational criminal HIV exposure laws. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 32 (2), 327-337. Retrieved from http://jpllnet.sfsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=rzh&AN=106601764&site=ehost-live

Hoppe, T. (2018). Punishing Disease: HIV and the criminalization of sickness. Oakland, CA.: University of California Press Foundation.

Richardson, L. (1998, September 25). Wave of laws aimed at people with H.I.V. New York Times (1923-Current File). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/docview/109915995?accountid=13802

Ruby, R. (1999). Apprehending the weapon within: The case for criminalizing the intentional transmission of HIV. The American Criminal Law Review, 36(2), 313-335. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/docview/230339206?accountid=13802

Science validates undetectable = untransmittable HIV prevention message. (2018, July 22). Retrieved from https://www.niaid.nih.gov/news-events/undetectable-equals-untransmittable

The Alternative Sexuality of Vandover and the Brute.

Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris (Photo via)


At the turn of the century humanity became fascinated with itself. His body, his mind, his skin all had to be examined, identified and catalogued. When this happened, theories regarding man and his true nature grew. Social darwinism, degeneration theory, Freudian psychology, rationalism, biological determinism, racialism began to emerge as early attempts to analyze man the effect of his relationship to society. These theories reflect the growing but persistent fear that civilization is a destructive force on men and women and remaking them into something else. This fear of modernization is an aspect of modernity, and this, termed “dark modernity”, manifests in literature as the Gothic.

Gothic literature, Gothic horror specifically is the loci of hauntings, of ghosts and nightmares, of sanity and insanity, of things lurking under the surface struggling to make themselves known. The fear of conversion, of infection, of being unmade or remade are common tropes of Gothic horror. Decay and degeneration are preoccupations of Gothic horror because, “the fin de siècle Gothic entertains a troubling fear that humanity may relapse into a state of animalistic barbarism. This also means that one cannot … have too much confidence in the prevailing models of civilization because they may contain within them the possibility of a reversion to a more primitive state” (Smith 176). The atavistic beast inside of every man and woman is a facet of the notion of the tyranny of the past. The “tyranny of the past” refers to how in literature, vestigial artifacts left in the past can biologically, or psychologically, or spiritually come forward to dominate and destroy the present; ghosts, hauntings, family curses passed down generations all deal with what is gone returning again. Gothic horror literature often invokes the tyranny of the past as a way to stifle the hopes of the present and combines that with the dead-end physical incarceration, or other types of enclosed space (Baldick xix). Gothic horror literature therefore can be defined as having the characteristics of “a fearful sense of inheritance in time, with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration” (Baldick xix).

In Frank Norris’ Vandover and the Brute, Vandover’s descent into the Brute combines these both; the Brute is the “tyranny of the past,” the atavistic beast inside Vandover which he fights against. The Brute is described as “squat, deformed, hideous,” and “huge, strong, insatiable, swollen and distorted out of all size” (Norris 178). It gets around by “crawling to and fro dimly,” and is “a monster glutted yet still ravenous, some fearful bestial satyr, grovelling, perverse, horrible beyond words” (Norris 178). Vandover’s physical body is masculine, therefore it’s where the Brute resides. The Brute is the masculine in Vandover which threatens to emerge when excited, be it sexually or otherwise. The isolating enclosures that Vandover finds himself in are both the multiple apartments he moves to, each smaller than the last, and his increasing alienation and isolation from his fellow man. Combined, these constitute both a physical and psychological enclosure of space.

But Vandover himself is a modern man; or the implied author’s critique of modern manhood. Vandover loves luxury, fine art and is disinterested in masculine pursuits like finance or physical exertion. Herman states that the modern urban-dweller gets his taste for fine art and music, his scientific rational understanding of the world and his distaste for violence and cruelty (25). Herman uses progress here as a synonym for modernization. Vandover’s (dark) modernity is his character: entitled, self-indulgent, lazy, and devoid of conscience. A preening, artistic young man, concerned with his appearance and without ambition or drive of his own.

