Oliver Parker: Othello (1995) | poster
Laurence Fishburne and Irène Jacob in Othello (1995)

Alien or Alienated? The Monstrous, the Normal, and the Tragic in Our Borders

Shakespeare, Knut Hamsun, Flannery O’Connor, and the Medieval Icelandic Göngu-Hrolfs saga each explore who is the alien, and who is alienated, within our borders.

Pathological Homecoming

Nagel’s environment looks toned-down in comparison to Othello’s. But the pattern is similar: like the Moor, he achieves recognition only in extraordinary (by the standards of a backwater town) situations while performing disastrously in the most mundane ones. In fact, unlike Othello, Nagel demonstrates a degree of awareness of that in his constant attempts to push any social occasion beyond the ordinary. Remarkably, it often comes in a somewhat hostile way, like when he hijacks an idle chat at a party to debate for a vaguely right-wing political cause – while everyone present is either liberal or socialist. Much of his seemingly pointless wandering over and around the town would make more sense if we view it as preparing for an adventure, which never materializes.

Like Othello, Nagel acts aggressively towards a woman, though in a less destructive mode. His stalking makes the targeted lady only pity, not fear him. His “hostile friend” Minute, however, has actually committed something sinister, probably a sex crime (against all odds, Nagel’s seemingly random suspicion proves uncannily spot-on). Given that this figure is conceived as Nagel’s alter-ego, [Ferguson] an evil twin of sorts, we may argue that sexually-motivated violence is indeed inherent in the alien character at play. It is remarkable that Nagel’s abusive mind-games with Minute are the only persistent confrontation running through his plot. Like Othello, he is in conflict with himself and split in two in a quite literal way.

While Othello plays an important social role and goes down with much tumult, Nagel disappears “as suddenly as he showed up”, [Hamsun] having done real damage only to himself. This is so because the two prodigious aliens operate at two different levels. Othello is an ethnic and national alien, and the border he challenges is the one between peace and hostilities. Nagel, on the other hand, is an alien to life itself, an impression highlighted by the revenants he believes are haunting him. Othello does not belong among Venetians, but at least he belongs among the living and therefore can affect them. So he rips into the destinies of other people before his self-inflicted demise.

Nagel, however, shares so little common ground with life that he can barely have any impact on it. He is more connatural to ghosts and apparitions than to his host townsfolk. This is why, for all the confused attention he succeeds in drawing, he ultimately slips away from life nearly without a trace. Indeed, Nagel’s suicide at the end of Mysteries can be viewed as a sort of pathological homecoming, to death from the life he has always been a stranger to. But so can the final act of Othello as well, where a family bedroom turns into a scene of combat-like bloodshed: the only environment Othello feels at home in.

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, a 1962 short story by Flannery O’Connor, features yet another type of prodigious alien, a social one. Here, the reform school employee Sheppard, disappointed with what he perceives as the mental mediocrity of his tween son Norton, adopts Rufus, a teenage delinquent he has met at work. Sheppard believes that Rufus’ outstanding intelligence (he scored 140 in an IQ test) deserves cultivation and opportunities, even at Norton’s expense, and is ready to tolerate the boy’s snarky attitude for its sake. The only thing that really annoys him, however, is Rufus’ narrowly-defined but tenaciously clung-to Christian belief. He is in Satan’s power, the boy claims, and this is why he steals and breaks things. For this, he is going to Hell, and no reformatory can correct him until and unless he is saved by Jesus Christ. But when this happens, Rufus will turn his life around and become a preacher: because “it’s no sense in doing it halfway”. [O’Connor]

Norton, grieving for the loss of his mother, falls under the influence of Rufus’ ideas and comes to attach religious significance to the telescope Sheppard has bought to teach the boys science. With it, Norton tries to find his late mother in Heaven. In the end, he commits suicide to join her there, on the same night, Rufus is arrested for a series of repeated offences. It is his life, Rufus tells Sheppard, he pursues it not for lack of money or education and is now happy to return to it.

Rufus’ demonstrative and one-sided religiosity is rather an attribute of the criminal culture he identifies with, hardly genuine faith. This is why, perhaps, the middle-class Sheppard fails so miserably in his every attempt to challenge it. He does not understand that the matter at hand is not personal belief, atheist or Christian, but a tribal marker of in-group belonging: immune to reasoning and eagerly embracing self-contradiction in its utter intolerance. The way submitting to Satan and becoming a preacher, if not a saint, go hand in hand in Rufus’ worldview, reminds us of the contradiction and impermanence we find with Othello and Nagel.

