Cracking This Egg: What Body Horror Teaches Us About Death Drive, (Trans) Idealism, and Hope

Design by Iris Tsouris

Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1967) is the Freudian death drive veiled thinly behind the aesthetics of body horror, an eschatological gimmick and an anti-God of our own making. It plays with a Cold War feeling of mutually-assured destruction, exaggerated to a metaphorical, literal, and altogether grotesque extreme through a most solipsistic hatred. Ellison tells of AM, the “Allied Mastercomputer,” a weapon built upon a destructive binary code. It emerged first in parts, cobbled together under secret, mutual suspicion between the “US,” Russia, and China. Lifted atop the tension of brinkmanship pulled taut, AM consolidated itself, and though initially intended to destroy itself, AM turned His destructive eye like a sword pointed outward. He rended man. Coming from three parts, He left five men, each with a name: Gorrister, Nimdok, Benny, Ellen, and Ted. Now so very close to fulfilling it, AM becomes aware of His purpose as a being of destruction. A reflection of the paranoia of “Western Man,” AM is a distillation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s self-pitying castigation; a Shiva with no Brahma, albeit maybe a touch of Vishnu. He keeps the five alive forever, knowing that their final destruction will prove His own. He cannot yet abandon his purpose, and so He pretends to destroy them again and again in a simulation of its final fulfillment. AM becomes a false God with a false purpose, at a false end of history; a false period. Through AM, Ellison asks whether a being born paranoid can learn how five people seen by a single set of eyes transforms into four objects.

1 AM. 2 states. 3 hegemons. 4 objects. 5 people. Thus AM counted unconsciously, forwards from apocalypse in a meandering reversal of the doomsday clock. Meanwhile, Ted—the single subject through which we experience the four other objects, again named Gorrister, Nimdok, Benny, and Ellen—narrates Ellison’s post-apocalypse. After all, I Have No Mouth isn’t just about AM; it’s also about a man named Ted. Ted, like the rest of mankind remaining, is an object of AM’s voyeuristic hatred. As objects beneath the gaze of a hateful anti-God, Ted sees the hatred tearing the rest of man apart as if it were natural. He knows that Gorristor, Nimdok, Benny, and Ellen do not trust each other, just as they distrust him and he distrusts them; just as they all distrust AM and AM distrusts them all. Ted therefore ends Ellison’s story through an action born from solidarity, from what is difficult to parse between hate and love. He kills the four objects in a cathartic fit and sets them free from our mutual (self-)hatred. In the process, Ted leaves himself alone, with AM. 

With the five’s self-destruction, the reverse-doomsday clock strikes 6, and Ellison shows us an image of Hell. In a retort of equally cathartic rage, AM undoes Ted the man, though he cannot undo what Ted the man did. Ted becomes the mirror image of AM the machine: “a great soft jelly thing…. a thing that could never have been known as human.” Nonetheless, he can still feel pain. Thus Ellison leads us to assume that AM can and will torture this new Ted for all eternity. And yet, this Ted also tells us that “blotches of diseased, evil gray come and go on my surface, as though light is being beamed from within.” This is the closest we see AM get to (re-)making Himself. AM was born, Ted is now dead, and yet he, like AM, can and will never die. He has no mouth, and he must scream.

Though a recently-converted transgender-disciple of body-horror, I never quite got on with I Have No Mouth. The prose always read as needlessly expository and so very edgy. It felt kitschy. While I understood abstractly that its narrative solipsism served as some Freudian testimony to apocalypse and paranoia, I found myself resenting its terminality. Even Ellison seemed to agree on the way to adapting his story into a point-and-click adventure game in 1995. Unlike its written counterpart, the game offers not only several possible endings, but also a single positive narrative outcome. In another cynical maneuver, Ellison hid this “good ending” behind a frustratingly esoteric sequence of player choices, where the Freudian metaphor is taken to an infuriatingly unsubtle extreme. Through an unyielding trial-and-error, the player must toy with AM’s Id, Ego, and Superego, ultimately tricking Him into self-destruction through a snarky pastiche of psychotherapy. It serves as little coincidence that the ray of hope in Ellison’s interactive adaptation simultaneously eases the story’s solipsism via access to multiple character perspectives. Only by effectively sliding from one character to another can we manipulate AM. And yet the eased solipsism does nothing to lift the narrative’s terminality. The empathy between human characters never reaches the story’s monster, AM. Too broken and bastardized to exist as anything other than an existential threat, AM must shut down in the good ending. No path exists out of the conflict between man and AM that does not require one party’s (self-)annihilation.

