"… a kind of looping movement": Bersani, Aase Berg, Karl Smuts and Torture/Art

by on May.24, 2012

I’ve been reading Leo Bersani’s more recent writings, where he moves from the more anti-social idea of art to the idea that art – and by art he means something pretty Montevidayian, something very crossmedial, very wide-ranigng, not something isolated in the proper “artwork” – as creating these “correspondences”, not just between people but between people and the world. At the heart of his thinking about art is still the “shattering” experience,” art generates a kind of excess that is impossible for a traditional notion of identity to contain. It is not

“… a subject-object dualism nor a fusion of subject and object; there is rather a kind of looping movement between the two. The world finds itself in the subject and the subject finds itself in the world.” (from “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject)

This made me think about my recent post about “The Girl and the Raven (or Crow)”. In this song the violence – the convulsive spasms of the bleeding crow – creates for me what I called a “blurred anatomy.” This is Art. It creates a kind of movement by which the identities of the three four people involved in the song are connected: girl, crow, dreamer/speaker and singer (Mikael Wiehe) are all the same. Wiehe over-interprets his dream, repeatedly emphasizing that “the child” represents him and that the crow is his “hope.” He tries really hard to assign identities to all of the characters, but it seems to me that he fails and that his over-attempt suggests this failure. The characters enter into a “looping movement” where “the subject” is profoundly troubled by the excess of art, art which “blurs” with its shattering violence. The crow has been shot it seems before the song/dream starts; we’re just supposed to assumed that there are hunters or whoever running around; but isn’t it really the song that shoots the raven? The song is a kind of wounding, of which the crow is both emblem and medium.

This sense of looping movement reminds me of Aase Berg’s infamous guinea pig poems:

There lay the guinea pigs. There lay the guinea pigs and they waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. There lay the guinea pigs and they smelled bad in the cave. There lay my sister and she swelled and ached and throbbed. There lay the guinea pigs and they ached all over and their legs stuck straight up like beetles and they looked depraved and were blue under their eyes as from months of debauchery. My sister puked calmly and indifferently: it ran slowly out of her slack mouth without her moving a single nerve. And the cave was warm as teats and full of autumn leaves and beneath the soil lay the arm of a mannequin. There lay the guinea pigs and ached and were made of dough. There lay the guinea pigs beside the knives that would slice them up like loaves. And my sister with lips of blueberries, soil and mush. In the distance, the siren bleated inhumanly. That is where the guinea pigs lay and waited with blood around their mouths and contorted bodies. They waited. And I was tired in my whole stomach from meat dough and guinea pig loaf and I knew that they would revenge on me.

(“In the Guinea Pig Cave”)

There is a similar dynamic at work here. The speaker, the sister and the guinea pigs all seem to move according to a dynamic that connects them all in a “looping movement.” On one hand the guinea pigs will have revenge on the speaker – though we don’t know for what, it seems to be for art, for the poem – but they seem at the same time to be workign together. The sister’s slack jaw moves as if animated by the guinea pigs. And in the next poem, “In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness,” you get the speaker and her lover (kitsch figures like the girl running in the woods) getting melted into the vast guinea pig body.

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I’ve also been reading Den Håriga Spegeln (“The Hairy Mirror”, Sphinx Bokförlag, 2006) by Karl Smuts. I’ve got quite a bit to say about this book, but for now I’d like to begin by going back to Wiehe’s beloved crow; or I should say, by going to Smuts’ version of the crow myth. This is from the story/poem “Trädgårdsarbete” (“Yardwork,” that all-Swedish pastoral activity):

… The crow is back. It sits down on my shoulder. I’m so tired. The crow starts to bite at my shoulder. It tears apart the skin with its beak. It pulls in the skin rags. It undresses me, makes me naked. The shoulder is soon just flesh. More crows land. They land at a regular pace on my body. They court me.
The beetles die from the cold, the radishes wilt, the brown potato tops decay and run off like a liquid, down into the soil. The crows have completely undressed me. The sun’s first rays light up the land. I rise up slowly. The land is full of skin scraps and blood. I don’t have any teeth left. I stumble toward the house. After a few steps, I fall down. I land in a deep pit. The crows feel betrayed. They flap earth down over me. It smarts against my naked flesh. The last i see is the fox that stands and looks down on me from the edge of the pit.

