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Discourse 24.1 (2002) 150-159

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The Epic of the Cephalopod

Allen S. Weiss

Who would pride oneself on a "complete" experience of love? Only a monster of multiplicity, an octopus-man endowed with as many tentacles as the innumerable desires that give an appearance of meaning and an illusion of necessity to our existence, and which, in their totality, constitute the great delusion of our lives.

—Alberto Savinio,
Nuova Enciclopedia

Consider the cephalopod represented in Victor Hugo's ink and wash drawing of an octopus, Pieuvre (Hugo 279), a black, nearly formless stain that evokes the morbid, lugubrious aspect of this animal; described by Hugo: "one would say a beast made of ash that inhabits the water. It is spider-like in form and chameleon-like in coloration." 1 As is the case for the most extreme examples of zoological and botanical classes, such animals touch on the limits of monstrosity, evoking worldly fears and unconscious anguish. One can, in fact, localize the source of the octopus as monster par excellence, as a creature of nightmares and terror, an icon of the horrors of death: it was the moment when Victor Hugo, in Les travailleurs de la mer (1866), substituted the local word pieuvre, used only in the Channel Islands, for the more common term poulpe. One should [End Page 150] remember that in French, the word for the living animal is usually different from that of the carcass to be transformed into foodstuff; Hugo's differentiation between poulpe and pieuvre takes this transformative logic one step further, for while normally man eats poulpe, in Les travailleurs de la mer the opposite is true, pieuvre threatens to eat man, in the most horrendous of manners.

This moment of inestimable horror occurs when the protagonist, Gilliat, in the process of exploring rock formations on the coast, is caught in the grip of a giant octopus. This animal is a monster, the very "enigma of evil," "a viscosity with a will," a boneless, bloodless, fleshless creature with a unique orifice equivocally and disquietingly serving as both mouth and anus; endowed with eight powerful tentacles covered with hundreds of blood-sucking suctions cups, the octopus borders on the chimerical—"a medusa served by eight snakes"—as if coming from a world other than our own. Its attack is pure terror:

It is a pneumatic machine that attacks you. You are dealing with a footed void. Neither claw thrusts nor tooth bites, but an unspeakable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than such suction. The claw is nothing compared to the sucker. The claw, that's the beast that enters your flesh; the sucker, that's you yourself who enters into the beast. Your muscles swell, your fibers twist, your skin bursts beneath this unworldly force, your blood spurts and frightfully mixes with the mollusk's lymph. The beast is superimposed upon you by its thousand vile mouths; the hydra is incorporated in the man; the man is amalgamated with the hydra. The two make one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, what horror, breathes you in! It draws you toward itself and into itself, and, bound, stuck, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied out within that horrendous sack, that monster. Beyond the terror of being eaten alive is the ineffability of being drunk alive. (Hugo 281)

Here, monstrosity gains a new dimension, the reduction of anatomy to an absolute orifice. This "indescribable horror" inexorably leads to the "horror of the indescribable," analyzed by Laurent Jenny in La terreur et les signes in terms of the poetics of unfigurability to be found at the limits of a certain modernist literature, notably in Hugo, Roussel, and Artaud. The octopus represents a zoological manifestation of the temptation of the void, the equivocation of the formless, the horror of ungraspable monstrosity. Jenny explains:

Hugo's octopus is not satisfied being merely the gravedigger of the living: the entire sensible world comes to be buried within it piece by piece, wayward residues with which its monstrosity is nourished. In the octopus, the natural...


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