Brains in Vats, Necks in Nooses: Musings at Owl Creek
An Occurrence at Owl Creek, is a great short story, with a hell of a lot of staying power. Author Kurt Vonnegut considered it the best American short story ever written, and declared anyone who hadn’t read it a twerp. It has so penetrated our culture that even if you haven’t read it, or necessarily even heard of it, you know it. Songs, TV shows, comic books, and even a film or two have been inspired by the story.
Here's the CliffsNotes version of Ambrose Bierce’s masterpiece: A southern soldier-turned-guerilla named Peyton Farquhar is having the hangman’s noose slipped around his neck by a detail of Yankee soldiers. Farquhar, much like the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart, is distracted by a loud noise. This noise, however, isn’t the beating of a heart, symbolizing a guilt-ridden conscience. This is the ticking of his watch’s hands, amplified now that he knows time is running out.
While preparing to be executed, Farquhar flashes back to an earlier time where he and his lovely wife are sitting on the steps of his plantation house. Then a Reb in butternut grey shows up, spoiling the peace of their afternoon idyll. He gives Farquhar the news that the Yankees are closing in on this stretch of countryside, which spoils the rest of the afternoon.
Anyone who’s ever read of “Sherman’s March,” knows that Northern reprisals against the secessionist South could get pretty brutal. Naturally Farquhar is eager to thwart the Yanks, even if the War is almost over, the Surrender at Appomattox a fait accompli.
The soldier tells him that the Union Army is currently working on repairing Owl Creek Bridge, which is an essentially strategic chokepoint for both armies. He plants the thought in Farquhar’s head (where, to be fair, it may have already had some purchase) that he should sabotage the bridge-building effort.
Farquhar takes him up on the offer, only to discover that the “Reb” was in fact a false-flagging Yankee spy gone undercover. The spy captures him and takes him to his command, where he is summarily judged for attempted sabotage and condemned to hang.
Farquhar flashes forward back to the present, where he is now being thrown over the side of the bridge. Only instead of his neck breaking, the frayed hemp of the noose snaps, and he escapes into the running river.
The soldiers on the banks take shots at him, and just as they are about to adjust their fire correctly—let loose with grapeshot and Minié ball—Farquhar makes land. He runs through the woods and passes through beautiful countryside. Much like William Wharton’s alter-ego in the World War II novel, A Midnight Clear, he’s noticing how beautiful the world is just when he’s about to leave it. It’s this vividness, heightening of the Farquhar’s senses by Bierce, that takes this thing from the naturalistic to the Proustian. Although we’re not bombarded with sensory details, the feel and smell and sights of a forest in bloom are strong enough to taste and touch.
Farquhar comes into a clearing, heading back in direction of his house, and his beautiful wife. He has almost reached her when his neck snaps.
It turns out that his entire escape from the Union hanging squad was a brief flight of fancy of which death quickly disabused him.
It’s powerful and effective stuff, even now. The idea of a “trick ending,” hadn’t been overplayed at that point, and even if it had, it’s Bierce’s deceptive naturalism that sells it all. Much like the Yankee spy, he skillfully deploys sleight-of-hand, misdirecting us so that we don’t see the trap springing beneath our feet. We’re given, in the factual and succinct language of a newsman, the whole metaphysical heft of the human condition, our limitless imagination and very limited bodies.
What gives the story its power, aside from its perfect construction, the fine attention to detail, the seemingly effortless manipulation of the reader’s attention and sympathies? What makes it still relevant, while so many other stories—great as they may be—no longer hit so hard?
Plenty of people have their own theories. Here’s mine:
The story’s “false narrative continuity”—thinking one thing’s happening when something else is—resonates very much in this world where most people’s pleasures are virtual. Whether it’s videogaming with a synthetic community online or bingeing Netflix with a pint of Chunky Monkey and a handful of edibles, there’s a sense of evasion, escape. But also a looming knowledge of some final reckoning, not just of death, which is inevitable, but of reckoning with all the time we squandered struggling not to think.
“Sooner or later,” Robert Louis Stevenson said, “we all sit down to a banquet of consequences.” Americans are good with banquets—or at least buffets—we’re less good with consequences.
Understand, I’m not knocking anyone’s past-time, and Lord knows I’m better at ducking reality then most. Hell, almost everything ultimately boils down to a diversion or an evasion, even religious ritual and quests for peak experience. Climb a mountain, meditate in an ashram, Netflix and chill...It all ends the same way, and we’ll find out what that end is when we get there. Unless, in fact, the end is truly the void, in which case it won’t matter whether we climbed mountains, prayed, or popped CBD gummies while laughing at cartoons.
