by Johannes Goransson 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:
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.”