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Sunday
Jan182015

The Bottle Imp

If you were lucky enough to be read fantastic tales as a child and regaled on the plenitude of the world's legends and myths (a distinction made elsewhere on these pages), you will surely have heard of the genie in the lamp. You were also probably told at some point during your scholastic trials that genie and genius are from the same root, since they are indeed found interchangeably in our books. But here lies the untruth of the matter. Genius, the effervescent spirit of wisdom and creation comes from the same Greek root as genesis, or of birth and origin itself; genie has a much nastier source. The OED thus comments:

The word génie was adopted by the French translators of The Arabian Nights as the rendering of the Arabic word [more precisely given as jinn; jinni is the adjective] which it resembled in sound and sense. In English, genie has been commonly used in the singular and genii in the plural.

This split etymology, the drifting of a word already in the language to accommodate a near-homonym from a foreign tongue, is common enough in our modern age of calques and wordplay, but let us be sure: the genie of the lamps of Aladdin and other wanderers are not the protective spirits born to guard our souls. Jinn in Arabic has, as older words often do, the capacity to refer with equal authority to one word and its complete opposite – in this case angels and whatever your mind tells you that complete opposite might be. A terse introduction to this dark fable.

Although we will spend almost all of our story in the Hawaiian isles, we begin our tale in this Western city. Our protagonist Keawe is a young and impecunious man who "could read and write like a schoolmaster" but who has seen little of the world. His education and lack of exposure to other ends of the earth conspire to lead him to San Francisco, and here he is amazed by what he sees. He notices one house in particular:

This is a fine town, with a fine harbour, and rich people uncountable; and in particular, there is one hill which is covered with palaces. Upon this hill Keawe was one day taking a walk with his pocket full of money, viewing the great houses upon either hand with pleasure. "What fine houses these are!" he was thinking, "and how happy must those people be who dwell in them, and take no care for the morrow!" The thought was in his mind when he came abreast of a house that was smaller than some others, but all finished and beautified like a toy; the steps of that house shone like silver, and the borders of the garden bloomed like garlands, and the windows were bright like diamonds; and Keawe stopped and wondered at the excellence of all he saw. So stopping, he was aware of a man that looked forth upon him through a window so clear that Keawe could see him as you see a fish in a pool upon the reef. The man was elderly, with a bald head and a black beard; and his face was heavy with sorrow, and he bitterly sighed. And the truth of it is, that as Keawe looked in upon the man, and the man looked out upon Keawe, each envied the other.

Were our story merely an allegory, a couple of repartees about the inevitable unhappiness of those who chase money and wealth could end the narrative right here. Yet we are not as enmeshed in allegory as in the imagination of a warning brought out by the sweeping interest in the fate of the human soul and the choices it is allowed to make over a lifetime. Keawe enters this beautiful house and ultimately purchases for a small amount the source of the old man's prosperity, "a round-bellied bottle with a long neck." Glass in appearance and touch, it cannot be shattered; the glass itself "was white like milk, with changing rainbow colors in the grain," and inside Keawe sees "something obscurely mov[ing], like a shadow and a fire." A careful reader will note the equanimity of the spectrum beheld, as if all the colors, including white – which is all colors combined – and black – which is the absence of color – were contained, and therein were contained as well all possibilities of all things on this earth. So came the old man into the fortune Keawe sees before him, and so plans he to leave it all behind. Forces of evil will impose contracts because only they, in eternal damnation, will have the time to read every last clause. For that reason there are ground rules to the purchase of this bottle: it must be bought at a lower price than what the current owner paid for it and cannot simply be given away or abandoned; and if the owner dies still in possession of it, he will burn for all eternity in the slow flames of hell. With this in mind, Keowe has a palatial home built back in Hawaii (the money inherited from suddenly deceased relatives) and then finds Kokua, a woman beyond his wildest dreams – although his wildest dreams are not necessarily wreathed with joy and good fortune, and, by this unwilling association, neither are hers.

The vision that Stevenson imposes on his odd Hawaiian cast has much to do with his own Presbyterian upbringing and the cataclysmic consequences of greed and diabolical pacts. The main value of The Bottle Imp, apart from its remarkable concinnity of style, is the wholly unexpected dénouement to Keowe's crisis of conscience. We will not remark here that Stevenson's decision was influenced by his growing antipathy to European mores and his concomitant sympathy with the South Sea islanders among whom he died, although there is great plausibility in such an assertion. More likely, as in so often the case in art, there obtained a happy combination of his long-held tenets on the fate of the human soul and the setting which inspired him to re-imagine an old trope. There is one paragraph in this regard which is particularly magnificent:

Kokua concealed the bottle under her holoku, said farewell to the old man, and walked off along the avenue, she cared not whither. For all roads were now the same to her, and led equally to hell. Sometimes she walked, and sometimes ran; sometimes she screamed out loud in the night, and sometimes lay by the wayside in the dust and wept. All that she had heard of hell came back to her; she saw the flames blaze, and she smelt the smoke, and her flesh withered on the coals.

"All that she had heard of hell came back to her" might be the finest short description ever furnished on the subject. And the funny thing is, all of us know exactly what she means.

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