While Vandover is in college he meets Charles Geary who becomes his best friend. Comparing the two the narrator describes Geary thusly: “Geary was quite different … He was pushing, self-confident, very shrewd and clever, devoured with an inordinate ambition and particularly pleased when he could get the better of anybody, even of Vandover or of young Haight. He delighted to assume the management of things” (Norris 51). Geary is hyper-masculine and dominant. Throughout the novel Geary’s character is repeatedly coded as the more masculine counterpart to Vandover’s non-masculine, or therefore feminine.

Vandover’s nature is malleable: “He found that he could be content[] in almost any environment, the weakness, the certain pliability of his character … ” (Norris 57) means that Vandover would “… submit to Geary’s dictatorship…” (Norris 51). Vandover’s “yielding disposition,” his submissive dependency on Geary, on another man is not a desire to submit to Geary sexually, but rather an extension of the primitive Brute which resides within him, and is therefore rooted in modernist fears of the atavistic Brute inside every man and woman. “Dependency … is the distinguishing mark of [the] barbarous and primitive … while autonomy – liberty – is the mark of [the] modern and civilized” (Herman 24). The darkly modern fear that modernization is changing the demarcation lines of gender. Dependency is a mark of the primitive, but paradoxically, dependency is also a symptom of overcivilization. Williams mentions how this paradox gets resolved:

Apparently the civilizing process fatigues the body, so that the most extreme, and yet most characteristic, example of contemporary cultural “exhaustion” is the cultivated aesthete, whose perverse overrefinement both epitomizes and helps to spread fin de siècle decay. Thus Vandover’s increasing sophistication – the acquisition of art objects, the yacht trips, the sumptuous apartments – is logically related to his growing enfeeblement. (716)

Vandover degenerates through his overcivilized mind. And other signs of civilization leave him as well. The desire to be an artist leaves entirely. He is unable to say more than a few words.  By the end of the novel he is not a man, but something else. The last lines of the novel make the comparison obvious when Vandover, now fully dominated by the Brute, is equated to a child, “As he finished, he glanced up. For an instant the two remained there motionless, looking into each other’s eyes, Vandover on the floor, one hand twisted into the bale rope about his bundle, the little boy standing before him eating the last mouthful of his bread and butter” (Norris 266). He has degenerated, reverted, he is no longer a man but something lesser.

Vandover’s overcivilized mind is also why he is repeatedly characterized as “hysterical”(1) even though at the fin de siècle, “‘hysteria’ is as old as man – or, rather, as woman. Hysteria is among the oldest described disorders in the history of medicine, and among the most gendered” (Micale 5). The characterization of Vandover as “hysterical” is not merely gendered female, it is also a class distinction. Micale describes how doctors who were themselves strictly upper- or middle-class, would diagnose men as having hysteria, and use the diagnosis as a way to distance themselves from their lower class patients, reestablishing both their own masculinity and class superiority (198). Once again there is the implication that Vandover, while is body is male, his mind is female.

Vandover’s weakness, his inherent femininity, is why he so willingly submits to Geary, but also partially explains why he is attracted to Flossie. Flossie is “an immense girl, quite six feet tall, broad and well-made in proportion. She was very handsome, full-throated, heavy-eyed , and slow in her movements” (Norris 72). This is not a feminine woman who, like a traditional woman of the time, is to be dependent on a man. Flossie is entirely different than the women who have come before her. She typifies the changing nature of womanhood and femininity at the turn of the century.

Novels and plays proliferated about ‘the new woman’ (femme nouvelle), who was economically productive, domestically independent, intellectually curious, politically engaged and sexually assertive … Depictions of woman as depraved, diseased, and devouring, remarkable for their overt misogyny, crop up ubiquitously in the art and literature of the period. (Micale 165)

And it’s only with low-class prostitute Flossie and not with the middle- or high-class women in the novel, Ida Wells or Turner Ravis respectively, that the Brute awakens, “Flossie appealed only to the animal and the beast in him, the evil hideous brute that made instant answer” (Norris 73). Flossie is a new version of womanhood, of female gender expression and is an expression of dark modernity. She has the veneer of health and happiness, but secretly she’s infected, she is diseased and her true purpose is to corrupt the innocent Dolly. Dark modernity has always had a preoccupation with secrets, with loss of innocence and with what might be gleaned from one’s biology and it’s through Flossie that we are best able to explore these ideas.

