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Sarban’s The Sound of his Horn

Johann Heinrich Fuseli, "Nightmare," 1802

862 words

Sarban was the Persian pseudonym of John William Wall (1910–1989), a relatively obscure British diplomat in the Middle East, who wrote five volumes of Gothic stories, short novels, plays, and the like. These were gathered together in the books Ringstones (1951), The Sound of his Horn (1952), The Doll Maker (1953), The Sacrifice (2002), and Discovery of Heretics (2010). Wall wrote relatively little and was a perfectionist who never expected publication. Our main point of departure will be The Sound of his Horn.

In his book-length essay, New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis examines the novel as a reactionary phantasy. Amis was quite well-known at this period for contrasting science fiction (of which he was a literary historian) against fantasy fiction. He believed the former to be progressive, optimistic, and utopian with a center-left bias; whereas fantasy was crabby, archaic, often rural in setting, reactive, and pessimistic. It habitually wore a conservative mask — irrespective of the intentions of the author. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would be the classic example here — whereby a democratic socialist and former demi-Trotskyite wrote the most devastating anti-socialist dystopia ever conceived.

The Sound of his Horn is an anti-Nazi fable which is quite clearly complicitous with its subject — and this becomes more and more obvious as the narrative proceeds. In passing, it bears some relation to the critical fabula On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger, a right-wing critique of National Socialism which is very much a fictionalization of the Conservative Revolution.

Superficially speaking, The Sound of his Horn is critical of fox-hunting and hunting in general, but this only occurs within the perspective of rural piety and a hunting fraternity of a highly conservative bent. In this novella the Germans are the winners of the Second World War which they have re-christened The War of German Rights. One presumes that this Sarban’s allusion to the Confederate idea that the American Civil War was fought to secure States’ Rights. This, in turn, opens up a link to some of those apologies for the Second German Empire which were penned by men like Houston Stewart Chamberlain at the height of the First World War (1914–18).

In Wall’s novel, a ruling German caste has introduced fox-hunting with human beings as part of a post-war master-slave nexus. Although a rather callow conceit, Wall shows some genius in explicating his chosen theme, to which he endlessly returns. One thing which this novel displays all too obviously is that without either the occult or the far right, these genres would be sadly impoverished — in terms of their own ability to harness fantasy or create it out of nothing at all. The novel certainly divides women into hunted birds and predatory cats — the latter part of a hunting fraternity led by a Goering lookalike. The thesis is one of Germanic/bucolic brutality — less the return of the repressed than of a Teutonic mastery given a new lease of life by technical outreach.

Yet it is quite clear that Sarban may be morally critical of this — as is made clear by the terrified breakdown of Alan Querdilion, the main character. But the author is quite clearly equivocal about the whole hunting enterprise due to the surprising levels of intimacy which grow up between pursuer and pursued, hunter and hunted, huntress and huntsman, victor and violator. According to the criminology of the Frankfurt School, human beings either identify with the victim or the oppressor — yet it is quite clear that Sarban does both, given his sado-masochistic sexuality.

There is such a desire to be polite about this in the literary criticism that one almost hesitates to bring it up — even though Kingsley Amis spends half his introduction to the Ballantine Books edition in mulling over it. For it is quite clear that Sarban’s literary interests become most engaged when this literary theme surfaces. In a sexological sense, Wall is divided and on both sides at once, as Querdilion experiences a banquet at the lodge, rural hunting by night, the use of humans as baboons and mock-birds, as well as the thrill of the chase at the end. Just prior to the electrified fence — a source of Boehlen rays — the Reich’s master forester spares Querdilion in an act of feudal generosity and mercy born of satiation.

Yet what this novella really exemplifies is a fascination with the dark side, with everything “politically incorrect” long before this terminology entered common usage. Without the thrill of transgression or “inhumanism,” much of liberal fiction and art would be completely flaccid and without any depth of characterization. It is the presence of the right/wrong side which makes it all worthwhile in the long-term. For, as Wall/Sarban gets more and more excited, amid a world of female birds and predatory cats, rampaging boar-hounds, and human prey, under the flood-lights and next to the barbed wire — as the forces of the Reichs forester gets closer . . . one realizes a salient truth. And this is the fact that in a liberal order, the Right appears to be everywhere powerless — except in one’s dreams. For the societies created out of Enlightenment nostrums have surrendered their entire unconscious to the other side.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for this article, and for drawing attention to Wall’s work.

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