A Few Thoughts On Transvestite Violence, Saints and Hysterical Women in Raul Zurita and Lady Gaga

by on Oct.12, 2011

In my Poetry Writing Class yesterday we discussed Raul Zurita’s magnificent Purgatorio and we ended up analyzing it largely “through” Lady Gaga’s fascist/catholic pageant “Alejandro.” Also, over at Big Other, Tim Yelvington has a post up about the radical superficiality of Lady Gaga. So I thought I would take a few minutes to jot down a few thoughts about Zurita’s actions with CADA and his book Purgatory, as well as Lady Gaga and various kinds of pageants, acts of transvesticism, fascism, media, violence.

Zurita’s book begins with the phrase “my friends think/I’m a sick woman/because I burned my cheek.” This refers to an incident where Zurita responded to the Pinochet dictatorship’s torture of him and other Chileans by “turning the other cheek” as it says in the Bible. But instead of merely turning the other cheek, he burned it. That is to say, he in some way aligned himself with the violence of the Coup/Pinochet: Zurita’s art (which he says all came out of that act in some way) is a kind of fascistic art of violence. He does with art what Pinochet’s soldiers did to him, creates an excess out of the violence.

This is also an art of transvesticism: it turns him into a woman. Art is a medium for tranvesticism. Why a woman? Hysterical women turn the violence of patriarchy against themselves: with cigarette burns, with cuts, with anorexia. Back in the day, they used to call women like that saints…

And it’s precisely as female “saints” that Zurita speaks in the first poem “Sunday Morning.” At first there’s an id card for Zurita but it’s accompanied with the poem:

My name is Rachel
I’ve been in the same
business for many
years. I’m in the
middle of my life.
I lost my way. –

And then in the first section of “Sunday Morning”, the speaker announces: “I am a sainted woman I say.” Next, with “made up face against the glass” she becomes an “enlightened woman” who is the “Super Star of Chile.”

I don’t know if Zurita is referencing Warhol at this moments with his transvestite superstars, but certainly Zurita took a somewhat Warholian attitude towards art: using transvestite pageantry to saturate the spaces of Chile in a kind of counterfeit version of Pinochet’s dictatorship: As a member of CADA Zurita carried out a lot of guerilla art actions – much like the Croatoan thing at the Poetry Foundation – that involves public spaces, for example taking over a bunch of trucks or writing his poems in the sky or in the desert, actions that turned the public spaces into Art, thus countering Pinochet’s fascist-totalitarian dictatorship with his own poetic totalitarian art – everything becomes a pageant, a travesty of “saints” or “Superstars.”

Bolano condemned Zurita for “messianism” (and character-assasinated him in “Distant Star”) but I think a “superstar” pageantry is more like. He turned Chile in a Warhol-ish “Factory” of saints/superstars (Warhol was of course very Catholic).

“When faced with the horror, we had to respond with art that was stronger and more vast than the pain and damage inflicted on us.” Zurita writes this in the preface before relating the story of how he burned his own face. The dictatorship “inflicted” damage on “us,” so Zurita decided to do the same, he “inflicted” a burn on his cheek with a “branding iron.” His authentic body became art; he posits his gov’t ID on the opening page and claims to be “Rachel.” As a medium he has made a travesty of the dictatorhip.

One of my favorite pieces is LXIII:

Today I dreamed that I was King
they were dressing me in black-and-white spotted pelts
Today I moo with my head about to fall
as the church bells’ mournful clanging
says that milk goes to the market.

I love how here he’s the sacrificial king, the Jesus about to get his head cut off, but it’s important to note what’s he’s dressed in, luxurious “pelts” which by their magic seem to transform him into something totally banal: a cow going to the market.

On a very superficial level, one can see how Zurita’s pageantry looks quite a bit like Lady Gaga’s pageantry, which in “Alejandro” displays a Latin American panorama of fascist boys and bleeding nuns, superstars being sacrificed: it shows the ambient violence, the nexus of religion, fascism and art:

Here I am reminded of Joyelle’s reading of Gaga’s wound-media:

32. To me, the replacement of the nun’s habit with red vinyl is a metonym of this transfer from one material to another. It also calls attention to materialism of the saints—the sense that the saint experiences suffering in the flesh because he or she is a medium for Jesus’s suffering, a go-between for mortal and immortal bodies. The most obvious image of a saint as a medium or channel is the stigmata itself, a spectral (yet literal, that is, actual) wound through which the sacred blood flows.