Vandover’s attraction to Flossie is a signifier of the primitive Brute inside him. The masculine Brute is still dominated by Vandover’s feminized mind. Therefore the heterosexual Vandover is attracted to masculine “new woman” Flossie. Vandover’s dependency on Geary is a signifier of the primitive Brute which lives inside him as well. Geary is masculine but correctly civilized, both dominant and autonomous; while Vandover is primitive yet overcivilized, feminine and dependent.

Norris’ contemporaries saw within his writings the embodiment of modernity, not only the rejection of traditions but also of new forms of being(2). Norris wrote of men and women who no longer comport to strict heteronormative definitions of gender, but rather expand them. But Vandover and the Brute is also a product of its time and as such, reflects the fears of the time. Flossie is different, more independent than the women who came before her, and for her modernity she must be punished. Vandover is different, more refined than the men that came before him, and for his modernity he must be punished. Vandover ends penniless and working for his betrayer-friend Geary, and  syphilitic Flossie is no longer the epitome of health but an old decaying thing who has infected innocent Dolly.

The fears of the changing nature of the world how the world might affect us are reflected in the Gothic, in dark modernity. Fear of too much progress, of the primitive and the overrefined. Fear of differing displays of masculinity and femininity. It speaks to the fear of what may truly inside every man and woman. Modern audiences will read Vandover and the Brute with the same fears that humanity had one hundred years ago. This is because dark modernity is infectious. And these fears are waiting, already inside us and threatening to come bursting out at any moment.





Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford University Press: 1992

Herman, Arthur. The Idea of Decline In Western History. The Free Press, 1997.

Micale, Mark S. Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness. Harvard University Press, 2008.

Norris, Frank. Vandover and the Brute. Broadview Press, 2015.

Smith, Andrew. “Degeneration.” The Encyclopedia of the Gothic. Edited by Hughes, et al, 1st Edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, pp 174-176.

Underwood, John C. Literature and Insurgency: Ten Studies in Racial Revolution. 1914. Biblo & Tannen, 1974.

Williams, Sherwood. “The Rise of a New Degeneration: Decadence and Atavism in Vandover and the Brute.” ELH, vol. 57, no. 3, 1990, pp.709-736, doi: 10.2307/2873239.




  1. When Vandover believes himself falling victim to the Brute, “His terror increased almost to hysteria” (181). After trying to paint his masterpiece and failing, “For a moment Vandover felt as though he was losing his hold upon his reason; the return of the hysteria shook him like a dry, light leaf” (188). During the second attack of the brute, Vandover is described as being hysterical, “Once more hysteria shook him like a dry leaf (Norris 216). While gambling the money he received from selling his property to Geary, “He took a certain hysterical delight in flinging away money with both hands (226). After realizing he has gambled all his money away, “By the time the three friends had reached the restaurant where they were to eat their Thanksgiving dinner, Vandover’s appetite had given place to a loathing of the very smell of food, his nervousness was fast approaching hysteria, the little nerve clusters all over his body seemed to be crisping and writhing like balls of tiny serpents, at intervals he would twitch sharply as though startled at some sudden noise, his breath coming short, his heart beating quick ” (231). During another attack of the Brute, “He began to walk the floor again with great strides, fighting with all his pitiful, shattered mind against the increasing hysteria, trying to keep out of his brain the strange hallucination that assailed it from time to time, the hallucination of a thing four-footed, a thing that sulked and snarled” (237).
  2. Writing in 1914, John Underwood says while comparing Frank Norris and Mark Twain, “Both felt, and sooner or later realized, the transcontinental energy, the primitive democracy, the intense and uncompromising hatred of shams and conventional tradition, that still characterizes [San Francisco]” (134).

1.3 Riots in the Streets of Berlin: Mainzer Straße, Inka Bach’s “Squatters” and the, Frankly, Tenuous Connection.

Two thousand police and troops fought militant squatters in a rundown section of eastern Berlin Wednesday and evicted them after some of the worst violence in the city in a decade.

