“It’s like rooting around in a grave”: Necrophilia and Modernism in Lars Norén

by on Sep.28, 2013

[Here is another excerpt from the memoir/criticism book I’ve been working on lately. Like the other things I’ve posted on the blog, it has to do with Lars Norén’s work, especially his massive diaries that have been published in two volumes over the past few years. In many ways I feel very close to Norén’s work – both his writing and his diaries – and I’m trying to work through that here. So if it seems at times as if I’m writing about myself or my own work (as Lara noted on Facebook), maybe that’s true.]

On the train I read Lars Norén’s diaries. The more I actually read these diaries, the more interesting Greider’s claim that Norén (or his work) is a kind of corpse gets; and I sense my own thinking about not just Norén’s writing but my own writing start to shift. To begin with, around December 2001, at the same time as he’s going through a divorce and starting a new relationship, Norén goes through incredible physical ailments. He starts having diarrhea and vomiting constantly. He can’t keep anything down, as he repeatedly notes. It seems that everything just runs through him; his physical body cannot maintain its integrity, its completeness. So when Greider imagines Norén bleeding on a dissection table, he is in some sense describing this leaky, grotesque body that Norén himself describes.
This leakiness impedes a lot of his social interactions. For example, he has to hurry from dinners (with his family, colleagues); he wakes up vomiting in the middle the night. And importantly, it prevents him from fucking his new girlfriend: He says he’s too sick to “tränga in” himself in her. It’s a peculiar word for sex, “tränga” meaning to penetrate but also to push or force, and also to crowd (a “trängsel” means a crowd). The sick body prevents sociality and sexuality. It destabilizes his body and life, but it also stabilizes it as he is forced to stay indoors, kept from going out to shop, and kept inside to read and write, and he seems to get creatively going, working on four plays at the same time. The writing seems to take the place of the fucking.

And then things go from bad to worse. He has to have a jaw surgery – a part of the jaw is apparently cut off – that involves shutting his mouth with some kind of plastic prosthesis, that not only forces him to go on an all-fluid diet but which makes all the soups he’s forced to drink (he tries all kinds of fancy flavors, such as lobster bisque etc) taste like plastic. This seems the ultimate insult to a sensualist who spend much of his diary discussing the food he eats, often fancy meals (lobsters, sushi etc), someone for whom food – as much as art and clothes – takes up a large part of the diary.

Perhaps even worse, his face swells us horrifically, so that he can’t recognize himself in the mirror. He compares himself to “Francis Bacon,” a comparison that doesn’t just invoke what his face looks like, but also conveys the horror of not recognizing one’s own visage. I had an experience like that when I was about 10 or 11. I had a sinus infection that somehow got out of hand, and the sinuses around one eye swelled up so that I couldn’t even look out of that eye. That horror came back to me when I read about Norén’s experience of losing his own face in his own diary.

(It’s strange for me to write that because I’m sitting in this little hotel room in Göteborg and right in front of my little desk is a mirror so that whenever I pause I look up at my own face: my balding head, the wrinkles in my skin, the graying beard, the weird little random straws that stick out of my eye brows.)
When Norén compares his face to Bacon’s painting, it’s worthwhile thinking about the vehicle as well as the tenor of that metaphor (that’s generally true) – the sick body is like a work of art. And it seems sickness, love and art are all things that destroy Norén. At one very vulnerable moment he says: “I can’t defend myself. I don’t have any tools for defending myself.” [Jag kan inte värja mig. jag har inga redskap för att värja mig.”]. There is a naked vulnerability with which he approaches his life that makes him incapable maintaining control.