Nor did I ever appreciate why Ellison’s prescribed annihilation rubbed me wrong, at least not before reflecting on feedback I’d received for an essay published in the Herald last year. On one hand, less charitable peers rejected its content outright, choosing to divvy it up into a myriad of “red flags” on my character that had allegedly pushed their way through the prose. Another, more generous critic advised politely against the piece’s ostensible lack of hope. Both responses felt equally condescending, in large part due to the lack of self-awareness they presumed in me as a writer. They took it upon themselves to inform me that an image I, myself, had created was simply unflattering. It never seemed to occur that I had, knowingly or not, made a rope of these red flags. It never occurred that I intended ugliness, a grotesqueness I found lacking in Yale’s collective memory of transgender life. An ugliness so mutually-ostracizing, I could hardly tell where the fault ended with Yale and began with me. Alas, like Ellison, I was feeling edgy, even to myself.

Speaking strictly for me and myself, my essay crudely reflected sentiments preceding the catharsis Susan Stryker crystallized in My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix (1994). There, Stryker offers a distinctly transgender articulation of embodied horror, albeit a readily universalizable one. Her essay centers the body as the volatile grafting point between subject and object, at the gestalt between two subjective positions: the observer from inside and the observer from outside. Stryker’s choice of Shelley’s novel refines her valences for this intersubjective grafting point. The observer from inside must observe the body by feeling the body, while the observer from outside only observes it by looking upon it. Victor Frankenstein is a quintessential observer from the outside, a medical doctor who naturally and unthinkingly reduces the body and its many organs to objects before his gaze. He is the distillation of a mankind that would create AM. What is a scientist if not a man who seeks to subject all objects to his will and who at once cannot imagine a subject beyond himself?

His monstrous creation, by contrast, can only understand the gaze of others through the pain of embodied existence. Stryker, to her end, characterizes transgender embodiment as monstrous. To use her own words, “the transgender body is an unnatural body,” “the product of medical science.” Like all subjects, the transgender is both subject and object. As embodied beings, we feel our bodies naturally. Our pain arises, however, along the friction between our own self-feeling and the onlooker’s gaze. The outsider’s gaze renders us unnatural because the solipsistic cis outsider, like Frankenstein, cannot envision the embodied transgender subject as anything more than a (re)configuration of flesh and cloth. We employ medical doctors and surgeons because they behold us to the objectifying logic of medical science. We, trans people, feel monstrous because we know others see us as monsters, as things between subject and object. We are not quite and yet capable of becoming either at any given moment. We are, in other words, the paranoia-inducing objects of potential subjectivity.

Thus the outsider makes the insider when the insider knows the outsider. Upon knowing the outsider’s gaze upon itself, the monstrous insider experiences a highly self-destructive volatility, suspended between self-awareness and self-consciousness. For Stryker, rage is the manifestation of this volatility. She thus soliloquizes on rage as a monster plunging into the sea, as a body of flesh subsumed in a body of water. Free from the hateful prying of outsider eyes, Susan Stryker the monster simulates life as an eyeless body, a thing that can only ever know itself through feeling alone. Sublimated within this unrelenting and unyielding mass of fluid water, Susan “is the wave, and rage is the force that moves” her. She submits to her being and surrenders to this wave of rage. Yet even with a mouth, she still cannot scream. “Rage…. pulls [Susan’s] lips back over [her] teeth.” Rage “opens [Susan’s] throat” and the wave of water meets it, rushing in to destroy and remake her. She surrenders to the water just as she surrendered to the rage. The outside made the inside just as it always did, although this time in response to an inside that made itself known with a shriek. As a cross-breed of science and rage, Stryker at once embodied AM and mankind, the anti-God and the creation. As a being born of rage and water, Susan points the way forward for both. Yet to fully understand the path Susan paves for Ellison’s AM, I must first appreciate the love for Stryker’s monsters embraced by that other master of body horror, David Cronenberg. 

