The Image of the Other in a Closed Community

The tragic figure of Houari Chihani in Stephen Dobyn’s The Church of Dead Girls serves as a near-perfect archetype of the Other in literature, that strange, unnerving outsider whose presence in a closed community serves as scapegoat for the unknown evil which comes from within. The Other serves as the screen onto which the projection of the collective Shadow is cast.

Houari Chihani’s aloof, narcissistic disposition toward the people of the ironically named and economically failing Aurelius, New York places emotional distance between himself and his neighbors. A history professor with a terrific pedigree yet bothersome teaching record, Chihani’s attitude toward others doesn’t win him many friends outside of a dozen or so students who see in the North African genius a genuine guru, someone who recognizes and acknowledges their difference, their own alienation, and gives them purpose as outsiders in their own right.

When the murders begin, Chihani and his followers become suspects. The professor is strange. He drives a strange car, a bright red Citroën. He has a PhD from the prestigious University of Chicago. He comes from Algeria. He openly declares that his students are ignorant, the townspeople are asleep, and that his mission is to awaken a few bright minds in order to change the community and drag it, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 21st century. For his efforts, Chihani’s windshield gets a rock pitched through it in the dead of winter.

Now a rock through your windshield might tell you that you need to amend your ways, or at least be a bit more circumspect in your rhetoric. But for the Marxist Chihani, this is merely a reactionary response to the truth. He drives the car home, snow blowing through the windshield, and doesn’t really seem phased by the attack on his property. His mannerisms and his behavior are strange, or even queer as some might say. His passionless responses to personal attacks only serve to heighten the mystique around him.

The ontological gulf between Chihani and the town of Aurelius isn’t insurmountable. He draws a crowd of disciples from the community, young outsiders like Barry “Little Pink” Sanders. Barry is bright, overweight, gay, and an albino. Barry is a natural target for children in his youth and is bullied his whole life. Barry’s charismatic friend, Aaron McNeal, is also drawn to Chihani.

In Aaron we find the potential mediator, the go-between for the proverbial mystic-on-the-mountaintop Chihani, and the townspeople of Aurelius. Yet Aaron’s own past is troubled. At the age of 13 he suffers a small, facial disfigurement due to a dog fight. His mother was notorious for her marital infidelities and, during his teen years, Aaron is taunted by bullies for her behavior. Eventually, Aaron bites off and chews the ear of his principle tormentor. When the murders that serve the plot of the novel begin, Aaron’s mother is targeted first, making him a natural suspect.

So the problem of bridging the gap between the majority and the minority populations of Aurelius serves as the theme for the novel. Beaten to death on Halloween night by a gang of vigilante louts, Chihani’s murder takes an immediate backseat to other concerns in the town.  Nobody cares about the Other, about the scapegoat, and when his killers are apprehended, they are treated far better than the truly innocent who fawn over Chiani’s teachings.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, penned his magnum opus, Meditations, toward the end of his life. The work focuses, like most of the works of the Stoics, on how to be a good man and what that means to society. As mentioned before, the name of the town, Aurelius, is ironic. When viewed through the lens shaped by Aurelius, we realize that Chihani and his Marxist disciples are truly good people despite popular perception.

4 thoughts on “The Image of the Other in a Closed Community

  1. Matt Andrew

    Bridging the gap as a theme of the book is brilliant. I admire your ability to read deeply and close into these texts. I really hit this book hard as a whodunit, but I can appreciate the point you made about the Marxist followers and their innocence–while they did engage in some illegal activities and dastardly stuff, at least they stayed true to who they were, unlike most of the town by the end of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Their innocence stems from their complete naivete. During the ontological catechism where they (erroneously–Marxists never let one another be right on these points–ever) conclude that the ends justify the means left me speechless. It was a lovely ritual, a sort of psychic binding (literally group-think) lead by Chihani, Moses to Aaron’s Aaron.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like your analytical focus on Chihani and the idea of the Other. Through Chihani we are given a chance to learn something about outsiders, the perspectives of others, and what kind of chaos can ensue when those perspectives are drastically different than what is typically accepted in a small town. The mob mentality that ensues in pursuit of violence and the desperate need to put the blame on someone offers a rich chance to dissect the chain reactions of events that occur throughout the novel through a Marxist perspective. I loved the overt Marxism theme and thought it offered fascinating connections to that of our psycho Malloy, especially in comparison to Chihani and who he was versus who the people of the town speculated him to be, and vice versa for Malloy.

    Liked by 1 person

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