Like some later day Herodotus of Halikarnassus, chronicling the cultures of strange places and unfamiliar nations, these are the researches of J. Dee Hill, which she publishes in the hope of preserving the legends of what men have done, of preventing the fantastic and fabulous actions of the Freaks from losing their due glory. In Herodotus’ Greece of the Fifth Century BC, the word historia meant ‘research,’ as mythologos meant ‘storytelling.’ Herodotus traveled the world ‘researching’ and wrote a record, a narrative of the unknown. In so doing, he used language to recreate the things he saw, to construct a story of what he found there. Reality, capital-T Truth, is nothing more than the language used to describe it, to define it, to construct it for understanding. Like Homer, Herodotus’ wrote an account of mythical and magical events, whose spectacle, some 2500 years later continue to incite argument and disbelief in the minds of those who would have it otherwise, who would use different language to cast the same situations. Yet, Herodotus’ Histories were his stories, his memories, his constructed reality; they are the ones he choose set and tell. In the same way, the cast of characters that people the pages of Hill’s documentary, characters so in lust with the dark night of the soul that they would spend their days preparing for the ritual recreation of the repeated nightly nightmare, are her characters, her creations; in a sense, she becomes the RingMaster, whose barked language breathes the fire of life into her puppets and bids her creatures dance.
Again, like Herodotus, Hill is interested in events that occurred within living memory and could therefore be verified by living individuals, for which work Herodotus is known as the Father of History. Even still, he has his detractors, which is why to this day he is known also as the Father of Lies. It is as if Herodotus set about to cast a great incantation and enchant all peoples and posterity with the intonations of a spell. Magic is often thought of by some as a trick or a lie, to others it is the inestimable skill of a master. Such is language. Throughout the centuries, however, his readers have always been entertained by his way of telling stories, by his performance. After all, his Histories were written to be studied, memorized and recited in lecture. Herodotus, the Father of History, was first attacked by the first born son of history, Thucydides, who rejected the religious themes and experience that pattern their way through the pages of Histories. For quite some time, nobody dared to believe Herodotus’ researched ‘stories’ into the outlandish and their customs were, for centuries, regarded as merely inventions of his imagination. His tales became myth. The container that is Freaks & Fire also recounts the exploits of men and women whose culture of unbelievable actions, often enacted with the masks of religious ritual, are widely regarded as incredible or even implausible.
In many ways, despite its unifying theme of charting the development of the Persian Wars, Herodotus’ researches are descriptions, tales and digressions recounting the culture of the foreign lands involved in the conflict. For instance the third book of the Histories involved entirely with the lands of Egypt, Herodotus spends most of his words telling about the customs of the Egyptians, which, interestingly enough, are often inversions of the customs of the Greeks in his audience. He tells how women go to the market while men weave, how the Egyptians knead dough with their feet and clay with their hands, women urinate standing and men sitting. Then, he moves onto the religious practices of the land and the ritual festivals performed along the Nile, concluded with the rites of the dead and how mummies are made. These are all behaviors that would seem freakish to the Greeks. In the same way, the lives of Hill’s Freaks, the actions they nightly inflict upon their bodies in performance, seem incomprehensible, or even reprehensible, to the average Middle American.
This Egyptian book is a fascinating document, a veritable cabinet of curiosities, of facts, fiction, fairy tales, gossip and legends, all epoxied with a humanitarian morale. It teaches us much about the ancient Egyptians, but at the same time even more about the prejudices and the conceits of Herodutus’ Greek audience. The examples he uses to fascinate the Greeks tell us how the Greeks thought and understood their world, by showing us what they would see as wrong or improper. Every history, especially this first history, is shaped using rhetorical and narrative devices, so as to engage the judgements of its audience and their perceptions and persuade them in a certain manner. The teller, through his style of delivery influences the reader, can distance them from a subject, or with some slight of hand or phrase, place them amid its central concerns, entrance them into the drama whose tensions it is the tellers to create. Every writer has an agenda that they try to flesh out in her or his narrative. Certain incidents or episodes are given more weight then others, and in so doing, the teller chisels exact shapes, forms her or his idea of history. J. Dee Hill, like Herodotus, with her descriptions of ‘strange’ cultures and customs is ultimately telling the story of a single nation, a community, neither right nor wrong, but simply existing side by one, against one another, sometimes leaning, sometimes shoving, always struggling to exist, to be and to have. At the same time, an audience can only ever understand an example or situation in reference to their own individual experiences, and in this way they filter or interpret the events described to them. Experience is a palimpsest.
