Bolaño, Owen, Shell Shock, and Beuys, and the Charisma of Nazis

by on Nov.22, 2010

I’ve been working on a 40 page essay on Bolaño and how Art leaks, flows, or surges from the evil eye; I’ve been thinking of Nazi Literatures in the America as materializing the physical co-incidence of Art and evil—evil because it inverts, perverts, controverts the homologously normalizing forms of the body, society, and the text. Nazi Literatures in the Americas is a fake-textbook (fake, so already artificial and evil); at once bio- and biblio-graphical, it gives the birth and death dates for a collection of Fascist writers, synopses of their lives, a description of their careers and the fates of their writing. Their actual writing is absent. Bolaño’s short prose is frequently marked by flimsy/improbable/hasty frame narratives through which a comparably excessive main narrative spurts and flows; in Nazi Literatures in the Americas we get only the frame narratives, without the main narratives, the overproduction, the issue, the Art. In this sense we get only a set of collapsed evil eyes, with the Art drained out of them.
However, reading up on Wilfred Owen and shell-shock, I’ve come across information about the specific therapy administered to him in Craiglockhart Hospital. Owen’s doctor prescribed metrical poetry writing and other art activities to help his shell-shocked patients re-ordinate themselves to society’s temporality. Here is Brock’s description of shell-shock, as quoted in scholar Meredith Martin’s essay “Therapeutic Measures: The Hydra and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital.”(Modernism/modernity, Volume 14, Number 1, January 2007 ):

The shell-shock patient is out of Time altogether. If a “chronological,” he is at least not a
historical being. Except in so far as future or past may contain some memory or prospect
definitely gratifying, or morbidly holding him, he dismisses both. He lives for the moment,
on the surface of things. His memory is weak (amnesia), his will is weak (aboulia),
he is improvident and devoid of foresight. He is out of Space, too; he shrinks from his
immediate surroundings (geophobia), or at most he faces only certain aspects of it; he is
a specialist à Outrance. (from Brock’s postwar volume Health and Conduct, p. 146.)

As Martin summarizes, the goal of Brock’s treatment of Owen and others was “[to force] the patients to actively and metrically order their mental chaos in new contexts of time (the five-beat line of a poem, a first person narrative or short-story, a play) and space(a diagram of the city, a lecture, a description of local museums.)”

Against this regime/n of form and genre, Brock “warned against the dangers of ‘art for art’s sake,’ where art become a kind of drug that separates the patient from the social world, an extreme form of outrance.”. Here is a literalization of Derrida’s modeling of Art as the pharmikon, the drug, the supplement; for Brock, ‘art for art’s Sake’ entailed a counter-therapy, a counter-regime to the ordinating regime of form and genre whose goal was to turn the shell-shocked patients into functioning soldiers and integrate them back into body of civilized temporality—or, actually, the War.

Brock’s prescription of form and genre, his proscription of Art-for-Art’s-Sake as an anti-social drug, prompts me to reassess the thrust of Nazi Literatures in the Americas. These fake authors are not just evil because they are Nazis; they’re evil because they are Artists. Their Nazidom is a kind of metonym for the extremity of their commitment. People who’ve gone off ‘the grid’ actually make their own grid. When you get to the point in which you are so caught up in your frame narrative about Art that you stop making Art, you could also say that everything you make is Art, your whole life is Art, unwholesome Art, out of wack with Society’s temporality, Art for Art’s Sake.

This in turn makes me think of Joseph Beuys, whose personal charisma and motto ‘Every person an artist” is to this day held up by critics as evidence of his inexpungeable Nazi instincts. Viewing this through Bolaño’s Nazi authors and Brock’s notion of Art as both drug and anti-drug, then we can start to see that Beuys’s critics perceived something very apt about him. His charisma is his Art. Art is charisma—a charism, a charm. It is contagious, antisocial, occult. If it begins to leak, unregulated, from diverse cites and bodies, rather than in carefully cultivated forms and doses in approved precincts, it entails a whole new evil regime.