About 300 people were arrested and 85 injured as the squatters hurled paving stones and Molotov cocktails at police, and officers fought back with tear gas and water cannons. Some squatters were arrested only after hand-to-hand fighting in rooms of the run-down buildings they occupied.

The violence was triggered by Monday`s police eviction of squatters in another part of eastern Berlin. That led to rioting Monday night and Tuesday morning in which 137 police were injured and 20 rioters arrested.

The squatters in eastern Berlin`s Mainzer Street dug trenches in the street four feet deep and set up huge barricades to try to keep police out. But the police, reinforced by officers from other parts of Germany and by paramilitary border guards, returned at dawn Wednesday to clear the area.

“After the crimes that took place on Monday evening, no police organization in the world could tolerate such a situation,“ Schultz said.

-“Berlin Squatters Evicted After Fight”, Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1990

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on November 15th, 1990. According to the article some combination of anarcho-leftists, homeless people, and other political extremists had taken over empty buildings and were eager to do battle with the police. This was in response to the police clearing a different though popular squat on Mainzer Straße, earlier in the week.

The violence that the article covers on the 15th only mentions the evacuation of Mainzer Straße in passing. Readers wouldn’t know that, at the time, it was the largest police operation in Berlin’s history. 

Mainzer Strasse1
The evacuation of Mainzer Strasse (Photo via)

After squatters located at Pfarrstraße 112, Cotheniusstraße 16, and Pfarrstraße 110 were cleared in the span of an hour by 600 policemen early in the day, squatters at Mainzer Strasse head to the demonstration, and barricade the street before they leave. (One of these evictions is later found to be unlawful, as the occupants had not been properly notified by the housing administration.)

This demonstration, which included both squatters and their supporters, alarms those at Mainzer Strasse, and when they head back they find the barricades taken down and police in the area. The squatters return home and police cordon off the area.

The squatters prepare for the possibility of police action against themselves.

The police do attempt to clear the area, using water cannons and tear gas to break windows, which caused trouble for legal residents of the area. News of the situation spreads and people from all over the city come to Mainzer Strasse to join the fight against the police or to watch.

The squatters put up barricades and reinforce them, while also digging trenches in an attempt to prevent police from entering the area.

Mainzer Strasse2.jpg
The barricade enacted by the squatters. The land evacuator on the right will later be used by the squatters to dig trenches. (Photo via)

The police used water cannons, dogs, and tear gas in their attempts to clear the area and District Mayor Mendiburu tries to get involved by mediating between the squatters and the police.

In the meantime police tried several times to storm the area, but they are unable to make any headway. The squatters call for a press conference in the afternoon, distribute leaflets and collect signatures against the evacuations.

After some time, police announced through loudspeaker that “no measures were planned at the Mainzer Straße houses”.

Mainzer Strasse4
Police pelted by rocks made it difficult for them to storm the houses (Photo via)

By 2am, the situation had calmed considerably.

The next day there is some back and forth of the police activity and the rioters fixing the barricades, but at some point in the early morning, a fire is discovered in a cellar of house No. 23 and, knowing that firefighters would have a hard time getting through the barricades, squatters quickly put it out.

It’s near 6am when another fire breaks out in No. 23. People think this is sabotage, and the call to the police asking them to suspend their attack until the fire is extinguished goes ignored. Firefighters handover to the police the key to the fire hydrant, refusing to enter the street as they do not want to be gassed in the fray. Fortunately, the squatters succeed on their own to extinguish the fire again.

Finally, the 3,000 policemen armed with guns with rubber bullets and water cannons, while using multiple helicopters and large shields clear hundreds of people out of Mainzer Strasse.

Mainzer Strasse3.jpg
Police using water cannons on Mainzer Strasse (Photo via)


Mainzer Strasse6.jpg
Arrests at Mainzer Strasse (Photo via)

That night, 15,00 people march in solidarity with the now homeless people of Mainzer Strasse while police are seen tossing furniture, dishes, books and stereos out of the windows and onto the streets.