And due to the old “Brains in a Vat,” problem, there’s also no way to objectively be sure what any of us is really doing right now. I could very well be hooked up to a machine, thinking I’m writing these words, while you’re hooked up to a machine and think you’re reading them. Meanwhile whoever actually runs those machines is laughing at us both and probably drawing dicks on our foreheads.
That’s another way that Owl Creek acts as a frontrunner for modern, or even postmodern thinking. It questions consciousness in a way that neither Kant nor Descartes even had. Doctor of Philosophy Gilbert Harman didn’t even get there til the middle of the twentieth century, when he postulated the aforementioned “Brains in a Vat” experiment. Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht brought the problem to the arthouse audience, while the Wachowskis mainstreamed it with The Matrix. As usual, Plato (with his Cave) got there firstest with the mostest, as the old boxing trainers like to say.
Getting back to the story, I wonder: was Farquhar’s flight into fantasy a small mercy, something—like the release of adrenaline or cortisol—his body did to make death easier?
In the very effective Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of the work, Farquhar seems not only happy, but in absolute bliss while bathed in the warmth of his delusion. The sun-dappled countryside evokes childhood memories, not the Gothic south but the simpler hillbilly eclogue of The Andy Griffith Show: walking through woods with trees draped in lush thickets of Spanish moss; hearing the Robeson-esque baritone of “Old Ben,” the faithful slave; Farquhar running up to the porch of his old antebellum colonial mansion where his wife is waiting for him in her white bridal lace. Sure, it’s only a fraction of a second and still ends with his neck getting broken, but the delusion’s a bit like the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.
In that episode’s conclusion, we only see Farquar’s dangling feet, not his face. Still, I’d like to imagine that much like Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, he’s grinning ear to ear, unaware and forever trapped in bliss.
It could be. If one’s state of mind at death determines where their soul goes when they transmigrate, then Farquar is definitely off to a happy hereafter. Something like Disney’s Songs of the South before first Reconstruction, then Civil Rights, and finally twenty-first century iconoclasm put the permanent kibosh on the romance of the “Lost Cause.”
There’s another interpretation of Incident at Owl Creek, one that occurred to me earlier watching Carnival of Souls, a horror movie obviously influenced or even inspired, by Bierce’s story.
Thumbnailing it here for you (I can’t CliffsNotes it, as it was never a book or short story), it’s about three girls whose car goes off a bridge. Two of the girls drown, while the third, Mary, lives. Or at least she thinks she does.
She seems oddly distant from all the people she meets after surviving her accident, her standoffishness and anxiety verging on something more unsettling. Like an old elephant, it’s as if she wants to wander off to die alone, out of sight, with as much dignity as she can muster.
And yet at the film’s conclusion we realize she’s been dead the whole time, drowned with her other two hapless friends.
It’s how I felt after my year in Iraq, as if I hadn’t really lived, and that it’s only a matter of time until I realize it. I hate to keep talking about it, but it’s hard, since I still keep thinking about it.
There was one moment when I volunteered (dumb, dumb, dumb!) for convoy detail, and realized I was probably going to die. The anxiety kept growing in me, as well as the guilt at what I was doing to my mother, who’d already been through this shit with her brother who went to Vietnam. It also hurt when I thought about my younger brother, and what effect my death or maiming might have on him.
Finally, to deal with the agony of not knowing whether or not I was going to die, I told myself that I already had died, that I was already dead. And the pain and anxiety abated, replaced with a kind of spiritual apathy that I confused at the time with peace of mind. “He who makes a beast of himself,” Samuel Johnson once observed, “gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Replace “beast” with “ghost” and you have some idea of the spiritual damage I did to myself in the long-run by making things easier for myself, in Iraq, in the short run.
But it was only after I got home that I realized what I had done to myself by willing my mind into accepting death so totally.
And now I feel like someday soon I’m going to realize that all these years were just a trick of time dilation, the moment before my death.
It’s only a matter of time. Perhaps writing the next sentence, I’ll blink once and find these naked hands gloved and gripping my squad automatic weapon. In the confusion of segueing from dream to reality I’ll fail to jump down from my turret and my neck will be broken when our Humvee rolls over. The last sixteen years will have been a false memory, something my sensorium conjured to make that final moment where the neck breaks less painful, less real. Death, like Vonnegut’s Tralfalmadorians, likes to play games with the subjects trapped in his zoo.
It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s one I can’t escape, and one I’m sure that Ambrose Bierce—who witnessed several hangings in the War—probably knew a thing or two about.