31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 14: “The Knife Thrower” by Steven Millhauser

May 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From We Others: New and Selected Stories

We_Others“The best thing anyone can say about any work of art,” writes Ray Robertson, “whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a three-minute rock song, is that it’s dangerous.” Robertson was referring to danger in art the way that Kafka meant it, as the axe for the frozen sea inside us. But great art is dangerous in a practical way – politically, as a mechanism for social change, ideologically. (There’s a reason why totalitarian regimes kill or imprison the artists first.)

Art can also be dangerous for its recipients. It has the power to change us, to alter our thinking, and, in some cases, to wound us. But what if those wounds were not just psychic, but physical as well? This is the question that occupies American writer Steven Millhauser in “The Knife Thrower.”

Millhauser has been compared to both Borges and Kafka, in part because of the fable-like quality of many of his stories, and in part because of the strange and unfamiliar ways he twists his materials. In his New York Times review of We Others, Jonathan Lethem writes:

Millhauser is the master of what might be called the Homeopathic School of Fantastic Writing: just the barest tincture of strangeness, eyedropped into the body of an otherwise mimetic story. The payoff for this withholding of weirdness can be a reader’s intensified complicity in defamiliarization: a sensation of slippage into the unreal just as we know it ourselves, from our dreams and fantasies.

“The Knife Thrower” employs an uncommon, but not altogether unheard of, style of narration: it is narrated in the first-person plural. This convention – attributing the narration to an anonymous “we” rather than the more specific “I” – has the effect of universalizing the story, making it appear as part of some collective unconscious. The events of the tale do not operate on a singular sensibility; they implicate us all, the reader as well as the characters in the unnamed town that serves as Millhauser’s setting. The story involves an individual (if, improbably, one assumes the royal “we”: there is nothing in the narrative to suggest this kind of affected haughtiness) or, more likely, a group of townspeople venturing out to witness a performance by Hensch, a noted knife thrower.

The first thing we learn about Hensch is that he is famous, although even this detail is not as straightforward as it seems: “Of course we knew his name. Everyone knew his name, as one knows the name of a famous chess player or magician. What we couldn’t be sure of was what he actually did.” First, consider the associations of “a famous chess player or magician.” Surely, if someone were reaching for a profession that might be commonly recognized today, one would think of a movie actor or rock star, not a chess player. Although Millhauser does not specify the time period in which his story is set, the invocation of these rather quaint diversions lends the narrative a sense of history, of time past. The business of knife throwing itself, associated as it is with travelling circuses and other outmoded entertainments, tends to confirm this. The nebulous nature of the setting – both time and place left unspecified – adds to the simultaneous universality and otherworldliness of Millhauser’s tale.

The next thing we learn about Hensch is that his performances are shadowed by rumours of something unsavoury or illicit. “Dimly we recalled that the skill of his throwing had brought him early attention,” Millhauser writes, “but that it wasn’t until he had changed the rules entirely that he was taken up in a serious way. He had stepped boldly, some said recklessly, over the line never before crossed by knife throwers, and had managed to make a reputation out of a disreputable thing.” Readers are left to ponder what it might mean for a knife thrower to step “over the line” (though this will be made clear enough as the story progresses), but what is equally interesting here is Millhauser’s commentary on the trajectory of an artist’s career. Many artists, whatever their particular avocation, begin through imitation. They spend their apprentice periods honing their skills, but remain little more than competent counterfeiters. It is only when they decide to break the rules of their profession – when they strike out on their own, discover an individual voice or style – that they truly flourish.

This can be dangerous for the artist, because it can invite misinterpretation or confusion (think of Joyce’s break from the relative naturalism of his early work to the high modernism of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), or outright rejection and hatred (think of the reaction Bob Dylan faced after going electric at the Newport Folk Festival). In some cases, as with Harry Houdini, the artist can put his own life at risk by pushing his art to previously unheard of extremes.

In Millhauser’s story, however, it is not the effect of the art on the artist that is the primary concern, it is its effect on the viewers. The townspeople gather in the theatre to witness Hensch’s performance not just because they are interested in the practice of knife throwing per se, but because they are curious about whether the impresario would “cross the line” and, if so, what that might entail. Like spectators at a bullfight or a boxing match, the people who congregate to witness Hensch’s show are driven to a significant degree by the prospect that they might witness blood being spilt.

Nor are they disappointed. Hensch, we are told, has perfected the “idea of the artful wound,” the drawing of blood that represents “the mark of the master.” “We had even heard that among his followers there were many, young women especially, who longed to be wounded by the master and to bear his scar proudly.” The association of the wound and young women effectively sexualizes Hensch’s performance, a connection that is extended through the descriptions of his onstage assistant, with her blonde hair and pale skin, who is grazed on the neck as part of the performance: “We imagined the white bandage under the black collar; we imagined other bandages, other wounds, on her hips, her waist, the edges of her breasts.”

Hensch and his assistant are presented as opposing figures and cast in the language of myth or fable: “they stood before us, the dark master and the pale maiden, like figures in a dream from which we were trying to awake.” There is something distinctly Freudian in all of this, the conscious attempt to repress bloodthirsty impulses, the nightmare aspect of the performance, the unspoken desire to be initiated into a secret world through complicity in a forbidden act.

The knife thrower’s performance becomes increasingly hazardous, increasingly violent, to the point that the observers begin to wonder whether he has gone too far. “He had justified his reputation, of that there could be no question; without ever trying to ingratiate himself with us, he had continually seized our deepest attention. But for all that, we couldn’t help feeling that he ought to have found some other way.” Hensch’s need to constantly up the ante in his performances points to an increasing desensitization on the part of his audience, who demand ever more excess, more shock, just to feel a comparable level of sensation.

[It] was certainly true that a man in Hensch’s position had every right to improve his art, to dream up new acts with which to pique curiosity, indeed such advances were absolutely necessary, for without them a knife thrower could never hope to keep himself in the public eye. Like the rest of us, he had to earn his living, which admittedly wasn’t easy in times like these. But when all was said and done, when the pros and cons were weighed, and every issue carefully considered, we couldn’t help feeling the knife thrower had really gone too far. After all, if such performances were encouraged, if they were even tolerated, what might we expect in the future?

The artist’s dilemma: how to remain relevant to an audience that demands ever more extravaganza, ever more bloodshed? What kind of a wound is sufficient to satisfy a rapacious crowd without crossing over into the realm of real damage? Millhauser lets the townspeople off the hook at the end of his story by allowing them feelings of remorse, by making explicit the “anxiety and dismay” that haunts their dreams in the wake of the theatrical show. How much more dangerous, we wonder, is empty spectacle released on an unfeeling, unthinking audience that will not question it, but will only demand more, more, more?

Comments are closed.