Immoral Convulsions: Steven Shaviro, Sara Stridsberg and the Cinematic Body

by on Jan.04, 2011

[In many ways this post is a sequel to an earlier post about Sara Stridsberg, the movie Shutter Island, and the “cinematic body”. That post is here. If you are interested in what her writing is like, you can skip to the bottom of this post, where I hastily translated a bit.]

Here’s a clip of Sara Stridsberg talking about her brilliant novel, Darling River, which tells the story of some young-ish women (it turns out at the end that one is not that young) who are all haunted by the figure of Lolita. (Well, one of the characters is in fact Nabokov’s Lolita going through her fatal miscarriage.)

Here is the relevant quote from near the end:
“There was some expectation that this novel was going to save a kind of Lolita figure, that it would write her story, her answer. If that’s the way people read the novel, it’s a great disappointment because it’s more about the gaze. It may be a critique of the gaze, but it’s also a way of being in the gaze, investigating it by following its cruelty and be in it one self.”

This seems like an interesting approach to the issue of “the gaze”: to inhabit it, to involve oneself, rather than the common way it is applied in poetry discussions: for distance, iconophobia, moralism.

I raised the idea of “the gaze” yesterday not to discard it (which would be pretty hard), but perhaps to call attention to the way it’s commonly applied, and hopefully to get Danielle and Lara and others who have read more about this issue to offer their views.

I’ve written about this before: A lot of discussions that invoke “the gaze” tends to treat the visceral experience, the seduction of art as “problematic.” This seems to be part of a general trend, a moralistic desire to get outside of the artwork; that there is something immoral about the seduction of art, the absorption into art, and that the moral high-ground can only be through distancing devices.

It’s a very dominant modernist paradigm. In part it might come from a reductive reading of Brecht. As Lucas hinted at in his post about translation (more about this later), you can even see this fear of closeness, need for distance in Lawrence Venuti’s estranging theories of translation: we must be made aware that we’re reading a foreign text, or else there’s something immoral about the absorption into the work.

You can see the same sensibility in a lot of the anti-kitsch rhetoric in poetry. And in Clement Greenberg (the source I suspect of a lot of this thinking): after all one of the moral failings of kitsch is that it is too visceral.

Steven Shaviro, whose book The Cinematic Body I invoked in my last post about The Black Swan, criticizes this moralistic distancing of theory (and particularly in Laura Mulvey’s gaze theory):

“It is high time we rid ourselves of the notion that we can somehow free ourselves from illusion (or from ideology) by recognizing and theorizing our own entrapment within it.”

“The psychoanalytic theorist’s need for control, his or hr fear of giving way to the insidious blandishments of visual fascination, and his or her consequent construction of a theoretical edifice as a defense against a threatening pleasure – all this tends uncannily to resemble the very drama of trauma and disavowal that psychoanalytic film theory attribute to the normative male spectator… Beneath its claim to methodological rigor and political correctness, it manifests a barely contained panic at the prospect (or is it memory?) of being affected and moved by visual forms. It is as if there were something degrading and dangerous about giving way to images, and so easily falling under their power. Theory thus seeks to ward off the cinema’s dangerous allure, to refuse the suspect pleasures that it offers, to dissipate its effects by articulating its hidden but intelligible structure. Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus should we not rather see the opposite, an idealist’s fear of the ontological instability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation?”

“Images are condemned because they are bodies without souls, or forms without bodies. They are flat and insubstantial, devoid of interiority and substance, unable to express anything beyond themselves.”

When I wrote the review of American Hybrid, I said that one thing it was opposed to was “hysterical” poetry (or something like that). Of course film and hysteria is tied together from the beginning (and this is what Breton picks up on with Surrealism). If I were to rewrite that review, I might say what American Hybrid (and what might be termed dominant aesthetics in American workshops – whether “quietist” or “experimental” – as the “hybrid” proves) must ween its students of, must protect American poetry against it’s the “cinematic body” – full of visceral pleasure, affect, but without soul, devoid of interiority.

In other words: Beauty must NOT be convulsive!

(This is why the “kitsch” rhetoric is so close at hand, whether you are Ron Silliman or Donald Revell).

I noticed somebody in the blogosphere writing the other day that no Scandinavian has written any good novels except the detective stuff. This is ridiculously wrong, only showing how limited Americans access is to foreign lit. Stridsbergs novels – in their viscerally stunning, baroque dreamscapes, in their sophistication – to me are as good as anything I’ve read of contemporary American fiction. It also says something pretty good about this moment in Swedish literature when strange books like hers are not only published by the biggest press in Sweden (Bonnier) but also has won all the major award (as well as awards in France and elsewhere in Europe). It says something horrific about contemporary American publishing that these books aren’t even translated here.

Dalkey, get on the ball!!

Here’s a bit of Stridsberg’s “Darling River” translated hastily (by me). This is about a girl and her dad, abandoned by the mother/wife, who drive around aimlessly picking up prostitutes. And then they do this amazing thing, shooting the wife’s left-behing clothes in the woods:

“My father was the lone sharpshooter of the highway, an innocent activity. Around my dad there was an atmosphere of violence even though I never saw him getting into fistfights. He practiced sharp-shooting in the wood using mother’s dresses and bed sheets, which he hung between the trees. I felt guilty because I liked the image of her underwear hung up between the trees. The entire forest smelled of her – lavender and cortisone salve – and then all that snow. It sometimes happened that I fired a few bullets in sympathy with my dad. I always cried afterwards. I was not a true hunter.

“During the summers, we brought antique furniture with us from home and set them up in a forest glade. Father called it our imaginary room. While father shot his way through mother’s wardrobe, I lay nervously bedded into an 18th-century sofa, in which the springs poked me in the back, and watched clouds rush past between the tree crowns. Father had put up lace curtains between the trees to keep away the other hunters. Mother’s undergarments hunt shot-apart between the tree trunks. We punished her even though she was already far out of our control.”

“I was always worried that my father was guilty of all of the things that we read about in the newspapers. All the things that kept happening on the outskirts of town. The forest fires, the rape of prostitutes, the child murders, the attacks.”

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