Here’s a quote from Tim’s post:

I believe many of us remain threatened by art that is aggressively, earnestly superficial, and that embraces popular, familiar or mass-produced aesthetics without self-commentary (art which owes some debt to camp aesthetics, amongst others). For confirmation, head over to htmlgiant and check out the spirited discussion about our colleague A D Jameson’s excellent review of the film Drive. In response to A D’s praise of the film, a bunch of folks have been expressing their anxiety over whether this film is solely an exercise in style, whether it lacks “depth” and “meaning,” as these concepts have traditionally been constructed by many literary writers: As either thematic content (ie this movie has something distinctive to say about politics, history, “the human condition,” etc.), or “rich characterization” via psychological depth (motivation, counter-motivation, backstory, subtext, etc). In response, A D says something I quite agree with: “I’m one of those poor deluded souls who thinks surface is depth. Well-done direction is its own content.”

10 comments for this entry:
  1. David

    Interesting! I can’t help but think of C. Nealon’s essay “Camp Messianism” here. Even though you oppose “messianism” to “pagaentry” or “superstardom,” I think there is something messianic (or at least camp-messianic) present in both Zurita and Lady Gaga if the term is nuanced a bit. For example, in Nealon’s model “waste and trivia are potentially recuperable” after one takes up “a polemical affection for what’s obsolete, misguided, or trivial, and to risk the embarrassment of trying it out.” Zurita’s self-mutilation & public works and Lady Gaga’s projects both seem to fall on this kind of map. But where a traditional messianism makes a positive promise, camp messianism “doesn’t entail a positive vision of what that redemption will look like so much as a resistance to the idea that it will look like any one thing we know.” In this view, the actions of the Croatoan kids are most definitely camp, as well.

  2. Johannes

    I guess I have to read that Nealon essay. I’ve only read his poetry. But this sounds very similar.

    Bolano accused Zurita of “messianism” (and wrote about him in Distant Star).


  3. Lucas de Lima

    Interesting stuff. I myself have been thinking about Zurita’s messianism as well as the theatrical use of Catholic imagery by Pasolini, who would also fit in well here… Mama Roma’s son, for example, gets strangely crucified in the showy ending of the film of the same name.

    According to this interview (http://sololiteratura.com/bol/bolamischeestado.htm), Bolano claims he was not thinking of Zurita when he came up with the character in DS. He does throw a few cheap shots at Zurita’s ‘mysticism’ and says his messianism results in very seductive poetry, though he himself does not “believe in such eschatologies.”

  4. Kent Johnson

    Bolano is being disingenuous, of course, when he says he wasn’t thinking of Zurita. The connections are obvious, from the skywriting to the name of the pilot, same as that of the head of the post-Pinochet government in which Zurita accepted a post, to considerable controversy (and to Bolano’s Trotskyist ire).

    The central character of a contemporaneous novel, By Night in Chile, the Opus Dei critic-priest, is based on one of Chile’s most important literary critics. He was an open Pinochet supporter and actually wrote strongly supportive pieces on Zurita’s poetry (at a time when Zurita was undertaking actions with CADA!). This is something that has been much discussed, as you’d imagine, in Chilean literary circles. Zurita himself discusses the complicated matter in an interview that is only available in Spanish.

    Poetry is complicated, always, and especially in Chile.

  5. James Pate

    Fascinating post…Blue Velvet when it first came out was criticized harshly by some critics for its lack of depth, especially for a film that deals with such horrific violence. But I think “serious” art (what some people look for when they want “depth” and “meaning”) is also created by surface effects. A certain type of acting, a certain type of direction. A certain diction and syntax.

    My problem with arguments for depth and meaning (which is always an argument for “content”) is that it holds with a Platonic worldview that there is a realm outside of effects, outside of style, a purer realm closer to truth.

    Of course the whole idea of the Kantian sublime, which to me is an incredibly conservative idea, relates to this too…Art has power only as long as it situates us to this mysterious and unknowable other realm…a realm that holds out the promise of absolute knowledge even if we never have access to it.

    The power of Zurita’s poetry and Lady Gaga’s video is the way they create these rituals of radical materialism, which are also spectral and uncanny…Gaga as saint/dictator is not trying to make herself into a figure of allegory. There are only ghosts behind these masks. With Zurita and Gaga art does not exist in a fallen state…

  6. Lucas de Lima

    Kent, can you tell us which journal features the interview? I would love to dig deeper into the hot goss.

  7. Kent Johnson

    Lucas, it’s in a book by a U.S. academic, published in Latin America. It’s a history of the CADA, the only one so far. It contains fascinating interviews with the five central members. You can download it here, the info sent to me by Raul himself:

    Neustadt, Roberto: Cada Dia : La Creación De Un Arte Social, Editorial Cuarto Propio, que puedes descargar completo en:


  8. Lucas de Lima


  9. Johannes

    Yes, I downloaded the book even though I don’t know Spanish, I like the CADA photos.


  10. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Hey y’all — I don’t know if anyone is still following this thread, but is there anyone with institutional connections who could help me access a copy of the Nealon essay?