The Kingdom of Shadows (just published, as an e-publication for Kindle and Nook) is K. W. Jeter‘s first new full-length novel since Noir (1998). It’s an extraordinary book, though difficult to describe without spoilers. I will do my best.
The Kingdom of Shadows is set just before and during World War II, in Nazi Germany and Hollywood. It could easily be thought of as a historical novel, except for one crucial plot element (which I will avoid giving away here) that pushes it over the line and into the realm of speculative fiction. The “kingdom of shadows” (or Schattenreich, in German) to which the title refers is both the insubstantial world of light and dark (or black and white) that appears on cinema screens, and the world of the Third Reich, in which life has been drained of its colorful variety in the service of a fanatical Idea. Our bodies project shadows, and the ancient philosophers believed that images were emanations from our skin and from the surfaces of other bodies (Deleuze writes of the “particularly subtle, fluid, and tenuous elements” that, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, “detach themselves from the surfaces of things — skins, tunics, or wrappings, envelopes or barks — what Lucretius calls simulacra and Epicurus calls idols”). In the twentieth century, such subtle, almost impalpable emanations were captured by analog photgraphic devices, and then projected as movies.
It’s well known how the Nazis made use of cinematic mise-en-scene in order to take and consolidate their power. A film like Triumph of the Will exalts the Nazi Party and the German State in terms of an overwhelming, monumentalist aesthetic. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, both ran the German film industry in competition with Hollywood, and helped to organize the society of the Reich as if it were some sort of immense film set. Jeter builds on this to portray all of Nazi Germany as a kind of cinematic epic; the Gotterdamerung of its nihilistic collapse when it loses the war is as much a part of this as was its initial grandiloquent construction. Hollywood is evidently less malign than Nazi Germany — but the technologies of both realms are the same: the cinema-machine as a way of destroying souls by extracting images from bodies, and giving them a monstrous new magnified life on the screen. In this way, the cinema is both a destroyer and a preserver: the kingdom of shadows is both the spectacle of a mutilated life, and the storehouse of our memories, which are the only things we have to counter this mutilation and destruction.
The plot of The Kingdom of Shadows concerns a small religious minority group, the Lazarenes (invented by Jeter; as far as I know, they had no actual historical existence), who are targeted by the Nazis for extermination on the grounds that they (like the Jews and the Roma) are an “inferior” race. The main character Marte, a young woman of “mixed” Lazarene and “German” blood, ironically comes to embody the myth of “Aryan” supremacy and “purity,” when Goebbels becomes obsessed with her, takes her as his “mistress” (which in this case, really means as his sex slave), and puts her on screen as the Reich’s greatest and most radiant star. As the novel proceeds, she is increasingly separated from herself: turned into a radiant image despite (or secretly because of) the inner suffering and melancholy that almost shines through. Jeter is unsparing in the way that he links the misogyny of Nazi ideology to that of the cinematic machine’s reliance upon women’s “to-be-looked-atness.”
The Lazarenes are visible in Germany as a separate ethnic group because of a genetic quirk: their eyes are always of two different colors. Culturally, they distinguish themselves by a certain secret knowledge transmitted by the elders, and by the tattoos, representing Christ’s stigmata, that all members of the group receive upon initiation into adulthood. The Nazis are obsessed with the Lazerenes’ secret wisdom, which concerns the skin and its images or emanations, and which thereby is related to the cinema as a machinery both of self-perpetuation, and of propaganda and control. The shadow-images that emanate from our skins and get projected on movie screens are flimsy and insubstantial, and yet they are a source of nearly (or potentially) unlimited power. Jeter’s novel moves between the grandiose monstrosity of the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent, of Hollywood) and the inward pain and vulnerability of individual bodies, which is to say of human beings who are entirely exposed to the world through the openness of their skin.
I think that The Kingdom of Shadows is a profound work of media philosophy, due to the way that it draws links between the substantiality and suffering of the flesh, the shadowy impalpability (which is yet not non-existence) of images, and the functioning (both technical and social) of twentieth-century media technologies. The book rethinks the meaning of the horrors of the Nazi era, and their relation to the larger movements of the whole twentieth century (as opposed to the way that all too many contemporary works just invoke Naziism as an easy signifier of ultimate evil). But of course, it is first of all a novel, not a treatise. What really makes the book work is its affective dimension, as conveyed through K. W. Jeter’s dark and melancholy prose. The Kingdom of Shadows is rooted in German Romanticism and (going further back) in the disturbing world of early-Germanic fairy tales, while it also reaches forward to contemporary “dark vitalism” and the poetry of extinction. It’s a devastating book, a descent into the dark night of the twentieth century, from which there can be no easy redemption.