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10 comments for this entry:
  1. Tom DeBeauchamp

    This is a great post. The last paragraph especially gets me. Beuys was a Nazi (a real one, Hitler youth, Luftwaffe, multiple wounding-awards). His artistic output post-1945 does seem to fit Brock’s warning against Art-for-Art’s sake, though in a twisted sort of way. It serves to distance Beuys (and, perhaps all of us) from his 1933-1945 biography, lets him live a new life as an artist, as a charismatic.

    Where the contagion of art, its antisocial and occult characteristics start to form “a whole new evil regime” I’m a little less clear. Is it that the dazzling of art played freely against an ignorant mass (certainly, you didn’t introduce the ignorant mass; it may have no place here) can lull? Is this a Pied-Piper of Nazism?

    This last sentence is totally exciting: “If it begins to leak, unregulated, from diverse cites and bodies, rather than in carefully cultivated forms and doses in approved precincts, it entails a whole new evil regime.”

    It feels in part like a contradiction to all that comes before, if only tonally. The rhetoric I read as implied in your post seems to defy at least half of this sentence. The more I read it though, the less I’m sure of that.

    Would you be kind enough to explain who does the regulation? Who approves the precincts?

  2. Lucas

    This made me go back to the painter who cuts off his hand in 2666 and sells it off, mummified, as Art. Despite his success he goes insane and is sent to a convalescent home. His neighborhood in London, which he depicted in his paintings until neighborhood and artist achieved “total symbiosis,” becomes gentrified, thus fake/artificial/evil. Throughout Liz Norton’s account of the painter, Morini just wants to weep (or faint). There’s something fake/artificial about that kind of melodramatic reaction, too.

    The thought just struck me that the literary critics in 2666 are an extension of Bolano’s project in Nazi Literature. What says “frame narrative” more than writing about literary critics.

    The evil leaks into (and out of) them, too, like when they beat up the cab driver.

    Of course now I want rethink el ojo Silva and the fact that he was a photographer who, upon rescuing the prostituted boys in a “blind” fit of violence, gave up his profession. Because Art had leaked out of him and he started living it?

  3. Johannes

    I have to confess I haven’t read 2666, but I have a special interest in horror movies about wax museums (mostly from the 1950s, then remade in the last couple of decades) because they seem very insightfully to be about the evil of art. Its always about how there is a real human (or cat) beneath the wax cast, the anxiety that art kills. But it’s of course also about the tension between high art and kitsch. For example, one of them (can’t remember the title) a loser becomes a high artist by putting wax on his victims, fooling people that he’s a real artist. /Johannes

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    HI Lucas, Hi Tom:

    Lucas, I’ve posted a response to you as a post, please check it out and comment?

    Tom: I’m not sure why the last sentence feels like a departure from the rest of the post? I’d like to hear more about what you think– My idea is not that the artist leads the masses in a Hitlery way– but that he lets a million Hitlers bloom… that he might be a carrier of a kind of Art-as-contagion that opens up pores for contagion in all with whom his Art comes into contact. In other words, Art itself is a contagious thing, it travels on violence and charisma (those are its hosts, media, signature)… Brock’s description of how Art-for-Art’s sake works (i.e.diabolically) articulates this (anti-)potential of art…

    Part of what might make this confusing is that I’m making this argument intentionally fluid, rather than trying to maintain a stable allegorical structure. To describe it as succinctly as I can, though, I believe Art is a deadly fluid. Art makes a medium of a person or substance and then becomes the substance that flows through that medium; at the same time, by making a medium of a person or substance Art converts that person or substance to Art. The person or substance, now Art, can collapse and issue itself through itself, like Ebola.

