I have trouble writing self-contained journal entries. Since last fall, I've been journaling prolifically and managing to post – shit – virtually none of it. When I started this entry almost a month ago, I wanted to write something to figure out why the character I played in ptevis' game of My Life With Master seemed so compelling to me even as she ultimately turned out to be irredeemably evil. But for the entry to be intelligible to people who aren't me, I realized that I'd have to introduce parts of the game, Taussig's theory of defacement, and some stuff about the nature of decisions that was preoccupying me last quarter. Oh bother. I fear that like Gay Arturo, I'm not adept at summarizing anything, but I'm confident in my readers' ability to skim anything that isn't interesting.
Cosette's story: A lengthy summary that nevertheless leaves much unsaid
(Some details are elided for simplification, some because I recorded it a week or two after the game ended. Some of the fun interactions also got left out because the details didn't turn out to be super-relevant)
Monsieur's banquet table had become a fearful presence in the little town on the Black Sea. The exiled French chef's gustatory pleasures were frightening and perverse, which is to say, their genius was radically underappreciated by everyone but Cosette. When Monsieur cooked, it transformed people -- not just the people he broiled and baked, but the people who ate his dishes, too. And this is how Cosette became pregnant four long years ago, a delicate condition that waxed and waned but lately had been waxing. Now Cosette and the other minions were charged with providing Monsieur certain ingredients he needed for his dishes.
Cosette was a tiny woman and had little chance of besting anyone in a fight, so when the master asked her to bring him the hand of an honest man, she hatched a horrible plan: She tricked some of the town's children into trying her poisoned-berry pies and then announced that some men in the town had crossed Monsieur one too many times, stealing from his land and speaking against him. Until they came and confessed their wrongs and asked for the master's forgiveness, they and their families were under Monsieur's curse. Some of their children were already sick, and would surely die if their fathers did nothing. Cosette interviewed the men who came to the castle – to the dishonest ones, she proclaimed the curse lifted and gave them the speech from The Godfather, "someday, and that day may never come, you will be asked to perform a service for Monsieur..." – but when she found an honest man, she convinced him to sacrifice his hand for his children. Of course, the curse had been a lie the whole time – she hadn't made the pies poisonous enough to kill anyone, at least in theory.
The second strand of Cosette's story had started, more or less, with small talk and social niceties. Since she'd been pregnant, Cosette hadn't been able to eat with others – the very thought turned her stomach – except on Sundays, when she went to mass and then shared dinner at the abbey with the abbess (an NPC brilliantly played by fengshui), some of the nuns, and townsfolk who'd brought food for the Sunday repast. Every week Cosette baked a plump loaf of bread to bring down with her, though no one ever touched it, and chatted about the baby she was expecting. She wasn't really talking about the baby, though, so much as she was imitating a pregnant woman for social reasons. She used conversations about babies to magnify herself and asked about parents' commitment to their children as a prelude to her villainy. Such a special, happy time! Gradually, though, as Cosette's self-loathing increased – i.e. she won villainy rolls and lost connection rolls – the baby became more real in her womb and her conversations. In effect, her growing awareness of her monstrousness and the desire to be something else came about as / through growing awareness of her baby. She started to ask: What kind of mother will I be for my son? And what kind of son could be born to such a monstrous mother?
Then Monsieur asked that she bring him the body of a child who'd never known sin. Cosette's theology was hazy, but she knew that even the smallest babies born weren't free from original sin – and so she decided to find an unborn baby. After trying unsuccessfully to secure a fetus by relatively humane means, she steals at night into the bedroom where the mayor's very pregnant wife is resting. "The mayor hasn't come to seek Monsieur's forgiveness yet," Cosette says, "and you owe Monsieur a child. Which will it be? One of the two sick ones, or this unborn one, who's still nothing but a lump of flesh?" The mayor's wife chose the unborn child, and Cosette cut it from her womb.
But when she saw the baby, who died in the process of this very late abortion, Cosette was overcome with horror and grief, and she held the baby to her as if it were her own. She couldn't bear to take it to be eaten, so she went to the abbey and confessed to the abbess what she'd done. Cosette spent the rest of the night there, praying, and the abbess had the child's body prepared for burial. But then she told Cosette to return the child's body to its family and seek their forgiveness.
Cosette didn't know what to do. Gregor (jackshandy's minion) owed her a favor because she'd helped him cut off the priest's foot and he was tight with the mayor's daughter to boot, but the bastard wouldn't do it. Cosette, despite being desperate, wouldn't approach Gregor as anything other than imperious, a fact which both contributed (mechanically) to her inability to persuade Gregor and prefigured her subsequent inability to apologize to the Mayor's family.
