"Paradise Lost": Violent Femmes, Hysterical Masculinity and the Threat of Art (pt 1)

by on Jan.31, 2013

The other day, Mary Austin Speaker facebook-ed a link to a powerful essay by Rebecca Solnit (is this the same person who wrote that excellent book on Muybridge the other year?) about masculinity and violence. In it she she lists a lot of instances of male-female violence (rapes, murders, torn eyelashes). I am interested in the way “masculinity” is and is not represented or even equated with violence, whether violence makes masculinity appear, or if masculinity is a form of violence, or if violence is somehow a natural effect of masculinity, or the idea that men are somehow violent.

I am also interested in how these concerns play out in poetry, that most femmy of arenas, a place populated by some pretty unmacho men (not counting Charles Olson). I’m interested in particular in how it pertains some recent topics of discussion on this blog: the often sensationalistically violent Sylvia Plath, but more interestingly perhaps, our discussion of Larry Levis and his “maturing” away from violent slapstick bodies (which often deal with rape and sexual violence) into a poetics of near-paralysis, recollection, mourning and interiority. Does this “mature” Levis become more or less masculine because it’s less violent? Is the Plath- and translation-influenced “hysterical masculinity” of the early Levis too masculine or actually not masculine at all?

The paradox here is that we’re talking about masculinity as it becomes noticeable; hidden masculinity is of course still OK. It’s more than OK, it’s still in charge. It’s normal. It’s systematic. It’s capitalism/patriarchy. It depends on not being noticeable. Masculinity that becomes visible is immediately suspect, even though it is noticeable primarily by being powerless, by being a travesty of masculinity. It’s not actually considered “masculine” to beat up girls, to become violent, to act out. That means a loss of control. It actually is generally seen as un-masculine, almost feminine…

I’m calling this “hysterical masculinity” after a phrase Kristen Kaschock and Lara invented when discussing my work when we went to grad school together (chalk one up for the benefits of the much maligned grad school experience!): an out of controll masculinity overtaken by violence.

To be truly masculine, to be truly benefitting from the patriarchy, you should be normal, briliant, “rigorous,” and “smart” – words that may have gender connotations of masculinity – but you should most of all be in control of your masculinity. You should most of all be in control. It would be tasteless to be out of control. It would be tasteless to let the violence overtake you.

I thought about this again when re-watching the Paradise Lost movies about “the West Memphis 3.”

I’m sure most of you have watched at least the first one of thse movies, which came out in the mid-90s. Three teenagers in a small town are found guilty of killing three younger kids mainly because they are perceived as “Satanic,” and despite all the evidence seemingly proving their innocence. Masculinity is an obvious feature of these films but so is Art. The three are viewed as “Satanic” because they are interested in fashion (black hair, black clothes) and art – they listen to Metallica (a very violent, aggressive music), they write some grafiti, and, fascinatingly, one year before the crime, it turns out some cop had gotten obsessed with Damien Nichols, faxing his D&D-style drawings to a self-proclaimed expert on Satanic cults (with a diploma from “upstairs univerity” or some such counterfeit institution).

This little detail about faxing the drawings to the Satanic expert a year ahead of the murder suggests to me something like what Brian Massumi has discussed as the importance of “threat” to the Bush Regime that started the Iraq War: They perceived a threat so they more or less needed to make it come true. Without any evidence, there was a hysteria about the threat of Satanism, and without any evidence, there was a perceived threat about Damien Echols.

And the key to the threat of Damien Echols here is I think that their gothic feminity – their interest in fashion, and also Damien’s very feminine, pretty features – is not seen as opposite of masculine; it suggests a hidden ultra-violent, ultra “masculinity” (if we believe that masculinity is represented by violence), a “hysterical masculinity.” They may seem like skinny, pale goth kids, but they are secretly capable of some pretty amazing physical violence (tying up the kids like hunting prey etc).

Further, the townspeople are obsessed with Damien’s appearance, his perceived “narcissism” (because he cares for his appearance, coloring his hair black etc). One might even say that the entire town is in love with him. Want to fuck him. Want to kill him. They can’t decide. They want to do both. (And not just the townspeople, the people working so hard to save the guys seem also driven by a certain erotic fixation on Damien.)

In many ways, these kids fit with Jasbir Puar’s idea of the “terrorist” figure who is both gay and ultra-violent, “violent femme” as the band from the 80s called themselves. One of my favorite part of Puar’s “Terrorist Assemblages” is the quote from the John Le Carre article in The Nation, where Le Carre argues that Osama Bin Laden’s theatrical narcissism will be his downfall, will force him to come out of hiding in a suicidal need for drama and visibility:

The stylized television footage and photographs of this bin Laden suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw a grain of hope from that. Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending a wedding or consulting a sacred text, he radiates with every self-adoring gesture an actor’s awareness of the lens. He has height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism, all great attributes, unless you’re the world’s hottest fugitive and on the run, in which case they’re liabilities hard to disguise.
But greater than all of them, to my jaded eye, is his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight. And, just possibly, this trait will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama Bin Laden himself.