    Basically all my thinking on this topic is a response to a question that got in my head a few months ago: Where is Art going and Where has it Been? It flows from the Evil Eye, but of course it is ALSO the Evil Eye. It makes a medium of Evil and flows through it, but you could also say Evil travels on the medium of Art. Evil marks where Art has been, and where it is going. Similarly Charisma is a fluid; where Charisma is, Art can flow. Same as Filth (in the John Waters sense of the word), it’s a fluid that marks where Art is, but it’s also something Art carries (the protein marker of Art?)… The Artist is an Aperture for Art, a Medium. He shits or leaks Charisma, Evil, Violence, Art. But if Everyman is an Artist– Everyman an Aperture (orifice) (medium) for Art.

    As for the controlled precincts, I am thinking here of approved channels as institutions. In relation to poetry, I mean, perhaps, academic programs or departments, prize committees, residencies, reviewing outlets, or otherwise exclusive communities– that limit what is read, discussed, supported, promoted, etc. In the US, the NEA and AWP/Writers’ Chronicle might be examples.


  5. Tom DeBeauchamp


    Thanks for the further explanation. It helps.

    After re-reading your post, I understand the Nazi art you’re referring to as paralleling an exclusively frame-narrative. “Every person an artist” is an evil here because it infects the day-to-day, the average, the not-main-narrative, the masses, with Art. It makes Art of the not-productive, the incidental, of the Indexed-after-the-fact. With Bolano’s Nazi’s it’s lists of their work without their work. With Beuys it’s the enticement of the non-artist to become artist. I say enticement, which clearly mis-characterizes your point. Art is rather an infection, a virus, a plague infecting humanity and provoking gross delusions of self-importance (in the singular and the plural). Is this its evil? That it makes nothing, and makes so much of it? I don’t think it is.

    Maybe an example:
    An Artist makes a hospital bed out of popsicle sticks. It looks like the chair on PeeWee Herman. The artist installs it in the grass in the roundabout in the center of the city where he operates. The placard is made of copper. It is shiny, and very reflective in the sun. Thousands of motorists pass it daily. It is evil because it is Art. It is contagious, likewise, and infects all of the motorists. In turn, they are now Art. Infected by the popsicle stick hospital bed, these motorists now go on to infect their families, their families infect their friends and so on. I think this is what you’re suggesting. I imagine their are degrees of evil… the swine flus, the avian flus, the common colds. Is this sort of evil of a different kind than the sorts of evil (or else, the sorts of fluid) conveyed by (conveying) market forces, other commodity goods or forms of cultural production (the cars driven by the motorists, the radio stations playing mid-infection, the design of the seat-belt buckle or the cigarette lighter, the roundabout, the particular display of blue sky w/ clouds floating along behind the sickbed itself), etc.?

    Really, my questions stem from this concept of evil. That Art is a fluid, a flow, a hyle, flowing like sausage through the nosecone of every artist, I get. To call a flow Evil implies an ethical/aesthetic choice that seems a little more problematic. Why is it Evil? Even if charisma and violence were its only media, Art’s evilness wouldn’t be assured.

    You mention way up top that it is “because it inverts, perverts, controverts the homologously normalizing forms of the body, society, and the text.” Is there a sanctity in those homologously normalized forms worth preserving? I’m not saying their isn’t, I just wonder what specifically makes Art more than just different? Of all the fluids and forces, all the flows, what makes it Evil (assuming it is an exclusive sort of Evil)?

    And the Evil Eye. Is it operative in Bolano’s story, or does it play another role?

    Thanks for the discussion,


  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Tom:

    Just getting back to the computer after a weekend of baby jail. So, yes, I think, that the Art’s Evil Eye is Evil because of all that it controverts, as I mentioned above. I think those normalizing forms– generic, formally, bodily, economic, national– are held up as health and sanctity all over Western culture and that the Evil infiltrates and infects these. For example, in the dirty protests in the Maze Prison that I discussed in one of my blog posts below, the prisoners stopped washing, wearing clothes, smeared their cells with shit, later stopped eating so that their bodies became emaciated and porous– in this case obviously the state is associated with health, stability, decency, hygiene, and to introduce shit (literally) into this system was to contaminate it. You could say that to call the Art Evil is to appropriate the Evil role already cast for it by society– I myself want to locate myself in everything society rejects– wholeness, wellness, godfearingness, the family, productivity, order, earnings, stability. My Art lives in its own stigma (stain) and becomes a stigmata (allowing the stain to flow). The Stigmata is just another Evil Eye.

