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Vagabonds, The Death Ship, and Denationalization.

If the last half of the nineteenth century in Europe featured increasing freedom of movement for the lower classes, liberating them "from the feudal shackles that had once bound them to their birthplaces" (Torpey 91), it didn't last long. On both sides of the Atlantic this period also held the seeds of the more rigorously administered mobility controls of the twentieth century, as evidenced, for example, in America's Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882-) and the French decree of 1888 establishing anthropometric identification of all foreign residents (107). By the turn of the new century, as John Torpey writes in The Invention of the Passport, "[t]he international system of states comprising mutually exclusive bodies of citizens was taking firmer shape..." (110). Governmental instrumentality and efficiency became the watchwords of the day as the social welfare state emerged out of the nineteenth-century chrysalis of economic liberalism. In these changing conditions, states became increasingly unwilling to offer their benefits and protections to non-nationals. World War I hardened attitudes, fostering a collective suspicion towards foreigners and migrants that would endure for decades to come. In the war's aftermath, the liberal democracies of Western Europe as well as the countries of the vanquished central European empires closed in on themselves, increasingly hemmed in not only by immigration controls, but also by restrictive and punitive trade measures. Nationalization policies thrived, as did a potent and increasingly fascist permutation of nationalism.

Such is the historical backdrop for B. Traven's 1926 novel, The Death Ship. Traven was the pen name for the German actor, writer, and political agitator Ret Marut. This name was conjectured to have been the alias or stage name for Otto Freige. Traven/Marut/Freige spent much of the 1920s on the run, fleeing a probable death sentence following the demise of the short-lived Bavarian Republic of the Workers', Soldiers', and Farmers' Councils, for which he served on the Propaganda Commission. (1) The Death Ship was likely begun while Traven was in exile, probably in East London, some time prior to his summer 1924 arrival on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Here, Traven would become the world-famous author and perpetual wanderer, writing, amongst other works The White Rose (1929); his long cycle of "Jungle novels," including Government (1931), The Carreta (1931), and Crozas (1936); and, most famously, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927). (2) If Traven does in fact mean "the traveler" in nautical slang, it is a fitting pseudonym (Guthke 63). (3)

The first person narrator of The Death Ship, Gerald Gales, is like Traven himself, a man with a vexed relationship to the past. Gales is a hard-living American sailor on a New Orleans freighter that ships out of Antwerp while he sleeps off a hangover in a brothel. Separated from his papers still on board the departed freighter, Gales finds himself in an utterly alienating interwar Europe, where lack of documentation triggers the onset of a condition or way of life perhaps treated most famously in modern literature by Hamsun, Gorky, and Orwell: that of vagabondage. Recognizing Gales's vagabond status is important because, as scholars such as Tim Cresswell, Ana Aliverti, and Thomas Nail argue, the vagabond has been the primary target of immigration restrictions in the twentieth century. Traven's novel is in large part a meditation on the anti-immigrant sentiment fostered by the passport system in Europe of the interwar period. However, as I argue, this fiction about contemporary vagabonds in Europe also telescopes the broader European history of vagabonds, peasants, and proletarians, and it implicitly invokes their role in the formation of the modern sovereign state. The Death Ship is indisputably a satire on the age of passports and movement control, but it is more than that, too. Traven's novel should be read as a complex and extended meditation on the migrant condition, which, in spite of its historical variability, has always been prone to certain types of expulsion: political, economic, territorial, and juridical. The rise of the passport system in the early twentieth century was coincident with the turn to denationalization as a preferred means of promoting and defending the political and economic interests of the nation-state over and against fundamental modern principles of human rights. Through its stark representations of this profound ideological clash between national interests and human rights, The Death Ship reads as an incisive critique of the migrant situation in interwar Europe. It also looks presciently to the future, for Traven perceives through the dark lens of his artistry how denationalization might function, to quote Hannah Arendt, as "a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics" (269). Traven's novel engages with the past, the present, and the future of migrant politics, both formally and through narrative plot, and this engagement expresses itself not only through the unfolding of Gales's powerful story, but also through Traven's various technical and stylistic experimentations and literary borrowings, most notably his restless genre-mixing and his ironic homage to the New Man of German literary expressionism.