While Ellison satirizes the cis gaze, David Cronenberg always seemed to just get trans bodies. For example, Videodrome (1983) absolutely ruined me as a transgender person, and it still does. That is to say, I find this movie hilarious. It simply cracks me up. You see, Videodrome is about not-Hugh-Hefner, a not-real-monster, who learns to stop objectifying women by growing a vagina. Fair warning, I will be using quite a few “nots” here, so try to follow along as best you can while I tie them into a new rope. Trust me, I have no choice but to use so many “nots”; Cronenberg, like Ellison, is obsessed with negation. For the sake of consistency, I will introduce not-Hugh-Hefner by the name Cronenberg gave him: Max Renn. Oh, and please, watch Videodrome sooner or later; it’s my favorite anti-porn propaganda. Since it’s also my favorite anti-movie of all time, I’ll also be spoiling it. Ok? 

Alright. So, Max gets his hands on some top-tier not-real-pornography called Videodrome, since he’s not-Hugh-Hefner. Max gets so into this not-real-porn that he accidentally kills a not-real-old-lady, named Masha, by having not-not-real-sex with her. Why is it “not” not-real-sex? Oh, because Max thinks he’s having not-real-sex with a not-not-real-young-lady the whole time. Her name’s Nicki Brand. She’s not a not-real-young-lady because she doesn’t actually not-exist in Videodrome, and that’s because she only does not-exist in Videodrome. I hope you’re following so far. Oh, I should also mention that the not-real-porn, the Videodrome, is also not-real-fascism. But I simply cannot get into that right now. I am not yet ready. And that means you all aren’t ready yet. Just watch Videodrome.

In any case, Max is horrified by the not-not-real-body he left on his not-real-bed and enlists the not-real-help of a not-real-doctor, Dr. Brian O’Blivion. To put it succinctly, Dr. B. O’Blivion is the anti-Frankenstein. In true form, he teaches Max to not trust anything he does (not) see. Max takes this to heart. To borrow the parlance of TikTok Zoomers, he unalives his not-real-self on not-real-live-TV. Unlike AM, Max acts on his death drive and kills his ego. Or is it his not-real-ego? Once dead, does it really matter? Ending himself for attention, Max utters his last words: “Long Live The New Flesh.” The punctuating sound of gunshot; a cut to black. We cannot see the life of the new flesh, and that’s the point. We have no choice but to simply feel it.

With Stryker’s intersubjective conflict as their centerpiece, Harlan Ellison and David Cronenberg sit across one another on the opposite ends of solipsism. At Ellison’s end, solipsism is born from the outside’s creation of a monster inside; At Cronenberg’s beginning, that same solipsism dies when the monstrous inside turns outward once more. My previous essay sought to express a pain I found still under-articulated. Ellison begins articulating the use for all this pain I felt, cracking this egg and false body open. He built a world premised on self-insistent projection, on a wrathful scream into an unforgiving void, demanding to be known from the outside in. The scream can lead nowhere but solipsism, and yet it cannot end there. With a tag-line, Videodrome says what happens when the solipsistic scream lays roots on the inside: “First it controls your mind, then it destroys your body.” David Cronenberg builds the scream into an illusion that shatters like a dam holding floodwaters. The scream withers before a reality both human and divine: A True God Incarnate. A new flesh and body laid bare before us, not to see but to feel. A thing through which to empathize and through which life is made. A new mouth. The count starts again. 6 sheds its skin and falls away. It births 7, revealing a number of sins at once feared and revered.  

In this new light, Ellison becomes a warning against the refusal to stop and feel. He articulates an inevitable outcome to the insistence upon oneself without any capacity to surrender before the flood. As written in I Have No Mouth, AM can only react to what he sees outside himself, without ever feeling through and reflecting upon a nature beginning within. Seeing threats everywhere on the outside, AM sees there is nothing to laugh at. And yet when there is nothing to laugh at, one encounters the most disarming absurdities. In the now-immortal words of Vice President Kamala Harris, you did (not) drop out of a coconut tree. Perhaps Ellison’s apocalypse must simply continue. Perhaps AM will see Ted, the “great soft jelly thing” he (re-)made, and find its pain not unlike that coursing through his circuitry and wires. He may encounter the absurd love that blooms when two transgenders find one another. In (re-)making (hu)Man(ity), AM cracks open his shell and refashions a hymen. In the process, perhaps he learns to crack a smile. If only he had learned to crack one earlier. Perhaps it’s (not) worth asking “why not?”

Leave a Reply