Cosette entered into a scene already full of fear and fainting as Gregor's attempts to earn the affections of the mayor's beautiful and spunky teenaged daughter were complicated by the recent violence against her mother. Enter Cosette, still covered in blood. She'd come to apologize and return the dead infant to its family for burial, but she found she couldn't. She stepped into the room half-panicked at the prospect of apologizing, but as she looked at the sniveling mother, she felt nothing but loathing and a desire to remove herself from this turmoil within and without. So when they asked her why she'd come, she paused, then asked snidely, "How are the other two children? Are they well yet?" Then Cosette fled out into woods, but to her horror, she found she still had the dead baby. She couldn't bear to return to the abbess after having failed her mission. And so, eventually, she took the infant to her master, who wouldn't let her even hold it any more.
...and then a day's passed and the conversation's changed to Cosette's quickly growing pregnancy and her sincere plea to the master to consider his unborn son. But Monsieur was less than happy about this news, and declared that the baby must never be born, or he'd be Monsieur's doom. "Bring him to me when the oil is hot."
Unfortunately, at the time Cosette couldn't think of a way to bring the baby to him without giving birth to it (I didn't remember until just now that a C-section can qualify as not being born – yeah, I'm a little slow), and seeing how that was what she wanted anyway, she took herbs that would induce labor. She and the baby arrived back at the master's ruined castle just as her fellow minions were trying (again) to resist the master's commands. At the same time, the prince arrived for whom Monsieur had been preparing the banquet, but Asa (fengshui's minion) had tipped him off about the master's evil, and he arrived with an army at his back. As Gregor fought with Monsieur, seeing the baby distracted the master and the prince ran him through with his sword.
Trying to protect herself and her monstrous baby from the soldiers, Cosette declared that she'd been cursed and told the soldiers to stay away. But this curse, unlike her previous one, wasn't a lie – it started to become true even as she said it. In a last-ditch effort to escape, she threw her baby toward the soldiers. The prince, who was supposedly noble and virtuous, caught him on the sword that had already spit his father. And Cosette, the last of her humanity gone, dissolved into dust and cobwebs and blew away on the wind with the ashes of the burning castle.
Why it worked: Lit crit or something like it
One of the reasons this game worked for me was that it felt like it had a lot of depth, filled with symbols and recurring motifs – curses, parenthood, demanded apologies, the abbess as parallel to the master, etc. – whose patterns I sensed but couldn't quite exhaust consciously. Hell, I felt like I'd enjoy writing several different papers about the game if it were a text and I an English class. I also think this was one of the first games I've played with such a strong symbolic element, and while I was occasionally clunky about introducing it, I really liked that as a way to make my character's actions meaningful and clarify what was at stake in them. That symbolic element seemed to grab me more than practical character goals do. (That makes sense to me, since it's also more or less how I operate in real life. I have trouble working toward concrete medium long-range goals and tend to find my motivation primarily immanent within whatever it is I'm doing.)
Cosette's pregnancy was her point of connection to others, but it also estranged her from them. As the baby grew, so did her humanity and her inclination to reach out to others, culminating in her baby's baptism and subsequent birth. But parallel to this growth her monstrosity also increased, culminating in a prior birth – the baby Cosette stole from its mother's womb. The relationship between these two lines of growth wasn't incidental; they required each other both emotionally and mechanically. At a certain point, doing something horrible doesn't point to Cosette's depravity, but to her humanity.
At the start of one of the game sessions, fengshui totally dared me to go off into abstruse theory from my exam list – Michael Taussig's work in particular – and its relevance to the game. But once I sat down and thought about it for a couple minutes, I realized that Taussig does actually do a pretty good job describing what happened on an intuitive level for me within the game. In Defacement, Taussig explores how destroying or transgressing something can paradoxically bring it to life. Consider, for example, how everyone would react if the statue of Jedediah Springfield were beheaded or someone accused him of being a pirate. Not only would he come to life as an issue for the town, but people would start to experience him as a living person. Taussig's theory is that the power of the sacred is a product of defacement. (there's more to it than that, but that's good enough for what I want to say now)
I managed to horrify myself and I think everyone else with the scene where Cosette cut the baby from its mother's womb. More importantly for the story, Cosette was horrified with what she'd done, and after the fact I realized that Taussig gives a good account of the dynamics here. Cosette's violence defaced her humanity to such an extent that she was horrified and sought to end the violence she was part of – but horror is a human reaction. Thus by the magic of defacement, Cosette's inhuman deed brought her humanity to life and gave her the will to try to resist Monsieur. Taking the baby from its mother's body made Cosette's baby more real to her. The child that had known no sin had too close a resemblance to the baby that Cosette must've secretly been waiting and longing for, from time to time, all those years she was pregnant. This follows the logic of defacement, too – killing one baby brings another to life. The dynamics of defacement also help explain why issues around sex and children so easily crystallize political turning points. But what's neat about it here is that the two defacements mirror each other: reacting in horror (i.e. reacting humanly) meant that the baby as a symbol of Cosette's humanity would become more real, while reacting to the dead fetus made the literal baby seem more real.