While the ancient world produced the migrant as the barbarian and the nomad, the medieval world introduced a new form of migrant, the vagabond. In Capital, Marx refers to vagabonds as "[t]he proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil" (896). From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries these displaced paupers became subject to a proliferation of new laws restricting their mobility. Thus the 1388 Statute of Cambridge required that indigents and laborers receive written permission from local authorities to move and live elsewhere. The 1494 Vagabond and Beggars Act declared that "'vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town'" (qtd. in Nail 72). As vagabondage grew in the Middle Ages and the early modern period through commutation and enclosure, the application of the term widened in scope. A 1572 Poor Law identified fencers, jugglers, tinkers, peddlers, bear trainers, scholar-beggars, minstrels, Jews, and witches under the general name of vagabond; and just as more and more people became vagabonds, so was the cruelty of the penalties increased. Marx sums up the situation in the early modern period in this manner and, in so doing, gestures toward the significance of vagabondage and the juridical responses that helped to shape it for the history of capitalism and the modern state: "Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds and then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labor" (899). The energy of the mobile classes was harnessed to new ends: peasants were being transformed into wage laborers, though this certainly did not happen in a short period of time. Rather, it was a slow transformation involving a long process of mediation. As Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos write in Escape Routes, "the peasants [first] became brassiers (braceros), who entered the market by 'renting' their arms for a daily wage" (46). Proletarianization would follow from the braceros era, and from the large-scale incarceration projects that were already initiated by the mid-fifteenth century, when workhouses and poorhouses started expanding in order to check the mobile classes, otherwise known as the "mob." It is this "mob" who would become the proletarians of the future. In the long run their criminalization and victimization helped to bring about the creation of a wage labor system, helping to address the needs of capital at the onset of European colonial expansion. (4)


Importantly, an incipient concept of citizenship was also being forged in the historical transformation to wage labor, since the development of the wage labor system occurred in synergy with the institutionalization of the nation-state. In their alliance with capital, and over the course of several centuries, European states took over from churches and private enterprises the right to control the movement of peoples. As Torpey writes, this monopolization of mobility control "followed the shift of orientations from the local to the 'national' level that accompanied the development of 'national' states out of the panoply of empires and smaller city-states and principalities that dotted the map of early modern Europe" (8). While the national orientation of mobility control is very much evident in the First Book of The Death Ship, it is more precisely policies of "denationalization" that shape the misery of those vagabonds we meet on board the eponymous ship in The Second Book. Denationalization policies around Europe in the interwar period stripped migrants of citizenship and the right to return to their homes. (5) Thus were millions of Russians, Armenians, Hungarians, Germans and others, previous citizens of the defeated empires, banished from their former homelands and turned into vagabonds in the wake of the many local and regional ethnic conflicts that beset Europe following the Great War. Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism: "at the time mass denationalizations were something entirely new and unforeseen. They presupposed a state structure which, if it was not yet fully totalitarian, at least would not tolerate any opposition..." (354). Clearly, denationalization policies constituted a specific strategy of both national and international control, and the widespread application of denationalization in the interwar period is an important part of the story of The Death Ship. Indeed, Gales's accidental loss of his identity papers at the start of the novel functions as a contrastive, Americanized instance of this widespread European affliction: the loss of his identity papers constitutes a de facto denationalization. With its well-calculated sympathetic resonances, this loss foreshadows the horrors to come in the Second Book. Gales is the idealized embodiment of the hardy and self-confident American laborer, but even he is brought to heel by his entrapment in a bureaucratized and dehumanizing system of state control after the fateful departure of his American freighter.

The First Book of The Death Ship is a record of Gales's perpetual flight from one Western European nation to another following his abrupt loss of work and identity. In his new condition of vagabondage and de facto statelessness, he finds small freedoms, but mainly gross victimization. A Belgian cop throws Gales in jail, but the police don't want him there because as an undocumented foreigner he represents a wasteful draw on resources. Gales fears that being undocumented is a hanging offense, which is both comical and serious at the same time. It is not a hanging offense--in fact what the Belgian cops do is give him two sandwiches and two packs of cigarettes and set him free in the middle of the night near the Dutch border--yet his undocumented status is akin to death. Another Belgian cop explains to Gales, in what he figures is the preamble to his execution, "In any civilized country he who has no passport is nobody. He does not exist for us or for anybody else. We can do whatever we want to" (23). This was no idle threat. Arendt notes that a stateless person was "an outlaw by definition" and therefore "completely at the mercy of the police, which itself did not worry too much about committing a few illegal acts in order to diminish the country's burden of indesirables." The "logic" of the situation encouraged incidents of police brutality. "[T]he state," notes Arendt, "insisting on its sovereign right of expulsion, was forced by the illegal nature of statelessness into admittedly illegal acts" (360). Not only civil rights but fundamental human rights could be abrogated without identity papers. The parting advice from the serio-comic Belgian cops who release Gales early in the narrative to his short-lived Dutch liberty is, "Don't you ever dare to come back to Belgium.... Because we don't know what to do with you" (26). This official not knowing what to do, as the reader soon discovers, is close kin to a wanton disregard of the human misery that the new passport regime and stringent mobility controls could exact on the poor, the unemployed, and the stateless.

