Steampunk Beach Read: Humanus Diabolicus
Copyright © by SuZi, 4/3/12
Tales of apocalypse are archetypes in which our culture is pretty well soaked—especially for those educated in both literature and cinema; however, the apocalypse as a comedy has mostly been the domain of stand-up performers. The authorial intention is always didactic: in comedy, it is to persuade to the cynical, absurdist point of view via the release of laughter; in James Houk’s novel Humanus Diabolicus, the didactic intent seems to be to persuade to a socio-political point of view that Houk repeats so many times that a texting, hung-over college freshman would still pick up the thesis verbatim.
The novel does have a plot, and the novel’s structure has a few curious assemblages—such as the nineteenth century use of chapters with headings that describe the general action therein, the use of an invented witness Houk calls an avatar, and the occasional use of colloquial language and a rather naked griot-style intrusion that also includes cultural symbols that would be recognizable to the aforementioned freshman. Houk’s novel in its physical presence is a bit of a tome—six hundred pages , trade sized --- but the wry, general tone of the writing, despite the endless repetition of Houk’s philosophical point, moves the reader along well enough so that it almost seems as if it was written for a spring break week’s reading while beach basking.
Houk’s use of archetypes also includes various of his characters: a Chosen One, a King of the Bad Guys—called the somnia atrox, one of Houk’s wry jokes—who is larger and a bit smarter than the other bad guys called Maximus, a Mentor for the Chosen One named Legba, a commune of Rebels below planetary surface-- in this case the understructure of New York City (the City itself is an archetype that is not well developed in itself in this novel), the series of lovers held by the Chosen One (including a Shrewish Wife), and, of course, Houk’s socio-political , philosophical thesis.
Not to be overlooked among Houk’s archetypes is the existence of a God or Great Creator (Houk uses “Great One”), and this can either be wearying, paradoxical or entertaining, depending on the individual reader’s disposition. Despite sufficient mention of various leaders in philosophical thought of western civilization—Houk cites his character as saying, “I would have to acknowledge Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Becker, Jean-Francois Lyotard, John Stuart Mill, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault, and the novelist Thomas Hardy as my intellectual heroes” (321), Houk’s apparent propulsion of the protagonist through existential self-determination is in direct contradiction to that same character’s Chosen One status, and both the existence of the God character, as well as the god character’s perception of the protagonist as being Sent to Aide Humanity. Additionally, the existence of the Bad Guys happens as a sort of Newtonian opposite reaction to the creation of Humanity as Good, and these characters as seen as culturally repugnant (which the prologue enforces with some grotesque imagery that ought to capture any reader still fueled with youthful testosterone) by both their appearance—insect and lizard-like—and their behavior (cannibalism, sexual gluttony, infanticide, matricide).
While the plot structure of Humanus Diabolicus is almost anachronistic—young male, presupposedly Caucasian, gets education and then interacts with his society while grappling with external pressures and self-determination—Houk’s thesis is simple: cultural absolutism is the undoing of humanity, and of our planet. Houk laboriously repeats his definitions of this point, develops his argument as discoveries of the protagonist, utilizes Socratic discussions between the mentor character and the protagonist to develop the argument, and has the character repeat this point a number of times via explanations to other characters in the novel. As the novel rises towards climax, the protagonist makes a John Galt-like speech that includes :
“[…] If one looks at the historical evidence, it is not the agnostic or atheistic mindset that has driven a wedge between cultures and ethnic groups, it is not the cultural rebels and freethinkers that causes the abuses of colonialism or religious wars. It is, rather, precisely a xenophobic mindset often grounded upon this or that system of religious beliefs and practices that has wrought untold misery on our species” (321).
Houk defines this theory, in a variety of ways and via a variety of examples, as cultural absolutism, but occasionally becomes succinct enough to indicate a definition of “This is how we’re always done it, I am right, you are wrong, you will convert to my way or die”. Houk also proposes an solution of cultural relativism, which the protagonist thinks, by way of the witness-griot avatar, as:
“he was committed to a post-modern gospel of cultural pluralism, existentialism, humanism, love, and compassion for all. He felt that he could make a lasting contribution in humanity if he could convince others to view their cultures and religions for what they were: contrived coping mechanisms […] used to provide structure for human responses to the contingencies of biological survival on a day-by-day basis” ( 227).
Unfortunately, Houk’s differentiation between a mission of megalomania and that of savior is solved by the protagonist’s calm demeanor, good manners, and the ability to pass on a glowing light of feel-good from time to time. The finer perception of the way of peace—and Houk here is to be faulted for not citing that famous incident where the Rev. King did not raise a hand to a hostile onlooker who got a shot in at the Rev.’s male sensitivity area, since Houk does cite the Confucian concept of ren (115)—is not explored in the novel beyond the Nazarene’s compassion for unsightly people.
Philosophical inconsistencies might not cause umbrage among those who read for the purposes of supplying themselves with brain candy; however, a novel that has a philosophical thesis as its didactic intent, as Houk’s novel has, leaves itself too open to dismissal of that very same thesis—except it’s a charming idea. What is amusing about the novel is the overt nastiness of the Somnia Atrox—the demons unleashed when god gets so weary of humanity’s depravities that god takes a nap. The other characters do not inspire much empathy, despite the protagonist’s education to always be empathetic, but they are culturally familiar—so much so that the book reads with a certain cinematic aspect to the imagery that would be so easy to convert that movie rights might also be part of Houk’s intention. Nonetheless, Houk’s tome is probably a better read for the brain candy readers than other recent publications—despite the notation of Houk’s PhD on both the cover and every page of the book. That these self-same nonliterary readers might have cause for a pause of introspection seems to be Houk’s primary credo and the novel is sufficient and worthy enough, thus.
Houk, James. Humanus Diabolicus. Margaret Media. 2012.
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