The tenuous connection to Inka Bach’s story, “Squatters,” is that the unnamed main character listens to the sound of riots at night as she sleeps at her own squat in Weinhaus Huth.

Are the riots in Inka Bach’s story the riots during the evacuation of Mainzer Strasse?

I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.

Chicago Tribune readers likely wouldn’t know about the what happened at Mainzer Straße. Not being German, it’s understandable.

But Germans would.

They might read Inka Bach’s story and remember other incidents of squatters against the police. They might remember one of the largest incidents of rioting and police activity ever in Berlin, which came to include literally thousands of policemen, many injured and over 400 arrested. All in an attempt to empty out one strip of apartments along Mainzer Strasse.

Mainzer Strasse5.jpg
Mainzer Strasse before the clearance. (Photo via)

Because rioting, or specifically, the combination of rioting, squatting and Berlin does has a particular history in Berlin and Germany beyond, and while this event may not be referenced in Bach’s work, it certainly is part of the collective consciousness that German readers of Inka’s story have access to.

And further, as its within the narrative world that the characters inhabit, the woman in Inka Bach’s story would know about the possibility of a violent eviction. It’s something that she would be thinking about.

That night the riots go on longer than usual. All the windows in the vicinity have been smashed. Her eyes are swollen from tear gas. At three in the morning she binds her wounds and her own injured leg. They hear the first lies in the news, about the dead man and about his death. Three hours later she takes the S-Bahn to work in the market. All the windows are intact, the streets cleaned, no more stones, no shards, no barricades. But she feels the lemon in her pocket, which is supposed to help against tear gas, she is still wearing a black scarf round her neck. Her eyes are still swollen and red. So did she no dream it? As if it hadn’t happened.

She’s against the grand sweep of things; but on a small scale everything is becoming clearer.

In the evening the crows come, darken the sky behind the lindens, fly in formation over towards the Staatsbibliothek.

A sky which refuses to snow.

-Inka Bach’s “Squatters”





Inka Bach, “Squatters”

Ray Moseley. “Berlin Squatters Evicted After Fight”. Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-11-15/news/9004040662_1_squatters-west-berlin-police





1.2 Inka Bach, The Weinhaus Huth, and the history in “Squatters”

first pic - weinhaus-huth-1990s

The old Weinhaus Huth upright and alone under the moonlight. An oasis, illuminated, inviting and a stronghold all at the same time, silent and proud. Recognizable near and far by the small, eight-pillared tower on its roof. The whole building is a lighthouse, solitary in light-grey stone; with its oriels [sic] and high windows it emanates an old fashioned glamour. 

-Inka Bach “Squatters”

The history of Inka Bach and of Weinhaus Huth, also known as Haus Huth, is an interesting one. I didn’t realize until after a second reading of her story “Squatters”, that Haus Huth is the building that was being occupied. A building that she herself lived in for a time. 

See, Haus Huth, the wine house, was built in 1912. The wine store and restaurant took up the first two floors of the building. The remaining upper three floors were rented out.

Most buildings in the Platz were destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during WWII. Those that were merely damaged were quickly back in use. Until the UprisingDuring the Uprising, some of these buildings that were rebuilt burned down. In the following years, the numbers of tenants that remained in the area dwindled. 

The Berlin Wall, which bisected Potsdamer Platz, was built in 1969 and to make way for the increasing no-man’s-land around the wall, other buildings were demolished. But Weinhaus Huth still stood, unmarred.

Weinhaus Huth and the remains of Haus Vaterland (Photo via)

Inka Bach grew up in both parts of Berlin. Born in 1956, she left East Germany with her family in 1972. She obtained her master’s and doctorate. After moving around from Paris and New York, she ended up moving into the Weinhaus Huth in West Berlin with her newborn son in the summer of 1989.

Inka Bach (Photo via)

The father of Inka’s son lived on the third floor of Haus Huth. They all lived in a cramped 800-square foot loft and soon, the family included a daughter.