As Traven's own case exemplifies, vagabondage was a condition that the new passport regime simultaneously excluded and elicited. As a vagabond, Traven's protagonist, Gales, finds himself reduced to the condition of what Giorgio Agamben, inspired by the work of Hannah Arendt, calls "bare life" (8ff). Gales is snatched out of the safety net of the social symbolic and ultimately turned into meat for the maw of industrial capitalism. This is the essential plot of Traven's profoundly anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic-state novel, which, as the biographical record attests, reflects to some degree upon the author's own experiences. The Death Ship may begin as farce, since Gales's dehumanization comes down to having lost a piece of paper, but it develops into something else--gothic, brooding, and Kafkaesque.

After spending ten days in a French prison cell, Gales is released on condition that he leaves the country within fifteen days or face the consequences. The only hope is that the American consul in Paris will be more understanding than the one in Rotterdam, but Gales is quickly disabused of such hope. This American official makes the matter crystal clear: not only must he doubt Gales's citizenship, he must also doubt his existence: "I doubt your birth as long as you have no certificate of your birth," the consul explains forebodingly. "The fact that you are sitting in front of me is no proof of your birth. Officially it is no proof" (67). As the dialogue underscores, Gales's existence assumes an increasingly spectral quality within the capitalist and sovereign regime of the state passport. The threat is ontological nullity, a "having never been born." As Arendt wryly remarks, the apatrides "eternal feverish efforts to obtain at least birth certificates from the country that denationalized them was a very exact symbol" (365). Gales is rendered invisible by the anti-immigrant juridical networks creeping across the European continent after the Great War, producing vagabonds even as new mobility restrictions sought to exclude them. The condition was epidemic and contributed greatly to the social unrest upon which, amongst other baneful developments, fascist governments in Hungary, Italy, Germany, and Spain were able to capitalize and ultimately consolidate power.


A few words are in order about the First World War and its impact on mobility control and popular perceptions of immigrants in both Europe and the United States. The Great War brought about an abrupt conclusion to the period of economic liberalism and free movement of people, goods, and capital that prevailed in Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world through much of the nineteenth century. The immediate reasons for new movement controls on the European continent were war preparation and fears of enemy infiltration. Such fears, as Torpey writes, "led to the consolidation of views about foreigners and methods for restricting their movements that would prove to be an enduring part of our world" (111). Torpey further suggests that the long-term consequences of this seismic shift in attitudes towards foreigners and alien mobility "would not have been predicted by many contemporaries" (112). Still, anti-foreign and anti-nomadic sentiments did not just come out of the blue with war declaration. The groundwork for the new era of "managed migration" was already being laid in the late nineteenth century, even if war is what ultimately sealed the fate of the liberal era. A 1912 French law was aimed at controlling vagabonds, nomads, and itinerants. The law required both foreign-born and natives to carry an identity document containing fingerprints and photographs and allowed the government the opportunity to deny residence and/or benefits to non-nationals if they feared a danger might result from the extension of liberal mobility policies that had prevailed for so long.

Elsewhere, Britain passed the Alien Restriction Act in 1914. As a result, the onus of responsibility for proving one's British nationality was placed squarely on the individual, and immigration bureaucracy was dramatically expanded. In Germany, passport controls were expanded to all foreign-born individuals, and by July 1914, temporary passport restrictions were implemented on all people entering Germany from abroad. By the end of that year, the government likewise required anyone wishing to leave the German Empire to submit to passport control. By 1916 a further visa was required for all peoples entering or leaving German territory (Torpey 112-13). In the United States, the war years followed several decades of restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies. The Great War and its aftermath spurred a dramatic increase in such policies, however, and, as codified in the Immigration Act of 1924, it also led to a remarkable tightening of migration controls generally speaking. The war-inspired American passport requirement may have ended in 1921 (to be permanently reinstituted in 1941), but the 1924 Act for the first time required visas and photographs for all immigrants (Daniels 53). Although increased mobility controls were initially considered as temporary wartime measures, the interwar period marked the end of open borders. In Western Europe, this period would likewise mark "the beginning of modern refugee history" (Sassen 78), which is yet another way of naming this epoch Traven chronicles so vividly and astutely. The interwar period marked the dawn of a new world in which hardened attitudes towards foreigners, vagabonds, and other migrants would blossom forth in a dismal and lurid light.


