"Masks and outfits are exchanged": Some Thoughts on Guy Maddin's Keyhole, James Pate, Minor Lit and Narrative
by Johannes Goransson on Aug.08, 2012
I think James’s post from yesterday was really wonderful at exploring the idea of “minor literature,” but also art more generally.
I loved this description of a certain kind of artwork:
The novel of manners and certain realist novels are built like a multi-storied house: the family occupies one floor, economics another, the courts yet another. They might be of the same house, but there are still divisions between them. In minor literature, the family triangle is de-Oedipalized: the house is of a single floor, and the family moves among the judges who move among the cops who move among the rabbis and priests who move among the teachers and professors. Masks and outfits are exchanged, roles reenacted, snatches of dialogue tossed about. Genet’s The Balcony comes to mind. In fact, all of Genet’s plays come to mind.
This for me describes a kind of “genre” that I’ve always been interested in: the allegory that becomes too much for an allegorical reading; an allegory where seemingly the stuff of art wrecks the allegory; an allegory where the “floor” between vehicle and tenor collapses. Obviously Kafka is the key example of this (evidence: all the unconvincing books that tries to read his books as allegorical – Freudian or Marxist or religious etc).
Many of my favorite instances of this kind of story are the “minor” works by major artists. Take for example “The Hour of the Wolf” by Ingmar Bergman. (Here’s some corpse-sex, Max Von Sydow in make-up, and general melodrama from that movie:)
Someone who has dwelt in this zone for a couple of decades is Canada’s brilliant film-maker Guy Maddin. In his amazing recent film “Keyhole,” Maddin seems to have come on the same kind of analogy as James: A house where everything collapses together, everything happens at once, the dead and the living interact with each other in different time zone, obscene father and Father of The Law fight it out (but the obscene father is the dead one) etc. One of the most brilliant figures of the movie is a drowned girl whom the “protagonist” drags around his house in order to communicate with his dead (?) family, even as she’s in the process of drowning. In that “drowning” she seems to be what James describes as the virtual operating on the physical.
I’ve long adored Guy Maddin’s slapstick surrealism, Cocteau-esque decadence, hilarious plot intrigue and utterly stunning imagery. (He’s obviously someone who is highly familiar with not just Surrealist poetry but also the decadent poetry of the 19th century.) Perhaps most importantly is the very strange and moving narratives that remind me of Hitchcock doing Ibsen as a b-movie melodrama (“The Wild Birds” maybe).
In the interview I linked to a while back, John Colburn called Maddin’s work “ultra-Freudian.” Maddin’s “ultra-Freudian” quality is that the Characters don’t seem motivated by Freudian models of interiority; it’s all on the surface, in the plot. We don’t use Freudian ideas to interpret his film; to do so would be redundant! It’s one more layer that is shed in a constant generating of matter in his film.
In his book From Atelier Tovar, Maddin writes about his own melodramatic aesthetic:
… I got to explain my melodrame caduc, or deciduous melodrama, theory: the overly methodical suitor so lacks spontaneity, is so rooted to one spot, that by the tie inspiration comes to him, his gesture is so inappropriately over-charged that he loudly and bark-splittingly breaks apart and all dignity falls like leaves, stripping him to public nakedness, whatever…
This is an insightful quote about how these narratives seem to work: get over-charged and collapse, causing a shedding of leaves and stuff. Rather than say working our way into the characters, into the plot, the movies accumulate and shed their matter in a melodramatic collapse. The floors collapse. Make-up becomes key.
For a long time it’s been a cliche in poetry to consider “narrative” a conservative force; a force that makes too much sense of the “language” (as if there could be a pure language that didn’t do stuff like narratives, images, comparison). But I find myself increasingly drawn to narrative as an inflationary practice: narratives that generate too much. In his I’m perhaps influenced by the excessive reading of Bolano and Cesar Aira, or from translating Aase Berg’s sci-fi epic Dark Matter, or from re-reading Joyce Mansour’s Julius Cesar (in Swedish and English), or watching a lot of Heart of Darkness type of movies (Apocalypse Now, all of Herzog etc).
You can see a similar aesthetic in the Leif Holmstrand book I talked about a while ago: all the plot summaries of horror movies accumulate and collapse.
I went through and edited my book Haute Surveillance this summer, which I wrote a few years ago and which is being published this fall. What I found was that I wanted more and more plot; that I eliminated a lot of the more traditionally “poetic” sections and emphasized the ludicrous stories. (It’s about a guy in a hospital/school/rehab who shares a room with the genocidal expresident and his occult wife and kids, and tries to teach veterans how to put on legal performances, all while people are in an uproar over a black man who’s being hunted across the country even though nobody knows what crime he originally committed… well, that’s how it starts out… It’s also a love poem.)
Of course just as I can’t isolate a “language itself” from what words do, I can’t really
isolate a “narrative” independent of all that other stuff of language. I don’t want to create another purity (“narrative itself”). No, it’s all part of the stuff of Art. And I increasingly think of art as the “stuff” of art – the stuff that derails the allegories, that makes the medium itself filthy. There is not “itself,” just accumulations and sheddings.
In the context of immigration and minor literature, today I was thinking about when I started writing around 8th grade, soon after moving to the US. I remember I wrote this novel, which was essentially about how I imagined my life if I would have been allowed to continue living in Sweden… a kind of imaginary original life… the real life, of which I was now living in a counterfeit version.
But what I remember the most is that we were learning all these sentence structures in English class: how to use complex sentences, how to use dependent clauses and stuff like that; which really fascinated me. Unbeknownst to me I was writing my novel basically according to the sentence structures we were learning in class (ie some sections use the structure “having done x, he di y” or “upon finding x, he did y”, depending to a large extent on the structure we were learning as I was writing that chapter). One of my friends proofread the book and pointed this out. He said: “Your sentence structures are very repetitive.” I was mortified at the time. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well: the humiliation of my real life.
But now that repetitiveness seems perfect for an immigrant trying to both write himself out of America and into the English language.
(And my writing has stayed very repetitive on the level of syntax. I have notebooks full of sentences that I love and deploy in my books. But almost always they are from fiction writers – from Genet, Nabokov. Ie the most florid or “poetic” prose writers.)