by Johannes Goransson on Jan.09, 2012
In a comment to Lucas’s post, Lara wrote about Trauma:
Johannka, you asked me how I think trauma functions on MV? My sense is that we’re collectively pretty traumatized by the horrific state of things, what Joyelle calls “this present hellish universe.” We are all very hungry for pleasure, despite this. Or maybe, to spite this.
We often feel crushingly trapped/threatened. We are collectively trying to tunnel a way out through art that makes us “susceptible, vulnerable, exhilarated, chagrined, obliterated, changed into Art” (again, Joyelle’s words).
Sometimes I’m able to locate pleasure in my own debasement. Sometimes I’m not. I’m not often able to locate pleasure in the debasement/humiliation of others, even if it’s clearly staged. In fact, it totally repulses me. I don’t feel “intrigued but chagrined.” This is a visceral reaction, not a moral one.
My intestines are my morals. I am a limited creature. Only one of my six legs actually works.
It’s this seeming tension between pleasure and debasement, horror and beauty, trauma and trauma, resolution and compulsion, marked out by both Joyelle and Lara, that I would like to think a little bit about.
Matthias Forshage, one of the founding members of the Surrealist Group of Stockholm, who wrote “Surrealism in Ulterior Times” with Aase Berg (a document frequently quoted on Montevidayo, it’s where Joyelle and I get the phrase “meet us with the lemurs”), has written an interesting article about the surrealism of horror movies (in fact the entire blog is well worth reading):
It is one of the main points of surrealism to not deny the unusual phenomena and their dynamism, but still reject all these more or less religious poor explanations, avoid succumbing to premature rationalisations. In the movies, let them go on with their fairytale concepts, they’re not fooling us, we know that the dynamism of weird happenings, chance and significant casual events is an aspect of life itself, and such a dynamism can be remarkably effectively simulated and savoured in the particular fiction of the horror movie. It contributes to teaching us to see. It orchestrates and emphasises those poetic atmospheres where everything is hanging in suspense and anything seems possible, the moments of the surreal. On the most simple level this is obvious in films of hauntings; all these haunted houses, the poltergeists, the insistent messages and the chaotic disturbances. It’s partly very banal, still often very effective, sometimes orchestrating a liberation of the anti-utilitarian, fetishistic or just poetic surrealist sense of the object, sometimes luminous juxtapositions, constellations of things, true poetic images, classic surrealist assemblage. A literally convulsive beauty is sometimes achieved in the very “over-the-top” absurdness of many stories; where strange events and convergences, personal tragedies and emotions are so densely accumulated together with the unfettered expressionism of blood and gore (for this particular line, Re-animator (1985) remains a centerpiece). In a way this is the old formula of Walpolian Gothic, plausible human reactions to implausible courses of events, the mechanics of the mind encountering the world of inclusiveness where anything is possible, the so-called paranormal or maybe the surreal. Yes, on an aesthetical level, this is clearly a kind of expressionism, but since surrealism is not an aesthetic it doesn’t mind employing other aesthetics for its purposes…
It is the ambience that I love in horror movies, before all the weirdness has been explained away, usually through some idea of the traumatic: ghosts and hallucinations were caused by a child dying or child abuse or some such tragedy. Often it involves the child because the child represents the future; horror movies are often about the tragedy of stalling the future, the descent into anachronism or children who will never grow up, distorted families etc. I get bored with these explanations, but the build up always feels the most tumultuous to me, the most affecting.
It seems perhaps that there are two models of the traumatic at work here: one in which we – as Freud argued – we are only able to conceive of the traumatic retrospectively and we try compulsively to get a grip on it, and another in which the trauma is part of the vibrations of the artwork, trauma-saturated art. Perhaps the haunted part is in a state of trauma while the resolution recognizes it as “trauma.” And this might be why those resolutions always feel like a let-down, as if they were indeed written on to the vibrant, “haunting” beginning. Though in the end it might be a necessary failure.
[One of the best examples of someone trying to avoid this resolution must be David Lynch, in particular Twin Peaks – where the build up was so huge that any resolution would have felt ridiculous and thus Lynch was forced to go into the demon world trying to elude the father-daughter murder. But this is true it seems of all of his movies.]
If we go to Bersani’s concept of art as a “shattering” experience, in which we masochistically submit to the art’s wrecking of our egos (and here we might find one connection between pleasure and debasement), it is interesting that for me it’s not necessarily the most violent images, but rather this atmospheric that is the most undoing.
Sion Sono’s brilliant “Strange Circus” which in the end – after all the beautiful atmospherics, horrific pseudo-memories, occult hauntings, poetic mishaps – turns out to be derangement b/c of child abuse (though interestingly, the mother is deranged and imagines herself the child). But the moment this is revealed – and that the strange guy who has been ingratiating himself with the weird authoress is actually her abused daughter – the story can’t get out of itself.
The only place for the movie to go is for a weird execution where it is revealed that the mother has kept the abusive/incestuous/unfaithful father in a cello case and the daughter chain-saws him to death. And it’s utterly unconvincing, a failure in its over-the-top violence. It’s the reveal that cannot make sense of all the beautiful surrealistic atmospherics; the accounts are settled, but like in most horror movies, it feels incomplete, as if tacked on retrospectively. Perhaps a necessary failure.
I get the same effect in “Shutter Island.” That post talks more about this issue. Back when I talked about “Shutter Island” a couple of years ago, I also talked about Sara Stridsberg’s “Darling River”, which rewrites Lolita in a myriad of ways. But here the trauma seems in the hallucinatory prose. There may have been the murder of a prostitute but we don’t know; there may have been child abuse or that may simply be an intertextual reference. It strikes me that when I think of this novel I can’t remember how it ends; I just think of that baroque, haunted, violent atmosphere. I think of prostitutes and burning forests, I think of the child in the backseat, I think of the rotten house (like Poe’s) in communication with the diseased bodies.