The institutionalization of the passport and denationalization policies create the conditions for Gales's extreme exploitation on his next berth, on board the Yorikke, the ill-fated death ship he boards with profound dread at a port in Barcelona. The desperate laborers on board the Yorikke are paperless, penniless souls who have nowhere to go. They are the unwelcome travelers kicked from border to border, many having lost their homelands when the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires were carved up following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As the reader discovers from the story of Gales's comrade Stanislav, and through the interpolated stories of Paul and Kurt, these men are all stateless: they have been banned from the earth. Born a Prussian, Stanislav's home in Posnan becomes part of Poland after 1919, at which point he loses his German citizenship and misses his brief window of opportunity to gain Polish citizenship. Like Gales, he effectively loses his identity and his claim to basic human rights once his citizenship is nullified. If the increasing intimacy of the link between citizenship and human rights ought to have safeguarded human rights during this period of the rigid consolidation of state powers, it had the opposite effect. The lack of concern for the jobless worker is what leads Stanislav to sign on to the Yorikke. His increasingly common distinction is the ban of denationalization enforced upon him. It is the same ban that would lead to the gruesome death of the East Prussian sailor Kurt, the unfortunate victim of a lack of proper ship safety equipment. Kurt's skin is flayed from his body when a boiler valve fails, his de-facement an apt symbol for his loss of identity.

"The relation of exception," Agamben writes, "is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable" (28). The Yorikke, an avatar of the Flying Dutchman, represents a space of such abandonment, where the vagabond worker is both mobile and fixed in space at the same time. This death ship is both inside and outside the law, the earth, and time: "Her shape was neither modern nor pre-Roman. To try to place her in any period of shipbuilding was futile. She did not fit in any age I could think of. In no marine-museum anywhere in the world had I ever seen a model like that one" (Traven, Death Ship 106). The atemporal phantasmagoria of the Yorikke is communicated through progressively dark and absurdist tones:
The filth on the floor and the walls was so thick and so hardened that
only an ax could break it off.... I felt sure... that if I had broken
open the crusted filth and mud, layer by layer, I would have found
Phoenician coins and medals near the bottom. I still feel excited when
I speculate on what I might have found if I had gone still deeper.
There is a great possibility that I might have found the bitten-off
finger-nails of the great-grandfather of the Java man.... (128-29)

As the narrative progresses it becomes increasingly macabre. Deep in the bowels of the ship, opposite the chain-hold, Gales describes what "was called the hold of horrors, or more often, the chamber of horrors" (129). No one was permitted to open the door to this chamber, on captain's penalty of death. Yet there was a rumor of two men from years past who had unlocked the door and seen countless skeletons in the hold, the scoured remains of workers thrown into the hold and gnawed by enormous rats. As the story goes, "[t]hese sailors, of whom only the scattered skeletons told that they have ever been alive, had been sacrificed to cut down the running-expenses of the Yorrike and to keep high the dividends of the stockholders of the company" (132). They were fed to the rats because they had racked up too much overtime.

Such is the nature of Traven's gothic representation of the Yorikke. Gothic horror is only one of the literary modes in which the narrative operates, however. What chiefly characterizes Traven's style in The Death Ship is a kind of modal restlessness, or a constant generic shifting and blending: of satire, gothic, naturalism, propaganda, realism, surrealism, and expressionism. It is through means of such modal restlessness that Traven mimics the troubled movements and the backbreaking work of the vagabond laborers. "There has never been a writer," John Anthony West claims, "who excelled Traven at describing trial by toil; the effect of forced physical labor carried beyond the limits of endurance" (viii). Here, for example, we read a typically complex and composite description of the labor of the coal drags in the ship's stokehold, part gothic, realist, and expressionist, providing the lurid horror all the surer a grip on the imagination:
When the furnace doors were opened, a tremendous heat flared into the
stoke-hold. The glowing cinders were broken off the bars and pulled
out of the furnace. The fire inside the channel roared like an angry
beast ready to jump at the trouble-maker. The more cinder was broken
off and cleared away, the wilder the fire seemed to act. In front of
the furnace the glowing slags mounted until the fireman had to jump
back, lest he be scorched. (189)

The stark representation of sea-going labor sets Traven in the company of Melville, Dana, and Conrad. What arguably sets him apart is the extremity of the representation and the complexity of motive driving it. The Death Ship is proletarian literature, migrant fiction, gothic horror, and anti-bureaucratic propaganda all rolled into one. It features a cast of exploited and undocumented laborers whose experiences attest to the heightened cruelty and injustices of the European states in the wake of the Great War.