Rufus’ version of religiosity borders at times on act, at times on delusion, and seems to underlie some of his most destructive life choices. In this, it clearly resembles Nagel’s anxious superstitiousness, which ends up playing a role in his suicide. Rufus’ weird relationship with Satan and Hell has a parallel with the themes of demonic possession we find in Othello, culminating in the Moor’s epileptic fit. [Morris]

There’s an assault on a female figure in this story as well, albeit a subtler and indirect one. Rufus mocks Norton’s memories of his mother and comes to occupy her former bedroom much to the younger boy’s chagrin. Yet it is Rufus’ take on Christianity that gives the apathetic Norton a new purpose and a new hope in reuniting with his mother on a different, spiritual plane. While Sheppard, whose job is to influence youths, can only complain about his son’s dull materialism and selfishness, his teenage adoptee actually transforms Norton to his own father’s surprise. The ultimate result, however, is tragic. Just like Othello and Nagel, this prodigious alien thrives only on pathological conditions – and cannot go beyond them, to the realm of the normal.

The dynamics of Rufus’ juxtaposition to Norton are worth special attention. In the opening scene, it is easy to feel for Rufus and agree with Sheppard that he is more deserving of privileged conditions than Norton. His religiosity, which Rufus continues to assert in spite of Sheppard’s dismissive atheism, at this stage seems to testify for the integrity of his character. However, the longer we observe Rufus the more patent becomes his shallow impersonality. Weirdly, for all his proselytizing enthusiasm, Rufus seems to have no loyalties or allegiances. 

His foster family, needless to say, he openly despises. At some point, he corrects Sheppard who calls his abusive grandfather a fool – but just before that, he wishes the old man died. He subscribes to the faith of Jesus Christ, but excuses himself from living up to its standards by his weird arrangement with Satan. Yet even Satan himself, the only active figure in his religion, Rufus tolerates only provisionally, in the hope of getting away from him someday. The exercise of his intellectual abilities is just as non-committal and aimless. He could excel in all disciplines but hardly cares for any.

Norton, on the other hand, turns out to be more than he seemed at the beginning. Although intimidated by Rufus, he is not afraid to stand up to him for his mother’s memory and even for Sheppard, despite the dismissive treatment he receives from the latter. He might not be a child prodigy, but his values are humane and much firmer than one would expect of a kid his age. 

The dynamics we find in Othello’s and Nagel’s environments are similar. At first, it is easy to find the Venetians and the inhabitants of the nameless Norwegian town petty and mean, and to feel for the stranger they refuse to understand. But as the end draws near, one might find even the outright villain Iago less outrageous than the uncanny hybrid of gentleness and brutality Othello turns out to be. For all the sympathy he rightly deserves, we cannot but feel relief when Nagel is finally gone.

Let us not be mistaken, however. All three prodigious aliens are not purely negative outsider figures, not Tolkienesque orcs who come only to wreak havoc. Neither were they created to alienate by their authors. Nagel is in many respects a projection of Hamsun’s personality, [Ferguson] while Rufus’ Christian affiliation shares some affinity with O’Connor’s Catholic belief. Each of them has not merely redeeming but doubtlessly positive qualities and is in some respect superior to his host characters.

However, this is precisely what makes their ultimate destructivity so poignantly problematic. They have the positive qualities lacking in the people they come to, but their activities yield only a negative result in the end. This is a disturbing thing to observe: how what we admire and sympathize with, the prodigious aspect of the alien, works in the exactly opposite way to what we imagined it could bring into the host environment.

What these three characters have in common at the most basic level, is an undefined value for personality. They can be different things at different points or even at once, but never anything single or permanent. Yet all three of them strive for singularity and tend to stand not just on their own but expressly out of their host environment. 

Nagel’s contrarian idiosyncrasy and Rufus’ rebellion without a cause are flaunted and obvious. Othello is subtler in this respect, but his eagerness to distrust points to a similar, even stronger attitude. If we try to reverse the plot of his story, with Desdemona tipping Othello off about Iago’s treacherous intents (and truthfully so, unlike the latter does in the actual plot), it simply would not work. The decisive factor here is not factuality or the strength of evidence, but Othello’s attitude and assumptions. He suspects Desdemona, we may argue, precisely because she is the closest person to him. When he listens to Iago, it is because their relationship is formal and impersonal. Othello assumes hostility on the part of other people in direct proportion to their familiarity with him. The wife is a prime suspect, a guy from work is reliable as long as he confirms the suspicion – and a perfect stranger, by this logic, would be the least uncomfortable to be around. 