Living at Haus Huth was…odd. While there was substantial space for her children to play, there was very few other children to play with. The view from living in the center of, in the very heart of Berlin was “unobstructable”. But there were no other people around. No buildings. Just empty space where buildings used to stand.

Weinhaus Huth (Photo via)

But the rent was very cheap. Parking was easy. Police never bothered handing out tickets. The Berliner Philharmonie (Berlin Philharmonic), Martin-Gropius-Bau (a 19th century exhibition hall and concert venue), and the Neue Nationalgalerie (modern art museum which currently is temporarily closed under renovations), were each within a ten minute walking distance. I literally checked. And she took her children often.

By 1990 the Wall came down. And soon after, the Platz began to change.

The fifteen thousand acres to the southwest of Potsdamer Platz, which cost 93 million deutsche marks and included the Weinhaus Huth, was bought by the Daimler Group and quickly became one of the most valuable properties in Berlin. The tenants of Weinhaus Huth, including Inka Bach, held out as long as they could but eventually, they were all given financial settlements to move.

The money was no doubt substantial but it did mean no more squatters in Haus Huth. No more tenants with rent as low as 2.50 deutsche marks per square meter either. But all of Potsdamer Platz sprang up around Weinhaus Huth.

But it’s in December of 1983 that the characters of “Squatters” live on the fourth floor of Weinhaus Huth.

View of Haus Huth in 1978 (Photo via)

They include a couple and a few other men. The police come and search the apartment half-heartedly. Near the end of the story, in November of 1990, the unnamed woman goes to work and hears riots from her apartment. The woman notes the changing Platz and thinks “The time of the Wall on Potsdamer Platz is over. Built up excess pressure escapes. Construction fences are put up and block the view of the wide lawn. The grass where Curt Bois stood and shouted, ‘I can’t find Potsdamer Platz! Here – this can’t be it!’

Construction surrounding Potsdamer Platz (Photo via)

“[No more] young couples [who] used to sun themselves between the rubble and the dandelions” (Bach).

The Weinhaus Huth had emptied of squatters and tenants alike. And soon Haus Huth would be assimilated into Germany’s modernist sensibilities just like all the rest.

Currently, Weinhaus Huth is known for its wine shop, Lutter & Wegner, situated snuggly among the many building which eclipse it.

Terrace view of Lutter & Wegner (Photo via)

And as for Inka Bach, after she separated from the father of her children she moved from back to Schöneberg, where she still lives today. She received both a scholarship and a prize from the Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung, a foundation which “promotes literature in the cultural field and, above all, conferences and research projects on Berlin and Brandenburg-Prussian history in the academic field.” She received a grant from the Berlin Senate for women’s grants. Inka Bach has received two grants from the international artists’ village Schöppingen, a grant from the Amsterdam Literature Program, and a grant from the The International Writers and Translators’ House in Ventspils, Latvia. Inka Bach went on to write eleven books, six radio plays, two plays, and work on two documentaries, one of which she directed herself. 

Inka Bach circa 2014 (Photo via)






Inka Bach, “Squatters”

Peter Schneider, Berlin Now: The City after the Wall







1.1 An Overview of Potsdamer Platz and the Shifting Situational Perspectives: through the lens of Inka Bach’s “Squatters”



In central Berlin, Potsdamer Platz is a major public square and intersection which has been the foundation through which major shifting narratives in and about Germany’s place in the world have been negotiated and fought over. The fights were numerous, bloody and often, with the world watching.

Potsdamer Platz during the Roaring Twenties (Photo via)

It’s here where after the twinkling lights of the Roaring Twenties have faded, the terrifying Nazi regime began to secretly jail, interrogate, and torture it’s prisoners. Nearly every building of the Platz was destroyed in the Allies bombing of Berlin, save the Weinhaus Huth and the old ruins of the Hotel Esplande.

Potsdamer Platz after the Allied bombing of Berlin (Photo via)

After the Nazi’s were defeated, Germany was divided with East Germany ruled by the communist Soviets. Buildings were rebuilt, but in East Germany, working and living conditions would worsen. By June of 1953, a workers strike would be decisively and brutally crushed, with 55 officially dead. Other estimates put the death toll as high as 125. And West German officials placed the tolls far higher, with as many as 83 people dying in the uprising, 1,838 injured and 5,100 arrested. It was also claimed that 17 or 18 Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot demonstrating workers. However, these figures are disputed.