In Greider’s review, Norén’s corpse is the ultimate bourgeois body. Reading the diary, I can’t help but notice that there is something to this formulation, but that this role is far more complex in Norén’s text than in Greider (who is using it, it seems, exactly to stabilize, to get a hold of a profoundly amorphous Norén). As I noted above, Norén spends as much time taking down notes about food he eats and stuff he buys (furniture and clothes mostly). Like a good shopper he is absolutely aware of brands. He wears an xyz suit, not just any suit. He buys “Paul Smith shoes.” The brand is more important than any other description. When I was talking to Clemens Altgård the other day, he said he thought Norén’s diary reminded him of American Pscyho in its piling up of of brand names. My first impression was similar; it reminded me of American poet Jon Leon (whose poems tend to remind people of the Brett Easton Ellison book). In some sense shopping too seems to work as a sickness or art: he can’t control himself. He pushes himself to financial ruin in order to buy all these clothes.

Throughout the book, Norén equates art on some level with these consumer products. In part because of the way the diary mostly just lists products and books, food and art, and in the way he talks about both of them in a way that is both distanced (listing stuff) and sensualist (he obviously loves deeply both fashion and art). When he talks about writing he always talks about it as stuff, texture: “marrow” for example, or the graininess of surveillance footage. The connection between products and art becomes even stronger when after a few hundred pages in when he decides he is going to publish the diary. He has been struggling with money, and struggling with his own inability to control his shopping (he seems to be something of a shopaholic), but then he recognizes that he can make a lot of money if he published the diary he is working on. He keeps telling his agent he wants more money for his diary: He wants a million bucks because he realizes that if the book is published, it will make him “the loneliest man in Sweden.” Nobody will want to talk to him; everyone will sever their ties. At this point, the diary becomes a matter of Norén writing his own money. Writing a product. What is the relationship between the money and the corpse? Between art and commerce? Art and violence? It seems that Norén is constantly re-staging these various relationships.

As I noted earlier, Greider’s review contains a strange contradiction: Norén is both bourgeoise and a Hitler-dictator, both a bleeding corpse and an absolutist ruler capable of destroying entire cities. In a lot of ways, Norén seems to see himself both in the throes of sensuality and at war with his senses. His art seems to be both located in the bourgeois body (or corpse) and in the absolutist, fascist rule against the body, as a kind of violence against both the body and its pleasures, and the products that the body loves to imbibe, appear in and purchase. In much of the diary, Norén makes pronouncements about art that makes his artistic ambitions into enacting a kind of violence against the body: “I am trying to get into the matter, the marrow. It’s like rooting around in a grave.” I can’t help by think of Daniel Tiffany’s book on Ezra Pound, Radio Corpse, where he tries to rid his own poetry of the “corpse language” of Victorian poeticisms (kitsch), and ends up supporting genocidal fascism in the process. Norén remains too close not just to the corpse language but also to the violence against the corpse language to become the kind of propagandist Pound became (Norén writes diaries instead of Cantos). Norén is both fascist and jew, both violence and corpse.

(I remember when I was in Bucharest with Vanessa Place she said that to engage in poetic poetry is to engage in necrophilia, which I of course agreed with. It is necrophilia. But to be engaged in the reproductive futurity of “innovation” is much worse! Norén is both bringing in the kind of Modernist urge to cut all the excess that Conceptual poetry employs, but he stages it against all this stuff that he keeps buying, generating, proliferating. The result is far more volatile.)
It seems that Norén’s own solution to these seemingly conflicting forces is a kind of photograph. His urge to reject art and kitsch in favor of a “documentary” photograph is never reached: instead he gives us a blurry photograph, a photograph that is ruined by its own mediumicity. He says about some photographs by Bill Jacobson: “His images burn in me.” Jacobson’s photographs, often of naked bodies, suggest a nearly holocaust-like quality to the media of photography itself. The figures seem burned into the photographs: they not only burn inside Norén, but in the paper of the photographs. In pre-digital days the chemical development of photography could be seen as a kind burning. The burning in Norén’s body is turning him into a kind of medium on par with photography. The body possessed by media.

