Animal inside (or: the Cogito in space)

by on Oct.12, 2012

“Very probably the sheep found its way into the Boss. That would have been in 1936. And for the next forty years or so, the sheep remained lodged in the Boss. There inside, it must have found a pasture. A birch forest.” from A Wild Seep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

“…so that he doesn’t exist, he only howls…” from Animalinside, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann

Recently, I’ve been reading Animalinside, the wonderfully weird book by the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. He was inspired by a series of paintings by Max Neumann. Or rather, as I understand it, the painter came up with an image, the writer responded with a prose piece, the painter made a painting based on the prose piece, which the writer then wrote about, etc. This process interests me. There’s a long tradition (Platonic Forms, etc.) that sets up the Concept (and by implication, language) as being higher than image. We can see traces of this even in some of the rhetoric behind Language writing and Conceptual writing, and it underpins many of the arguments behind Conceptual Art as a whole. Concept is greater than image.

Of course, there’s a great deal of anti-conceptual thought (the mystic tradition, Spinoza, Artaud, Beckett…) that tries to undermine this hierarchy, and Deleuze’s notion of the concept highlights its own fictional, anti-foundationalist status, and becomes the antithesis of the Platonic concept.

The Deleuzean concept is within the plane of immanence, whereas the concept in Plato (and in some of the rhetoric of Conceptual art/writing) is transcendent.

But this process between Krasznahorkai and Neumann undermines the transcendental, Platonic concept in two ways. First, the writing is in the tradition of Artaud and Beckett: it wiggles, it shapeshifts, it spits in one direction and finds the spit landing on its own face in the other direction. It’s the language of meat and ghosts.

Another way they undermine it is by undermining the hierarchy of language/image. It doesn’t replace one with the other, and create a new hierarchy. In fact, it undercuts the idea that such a hierarchy is even possible. Both the process of making this work and the process of reading it/looking at it creates an infinite play between language and image. One leads the other further down the rabbit hole.

I say all this to emphasize how important the images are in Animalside. I’ve read some reviews that barely mention the images at all, or treat the images as nothing more than illustrations for the writing. But the book is hybrid in the most literal sense of that word.

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An image of a feline-like creature in silhouette, a black panther with legs but no arms, or at least no arms that the viewer can see, as if the arms are a secret, or a knife drawn back into its handle, and another figure in silhouette, a figure that looks like a man or a woman with a bat, and a curved yellowish form between the two, the animal and human figure, the leaping feline and the defensive man or woman, a curved strip of yellow that could be an air funnel or a paper structure or a robe appearing miraculously in space, a robe winding in on itself.

And the words below: I have no idea, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell…

In Descartes’ Meditations, when he comes up with the idea that self-consciousness is the one element we can trust, the one element that proves we aren’t dreaming or mad or being deluded by an evil genie, what’s often left out is how empty this “I” is. This is not the “I” of the self with its memories and storage-shed of information. After all, memories could be an illusion too. No, this “I” is empty, it could be anywhere, it could be attached to another body, another time period. The “I” is phantomlike and not the substantial self. Beckett pushes the logic of this ghost “I” further. His Not-I is the Cartesian I that exists right before Descartes brings in his version of the ontological argument for God, and by doing so regains world, self, memory, etc., based on the idea that God by definition is good, and not a deceiver. Beckett stays with that former “I.” The “I” that exists in the dark (or not even the dark, since that too is a defined space). The “I” in Animalinside is much like that: an “I” not of substance, but of nothingness. Not this and not that. Not idea and not body.

Later, the Animalinside says: I am alone, endlessly alone, so incredibly alone that apart from me there isn’t anyone else at all, I am here, but even I am not completely here, because at this moment I’m in the middle of a leap, I am as a matter of fact enclosed within this arc, the arc I happen to be leaping into right now…

This is followed by an image of a reddish sky or space in which four of the feline-like creatures, the armless panthers, are leaping, some about to reach the pinnacle of the arc, and some already descending from that pinnacle.

There is no here: at least it’s impossible to be “completely here.” The “I” is already missing from each space, already moving or being moved someplace else. It is hard to tell if the leap is voluntary, or if it’s instinctual, or mechanical, or something Animalinside does for no reason, and yet cannot stop from doing.

 

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In Murakami, there’s the sheep that gets lodged in the soul of Boss, and the zookeeper who appears to switch sizes with the elephant in “The Elephant Vanishes.” And there’s his famous charater of the Sheep Man, who is described as wearing a sheepskin costume, with a leather mask, but who has two very real horns, as if he is both a man playing the role of a sheep, and a sheep who wants to dress up like a sheep in order to look like a man in a costume. He speaks with unbroken words: “Woolgetsinmyeyes,” for example. It’s unclear if he speaks like that in order to sound sheep-like, or if he speaks like that because he is so sheep he has no choice. Or if it’s a little of both.

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Just as Descartes’ empty “I” can — when we leave it suspended in space, bracketed in that moment before Descartes moves toward the ontological argument — leads to the great rambling voices of Beckett, so can it also lead to Deleuzian schizophrenia. If the “I” is not a self, it can become nomadic, it can move into the orbit of strangers, cars (as in Ballard’s Crash), or animals (the concept of “becoming-animal”). Francis Bacon, I think, is one of the great painters of the “becoming-animal.” He doesn’t paint animal/human hybrids, but rather paints the human figure free from the humanizing aspects of the facial expression. His figures lean and squat and wrestle. Even as they sit, they move and swirl. He paints the human as animal rather than the “human animal.”

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Since moving to West Virginia, to a small town on the Potomac River, I’ve had encounters with animals in a way I never did in Chicago, or Memphis, or even in Iowa City. One night, while taking out the trash, I saw a pair of eyes flicker in the wooded area behind the house. For a second I thought they were human eyes, looking at me. It was an uncanny feeling, realizing that it was an animal instead.

And a few weeks back, I heard some sort of howling around three in the morning. It sounded like a teenager pretending to be a wolf. But I think it was a dog howling along a nearby creek. Or maybe it was a teenager. But that wavering back and forth was unsettling, as if the teenager kept slipping into the voice of the dog, and the dog kept slipping into the form of the teenager.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Great post, I’ll have to check out this book.

    Johannes

  2. James Pate

    Thanks, Johannes. He’s pretty great. I’m reading his book War and War right now, which is apocalyptic as hell. A wedding of Cormac McCarthy and Bolano.

    Two things I should mention: Bacon does have some hybrid pictures, as in the Crucifixion series I have in the post, but much of his work revels in the animal form of the human…But the hybrid paintings he does have are often fascinating.

    Lastly, Bertrand Russell was the one to point out the emptiness of Descartes’ Cogito. He said every time Descartes says “I think” he should really say “this thinking thing.” Which I think is great. Russell making a Deleuzian argument about Descartes decades before Deleuze.

    James

  3. Jeroen Nieuwland

    Thanks, great piece! reminds me of ‘Self Portrait of Another’, Dutch author Cees Nooteboom’s latest book, similarly written in response to images (but unlike the book you describe, this was a unidirectional process (the painter did not respond to the writer (although they do go back as friends, so there wld’ve been some Borgesian anticipatory forethrow of the written work already present in the drawings 🙂

    Hey wait a sec; I just went to KCRW Bookworm, to find this link of an interview with Nootenboom: http://is.gd/9ZMR0E & then realized that both ‘Self Portrait’ & ‘animalinside’ are inspired by / in collaboration with Neumann. Funny coincidence one reminded me of the other, even tho I was not aware of the connection,