I like this because this gives a post Berg’s ending where the guinea pigs are about to take their revenge. But the revenge is not to kill, it’s to torture the body, to turn it into a work of art of sorts. But – like Lucas’s torture saints – the point of this torture it to create a kind of movement, a mediumizing of the body. The swarm of crows stand in here for “swarm media.” The body betrays the crows by collapsing into a pit, and they have to cover it up.

Smuts’ book is full of proto-torture poems, or gothic performance art (the key touchstone of this might be Poe’s fantasies enacted as performance art), through which a swarm of critters (beetles, crows etc) move through the body, both attacking it and mobilizing it. And that strange mobility – which may seem undead – is that “looping movement” whereby there are not individual beings acting out of some sense of agency, or interiority, but by occult forces that connect different bodies through the excess of art.

Often these have a really interesting take on gendered body. As Lara noted in her post about the male bodies, in a phallocentric system, the penis is supposed to be hidden. But in Smuts’ poetry, it’s the male body that is attacked, “blurred”, animated by art. And strange things happen to it. For example, in “The Revenge of the Pomegranate”, female cats turn the speaker into a a cat of sorts – but not a regular cat, his fingers all turn into cat heads – and his genitals are turned female (like Zurita who becomes Joan of Arc in Purgatorio). Or, more interestingly perhaps when it comes to gender, in “Sea Horses,” where he kisses a dead-seeming woman (but who also lights up the ocean powerfully, occultly) while sea horses (those most feminine of masculine creatures, both horses and of the sea, a specie where men take care of the babies, a horse that lends itself to the decorative) nips his body until it leaks blood “like roses” in the water. I’ll write more about that in another post, where I will return to the horse, that most vulnerable and pretty of masculine figures.

In a review in the online paper Kulturen, Susanne Lundin writes:

Karl Smuts skildrar skickligt människans känsla av utanförskap och ständiga jakt efter sitt inre jag. I en av de korta novellerna, Huden, står hyenmannen framför sin badrumsspegel. Han sliter av sig sin hud, lager efter lager. Vad mer kan man göra i sin desperation efter att finna sitt inre väsen, sitt sanna jag?

Karl Smult depicts skillfully he human feeling of outsidership and the constant search for the inner I. In one of the short short stories, “The Skin,” the hyena man stands in front of hte mirror. He hears off his skin, layer after layer. What more can one do in desperation to find one’s inner essence, one’s true self?

I like this review, but I think this might be wrong. To find one’s true self, I would think one would meditate or something. Tearing up the body here – as in Lucas’s post about torture/art – is something more like creating an excess of self. Or if it is to find one’s true self, it’s more like the unconscious described by Bersani, an unconscious not within one’s interiority but rather an unconscious outside of oneself.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    It’s delightful to read a shoutout to seahorses! After reading these words, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s been the case that I’ve never really gendered seahorses female at-all, precisely because when I think seahorses and raising young I think of males; too, their tough, nobby/bumpy/crenellated-y skins strikes me as unfeminine which is wonky considering I think the first sex that comes to my mind regarding alligators (not paragons of a feminine aesthetic either, tho the designer Azzedine Alaia has designed some wonderful suits which do, from the back, turn women into alligators)and crocodiles and caimans etc (?), is female. I think this likely relates to the rad–well, interesting if not rad–capacity to shift eggs to various locations in a nest that a certain sex-distributiuon among hatchlings can occur.

  2. - Montevidayo

    […] John B-R ends with something that seems related to what I called “looping movement” in my discussion of Aase Berg and Karl Smuts the other …: I think what Koga has done in this book is to forego the kind of narrative that makes […]