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Kraken's China Mieville on "Five Underrated Literary Cephalopods"

Those of you who remember with fondness China Mieville's guest blogging on Omnivoracious and his award-winning novel The City & the City from last year will be delighted to know that he has a new novel, Kraken, out this summer...and that he's kindly contributed his thoughts on five underrated literary cephalopods below the cut.

As for Kraken, any novel that involves odd squid cults, natural history museums, and talking tattoos sounds like great summer reading to me, and Entertainment Weekly just gave it an A-.


'The Soft Intelligence': 5 Underrated Literary Cephalopods

China Mieville

It was Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Diolé who named cephalopods 'the soft intelligence', in the subtitle to their 1973 book Octopus and Squid. At first, the adjective seems vaguely simpering, as if these ambassadors of alterity are in fact safe, unthreatening, cuddly. But immediately comes a strangeness. If they are a, no, the soft intelligence, what are we? Hard intelligence? Soft unintelligence?Why are they soft intelligence singular? Is each but an iteration of some tentacular totality? What strange sentience. An opaque collective.

Animals that wear storms of colour. Animals whose infinite prehensility makes rather pathetic our simian pride in opposable thumbs. Polysemic but evasive of decoding, how could the cephalopod not squat in the crevices of literature? Sometimes inadequately, true - so the hobbled uncanny of the traditional English epithet for the octopus, 'devil-fish'. (It's a fish! It's like a devil! …FFS.) Sometimes tendentiously - thus the pomp of Oliver Wendell Holmes's 'The Chambered Nautilus' adjuring his soul to '[b]uild thee more stately mansions'. Whatever. But even such failures have (even if negative) worth.

There are rules to this exercise. No invented species nor chimerical monsters - though this doesn't preclude gigantism nor a little taxonomic vagueness. Thus the 'huge, brown, glistening bulk' of William Hope Hodgson's 'mighty devil-fish' in The Boats of the 'Glen Gerrig' would be permissible: haploteuthis ferox, that hitherto unknown squid that assailed the English coast in H.G. Wells's 'The Sea Raiders' is not: still less would be Cthulhu, despite his admirably tentacular visage. And as the effort here is to overturn a few rocks less jostled to see what coils beneath, much celebrated ceph-lit has been left alone. Captain Nemo's nemesis is not here. Benchley's Beast is absent, as is Lautréamont's octopus spirit from Maldoror. The astounding ruminations on the octopus-as-bad-ontology in Victor Hugo's otherwise 'prodigiously boring book' (Sebald) The Toilers of the Sea, remain indispensable - but elsewhere.

1) The uninvited guest. Alligators, rats, and even pigs have been claimed as sewer-dwellers. The cephalopod, however, is the classical ancestor of such cloacal ferality. In book 13 of his On the Nature of Animals, the Roman writer of Greek prose, Claudius Aelianus, circa 200 CE, tells of an octopus 'which attained to a monstrous bulk', swam up a submerged sewer in Dicaearchia (now Pozzuoli) and found its pipe-crawling, plundering way into a warehouse full of pickled fish. A terrified servant set to guard the wares saw the colossal intruder, and returned the next day with reinforcements. 'Later in the evening', Aelian reports, 'the marauder paid his visit'. There followed a full-on fight, knives, razors and axes against the python-strong tentacles of the octopus. The lack of a rubbish celluloid vision of this anecdote in some cod-Greco-Roman Hollywood epic is a miracle not to be taken for granted, nor to expect to last forever. (The humans won, incidentally.)

2) This monster with a strange gaze. Louise Michel, Bonne Louise, the red she-wolf, anarchist hero of the Paris Commune, condemned to exile in New Caledonia after its tragic failure, collected stories of and from the local Kanak people and their home (whose uprising, in her unflinching dedication to emancipation, she, unlike even many of the ex-communards, supported). 'The Cyclone' is a stunning meditation on the sea-storm and its aftermath. In prose as limpid as the rock-pools she searches, Michel itemises creatures thrown up by the upheaval, among them 'a half-dead octopus opens its human eye'. 'May he too return to the waters,' she urges, her sympathy unconstrained by species-chauvinism, 'this monster with a strange gaze.' A monster, a strange gaze, of an eye that is and yet cannot be human.

