Monday, 14 April 2014

True Detective and The King in Yellow

Forbidden Knowledge and Depersonalization in the 21st Century 

by J. Albert Barr

"It is possible that what distinguishes poetic drama from prosaic drama is a kind of doubleness in the action, as if it took place on two planes at once..." - T.S. Eliot

"Something Deep and Dark, Detectives...something Deep and Dark." - Rustin Cohle: True Detective

*Spoiler Alert*

Last month HBO wrapped up the first season of one of the hottest and most acclaimed new television crime drama series to appear in some time, True Detective. It was created by Nic Pizzolatto, and he wrote all eight first-season episodes, while Cary Joji Fukunaga (acclaimed director of the 2011 film, Jane Eyre) directed them; this included a particularly memorable fourth-episode featuring a concluding one-take tracking-shot in the projects at night where Matthew McConaughey's character, "Rust" Cohle, working undercover while infiltrating a biker-gang, is forced to break his cover after a botched drug raid while disguised as police officers, and make an elaborate escape with his coerced gang-member contact.

The show takes place on the coastal plain of south Louisiana State (where it was filmed on location), giving the setting and proceedings a Southern Gothic and neo-noir feel and vibe. It tells the darkly harrowing and deeply personal story of two character-flawed homicide detectives, Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson), hunting down a disturbing, ritualistic serial killer. We learn that Cohle was partnered with Hart after being released from a psychiatric institution, which was brought on due to his having shot three cartel members he was investigating while undercover, and was wounded in the gunfight himself. His two year-old daughter had died in an accident a few years earlier, and his marriage never recovered from the tragic loss. Cohle had requested the new assignment pairing him up with Hart; a personally-troubled, womanizer, who's married and has two young daughters of his own at the time.

The show is a highly detailed police-procedural and complex character-study of these two diametrically-opposite police detectives working together within the Southern Gothic backdrop and sweltering atmosphere of a particularly lost piece of Americana; a palpable, decadent ghost world of a once proudly Southern aristocracy slowly and agonizingly debilitating since the end of the American Civil War over a hundred years prior; and some of its "ghosts" are corporeal...and extremely violent.

In the first episode, Hart and Cohle are being interviewed, separately, in 2012, by two contemporary detectives, about a recent murder that had been staged in similar fashion to the one they had investigated, and thought to have solved, 17 years before in 1995. That initial murder involved one Dora Lange; a former prostitute. The detectives find out that she had been associated with a religious school called Light of Way Academy which was owned by the Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle; a powerful and influential figure in the community whom Cohle takes an instant disliking to when he and "Marty" are introduced to him at their precinct. We later learn that Cohle's hostile suspicions about the Reverend regarding Dora Lange, and other unfortunate victims, prove correct, as it is revealed that Tuttle and other, likely equally powerful and privileged men, were directly involved with these murders over the course of several years.

During an array of interrogations and interviews with people connected somehow with Dora Lange and the Light of Way Academy, Cohle and Hart get wind of some mysterious character called "The Yellow King", and a dark and menacing place referred to as "Carcosa". Cohle adds this information to his ever-expanding notebook, or ledger, that he carries with him everywhere while on the job. This conspicuous accoutrement earns Cohle the nickname of "The Tax Man". But his professionalism and obsession to detail, and the chance of a previously non-relevant piece of evidence or information suddenly gaining importance, proves rewarding when the initial case he worked on with Hart in 1995 is revealed to be, in fact, unresolved.

