Kafka’s Harrow Contraption & Cute
Names for Chinese Torture Devices
This won’t hurt a bit. But as far as absurd literature master Franz Kafka was concerned, worst than physical pain was not to know its origins. His tragic characters were often at loss to fully grasp why they were being accused, punished, and ostracized. Or acted numb, while being described in detail a despicably grotesque torture device, as in the 1919 story In the Penal Colony.
That device, the Harrow, has now been recreated for a show, and unless you’ve read the book in its original German, it may pack an equivalent emotional punch in its visual brutality. It certainly invokes the horrors of the Inquisition, but everything about it, including its name, greatly contrasts with the almost light-hearted names the Chinese had given to similar contraptions.
Without dwelling much in the horrors of torture, an ever present but rarely discussed issue in times of political turmoil, and under the banner of war on terror, for example, we do tend to think about the Catholic Church and its systematic use of it for over 600 years, in many parts of the ‘civilized’ world. And all supposedly in the name of a loving god, no less, of course.
But alas, with all its consistency and increasingly sophisticated methods, the church was far from being the first, the last, or even the worst at it. We’ve been physically torturing each other since, well, you give us a date, as far back as you can conceive it, and we’ll add a few thousand years even farther than that.
Every single conqueror and emperor and invader and king and sheik and warlord and centurion and clan-leader, their followers, family and friends, all went after their opponents with every possible means of inflicting pain till dismemberment and death. All in order to extract information and, no doubt, pleasure. To most, the longer they prolongued the pain, the more satisfaction they got.
For those on the other side of a despot’s ambitions, though, and the ones who loved them, even a quick act of savage brutality was enough to cripple generations to come with grief and despair.
This emotionally taxing post is also a humble way to pay our respects to those whose friends and relatives were visited by a similarly brutal act of horror, in Aurora, Colorado. We join them in the worst Saturday of their lives and hope they find some solace knowing that millions across the world would be willing to share their pain in a heartbeat.
THE BACHELOR MACHINE
The Harrow IRL, described in detail by Kafka, was first built in 1975, by Werner Huck and Paul Gysin, in collaboration with late curator Harald Szeemann. It’s currently part of the New Museum’s Ghosts in the Machine exhibit. Then as now, it evokes other similar devices created by Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Duchamp and others, mentioned on Michel Carroughe’s essay ‘The Bachelor Machines.’
As Animal’s Marina Galperina writes, the ‘condemned aren’t told their charges. They’re strapped into the machine for 12 hours as the needles inscribe their crime, burrowing deeper and deeper into their flesh in indiscernible script. By the time the sixth hours rolls around, the “criminal” reaches “ecstatic epiphany,” intuitively coming to understand their crime. Then, they die.’
The timing of the publishing of In the Penal Colony also coincides with the final years of WWI, and the miserable physical horrors it inflicted on a generation of young Europeans. It may have not been missed to the devout catholic Kafka that much of such horrors had indeed similarities with the ‘work’ of the Inquisition a few centuries earlier.
Kafka’s vivid and methodic description, in the droned voice of the ‘Officer,’ is what gives the book its chilling, cumulative effect. As the ‘Explorer,’ or ‘Traveler,’ listens and interjects impassively, the reader is slowly overwhelmed by the dread and utter hopelessness of the situation to anyone being bounded to such an elaborated instrument of horror.
A similar chill goes up and down your spine just by observing the intricacies of the Harrow, and what could be described as its gory steampunk design. One can almost see blood stains and the unmentionable body fluids that oozed out of the victim, along with his cries of agony and, ultimately, his life. An indelible sensation, indeed.
THE BRAIN HOOP
Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled China between the years of 690 and 705CE, during the Tang Dynasty, was the only woman to rule as an emperor in that country. By most accounts, she led a period of rare freedom for her gender, and relative peace for the land. But she was also responsible for creating the secret police, that soon proved to be ruthless.
Countless, if not all, of her enemies perished in her prisons, but she’s also credited with naming scholars to lead key positions of her government, and to favor Buddhism as the preferred faith in the kingdom. Unlike many of her male counterparts, he relinquished power to her third cousin and died peacefully at the ripe age of 80.
Perhaps such a feminine touch had something to do with the name of some of the most brutal torture methods on record at any time and in any country. Even one of the most rudimentary among them, such as the old-fashioned large vat, with fires around its base, had an enticing name: ‘Inviting the gentleman into the jug.’
Do you know when ‘The Phoenix suns her wings?’ When one hangs the prisoner by his arms and legs from a beam, and spins him. What about when ‘The fairy maid presents fruits?’ Easy: make the victim kneel, with a heavy rack around his neck, and keep adding weight with large tiles, to force it down until his back breaks.
It’s a similar effect, when ‘The jade maiden mounts the stairs’: the accused now stands on a high board with a rack around his neck. Pull the rack back until he keeps his balance only through great strain on his legs. And in case you’re wondering, the one about the brain is to loop a rope around his head, and tighten by placing a stick inside the loop and twisting it.
Such ‘elegance’ and economy of means may not be enough, though. That’s when they would resort to the five penalties: cut the victim’s nose off, then his or her limbs, after which beat him or her to death. Then decapitate them, chop them into mincemeat, and display the remains in the public marketplace.