The Death Ship interrogates the closed circuit between abusive immigration policies and exploitative labor regimes of the interwar period as shaped through a lethal combination of capitalist greed and governmental sanction. In his prophetic work of political economy, The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi looked back on the debacle of the interwar period as the logical consequence of laissez-faire economic policy in extremis. Surveying the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of the Second World War, Polanyi famously wrote that "[t]he origins of the cataclysm lay in the Utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system" (29). What makes his work seem prophetic of our own time is what makes Traven's novel seem prophetic too: the historical/economic circumstances that their respective works illuminate, albeit at very different moments in the unfolding global tragedy of the 1920s-1940s, are today being repeated. Traven's nightmare vision of life-in-death on the Yorikke is like a prophecy of neoliberalism, where, as Satyaki Roy writes, "the demand and supply of unprotected labour in global capitalism is related to the drive toward flexibilization" (233). If death ships like the Yorikke were increasingly common in the interwar period, it was because the unprotected labor force was growing dramatically, augmented by punitive migration policies all around the European continent. As in our neoliberal times, that which thrived on the flexibilization these policies enabled in the interwar period was the capitalist system per se, though the industrial capitalism of the early twentieth century was more constrained and defined by national borders. Still, it is very much a global empire of capitalism that Traven bitterly invokes in a first person voice that suddenly, on several occasions in the narrative, morphs into a proletarian chorus. In moments of heightened exasperation, Gales's "I" becomes "We":
We are always hungry because a shipping company cannot compete with
the freight rates of other companies if the sailors get food fit for
human beings.... We do not die in shining armor, we the gladiators of
today... We are the black gang... We die in rags for you, O Caesar
Augustus! Hail to you, Imperator Capitalism! (150-51).


The (arguably) implicit revolutionary fervor of such language hints at the lurking influence of one of the most crucial literary modes informing Traven's restless prose: German expressionism. Part of a widespread artistic movement in the first decades of the twentieth century, Richard Sheppard tentatively defines German literary expressionism as "the attempt to create a visionary world, liberated from the language and values and patterns of bourgeois society, expressive of the deepest levels of the personality..., and utilizing symbols derived from the modern industrial world" (279). Expressionism was in its turn deeply entangled with the German-Jewish messianism of the early twentieth century, which has been described as a fusion of "libertarian anarchism," "hermeneutical Jewish motifs," and "romantic anti-capitalism" (Rabinbach 83). In the First Book of The Death Ship, Gales is the very type of the wandering Jew, forced to move from one country to another without prospect of rest. The Yorikke represents that figure's universalization: it is a ship of wanderers, where the crew is compelled to endless labor in virtue of their statelessness. As Gales proclaims soon after he signs on to the crew, "All means of escape are cut off, there is nothing left to do but to bear it" (179).

This recognition is the seed for the redemptive utopian aspect of The Death Ship, at once deeply expressionist and messianic. Anson Rabinbach describes the Jewish Messianism of this period as conceived "in terms of a new unity and transparency that is absent in all previous ages.... The utopian vision is that of a future which is the fulfillment of all that which can be hoped for in the condition of exile but cannot be realized within it" (85). In the messianic terms that Walter Benjamin adopted from this tradition, the present confronts the past in a privileged moment of shock and furtive redemption. (6) This messianic utopianism also influenced Lukacs' argument in History and Class Consciousness (1923) that the proletarian revolution would end the "prehistory" of man and restore a lost totality. (7) With these connections in mind, we may reconsider Gales's meditation on the filthy floor of the Yorikke--that it encodes the whole history of mankind stretching to the Phoenicians and going all the way back to pre-civilization--as a particularly messianic figuration of the novel's expressionism, and its gothicism.

The Death Ship is often dream-like, or visionary in the manner that Sheppard suggests, and the space of the death ship indexes both the present and the past. The Yorikke is historical through and through. It is replete with the past and, indeed, likened to a museum: "The lamps used in the stoke-hold and in the engine-hold were the same the Yorikke carried when she was making old Carthage on regular trips from Tyre on the coast of ancient Phoenicia. In the British Museum one still can see such ancient lamps" (185). In the world of the Yorikke, as Gales suggests, "little was known of modern things" (185), and yet it is very contemporary too. The Yorikke is a gun-runner with corporate backers and a modern labor force structure designed through private influence and public policy in the interwar period for optimal human exploitation. The Yorikke, in other words, is a haunted space, shot through with potentially redemptive energy, where the present and the past route through each other in an intimate manner. It is also a space of illumination where labor regimes of past and present--as exemplified in Phoenecian galley slaves, African-American slaves and peons, and undocumented workers--are juxtaposed for the sake of both critical scrutiny and shock value. Finally, it is a disquieting space of revelation where the growing economic and political chaos of Europe is rendered in its starkest and most physical human terms.