After a 2002 falling out with each other over Cohle being seduced by Hart's wife provoking them to a brutal fist-fight in the parking lot of their police precinct, their partnership - and therefore friendship - remains estranged until ten years later after Cohle approaches Hart (after having disappeared for a couple of years, reverting back to his alcoholism in the process) with the proposition that they bury the hatchet and buddy-up again to finally catch the "Yellow King", following their respective interviews by the two current detectives working the re-opened "Dora Lange case"; this included Cohle himself being implicated as a suspect. Cohle has gone back to all of his collected notes and pieces of evidence in his ledger, rented a storage-locker, and splashed its walls with his old case files. He also procured a rather damning, and horrifically disturbing, snuff-film on video-cassette, that basically incriminates Reverend Tuttle, after he broke into Tuttle's home and burglarized it looking for the evidence that would ultimately bring Tuttle down; something Cohle always wanted, as he instinctively knew Tuttle was bad from the get-go.

Ironically, it's a seemingly mundane detail that Hart actually notices, as he and Cohle go over the case-file again and again, that breaks the case wide-open for them and leads them straight to the front door of "the third man", or rather the "green-eared spaghetti monster" (as described by a child who claimed to have been chased through the woods by said monster), involved in the Dora Lange murder and ritualistic mise en scene they found in 1995 by a lone tree in a field. That tree, I think, is an important and telling "sign" within the dark story that was being told through evil theatrics by the monstrous culprits. It references the "tree of knowledge" from the Eden story in the Book of Genesis; that it was "forbidden knowledge" literally tasted, first by Eve and then Adam, followed by punishment/banishment handed down to both of them from God for incurring "Man's first disobedience". And, of course, it also references more directly to The King in Yellow mythos that began, interestingly enough, exactly 100 years before the diegetic events in 1995 within  True Detective's narrative, with the publication of Robert W. Chambers' 1895 collection of short stories; four of which make direct references to a horrifying, supernatural entity mentioned in a "fictional play". This play, itself titled The King in Yellow, has two acts. The first act appears rather tame and innocuous, but the second act purports to render its reader(s) either hopelessly despaired or utterly insane. Chambers deliberately provides very scant details and only a couple of quotes from the play, thus effectively creating an unsettling and mysterious aura surrounding this "play of the damned".

The 1890s were a significant time in Western history and culture. In fact, the last two decades of the 19th century are particularly crucial. But, contextually speaking, regarding Chambers' The King in Yellow collection of short stories, the 90s were symbolically rife with ambiguous meaning and a sense of foreboding, despite its reputation for being the so-called "Gay Nineties"; a, perhaps, anachronism coined out of sheer rose-colored glasses nostalgia over two decades after the fin de siècle - the French phrase used to describe the latter half of the 19th century, which means "turn of the century" and implies the social/cultural unrest and anxiety leading up to the beginning of the 20th century - alleged to have been created by the artist Robert V. Culter in the 1920s. The 1890s are also, quite interestingly, referred to as "The Yellow Nineties". The color yellow seems to have dominated the decade for considerably good reasons. In the East the color yellow has a very positive connotation, but in the West that's not necessarily the case, as it is well-known to be associated with cowardice, ambiguity and betrayal.

First, during the 1890s, and even going back as far as, at least, the 1870s, there was a vast wave of Asian immigration that took place in both the U.S,A, and Britain, particularly. This prompted a prodigious sense of xenophobia among Americans and Brits. They even referred to the massive immigration as "The Yellow Peril". So there was an extreme invasion of what would have seemed like untethered exoticism from "the other". A popular comic strip character of the time was called "The Yellow Kid", which alluded to the new, but tasteless and sensationalized, journalism that sprouted like a vile weed in the 1890s within the pages of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Heart's New York Journal newspapers as they viciously battled each other for circulation supremacy.

The literary movements of the time during the fin de siècle were: Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism, and Decadent. The Decadent movement (a name originally given by some critics as a negative criticism against the perceived literary trends happening then), particularly, provided a key literary magazine during the mid-90s, published in London, and co-edited by renowned illustrator, and memorable contributor, Aubrey Beardsley. The magazine was called The Yellow Book. It is popularly associated with famed Decadent writer and wit, Oscar Wilde, but he never actually made a contribution to the magazine. However, his association is understandable because it was from his famous 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that provided the name for The Yellow Book. The phrase actually refers to a strange novel mentioned in Wilde's famous book. That particular "strange novel" actually exists, and was originally published in France in 1884. The novel in question is J.K. Huysmans' A Rebours (i.e., Against Nature, or Against the Grain). It's a very important novel, historically speaking, and is usually considered the "decadent novel" par excellence. 