    Evil Eye’s are all over Bolano– I wrote a post above about ‘Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva’, but it’s also in the other works of his I write about– ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’, ‘Amulet’, etc.

  7. Tom DeBeauchamp

    Do you think that by characterizing Art as Evil, you are taking a reactionary stance? Are you essentially saying Art exists only as a stain on the body of the dominant form?

    The stain flows, covers the cleanly, the godly, the decent: is it ultimately a mask you’re after? Or is it more like gremlins shooting off a wet mogwai after midnight?

  8. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Tom:
    Great to be having this conversation!

    Well, it certainly depends what you mean by ‘reactionary’. If you mean it just in a temporal sense, a kind of moving backwards, well, it’s possible, that, yes. I’m certainly not writing in a ‘post-language’ vein– I have recognized that my thinking lately is of the last fin de siecle– that is, that it might be drawing from a Symbolist vein and making visible some of the occult springs that were actually present in Modernism but suppressed in official Norton Atho. versions of Modernisms. But these modalities of Art puncturing and making an aperture and flowing through and flooding/destroying a genre or medium– like Dada, like the Mertzbau, like Hannah Weiner, like Jack Spicer… it’s finally achronological… Unlike some formal versions of hte occult, my cosmology has no separate spirits or gods, or truth or revelation, it just has Art (and Evil).

    If by ‘reactionary’ you mean something like, my model never puts Art at the center but keeps the whole well body of culture at the center and relegates Art to a minor/parasitic relation then I guess that’s partly true– from the perspective of those who occupy the position of wholeness then art is a parasite, a sore, a blister, a plague rat, a bacterium, a plague…

    If you mean by ‘reactionary’ that I’m in favor of stasis that’s not true since my model is in motion and dynamic…My interest is to start from the stigma and mine it for its occult, spectral anti-power… I like the silliness of your gremlin example, lest all this get too ‘serious’…the serious moonlight…. JM

  9. Tom DeBeauchamp

    Definitely not the third possibility, but closer to the first two, closest to the second. I’m glad I was a little vague. If I hadn’t been, I might not have read your answer to the first possibility which was particularly inspiring.

    When I asked the question, I was thinking about snails, or Eqbal Ahmad. I was thinking about the way new life grows within the shell of the extant, or else, grows on its peripherary, involved but essentially independent. In hindsight, I’m not sure whether snails continue to grow new shells, or if they abandon old shells for newer bigger shells. The image is as much a cocoon, or a chicken egg, or any kind of incubator, as it is a snail though. Eqbal Ahmad figures into this in terms of revolution: a successful revolution is never made by fighting the dominant power, but by replacing the dominant power. You make a hospital, or a foodstore, or whatever, then people come and get cigarettes from you instead of the capitalist store, and they’re educated at your school, etc. You make a new city of you, rather than just arguing with the city you were born to.

    This is kind of a conceit though. Even in the most diy scenario, it’s romantic.

    Your model isn’t at all about “taking over” or anything like that. I’m about to say, your model is content to badger the dominant, infect the dominant, beshit the dominant, but I don’t want to say “content to.” That’s reductive, it implies a passivity which isn’t there. Ultimately, all Ahmad’s revolution makes you is what you had been infecting.

    When I said reactionary before, I thought Art in your model would necessarily be dependent on the dominant mode (or culture) for your existence. It couldn’t exist independently.

    Now I’m thinking: duh. Maybe I was thinking the machines should want to become the body without organs or something on those lines. Still, saying that feels wrong, as though I’m giving too much importance to the way-things-are. By making of the dominant forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, cleanliness, art, religion, civic duty, etc.etc.etc. a planet, or a surface on which we can only play, or blister, or infect, does that give it too much power? Or does it only call it what it is?