Contrast this affirmation through defacement to the failed mimesis of humanity that Cosette started the game with. All Cosette's early attempts to connect to others through social niceties just ended up pointing back to the public secret of her depravity, making her seem less human because they were so clearly fake. Likewise when Cosette tried unsuccessfully to apologize, she reverted to what superficially resembled a social call – "How are your children doing? Are they well yet?" The first excessive command (i.e. Monsieur's desire for a child who hadn't known sin) had dialectically reinforced Cosette's humanity; the second excessive command (the abbess' dictate that she apologize) reinforced her monstrosity as she found herself asking the mayor's wife about her other children.
So this game shows that monstrosity and humanity aren't simple inverses that always add or multiply to a constant. A slightly different version of how they grow together is built into the game's mechanic of requiring you to go after connections to others if you've been getting too evil and triggering "horror revealed" scenes. But in any case, the idea that depravity and decency can accentuate each other in a life seems very true to me in reflecting on this game.
Or anyway I enjoyed the hyperbolic plot structure based on affirming things like Cosette's humanity through defacement rather than directly. I think that worrying about
I'd also like to add that using pregnancy as a symbol of a woman's humanity is icky and being a feminist, I'd totally tear whoever came up with that interpretation a new one.
Pleasures Frightening and Perverse
Of course, none of the above explains why I found the particular symbols and actions involved compelling. There are two safe ways to answer to that, which both also happen to be true:
Although I'm not currently trying to get pregnant, I'm in the stage of life where I'm thinking increasingly seriously about it, so discourses on pregnancy and the personal / spiritual transformations that accrue around parenthood seem more interesting now than they did a few years ago. But by the end of the game, I was more imitating a pregnant woman than actually talking about pregnancy.
And then there's the issue of choice. Being an American, I tend to see choice itself as consecrating and legitimating whatever's chosen, but I also keep suspecting that a version of Cosette's evil choice is what the academy is imposing on grad students. If sometimes it seems like you need to choose between being a grad student and being human, and if you affirm your choice for the academy, then can you really complain when being a grad student sucks away your humanity and that of your friends? Yes, yes you can. Because the nature of the evil is in imposing the choice and making it seem inevitable. (The basic dilemma here perhaps wants more explanation, but since that's what I was writing about all last quarter anyway, I'll post some of it in my entry for the week after next. I'm planning to post once a week for a while until I get some stuff out of my system. I already have most of the entry for next week, but probably I won't get a chance to work on it again until next Friday)
But the pleasure wasn't just in presenting myself with a model of power, it was about being powerful. There's a pleasure in coldness and quashing one's sentiments. Usually for me this takes the form of being coldly logical as a form of intellectual honesty – it's the way I was raised – though I do see problems with it now. Here's an example: years ago my (vegetarian) sister came back from a youth retreat with other young Unitarian Universalists, and was telling us how all the meat entrees were labeled with names like "Bambi." Good, I said. If people are going to eat meat, they should realize what they're doing. But from there it's an easy jump to reveling in your lack of sentiment. Really, eating cute fluffy animals becomes all the more appealing. And then there's a certain pleasure in contempt for those who are less cold, and for femininity. The flip side of this is that Cosette and I also share a tendency to confess ourselves only to people who seem unlikely to be moved by it (a tendency which disfigures our own deeply held religious sentiments and makes them into objects of contempt, something to be ashamed of or anyway not openly acknowledged) (actually, I may not have this tendency quite like I used to -- I see a lot of counterevidence, too).
I started to wonder, to what extent is Cosette my shadow? To what extent are characters in this game more generally about dancing with shadows? But I think I've already said too much.