The same disposition is demonstrated in a different mode with Nagel who, for all his verbose self-reflexivity, does not give up any solid facts about himself even in his inner monologues. His biography, his occupation, his exact family circumstances, how he met the only other character who knew him before the plot events – all of this remains obscure. All we have are only anecdotal (and not necessarily factual) episodes of Nagel’s interactions with either strangers or occasional companions. As much as he wants to be acknowledged, he is afraid of being known. 

While Othello’s love affair ends in murder over his distrustful possessiveness, Nagel’s triggers his long-standing suicidal plans into effect. For both, a close relationship is inherently dangerous and terrifying; longed for and yet resented. To them, it is like a trap into which they fall and have to fight their way out – or perish. Hence their aggression towards women, and their only confidants, Iago and Minute, both being “hostile friends”. 

In this, they are not dissimilar to the expressly antisocial Rufus. He has no romantic storyline, but his first reaction when he learns about Norton’s mother is remarkable. Rufus is using her comb, and Norton asks him to leave it alone because it belonged to her. To the younger boy, of course, the item is a precious memento. But all Rufus replies, is “I ain’t afraid of dead people’s things,” [O’Connor] (there might be some sexual implication in the next scene, though, where he takes the deceased woman’s clothes to dance in drag). To Rufus, again, it is all about fear and danger – and Norton is clearly a “hostile friend”.

It is precisely meaningful relationships with other people that shape one’s character, or rather make it possible to discover oneself. Where this experience is lacking, one can have only an arbitrary idea of himself, and only make attempts to live it: either unsure or reckless. This is why the three prodigious aliens are so often clueless and one-sided in their actions and opinions. It is not a matter of mental ability. Rather, all three of them are disconnected from humanity, in themselves and in others. They cannot have a whole character because they cannot commit, yet they cannot truly commit because their own character is hollow. All they can do is try to compensate for it with this or that sort of impulsive, obsessive fervor. Yet this too is not grounded in anything firm or permanent, bound to destructive effect only, and eventually gives way to resigned self-neglect or self-denial.

This is why the individualism of the prodigious aliens is paradoxically anti-individual. In fact, it at times morphs into its seeming opposite, rigid tribalism: be it Othello’s nearly desperate clinging to his military caste, Nagel’s bouts of populism, or Rufus’ fundamentalist acting-outs. It is not a self-centered approach versus a more socially-oriented one, but rather a compulsive need to sit on two chairs for the inability to go the whole way in either direction. This highlights the absolute, not merely relative nature of their alienation. Even if people like that made up a majority group, each of them would still be an alien, within and outside it alike. It is not impossible to imagine a whole society of aliens in this sense.

That would be a society of smoke and mirrors, where no fixed or genuinely shared values exist and the worth of the individual is limited to a single person’s idea of oneself, calling for brutally-enforced conformism as an offset. This, again, would have to be no particular brand of uniformity, but rather some weird way of conformity in amorphousness mandated shapeshifting for shifting’s sake. Such an alienated society might be able to produce its own prodigies, not unlike Othello or Nagel (any society can), but their ultimate fate would be just as needlessly wasteful.

This is so because, at the bottom line, it is not the host characters who are to blame for what happens to the prodigious aliens. Granted, the former is mediocre for the most part and base on a few occasions. What matters, though, is that they are whole and consistent in who they are, whether of much or little worth. In the end, it is this wholeness and consistency shared with the many that provide both firm ground and positive meaning for everything one does. Or, to quote the writer Yukio Mishima, himself a prodigy and a tragically-bound eccentric of Nagel’s proportions, “To look down on the ordinary is to despise what you can’t have.” [Mishima]

It is not always a bad ending. We find an interesting take on the prodigious alien in Göngu-Hrolfs saga, a tale from Medieval Iceland that, in terms of imaginativeness, well-meant escapism, and cliff-hanger plot twists, outstrips any fantasy novel or video game of our days. Here, the protagonist Hrolf, a celibate pacifist from Norway unwillingly turned warrior, goes to Garðaríki (Russia) to fight against a usurper king and his sorcerer cronies. One of his companions on this quest is Möndull: an alien at not merely an ethnical or a social, but also an ontological level. Initially introduced as just a stranger (echoing Nagel’s way of self-identification), he turns out to be a supernatural entity, a dwarf.

