The Zero Mouth: Dickinson, Bolaño, and Goth Reanimations

by on Oct.05, 2012

The Zeroes — taught us — Phosphorous —
We learned to like the Fire
By playing Glaciers — when a Boy —
And Tinder — guessed — by power
Of Opposite — to balance Odd —
If White — a Red — must be!
Paralysis — our Primer — dumb —
Unto Vitality!                                     [Dickinson 638]


Where do we find zeroes? At the bone, of course. Dickinson’s poem charts de- and re-composition, de- and re-animation of the corpse-body. Zero is the point of absolute reduction, and the tinderpoint at which an inconstant reanimation lights up, begins again, from ‘Paralysis’. A new kind of Vitality is finally inhabited—one mothlike, rushlike, inconsistent, Immortal rather than alive.


I thought about Dickinson’s zero when reading Lessing’s 1766 “Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry.” Here I came across these two quotes (McCormick translation) which shed some light on Dickinson’s Zero:

“The wide-open mouth, aside from the fact that the rest of the face is thereby twisted and distorted in an unnatural and loathsome manner, becomes in painting a mere spot and in sculpture a cavity, with most repulsive effect.”


“Thus, if Laocoon sighs, the imagination can hear him cry out; but if he cries out, it can neither go one step higher nor one step lower than this representation without seeing him in a more tolerable and hence less interesting condition. One either hears him merely moaning or else sees him dead.”

The first passage affirms the visual ‘zero’ of suffering which for Dickinson is the one absolute or cardinal point in the topography of bodily existence; remember, “I like a look of agony/because I know it’s true”—as North is True, perhaps. The second passage introduces another relation. From every lack, an excessive quantity emanates. The viewer of ‘sighing’ Laocoon, that is, a Laocoon not at the very highest ‘zero’ of suffering, can still hear his uncanny cry issuing from this lack. On the other hand, were Laocoon (the emblem of classical thinking about human suffering) to occupy the ‘zero’ point, the viewer becomes both indifferent and a murderer; on hears him “merely moaning” or “sees him dead.” These two alternatives together are actually a frightening position; to study human suffering as coolly as Emily does, to learn from Zero how doubly penetrable the zero mouth is–i.e. into the ‘merely moaning’ or outwards into dead. It’s as if the senses of hearing and seeing become active here; to ‘hear him’ is to make him cry or moan; to ‘see him’ is to “see him dead”.  Confronted with a physical ‘zero’, that ‘spot’ or ‘cavity’, the viewer supplies the suffering or death which cannot fill the hole but constantly circles it.


One last connection: To Bolaño, of course! Jiyoon Lee has started off a marvelous conversation about Prefiguration of Lalo Cura, and there are many ‘zeroes’ in that tale of reanimation and vibration which I hope to address in another post. But a strong connection may also be made to Distant Star. A star, after all, especially a distant one, is light emanating from what may well be a dead source, a zero point; a star might be a zero mouth. In Distant Star, the elusive Nazi aero-poet, known variously as Ruiz-Tagle or Wieder, is in fact absent from the narrative and his ‘zero’ is constantly being traced by his artistic emanations, in the sky, for example, or in the pages of literary magazines. The literary magazines in turn reveal his obsession with something called the ‘zero mouth’:

[…] The thesis [[[of a play by Weider]] is simplistic: pain is our only connection to life, only pain can reveal what life is.

A university magazine published a poem called “The Zero Mouth.” The poem {…]was accompanied by three of the author’s sketches representing the “zero-mouth moment” (that is, the action of opening one’s mouth as wide as possible to represent a zero or the letter “o”.)

Given Weider’s association with torture and murder in the novel, readers may well associate this zero-mouth with the “pit” or “cavity” of the human face at its moment of absolute suffering, during torture. We have been primed to supply this association by Weider’s photography exhibit which has shown just such suffering faces—or rather, their erasure, the ‘cavity’ where the face should be. This exhibition—described only evasively by Bolaño, another ‘zeroing’– was in turn pinned up in a tiny bedroom in an apartment in the center of the city in the center of the novel—in other words at the dead center of the novel’s zero mouth. At ground zero. Here Weider displayed photographs of women he had tortured or murdered, their faces seemingly being erased or melting into the air, forming still more erasures or zeros. Only pain can reveal what life is; teach us phosphorous; a vitality which is not ‘mere’ life but immortality, constantly cut through with Death and re-apparation.  A tightening where we learn not death and life but de- and re-animation, where we supply either indifference and/or death or both, like cool-Emily-the-sociopath:

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Great post. Zero is such a weird thought. It’s a place holder, a concept equaling no concept. Gravity’s Rainbow has some great segments about the zero and the idea, as one character says, that “there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero,” and it’s the extinction/sublimation/ecstasy so many of the characters are searching for whether they know it or not…

    “Confronted with a physical ‘zero’, that ‘spot’ or ‘cavity’, the viewer supplies the suffering or death which cannot fill the hole but constantly circles it.” Reminds me of Bacon, the de-humanized figures and faces that are full of cavities and that vibrate without being “aware” in the usual Cartesian sense of that word. Whatever awareness they have is a flesh awareness, a pule awareness.