The influence of both expressionism and messianism in The Death Ship is memorably encaptured in Gales's near dream-vision of the fireman. On the verge of suicide, bewildered by fumes and dizzied by intense heat, Gales teeters on a ladder in the smoky shaft above the stoke-hold:
I looked up and there stood a man. Naked and covered with streaming
sweat and soot. He was the fireman of the watch I was to relieve now.
Human beings could not live here, since devils could not. But this
fireman, he could, he had to. So had all the others of the black gang.
They were dead. Without a country. Without nationality. Without birth
certificates with which to prove that they had been born of a mother
belonging to the human race. Men without passports by which to prove
that they were citizens of the earth.... (182)

This messianic vision marks a turning point for Gales. The naked man forced to labor under unbearable conditions captures the essence of Agamben's living-being abandoned by the law. The fireman is on the verge of death insofar as he can be killed at any instant. He is also already dead in his denationalization. Why does this vision embolden Gales? Why is he no longer suicidal, but rather hopeful? "I hope I have a chance to come back to life again" (183), he proclaims immediately after the vision. One must assume that the reader's reception in the original German language edition of the novel was conditioned in part by cultural expectations shaped by the intensities of German expressionism. The visionary fireman is Traven's incarnation of expressionism's New Man, invested with utopian meaning and regenerative power.

The New Man was a figure born of the profound transformations taking place in European culture, technology, and society in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was certainly a well-known figure in expressionist art and messianic philosophy. As Peter Nicholls writes, "Expressionism veered between an often decadent preoccupation with types of spiritual 'sickness' and an attempt to harness liberated emotion to th[e] project of social renewal"; the New Man was the dominant image of this renewal, the "early warning" sign of bourgeois individualism's demise and the dawn of a new "active sense of spiritual community" (140). Thus the main justification for the New Man obsession was preparation for new kinds of social and political organization. The creative task was to reclaim the totality of life over and against its modern technocratic/technological capture. This necessarily involved for many writers and thinkers connecting the image of the individual body with that of the collective body--that of the national body politic or various alternative imagined communities based upon class, professional, and other affiliations. As expressionist theatre, agitprop theatre, theatre for the masses, worker's sport, and other cultural formations of the time presupposed, collective and historical subjectivity was conceivable only in terms of its circuiting through the individual living body. Fascism capitalized on this lesson in potent and devastating ways, but other alternatives were being traced out through this same electric convergence of individual and collective existence in philosophy, criticism, and art. Here is the New Man's dramatic invocation in Georg Kaiser's expressionist play Die Burger von Calais (1917):
I come out of this night--to go into night no more. My eyes are open
never again to be closed. My blind eyes are sound--what I have
witnessed I shall never forget: I have seen the New Man--This night he
was born!... Already in my ears is the rushing wave of those coming in
their turn. I feel the turbulent flow of creation--about me--above and
beyond me--unending! I am one with the stream of new life--in it I
live on--and stride forth from today into the morrow--untiring in all
things--in all things enduring. (qtd. in Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and
Tsianos 90)

Kaiser's New Man comes as an epiphany that is both intensely private and deeply political. The New Man is a vision--a harbinger of the future, the progenitor of all those who will follow--and he inspires vision. Moving from darkness into light, the speaker finds himself surrounded by teeming and unchecked life, shot through with energies and forces that connect him to flows of infinite creation. The rhetoric is both fluid and manic; the vision of the New Man inspires in the speaker a sense of belonging to something bigger than himself, and it steels him to endure all changes to come.

Traven's New Man, the fireman of the watch, likewise inspires a sense of collective existence, at least in part. His singular narrative invocation is immediately connected to a communal life: he has to work beyond endurance, naked, dirty, exhausted, as do all the other illegals who have been stripped of their state identities and who are therefore made available for the forging of new communities of the accursed. At the same time, the sense of abandonment that marks their identity seems to thwart belonging or participation. According to Gales, one of the chief characteristics of these ill-fated workers is their forgetfulness:
Devils could not live here, for some culture and civilization are left
even among devils. Just ask old Faust. He knew them personally. But
men with no papers had to work here. They were not asked, they were
ordered. They had to work so hard, they were chased about so
mercilessly, that they forgot everything that can be forgotten. They
even forgot more than that. Long ago they had forgotten their own
selves.... [T]hey went so far as to forget to think that it might be
possible to work in this hell. (182-183)

This forgetfulness is in part salutary. The abandoned souls invoked in this passage forget that they are working in hell, which helps them to survive it. The ironic stasis of the situation could conceivably function as a mainspring for some still later change in consciousness; and this does happen. The change is not what we would assume, however, based upon New Man-inspired expectations. Soon after his vision of the fireman, Gales experiences an exultant sense of absolute solitude, "standing above the gods. I am free. Unbound. I may do now whatever I wish. I may curse the gods... because no longer can I be damned. Hell is now paradise" (195).