Huysmans' novel tells the peculiar and insular story of a well-to-do dandy-aesthete called Jean des Esseintes, who leads a leisurely existence merely indulging his passion and preoccupation with great modern literature and poetry and art, to the detrimental consideration of his loathing for bourgeois society and its repressive niceties. Des Esseintes forgoes both religion, and nature itself, for his ideal world of "art for art's sake" (a phrase immediately associated with Wilde and his fellow "decadents"). The novel expresses an emerging attitude that overtook much of the latter part of the 19th century in conjunction with the mounting dissipation of religious belief and faith, particularly among the artists and writers and philosophers of the day, namely Friedrich Nietzsche, who, in his 1882 book, The Gay Science, officially declared that "God is dead". This monumentally controversial, and flagrantly misunderstood (perhaps willfully), claim has continued to haunt and incense the Western world ever since, still reeling from the undulating repercussions of said declaration whatever signs were, and are, showing apparent religious sustainability. The general collective belief in God, that sustained the Western world since the fall of Rome, has never recovered, nor will it ever, in my opinion. The initial crucial breach from belief in God was actually done in the 16th century (by the "bifurcation of human consciousness" mentioned in Frank Kermode's 1957 book, The Romantic Image, and Copernicus' discovery of Heliocentrism in our solar system, just to name two colossally important factors); only started being viscerally felt in the 17th (i.e., Shakespeare's great tragedies, especially Hamlet, the mourning plays in German Tragic Drama and Rembrandt's paintings, for instance); and acknowledged in the 18th (i.e., the Enlightenment/Age of Reason), where, finally it was accepted in the 19th century by the Realists, Symbolists, Naturalists, Decadents and philosophers.

One other important thing that characterized that century's second-half and its altering collective psyche is the idea of depersonalization. Fittingly, the term and concept were originally used by one Henri Frederic Amiel, the Swiss philosopher, poet and critic, who became known, posthumously, for his Journal Intime (i.e., Private Journal). In one key passage Amiel wrote this in 1880: "I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?" In Ambrose Bierce's 1886 short story, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (which Chambers borrowed from Bierce for his "King in Yellow" stories), a lone traveler uncannily narrates a very similar tone to what Amiel wrote in his journal. Perhaps the single best illustration in art that depicts the strange, alienating and horrifying sense of depersonalization is Edvard Munch's ultra-famous 1893 painting, The Scream. In 1898 Ludovic Dugas was the first to use depersonalization as a clinical term and disorder.  In True Detective, Cohle, particularly (but even Hart to a degree), experiences a chronic sense of depersonalization.

Robert W. Chambers spent several years in Paris studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and absorbed much of the Parisian culture, namely its literary culture. He must have taken note of the decidedly negative significance of the color yellow that so pervaded through that final fin de siècle decade when he was developing his series of weird short stories about "The King in Yellow" back in New York.

So what does "The King in Yellow" ultimately represent in Chambers' stories, and how is it that Nic Pizzolatto was inspired to incorporate it into his True Detective television series? It's rather telling, I feel, that the 17 year timeline featured in the show begins in 1995; a very significant year when considering what has transpired in our culture and society in general ever since. As was the case during the fin de siècle, there was a fair amount of "millennial tension" leading up to the year 2000-2001. Of course, there was the mainstream commercialization of Windows 95, which brought cyber-space into most homes, and there was the sudden ubiquity of cell-phones everywhere, and, lest we forget - to our collective chagrin now - the "Y2K crisis". But more deeply, there was (and still is!) the collective sense that we, as a species, were about to enter what some have purported to claim as "a post-human state" (or as Jean-Francois Lyotard called "The Inhuman"), a submerging within the digital world as a final kiss-off to 3-dimensional nature and our diurnal relationship with it, as well as the outer alterations of our own bodies and sense of identity (incessant tattooing and piercing; body-perfection enhancement to reflect all-invasive advertising's consumer ideal; and artificial, digital appendages a la the ear clip-on and exoskeleton apparatuses for gaming purposes).