Red Army Tanks shooting demonstrators in Potsdamer Platz during Uprising of 1953 (Photo via)

The proxy wars of the Cold War and the divisions of Germany and Berlin, both structural and literal, would inflame political tensions and come to be a seminal moment in Germany’s history.

Barbed wire and tank traps were set up prior to construction of the wall. (Photo via)

In 1961, the Berlin Wall would come to bisect the Platz and eventually, the Platz itself would become a part of the border zone, a death strip.

Berlin Wall at the Potsdamer Platz 1975 (Photo via)

The Berlin Wall would fall at the end of 1989, and eight months later, to celebrate, Roger Waters, lead singer and guitarist of the band Pink Floyd, would hold in the most famous former no-man’s-lands in the world, one the largest rock concerts of all times. A rough estimate of 350,000 bought out the show, and right before it had started, the gates were opened, enabling another 100,000 to see it. Soon after Germany would be reunified.


But Inka Bach’s short story, “Squatters” takes place before reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall, during the divided Germany. Here, the history of the Platz is indivisible from the political struggles which have defined Berlin.

View looking over Wall and “no-man’s-land” into East Berlin from Potsdamer Platz – spring 1985. The graffito in black that runs near the top of the Wall for almost the whole width of the photo reads ‘Germany is bigger than the Federal Republic.’ (Photo via)

Empty buildings like statuaries surround Potsdamer Platz, and squatters have taken up these abandoned edifices for themselves.

Buildings surrounding the Wall at Potsdamer Platz 1983 (Photo via)

A group of young people live illegally in an abandoned building, listening for police sirens and hoping they don’t get evicted. When the police do come, they seem to go through the motions of investigating those squatting. They look around and even joke with the squatters, and they do not forcibly evict them. Bach notes that some of the policemen are younger than those living in the building.

Times are difficult for many and the economic disparity crosses nationality. Turkish women and Poles sell their wares on the street, while men who look the same drive Mercedes and have the same haircuts and carry their briefcases. (Bach 114) 

Part of what makes the Inka Bach’s story interesting is that in moments, her sentences are often merely fragments, incomplete and shifting, creating an impression of permanent volatility:

You can count piles on Potsdamer Platz. Piles of sand, piles of rubble, mountains of stones, earth. Built up. The digger hums. A monotone, constant whine, pounding, but nothing is shaken. The piles grow bigger, turn into grown up piles; they gradually grow towards each other and form banks, dams, and dykes….Sometimes you think you can hear the sound of canons, gunfire. In the coming night the full moon will shine and stand clear over the area. (113)

The shifting, uneasy narrative runs congruent to the history of the Platz which Bach’s story recounts. The narrative dips through 1994, and then shifts to the mid-1980’s. Characters here think of the mid-1960’s and the Third Reich, and changes again.

The narrative is quick and confusing, daring the reader to keep up with it. Much like an area in the heart of Berlin. This place, a represention of death for so many. Destroyed again and again. Rebuilt again and again. Left abandoned and bisected by a Wall, until the Wall fell. Shifting again and again.

But after reunification came redevelopment, and with that came commercialized entertainment for the masses. Today there are movie theaters and shopping malls, nightclubs and apartments. Personally, I think it looks like a theme park.

Or, perhaps I’m just a cynic.

Despite the odd evolution of the area, Germans have always been better than anyone at at properly contending with their own sordid history and acknowledging it, while giving their past the importance it deserves and providing proper context.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Personal photo)

One American’s opinion doesn’t matter, and there’s not to say that the “Americanization” of the Platz didn’t come without controversy, it did. Many had some serious reservations about the changing nature of the Platz.

But maybe it’s okay that not every spot of death around the world be consecrated. Maybe it’s alright that the shifting nature of this place is a feature.

Not a flaw, but a certainty.






Inka Bach’s “Squatters”

Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now: The City After the Wall