3) The end of moonspun dreams. In Japan, the octopus has an older (set of) tradition(s) than and a distinct one from the Anglo-American. And Haiku has its own rigours, of course. So it would take a scholar to make real sense of Basho's animal. This is not interpretation, then: it is, rather, an ignorance, a wronging, an inevitable misprision. But a poem belongs to those who love it, too, and their, our, wrongings might make something new. The surpassing beauty of these centuries-old lines is a springboard.

Octopus traps -
summer's moonspun dreams,
soon end

Questionably or not, this reads as a fable of the enWeirding. Enter the octopus and something ends. There will be no comprehensible dreams any more: those are done. There will be no more summer.

4) Strange beauty. Algernon Swinburne's overwrought lurve poem 'Dolores' may have given 10,000 goths eternal joy with the phrase 'Our Lady of Pain', but Oscar Wilde's mockery (that Swinburne was a wannabe) keeps stinging, and the unconvincing BDSMishness of the verse makes it parody-fodder. Parodied it was, by Arthur Clement Hilton, with 'Octopus'. But what is odd about the piss-take is how unparodish it really is. Certainly the ABABCDCD etc rhyme scheme means a unserious rumpty-tumpty rhythm. But still. Those opening lines: 'Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed, / Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?' Too odd for easy laughter. 'Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral, remote from reproof or restraint?' Hilton asks, and it seems a reasonable question. And then the queries about the octopus's morality, the description of the beak 'craning forward to bite us', those 'bitings of agonised bliss', are a far more convincing eruption of erotic cruelty than Swinburne's self-conscious lubriciousness. The work is a more persuasive and strange evocation of decadence than the text at which it purports to snigger. Some of those aforementioned Japanese octopuses-of-culture have (as in Hokkusai's 'Dream of the Fisherman's Wife', or, in revolting and degraded form, much of the less pleasant Hentai) been erotic versions: for the most part this has not, until syncretically and recently, been true of the Anglo. But counterintuitively, this peculiar and uneasy priest-written 'joke' poem is one of the few counterexamples to that general asexualism. Along with Ernestine Mills' astonishing piece of enamel-work 'Mermaid overwhelmed by an octopus', and a very few others, Hilton exemplifies a rare Anglo anti-tradition of genuinely erotic cephalopodia. It is not typical: in that very oddness it deserves note.

5) Deceptively reserved and flat. Another of her poems, 'The Paper Nautilus', pins its ruminations on that most extraordinary creature the argonaut, and is better known, but here the celebration is of Marianne Moore's long, free-verse poem 'An Octopus'. A vivid, complex and problematic work about, well, truth, vision and whatnot (see various discussions), it immortalises the landscape of Mount Rainier. It is listed here not because of its debated meaning, but because it pins that meaning on 'An Octopus / of ice', a great spreading octopus inveigling its tentacles - its 'pseudo-podia / made of glass that will bend' - into the very landscape. No matter how explicitly Moore decodes her metaphor, explaining that the tentacles are 'twenty-eight ice-fields', the beast 'hovers… forward "spider fashion…"', baleful, and the 'Relentless accuracy [which] is the nature of this octopus' is no comfort, cannot make safe the unrolling formlessness, the predatory and abcanny, the mollusc-foundation of the earth. All who walk the world, even its highest mountain points, are dwellers in the abyss. We can climb the heights, in search of the sublime, towards the stratosphere; but we tread, no matter Moore's unconvincing claims about this octopus's 'capacity for fact', through jetted clouds of obfuscating ink. In darkness.


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The Japanese had it right in the 1950s: "Destroy All Monsters!"

Hmph. You forgot about Cthulu. Talk about underrated!

Forget cephalopods. The real action is with sharks.

Sure, I know, everyone thinks "Jaws", groans, and turns away. Think instead about the alternative-environment-adapted Carcharodon carcharias named "Meisterbrau" from the "Sewer, Gas, Electric" trilogy.

I mean, not only does this shark live in the sewer and hunt sewer workers, in the end, it grows wings and swoops in to sort-of save the day at the end.