In this regard it’s a little like Sono’s earlier film “Suicide Club,” where the children are not abused, but rather they are open to a kind of media curse spread like a virus through a girl band on Japanese TV. (This movie is almost exactly like my performance piece “The Widow Party” with its Genius Child Orchestra.)
In both works, the idea of the body as mediumized seems essential. People like to think of the body as an emblem of the natural and art as the fake; some people try to undo this binary (The Italian Futurists for example) often in violent ways. But the body has always been mediumized – not only through tattoos and piercings but through religious rituals involving wounds and bodies made electric in movie theaters (Breton, who was also influenced by shell-shocked soldiers, establishing an early link between art and trauma and media) and just the body itself as a kind of medium for experience.
In both Stridsberg and Suicide Club: we get all this imagery of bodily fluids and rags as medium, often violent: the dad and daughter in Stridsberg do shooting practice on the departed wife’s underwear by hanging them up in the forest and when they’re shot they look like newspaper shreds (ie media); Sono’s suicide club messages the world by cutting off parts of people’s skin (esp skin with tattoos) and then calling detectives, as well as appearing in music videos and haunting fax machines (hair pouring out of it, as in various poems by Kim Hyesoon).
More from Forshage:
The notion of atmosphere is partly vague – we typically connect it with situations, we may connect it with persons and objects, we definitely connect it with place. As connected to place can also be a point of convergence between horror and surrealism. The sense of “soul” of place, a sort of intense significance which can be experienced at a particular geographically located nexus, is of course what is in horror quickly interpreted as hauntings.
What i think is at stake in a lot of these atmospheric movies is the idea that the person is not an autonomous being moving through a separate environment; he or she is being influenced and corrupted by the environment. That is the dangers of atmospherics: we are mediumized.
This is particularly true of Stridsberg’s novel, which seems incredibly atmospheric; but it’s an atmosphere where bodies seem saturated in the criminally baroque prose (as much Genet as Nabokov) and lush imagery.
Forshage discusses the importance of “fear” – or rather being able to deal with not being in control:
For if the overwhelming is calmly savoured or sprightly investigated, it seems like it maybe wasn’t really overwhelming, but either just an aspect of poetic hedonism in general, or something we have categorised in advance. And indeed, this perhaps remains one of the fundamental differences between religion and poetry, whether one is happy with fitting those glimpses of the strongest psychic dynamism into a traditional and socially utilisable rationalisation, or letting them remain unexplained and dynamic. Sometimes just a bit too dynamic. Difficult to handle. The centrifugal force, the vertigo – the shards of everything broken in the process…
This reminds me of Dennis Cooper’s interview with Mike Meginnis on HTML Giant a couple of days ago, “My Fear Arouses Me,” where he talks about fear in similar terms:
Well, I just realized as I was deciding how to answer this question that fear is really hard to talk about. It’s easier for me talk about confusion. Maybe my fear grows a protective layer of confusion really swiftly. Or else my confusion attracts my attention as a writer, and the fear is more compulsive and stormy and just sort of functions as an intense fuel. Maybe it’s that the act of writing makes what I fear become pornographic to me, and that when I have language as a buffer between it and me, my fear arouses me, and being aroused either sexually or otherwise is always kind of an inherently confusing state, for me at least. When something is confusing, I’m usually compelled by it. Why, I don’t know. Maybe in the adult world where, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, the distinction between reality and fairytales is usually very clear, confusion is the only Santa Claus or God left?
For me the “strange circus” is about the experience of Art (or rather: it is Art, it fails to be “about” Art): this is the evil zone of Art, of mediumicity that reproduces itself parodically (rather than hierarchically, lineage-ly). It is in this strange circus that “strange meetings” take place, where stable “selves” are undone, where we are opened up “convivially” to illicit connections (perhaps to Sara Palin, perhaps to a garbage dump in Korea).
In so much of discussions of contemporary poetry, I feel the strange circus is being avoided, through lefty politics or “tradition” or in Kenny Goldsmith’s beloved phrase “thinkership” over “readership.”
This is what I talked about at ANDNow: how Raul Zurita’s protest against Pinochet takes the shape of “The Scar” – or the “creepy uncle” – from The Lion King: that gothic figure embodying all things foreign, transvestite-y, and above all artificial. Zurita assumes Pinochet’s violence and mediates it into his own face (which he cuts, pours acid on, which he “SCARS” etc) and thus strangely making him into a woman (“Joan of Arc” etc), that same icon as Sion invokes in his “strange circus.”
(When Zurita was in South Bend we talked about his favorite contemporary movie, “Old Boy” which is of course a horror movie of sorts, a horror movie Zurita called a “Greek tragedy like Oedipus,” suggesting some of the same family dynamics again…)
It seems that a lot of people are troubled by the violence of art and in art, from Christian types who want to ban video games (and blame youth crime on this art form) to a lot of theorists and artists. In both cases I sense what Bersani calls “The culture of redemption” – the idea that art should redeem history – and perhaps even more, an idea that these ideas (critiques, subversions) will redeem Art. That Art is something excessive, and thus Evil, that needs to be redeemed for Good.
I’ll end this ramble with the final sentence of Berg’s and Forshage’s manifesto (which was written in the mid-90s when Sweden was going through a political upheaval similar in size as the one we are currently going through, something which might explain how it feels like such a good description of the “plague ground” of the current US situation):
Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemures or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!