Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
As I indicated in my previous post, Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing” depends, for its effect, upon a fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, the piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, the withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, which have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant.
However, Bierce accomplishes more than the generation of mystery and suspense through the use of these techniques. By employing these strategies, he also creates a metaphor by which he implies the theme of his story. The lack of context can be read as the vague, uncertain, and finite understanding of reality that derives from human perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives.
Bierce’s story’s reference to science is not accidental, for science is the primary and predominant means by which modern individuals ascertain knowledge, if not always truth, and it is science--the science of optics, to be precise--that allows Hugh Morgan to understand the nature of the Damned Thing as being of a color imperceptible to the human eye and thus invisible. However, since science is empirical, resting upon the senses and their perception of phenomena (including colors), it is itself limited to the perceptible world, and, in the final analysis, the nature of the Damned Thing must, therefore, remain essentially mysterious.
Bierce’s fragmented and vague narration, as it occurs in “The Damned Thing,” despite the presence of his omniscient narrator, is deliberate, symbolizing the limits of the scientific method’s reliance upon empirical data and emphasizing the finitude of human perception, cognition, and knowledge by underscoring his story’s victim’s inability to see the invisible adversary that ultimately slays him. Without a context, interpretation is difficult, if not impossible, and Morgan’s (and Harker’s) inability to see the Damned Thing prevents them from understanding it, just as it also prevents the pedestrian and unimaginative “farmers and woodsmen” who make up the inquest’s jury from accepting Harker’s account of the creature’s existence as true. They conclude, despite Harker’s eyewitness testimony, that Morgan was killed by a “mountain lion.” In short, they are unable to think outside the box, so to speak, that the accepted model of reality, based upon science, provides as the basis, or context, for interpreting perception and experience. Therefore, they conclude that Harker’s story demonstrates his madness.
Science tells us how to interpret the things that we perceive (see, hear, smell, taste, or touch), but limits upon human perception and the ignorance that results from such limits make certain knowledge problematic even under the best of circumstances and can (and has) resulted in erroneous and fantastic conclusions concerning even everyday matters. For example, before the invention of the microscope, bacteria and viruses existed, but, unaware of these germs or their functioning, human beings regarded demons, not microbes, as the causes of diseases and mental illnesses. Likewise, the Hubble space telescope has increased astronomers’ understanding of the universe exponentially since its launch in 1990.
Nevertheless, to some degree, we can (and do) hypothesize about experiences, even when knowledge about what we perceive (or do not perceive) is uncertain. For example, no one has seen an actual tyrannosaurus rex, but paleontologists claim to know quite a bit about this dinosaur (even if their “knowledge” is tentative and subject to change in the wake of new discoveries and conjectures). These gigantic animals are considered to have been carnivores with extremely powerful jaws, binocular vision, a bipedal posture, and a highly developed sense of smell. The young, some believe, possessed prototypical feathers, although more as insulation than for flight. In addition, they were believed, by some, to have been scavengers and even cannibals. Although they were once considered too slow-moving and “cold-blooded,” because of their massive size and weight, to be good hunters, scientists later revised this conception and suggested that the tyrannosaurus was more likely than not a fleet-footed predator.
One may argue that some features and abilities of the Damned Thing could likewise be determined by observing its effects on its environment. It is likely to be fast and physically powerful. It is obviously predatory. It is apt to be large, for Morgan’s diary reports that its passing momentarily blocked out the stars. Nevertheless, any ideas concerning the nature of the Damned Thing must remain as vague, uncertain, and finite as humanity’s understanding of reality that derives from perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives. Bierce’s fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, his piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, his withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, which have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant all conspire, as it were, to symbolize and reinforce the epistemological limits of an intelligence that is informed by perceptions of phenomena that, as a rule, cannot be confirmed independently of the senses that detect them.