Man! That's one hell of a shark.

Speaking on behalf of the entire Japanese porn industry, what are we, chopped sushi?

Thank You. Quite well wrought.

Think about it... when did our evolutionary branches diverge? And to end up looking... hundreds of millions of years later... into OUR OWN EYE?


As my Spanish friends would say - Pulpo Fiction.

Many years ago, I was diving off Blupblup Island in the Bismark Sea, northern Papua New Guinea (to get to Blupblup you go to Karkar and turn north at Bagabag). As is my wont when the opportunity arises, I wandered off by myself and was drifting above the coral in 40' of water when I looked up to see, hovering about two yards away from me, a giant Pacific cuttlefish. It looked at me, clearly curious, and I gazed back with equal curiosity.

This continued for more than ten minutes: mutual interspecies eyelock and evaluation. Glancing up, I noticed another cuttlefish hanging just off the edge of the coral dropoff. Several minutes later, a couple of the other divers came flippering over the top of the reef. The higher cuttlefish immediately went completely white. A second or two later, the one eyeing me similarly went white. They were communicating (danger! look out!) with color.

I would have thought you could have included Lautreamont without being accused of obviousness...

Certainly the following (which I've inflicted on Jeff elsewhere) is obvious, but the Melville fanboy in me can't help himself. From Moby Dick, then:

"Chapter 59 – Squid

Slowly wading through the meadows of brit, the Pequod still held on her way north-eastward towards the island of Java; a gentle air impelling her keel, so that in the surrounding serenity her three tall tapering masts mildly waved to that languid breeze, as three mild palms on a plain. And still, at wide intervals in the silvery night, the lonely, alluring jet would be seen.

But one transparent blue morning, when a stillness almost preternatural spread over the sea, however unattended with any stagnant calm; when the long burnished sun-glade on the waters seemed a golden finger laid across them, enjoining some secrecy; when the slippered waves whispered together as they softly ran on; in this profound hush of the visible sphere a strange spectre was seen by Daggoo from the main-mast-head.

In the distance, a great white mass lazily rose, and rising higher and higher, and disentangling itself from the azure, at last gleamed before our prow like a snow-slide, new slid from the hills. Thus glistening for a moment, as slowly it subsided, and sank. Then once more arose, and silently gleamed. It seemed not a whale; and yet is this Moby Dick? thought Daggoo. Again the phantom went down, but on re-appearing once more, with a stiletto-like cry that startled every man from his nod, the negro yelled out- “There! there again! there she breaches! right ahead! The White Whale, the White Whale!”

Upon this, the seamen rushed to the yard-arms, as in swarming-time the bees rush to the boughs. Bare-headed in the sultry sun, Ahab stood on the bowsprit, and with one hand pushed far behind in readiness to wave his orders to the helmsman, cast his eager glance in the direction indicated aloft by the outstretched motionless arm of Daggoo.

Whether the flitting attendance of the one still and solitary jet had gradually worked upon Ahab, so that he was now prepared to connect the ideas of mildness and repose with the first sight of the particular whale he pursued; however this was, or whether his eagerness betrayed him; whichever way it might have been, no sooner did he distinctly perceive the white mass, than with a quick intensity he instantly gave orders for lowering.

The four boats were soon on the water; Ahab’s in advance, and all swiftly pulling towards their prey. Soon it went down, and while, with oars suspended, we were awaiting its reappearance, lo! in the same spot where it sank, once more it slowly rose. Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.

As with a low sucking sound it slowly disappeared again, Starbuck still gazing at the agitated waters where it had sunk, with a wild voice exclaimed- “Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him, than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!”

“What was it, Sir?” said Flask.

“The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.”

But Ahab said nothing; turning his boat, he sailed back to the vessel; the rest as silently following.

Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean; and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth in order to attack and tear it.

There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond. But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he assigns it.

By some naturalists who have vaguely heard rumors of the mysterious creature, here spoken of, it is included among the class of cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe."

"Intelligence" is singular because, as we all know, cephalopods comprise nature's great espionage service. That's why they come with their own ink screen device.

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