The altered consciousness communicated in this visionary rhetoric reminds us of Kaiser's Die Burger von Calais. It pulls in entirely the wrong direction from what is called for by the lights of political messianism and expressionism, however. The rhetoric at this point in the narrative seems to reflect antinomian and anarchist impulses inspired, as some critics have claimed, by the German philosopher Max Stirner (Guthke 134). Gales forgets his brothers in the above fit of egoism, though he also draws an immediate connection between this forgetting and the state of his self-abandonment. After his vision, the forgetful Gales finds himself disconnected from the life of a community of illegal laborers, and his confusion of hell with paradise amounts to little more than accommodation to the worst. He will survive his violent and dehumanizing ordeal on board the Yorikke, but the experience will only nourish his sense of solitude.

At this point it might be tempting to fault Traven with a failure of political will. As a writer affiliated with the German radical Left, one might expect his vision of the New Man to inspire some hopeful and principled collective practice. Then again, he was most often taken to be "either... an anarchist or an idiosyncratic communist" (Gulddal 303), which is precisely why he had to flee Weimar Germany in the first place. (8) As Ret Marut, he had become the most unwelcome kind of political radical, advocating the disappearance of the state in the wake of the Bavarian Revolution. It is altogether possible that his fireman is meant to satirize the New Man of German literary expressionism. After all, by the time Traven begins work on The Death Ship, probably during his exile in London, the project of literary expressionism was already in disarray (Sheppard 241). In the crucial decade of the 1920s, the New Man was not succeeding in its assigned role of inspiring progressive political change. In retrospect, the figure proved too aestheticized and abstract, and then too amenable to fascist ends, with its glorified, ubermensch qualities. If the naked and sweaty fireman is satire, then it seems sensible to read behind it an anti-authoritarian motive directed against both political and literary-aesthetic targets.

Traven's assault on stock literary conventions in the name of artistic creativity is very much in accord with his excoriation of the passport regime in the name of free movement. At the same time, it is in accord with his insistence on human rights in the face of their increasing abrogation in the era of denationalization. As Arendt claims, denationalization, which stripped the individual of the right to mobility and the right to have rights, was a crucial step toward the fascist camps. In Traven's novel, it is the story of young Paul from Alsace whose dehumanization hints most provocatively at the manner in which the death ship retrospectively assumes the image of the camp. Accepted for citizenship by neither the German nor French governments after the war, Paul does two six-month stints of hard labor for vagrancy before his is finally picked up by French officials and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The sentence is reduced by two years since he agrees to join the Foreign Legion. He can't take the cruel discipline and runs away to Spanish Morocco, where he is taken hostage by a tribe who are hostile to the French but unwilling to murder Paul since he was technically born in Germany, and the Germans had fought in the Great War on the same side as the Turks. Paul escapes and finally ends up seeking refuge on board the Yorikke, which then happened to be anchored right off the Spanish Moroccan coast. His berth on the Yorikke proves the worst situation of all: "ten times worse than our sweat company and the penal company combined" (275). The Yorikke turns out to be a camp he cannot survive. He dies in rags and is tossed in the sea with a lump of coal tied around one of his legs.

Traven's death ship is a terminus. If the foreign legion constituted a certain kind of death ship, metaphorically speaking--some nations "call their death ships the foreign legion" (233), as Gales notes--the Yorikke was different. The legionnaire may come back to life again, but "[t]he longer you shipped on the Yorikke, the farther away you sailed from any possibility of winning or regaining any citizenship" (233-34). Like the Yorikke, the camps were purpose-built for individuals who were strategically hindered from laying claim to the most basic protections enjoyed by state citizens. Arendt comments in The Origins of Totalitarianism on the Nazis "extreme care" (356) in ensuring that all non-German Jews were stripped of citizenship prior to their deportation to the camps. (Such care was not needed in the case of German Jews, who were automatically deprived of citizenship in virtue of "leaving" German territory for the Polish camps). In the case of both the death ship and the death camp--here we must remember both Kurt's defacement and Paul's namelessness--the loss of identity constituted the crucial precondition for the dehumanization and brutalization to follow.

Yet there is a paradox in The Death Ship. In this novel, as elsewhere in Traven's fiction, human identity and selfhood is not celebrated for itself in the manner that we expect in modern life and literature. If the loss of identity is the precondition for degradation, it is also a state through which the only true promise of future redemption is offered. Traven's New Man, the superman whose brief and dusky vision saves Gales from despair and suicide, is a nameless proletarian refugee who disappears as fast as he is conjured out of the smoke and steam of the stoke-hold. He is a dream vision whose seductiveness lies in his power to endure, in his transience, and in his anonymity. Guthke writes of Traven himself, "His was an obsessive flight into anonymity, a determined rejection of modern conceptions of individuality and originality, of the person and the self, reminiscent of Rimbaud in Abyssinia or T. E. Lawrence in the Royal Air Force" (10). Yet anonymity in The Death Ship is not worthy of approbation for itself. We should instead think of anonymity as a function of that condition which is represented in Traven's novel as most central and vital to the human condition: mobility. "At the centre of Gale's philosophy," writes Jesper Gulddal, "is a mock Heraclitan cosmology according to which individual freedom of movement is the basic law of the universe" (304). Against this Heraclitan background, as Gulddal proposes, "the movement control measures of the modern state appear as an unhinging of nature itself" (304). Here too there is an element of satire behind Traven's commitment to free movement, as Gulddal signals with his reference to a "mock" Heraclitanism. However, the satire is designed to emphasize the commitment to movement rather than to undermine it, just as the gothic elements of the fiction are designed to underscore the ruthlessness and brutality of industrial capitalism rather than deprecate it.

