Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Psychosexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight III

The formation of an identity is a progressive process. “Know thyself' was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, 'Be thyself' shall be written," wrote Oscar Wilde--an author who certainly knew the difference between knowing one's self (theoretical self-knowledge), and being one's self (the praxis of that self-knowledge). In the bildungsroman that emerges from Heart of Midnight's clumsy gothicism, the shift from self-knowledge to self-actualization is encoded in terms that equate Casimir's wolfish desires with a kind of errant queer sexuality. His friend Thoris, for example, questions how Casimir can be in a relationship with a woman when he knows, deep down, that he is a "werewolf"; "How dare you kiss her, knowing what you are?" he asks with barely-disguised venom (157).

Thoris attempts to help Casimir with his "problem" in a very misguided way. In a scene that reads uncomfortably like gay conversion therapy in D&D drag, Casimir is taken to a cleric to have his wolfish nature exorcised in a religious rite. Of course, Casimir's "problem" is more nature than nurture and cannot be dispelled so easily; the cure fails, and Casimir kills the priest. Harkon Lukas offers Casimir another way out of this tangle of hidden desire and public censure: self-acceptance. "Your salvation has always come from the beast within you," Lukas posits, "When you deny the beast, you are nothing. Only be embracing it do you live!" (206). If the world deems to you to be a "beast" because of who you are, then a beast you must be. Lukas's message is one of radical acceptance; Casimir's choice, then, is between giving free reign to the impulses he has denied and attempted to abjure, or "living a lie" as Lukas terms it (207).

(As an aside, it turns out that Casimir isn't a werewolf after all--he's actually a wolfwere. While the distinction is academic to all but those concerned with D&D monster stats, we might read something into this as well--the wolfwere as a queering of the overly masculinized figure of the werewolf. More beast than man, the idea of the wolfwere also fits certain homophobic renderings of male homosexuality as animalistic, bestial, and a set of behaviors unchecked by a proper sense of one's humanity.)

To usher Casimir into a place of self-acceptance, Lukas takes him to a "temple for children of the night," which we might read as a coded stand-in for cruising spot, bathhouse, or gay club (253). It is here that Casimir experiences his euphoric coming out moment: "For the first time in his life, he felt true release. For the first moment in twenty years, he knew what and who he was. The pangs of conscience were gone. The chorus of remembered screams had been silenced forever. A wild howl of joy erupted from his lungs" (255). Holla atcha boi!

(Also, note that while Casimir believed Zhone Clieous to be his father and killed him previously in accord with the dictates of an unmastered Oedipal complex, he later discovers that Harkon Lukas is his real father...which promptly turns into another Oedipal confrontation that pits son against father in a blood-soaked, phallic contest.)

Of course, since this is a Ravenloft novel nothing will end particularly well. Casimir's moment of self-realization is a fine thing, but it still has to contend with an outside world that is hostile to Casimir's identity. Thoris provides the chorus of widespread homophobic panic, defining the scope of different orientation as horror at the possibility of a monstrous horde: "How many werewolves are there, Casimir? How many? I thought you and Zhone Clieous were freaks. But now it's Harkon Lukas, too...and how many more?" (282). For this set of characters, the ending devolves into a bloodbath--ultimately ambivalent, Heart of Midnight shows us the value of self-acceptance and a world in which it will always be destroyed in fear. You might find self-acceptance, but the world won't listen.

I'm kinda proud that I've survived four of these novels.