Herodotus was born in Halikarnassos around 484 BC. Most of what is know about him comes from a tenth century Byzantine lexicon, the Souda, and even that is incredibly brief. There is also speculation that the family may have had partially non-Greek origins not mentioned in this biography. This mixed heritage and Halikarnassos’ position on the edge of the Hellenic world gave Herodotus a unique position among Greeks. He was somehow himself different, other, perhaps a freak, and his life on a border city, in between, gave to his days the dalliance of the borderline. Never does he treat the foreigners, the non-Greek Barbarians, as inferior. In fact, he treats them as equals to the Greeks in many ways, highlighting their courage and strength. Similarly, Hill introduces herself in her introduction as an honorary Freak of sorts, one accepted into this circus existence and therefore able to tell its tale.
She begins, “Freak has come to mean something slightly different than its original definition. Freak implies both a larger community in which the individual is shunned, or at least regarded with vague suspicions, for his or her peculiarities, and a smaller community in which those peculiarities are embraced. It’s about relationships, not just physical anomalies.” (Hill xi) And so there we are, thrust into the central tensions of a culture on the move, a transient culture. Yet, these Freaks have their place, for Freaks are “a part of human nature” and their situation is “not just the lot of a sad few.” (Hill xi) She continues, “The place of the freak is with the tribe, a level of social integration that is larger than the family but small enough that the individual’s personal peculiarities or proclivities determine their inclusion.” (Hill xii) Her focus is on the place of the Freak who dares to walk that liminal line between reality and fantasy, whose life is both dream and nightmare. Her attentions are paid to the community of Freaks, and how they are one with themselves, a community, in contrast to the average person, for “the modern individual is preoccupied simultaneously by the isolating, immediate concerns of personal survival and the larger, often intangible concerns of war, terror and economic change as transmitted by a now seamless global media network. The intermediate space of community is not easily reached.” (Hill xii) But somehow, the Freaks of her tale have formed just such a community.
It began in the early nineties it seems, when the strangle hold of the capitalistic, collectivist global mono-culture economy, after the final failure of any alternative forms of government, was first felt to clasp its icy hand around the world’s throat. Hill explains, “It was at…festivals, in clubs and at underground raves, that alternative circus acts began appearing in the early 90’s. The performers were young, crazy ‘freaks’…who used circus costumes, skills or themes as a performative means for expressing their own exaggerated personalities.” (Hill xii) The community finds strength in itself, health with itself since “Circus, the tribal entertainment, eludes the modern world with its malaise and plagues.” (Hill xiii) In the circus life of these Freaks, situations are sought “that sustain the individual, in all his or her peculiarities…” (Hill xiii) Hill goes on to make the point, in not so many words, that the process of Individuation, the Jungian concept of alchemical becoming is found these days in the devotion and ritual of the circus, in the performer as Shaman and medicine man.
She argues that “Clowns, for example, are full of shamanic references. They take on a different persona or personae while in an altered state of consciousness…typical of the trickster or sacred clown in tribal cultures.” (Hill xiii) Here we find the presence of a Loki-like personae, a mercurious, mischievous, spirit of disorder, whose misbehavior brings about the growth of the individual and the community. Certainly, with no Loki, Odin would have not his spear, nor Thor his Hammer. In line with tradition, these Feaks are our shamans, since “The shamanic journey was traditionally undertaken in order to bring healing to the tribe, and it was done by someone who had been set apart as ‘different,’ either because of sickness, visions or a particularly arduous initiation. Some current-day alternative circuses, composed of people ‘set-apart,’ consciously make community healing a part of their work as well. This is particularly noticeable in groups that adopt mythological themes for their performers.” (Hill xiv) And, in addition, there is a definite freedom in the Freak culture since “An anti-consumer ethic pervades the underground circus, along with performance styles that bring audience members onstage or even break down the performer/spectator barrier altogether.” (Hill xv) Here one need not kneel down for the yoke of capitalism and tow the party line.
Finally, Hill makes her point. After all, “We’re all tripping fools in ridiculous costumes…” (Hill xv) The Freaks have just learned how to become one with themselves, to be and to have. And even if The Enigma will only ever puzzle audiences and engender the gall of parents, even if in the performative object, there is no secret to be found, even if there is no reason for the Torture King to defy all that seems decent, the conundrum, the riddle of life remains. Ultimately, there is no explanation, no answers, only more questions, and better performances.