The "mock" quality of Gales's outrage against passports and modern bureaucracy communicates a profound sincerity, and dread too:
Why passports? Why immigration restriction? Why not let human beings
go where they wish to go, North Pole or South Pole, Russia or Turkey,
the States or Bolivia? Human beings must be kept under control. They
cannot fly like insects about the world into which they were born
without being asked. Human beings must be brought under control, under
passports, under finger-print registrations. For what reason? Only to
show the omnipotence of the state, and of the holy servant of the
state, the bureaucrat. Bureaucracy has come to stay.... With
footprintings of babies it has begun; the next stage will be the
branding of registration numbers upon the back, properly filed....

The danger was clear. Not only are the techniques of the fascist camps prophesied in this passage, Gales also intuits an incipient totalitarianism in the contemporary push for movement control. The surest sign that modern Western nations were headed for an even bigger catastrophe than the Great War were the walls they were erecting; and the greatest perversion for Gales is that, during the 1920s, the walls were going up in the name of democracy and in the name of freedom.


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(1) Guthke writes, "The life of the best-selling Mexican author B. Traven actually stood in the shadow of death, for Marut's 'death' was the basis for Traven's 'life.'... [H]e narrowly escaped death fifty years before his actual death in Mexico" (9).

(2) In his essay "Mexico and Weimar's Anti-Authoritarian Socialist Imagination: Storytelling, Working, and 'Unworking' in B. Traven," Martin Kley argues that the German left's understanding of the Mexican Revolution was profoundly shaped by Traven's writings and that Traven largely perceived the significance of his work in its responsiveness to this purpose.

(3) Guthke also points out that "Traven" suggests the German word trauen, "trust," and that "Marut" is an anagram for traum, "dream" (63-64).

(4) While it may be fanciful, it is also propitious to think of the historical emergence of the wage labor system as being emblematized in a particularly memorable scene in Traven's novel, that of Gales's first encounter with the sinister Yorikke. Prior to this encounter, through nearly the whole of the First Book, Gales is a vagabond, both literally and in a more figurative sense: his itinerant travels allegorize the prehistory of the wage labor system. Throughout the First Book, Gales is being conditioned through a great deal of negative reinforcement--hunger, homelessness, harassment, imprisonment--to accept the wage labor that will nearly kill him on the death ship. When he sees the Yorikke for the first time he is aghast, acknowledging it is "better to be a stranded sailor and hungry than to be a deck-hand on this ship" (112). He "preferred the hangman to sailing on the Yorikke" (114), and yet he seems utterly compelled to work anyway. He chalks his acceptance up to superstition, though it is more clearly a response to cultural conditioning. He fears that if he doesn't take this job he will never get another one. "No one in the whole world could force me to sign on with that ship, and yet--..." (117). This is the precise moment in the novel that allegorizes the historical passage to the wage system.

(5) As Patrick Hayden writes in Political Evil in a Global Age,
The deportations and forced expulsions of unwanted minority groups,
the displacement of persons en masse by war and revolution, and the
mass denationalizations of "undesirable" populations led to the
emergence of the apatride as a figure symptomatic of "a world
organized into nation-states": the stateless person lacking
governmental representation and protection and thus forced to live
outside the pale of the law. (63)

(6) The most famous expression of this confrontation of past and present is in thesis VI from Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." The threat is "that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes" (255).

(7) Lukacs reflects on the messianic utopianism of History and Class Consciousness in the preface to the 1967 edition of the text. He faults the work for the extravagance of its messianism (which he heard echoed in the leftist political rhetoric of the 1960s) yet nevertheless defends the tone of the book as a necessary corrective to bourgeois political predomination in interwar Europe (xviii ff).

(8) Linking Marut/Traven's anarchism and incipient antinomianism to contemporary political and social conditions, Guthke suggests the following in his biography: The "nominally dynastic European social and political order was ripe for its demise in the capitalist age.... What survives the collapse of the old European order is, in any event, the anarchistic sense of the individual who has found himself in his defiance" (214).

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Author:Dougherty, Stephen
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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