"The Political Uncanny": Raul Zurita's Purgatory

by on Mar.20, 2013

So I totally understand people who don’t want to go to the AWP for this or that reason, but the fact is that Raul Zurita gave a couple of readings this year as well as appeared on a panel on the translation of Latin American poetry, so I’m happy I went.


I’m teaching his book Purgatory (trans. Anna Deeny) in my creative writing classes, and I’m re-reading this amazing book. I think CD Wright does a great job in her Foreword. This morning, I am intrigued by this passage from her essay:

“Despite the savage despair he experienced while writing Purgatory, Zurita matched despair with ferocity, deploying his own formal inventiveness and skill to compose the poem that would stand as both a subwoofer attack on tyranny and a work of never-ending strangeness.”

So much of discussions about political poetry in the US is still bound up with the idea of efficacious simplicity and the idea that “strangeness” (ie Art) is apolitical, is decadently luxurious, without a point; that in order to be truly political we must turn away from strangeness. Wright sees the political dimension of “strangeness,” but the politics has to do with “match[in]” the desperate situation in some way with strangeness.

Zurita himself writes something similar in his preface:

“When faced with horror, we had to respond with art that was stronger and more vast than the pain and damage inflicted on us. I believe this is what I thought in 1975, a year and a half after the military coup. It was then that a few soldiers subjected me to one of those typical abuses in which they are experts. I recalled the well-known evangelical phrase: If someone strikes your right cheek, turn the other to him. So I burned my left cheek. Completely alone, I enclosed myself in a bathroom and burned it with a red-hot branding iron. Purgatory began with that laceration.”

Again, Zurita here “match[es]” the torture of the fascist soldiers with his art. He doesn’t merely turn the other cheek, he usurps their position as violators. I’m fascinated by this kind of “strange” “match[ing].”

It makes me think about Nancy Spero’s “Torture of Women,” which blends accounts of torture (in places like Chile and elsewhere) with Artaud’s hallucinatory poetry-images of torture; Wright’s sentence about Zurita helps me think about Spero’s project in a more interesting way than the normal ethics-of-documentation ways.


It also makes me think about Elaine Scarry’s strange book abut suffering and torture, “The Body in Pain,” in which she argues that pain breaks down language. Scarry sees writing and art as a response to suffering; a creation that counters torture. But Zurita doesn’t counter torture, he chooses to inflict even more pain on himself; the poem may be partly Scarrys response to torture, but if so, it’s also like the torture, the violence.

Scarry is/was a literary critic (who also wrote a book about “beauty”); she took her training and focused it on descriptions of torture. Many critics have pointed out that she does indeed “aestheticize” these political occasions (without considering the wider political issues involved). But to “aestheticize” does not necessarily mean to make frivolous or pointless – as it is so often in contemporary discussions. In Zurita’s poetry, art means the opposite of making frivolous; it is a way of “matching” the brutality of Pinochet with the “strangeness” of art.

When it comes to torture, I think about the euphemistic aesthetics of so much of torture. In Spero’s book, we get descriptions of “Christ’s crown” and “The Parrot’s Perch” etc – euphemistic terms for various torture techniques, terms that sound strangely like Vasko Popa’s poems, “Games” or indeed Zurita’s poems in Purgatory:

Today I dreamed that I was King
they were dressing me in black-and-white spotted pelts
Today I moo with my head about to fall
as the church bells’ mournful clanging
says that milk goes to the market

(Sunday Morning, LXII)

This euphemism, this “matching strangeness” creates an intolerable atmosphere in Zurita’s book: saturated with violence: “night is the insane asylum of the plants.” It is as if the inability to turn the euphemism into a more “meaningful” less “strange” statements furthers the sense of permeation of violence, ambient violence.

This euphemistic atmosphere reminds me of Freud’s idea of the “Uncanny”, or “Unheimliche.” Freud famously discusses the linguistic complications of this term – it basically means “un-secret” (un+ heimliche) but “heimliche” also derives form “heim” (home). The “uncanny” is an “unsecret,” an un-homely secret, that which should remain a secret but reveals itself strangely – both familiar and weird at the same time. Torture techniques often use domestic objects (irons, curtain rods etc) in order to defamiliarize the victim. A torturer of course is trying to gain access to information, reveal the secret, but as most people (except Dick Cheney) seem to have realized a long time ago, torture isn’t good at finding out “information.” It might be better at creating lies; at creating violence; at creating uncanny worldviews…

Helen Cixous writes in her amazing essay on Freud’s essay, “Fiction and its Phantoms” (which Joyelle convinced me to read last week) describes the uncanny as an “elastic” zone, in which it becomes hard for Freud the Scientist to make out easy meanings, falling into traps of “hesitation”:

“Neither real nor fictitious, “fiction’ is a secretion of death, an anticipation of nonrepresentation, a doll, a hybrid body composed of language and silence that, in the movement which turns it and which it turns, invents doubles, and death.”

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