Like Echols, Bin Laden supposedly suffers from “barely containable male vanity” and “his appetite for self-drama.” His flaw is that he is supposedly an artist, a figure who cannot control his artistic vanity. Art becomes tied to an uncontrollable violence. Bin Laden is kitschy, tasteless, a “violent femme” (something that was reinforced again and again by media coverage suggesting he was disguising himself as a woman and that he was taking viagra). He is both “masculine” and “feminine” – a seeming duality that is brought together with the merged violence/art pathology.

In keeping with my discussion of crime scenes as art in murder mysteries in the blog post about Plath from the other day, the crime scene looms large in this movie. It is terrifying in its artistry: the victims have been stripped and hog-tied, one child has had his penis removed (of course they obsess about this), the clothes are pushed down with poles. The inability to comprehend this artistry – which as I noted in my last blog post makes for the best art/crime – leads prosecutors to connect it with that other figure of art-saturation – the heavy metal gothic kid Echols. In order to pin it on him, they go back to a tried and true hysterical narrative that their sleazy version of late-night, b-movie TV Christianity has taught them: Satanic rituals.

In Paradise Lost, everyone seems obsessed with Damien Echols and his appearance, and this as much as anything becomes the leading indictment of him: he cares too much about his hair, he loves the controversy, he maybe even did the crime to bring attention to himself. And there’s a strange sexuality involved in this as well: a lot of attention to how he and his co-defendants are going to get raped in jail. “Jessie, we’re going to mail you a skirt!” shout the parents of one of the victims into the camera.

“Into the camera”: It is important that they are shouting it into the camera. They too are putting on the show. The examples of art and art’s contagion are rampant in this movie. As are problematic masculinities. The asshole Christian types most obviously condemn the three for their violent feminity. But the film-maker – and the viewers, educated, middle class viewers, including myself, I admit – immiedately find another guilty figure: Mark Byers, the overly, tastelessly grief stricken father of one of the victims, the husband of the woman who shouts that she’s going to send a skirt to Jessie Misskelly.

The reason Beyers becomes the go-to ersatz killer for the filmmakers is because he’s too showy in his grief – he makes his grief into a performance art, weeping and cursing on his knees on top of his son’s grave, setting fire to the woods, pulling his teeth out etc. He’s not in control; he’s a weepy man, a kitschy performance artist, and thus guilty. (And I think James’s comments to Joyelle’s post is important too: he literally lacks class, he’s trash-proletariat etc). This is a different hysterical masculinity, and it too leads to guilt (but this time in the film-makers’ eyes, at least by implication of the films, and at least for some years, before the implicit argument turns to another stepfather towards the end of the the third film).

I think the key here is: the violent femme is perceived as violent, the “feminine” – at least in men – is not the opposite of “masculinity,” but is rather in cohort with it. The femme can become overly male, the overly male can become feminine. And that mixing, that connection seems to be what makes it so threatening. And the idea of the “threat” is important as well. The “threat” of Damien Echols existed long before the crime: it existed in the townspeople’s obsession with his appearance, in his drawings, in his taste in music.

I’ll write more next week about this topic, hopefully bringing it back around to poetry.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    “Further, the townspeople are obsessed with Damien’s appearance, his perceived “narcissism” (because he cares for his appearance, coloring his hair black etc). One might even say that the entire town is in love with him. Want to fuck him. Want to kill him. They can’t decide. They want to do both. (And not just the townspeople, the people working so hard to save the guys seem also driven by a certain erotic fixation on Damien.)”

    Really interesting point. When Echols was arrested — and I’m pretty much the same age — I remember tons of rumors about him suddenly going around at parties and such in Memphis. Someone would claim to’ve known him, or have hung out with him a few times, or somebody else would claim to’ve been close friends with a close friend of his, and, yeah, didn’t we know he use to have orgies in the woods, or yeah, did we know he had threatened this guy about X, etc. It was all bullshit, of course, but it was like his presence, the strangeness of a guy like that suddenly appearing in West Memphis, and under these circumstances, gave free play to the imagination. And to really lurid imaginings at that.

    And the “violent femme” of masculinity — it makes me think of the first Die Hard film too. The main bad guy is a slick Euro-sleaze ball, but Bruce yippie-kow-way-motherfucker Willis is one-hundred percent red blood American.

    True Blood, I think, actually deals with this dynamic in an interesting way. The male vampires are basically metro-sexuals. In fact, what seems to be the divide between the male vampires with the male humans is that the vampires dress fashionably, have elegant feasts, engage in weird sex, etc. whereas the human guys wear flannel and drink beer and play pool. Lafeyette of course would be the major exception, with his elaborate costumes.

    Which brings me back to the southern Gothic elements in the West Memphis 3 documentaries. True Blood gets criticized sometimes for having a caricatured vision of the south, but as I’ve discussed on this blog before, I don’t think there is some sort of salt of the earth salt South out there waiting to be discovered. The songs from the Harry Smith anthology, for example, are full of strangeness, occult sightings, murder ballads, cruel humor. As both you and Joyelle have discussed these Gothic narratives led to the very real tragedy of Echols and his friends getting arrested, imprisoned, but also oddly was what captured the media’s interest and led eventually (18 years later) to them being freed.