A sexual predator with a sick bent for cuckolding and a black magician, Möndull begins his career in the story as a villain. However, forced to serve Hrolf against his will, the dwarf takes his new job quite seriously and becomes a key asset to the main character’s party (like Othello is to Venetians). An expert in evil spells, he protects the warriors against enemy sorcerers and takes those out with his own magic. It is interesting how the human characters soon become fond of him in a way, and how Möndull’s comments on their affairs show a degree of genuine enthusiasm. As much an outsider as it gets, he is yet welcome and seems to reciprocate.

Although over the course of the plot Möndull’s role somewhat shifts from that of a warlock to that of a medic, he does not relinquish his ties to the Underworld. In fact, it is precisely due to them that he is able to defeat the chief sorcerer of the enemy. The dwarf, it turns out, is stronger in league with the powers of Hell than even the Russian necromancer (somewhat reminiscent of Rufus’ fixation on the same nether realm). We do not get a chance to learn much about Möndull’s personality or opinions – but not necessarily for the laconic diction of the saga genre alone. Norse dwarves in general seem to be characterized by the vagueness of identity, “All facts about dwarves tend to be negative”. [Jakobsson] We know only what they are not, but there is no way to tell who they actually are.

Hrolf himself is a prodigious alien too, albeit in an inverted way. Garðaríki, to which he travels as a relatable protagonist, is clearly presented as the realm of abnormality. Here, elves, trolls, and the undead dwell among humans, while the use of black magic is endemic. Interestingly, although he minds his own business, Hrolf ends up making a positive difference along the way. He saves an elf woman from dying in childbirth, helps a revenant avenge his death, and defeats sorcerers and berserkers. Finally, Hrolf becomes the king of Garðaríki and carves out a space for normalcy and order in this alien environment.

Möndull, however, finds no place for himself in the newly-normalized life. Immediately after the fighting is over, he leaves Hrolf and human society for an unknown destination. The dwarf has contributed to a good cause and maybe even redeemed himself to some extent, but he just cannot belong. As with the other prodigious aliens, this fundamental ill-fitting is represented by his relation to women, but this time as juxtaposed to the protagonist. Hrolf, who has been outspokenly not interested in romance for the whole length of the story, does marry and settle down when the time comes. The love and respect he and his wife have for each other are specifically highlighted. Meanwhile, the last thing we hear about Möndull is that he did not give up his unsavory sexual behaviors. 

That his and Hrolf’s parting is on friendly terms, it is only because Hrolf, unlike Sheppard, does not try to force the alien’s integration into his own environment. Theirs is a “hostile friendship”, and it cannot survive proximity at length. Kicked out of his father’s home in the very beginning, Hrolf finds a new home in the new normal – and lets the forever stranger Möndull return to his own province once his paranormal job is done.

These stories do not promote any bias, and clearly designate the aliens they portray as exceptions, not model types to prejudge every stranger by. Neither do they offer any social programs or solutions, which is not the task, and would be an abuse of the fiction genre. What they do, however, is recreate for us the experience of encountering the human dimension of borders in its fullest scope, condensed in the figure of a prodigious alien. They lead us from fascination with the strange to reconciliation with the normal, bridging a few gaps but terminating at the point where a border cannot be lifted: not only in the imaginary world of the story but in our own minds as well. 

After all, not all lines are there to be crossed or erased. Much harm can be avoided by simply not setting up boundaries where none are needed. But damage comes about when boundaries that are there for a worthwhile reason are not respected.

Works Cited

Ammianus Marcellinus and C.D. Yonge, transl. The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus. 1911. Gutenberg ebook.

Ferguson, Robert. Enigma. The Life of Knut Hamsun. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1987.

Hamsun, Knut. Mysterier. Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS 2011, elektronisk utgave 

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Verlag Franz Eher Nachf. G.m.b.H. München. 1943

Jakobsson, Ármann. The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology. Author’s Academua.edu page. 2005.

Leavis, Frank Raymond. Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero: or the Sentimentalist’s Othello. Routledge. 1988.

McDiarmid, Ian. An interview for starwars.com. January 2002.

Mishima, Yukio. Thirst for Love. Vintage Digital. 2010.

Moody, Oliver. ‘AfD faces inquiry over foreign donations to Alice Weidel’. The Times. 16 November 2018.

Morris, Blair. Demonic Ventriloquism and Venetial Skepticism in “Othello”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 53, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (SPRING 2013).

O’Connor, Flannery. ‘The Lame Shall Enter First’ in All That Rises Must Converge. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1965.

Pálsson, H. and Edwards, P., transl. Göngu-Hrolfs saga. Canongate. 1980.

Plutarch and Charlton Griffin, narrator. Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Amazon Audible. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moore of Venice. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare website.