Like H.P. Lovecraft's later Cthulhu mythos stories, Chambers' The King in Yellow stories implicate the sense of "cosmic fear" following the "death of God" declaration that preceded them as a response, out of psychological necessity. They connote a warning against the pursuit of "forbidden knowledge", that which we were not meant to learn, to find, it would seem. Apparently, without God (or even Enlightenment-inducing Reason) as an anchor for giving us a sense of meaning in the cosmos, we are now adrift and rudderless, searching for new meaning and purpose because our old transcendental signifieds (in the words of post-structuralist philosopher, Jacques Derrida) have dissipated leaving us to contend with, completely on our own, with no help from above or below, a chaotic mess of a semiotic free-for-all, where we, individually now, are devising our own mythologies and belief systems; many of them, naturally, taking on the characteristics of past systems, but with a Frankensteinian flair for the pastiche, the recklessly thrown-together, like an amateur putting gauze over a wound; and the "wound" is deep and festering, especially psychically speaking.

As Chambers did during the fin de siècle, and Lovecraft did during the interbellum of two World Wars (which only exacerbated, or even confirmed, the loss of God), I've good reason to believe that Pizzolatto, consciously or not, is expressing our sense of dread and uncertainty in the early years of this new millennium. But with a, perhaps stubborn, perhaps admirable, sense of optimism, which was played out in the last scene of the eighth and final episode of season one of the series, when Cohle, who was nearly mortally wounded by Errol Childress (the third murderer, and alleged "Yellow King" in the Dora Lange case) while in pursuit of him in the Carcosa maze located near Childress' eerie residence, has a vision where he sees a cosmic vortex moments before he's stabbed. While leaving the hospital with Marty (who he's been now reconciled with, not surprisingly, given what they both just went through together), Cohle tries to explain what he saw and what it meant, concluding that he could "feel" his dead daughter's presence, and that "the light is winning" amongst all the darkness. Some have interpreted this experience/vision Cohle has as a re-newed religious belief welling up inside of him (and hence "cop-out" - pardon the ironic pun - for the end of this first season), but I don't think that's necessarily the case. Let us hope he's right, at least, about finding/seeing some kind of light and pathway through our contemporary semiotic crisis.

[Interesting side-note regarding True Detective's Louisiana location: the state was originally claimed by the French explorer Rene-Robert le Salle in the late 17th century. He decided to call it Louisiana, which in English means "land of Louis", referring to Louis XIV of France, who was also known as "The Sun King"; and the color we usually associate with, or to describe it, is, of course, yellow.]



  1. THIS WAS GREAT. I have suffered from depersonalziation for over a year now and rewatched this season to specifically note Cohle's demeanor and his perception of the world. I have experienced a great deal of change in my own perception of "reality" and seem to deal with the same internal conflict. Great post.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad my article struck a profound chord with you. I, myself, have definitely felt the symptoms of what we would call "depersonalization", likely shortly after the millennium, I believe (I can actually read the evidence in my journal entries around that time). I would imagine there a more and more people, particularly, above the age of 30, or certainly 40, who have been hit with a sense of depersonalization, episodically or chronically. I think a big part of the reason for this has to do with the "semiotic chaos" (which is wholly wreaking havoc with our sense of identity, personally and collectively) the world is currently mired in. I hope to flesh this concept/affliction out soon in a new article, because it's incredibly important and most people are completely unaware of it. So stay tuned, take care and stay strong. :-)