And indeed photography – with its harshness as well as its processes and its mediumicity – is the artform Norén repeatedly compares his own writing to: “I want to write a photographic language.” And elsewhere:

“Soon I will start writing harder, more nakedly, briefer. Beyond the fog. Scenes like overexposed photographs. Dialogues that could be caught on a surveillance camera. Movement, anatomy, behaviorism. I long for the light that could be called merciless. That people say is merciless. I am on my way there. When all is over…”

Here strangely we have indeed some of the hallmarks of the kind of totalitarian dictator Greider imagines of Norén: he’s after an aesthetics of “surveillance” and “behaviorism.” Photography is aligned with a kind of violence that doesn’t just enact violence against its audience (burning in Norén for example or capturing images mercilessly), but also a violence against art. It’s not just photography, its photography that has itself been subjected to violence in such a way that reveals its mediumicity: grainy surveillance footage, Jacobson’s blurry photographs.

Elsewhere, this mercilessness is a matter of rejecting all that is “unnecessary.” We are in some ways back to “no ideas but in things” and “the direct treatment of the thing” of modernism, but to me this violence seems much Often this unnecessary stuff are metaphors: “I have a problem with the symbolic and metaphorical. I want to have a world washed clean of it, a world that is mysterious by just being what it is.” He has to cut away the metaphorical in order to get to the violently photographic.

This sense of violence against art reaches its peak when he’s discussing how much he hates the mediocre architecture of Stockholm: “Tear down this damned city.” In this iconoclastic moment he does seem to be Greider’s Hitleresque tyrant who wants to level an entire city.

Ultimately it seems to me that Norén is more complex than Geider wants him to be; but it is clear that some of the contaminational logic at work in Norén’s own poetics infects Geider’s review as well. Geider wants him to be a Nazi, a bourgeois and most of all, a corpse, something Geider can bury. But as this accumulation of metaphors suggests, Geider’s own poem cannot bury Norén in large part because Norén takes on so many – and seemingly contradictory – positions in his writing. He commits violence and he is subjected to violence, he is dictator and corpse, he buys a lot of one kind of kitsch (suits) and then spends a lot of effort cutting away another kind of kitsch (the poetic, the metaphoric). Similarly the diary begins with him both dealing with attacks from allowing the Nazi prisoners speak from the stage and an attempt to stage a play about Primo Levi. Violence as art, violence against art, and violence against himself: he is not taking a simple for/against position but rather uses his body to stage the violence of art. This of course goes back to his old books of poetry from the 1960s – also they, it should be noted, diaries of sorts – similarly violent books where he both identifies with Nazis and Jews (repeatedly). Some critics have objected to this identification (just as people objected to Plath’s holocaust appropriations), as if we cannot write about holocaust, cannot put ourselves into it or re-stage it; it has to remain pure.

In response to that, I’ll quote Norén’s diary: “Auschwitz is the capital of the 20th century.”

Ola Åstrand:


2 comments for this entry:
  1. phil


    the urge to eradicate the symbolic is thrilling: it feels like a kind of delusional parasitosis: something hysterical, an impossible to complete scarping clean or hollowing out. right? how can words be stripped of their suggestiveness or an image be cooled to absolute zero? does signification and thus elsewhereness always reassert itself? do the imaginary parasites always climb back on board?

    it’s compelling, that desire to burn down not just the bodies but to somehow continue the campaign past the veil and into the spook house of metaphor. it also feels like supplication before offal: lovely waste, shit, leather shoes, crisp bills (don’t piles of money smell terrible? this is what i’ve been told), crowds of weight lifters, and of course rotten bodies: like pieces of fruit: crunch, crunch.

    i don’t know if it relates, but i just learned–it’s all over the web right now, so probably most people are familiar–about this new siberian homemade heroin: krokodil. it rots a person while he or she is still alive. there are some horrific images: arms rotten away, with exposed bones attached to still living people, etc. when i first read about it, i assumed that the name referred to the eating behaviors of crocodiles. they don’t digest well, so they bury their victims in banks of mud to let them rot a bit, letting the digestion happen externally. i thought the drug was like the crocodile burying the addict for a time before completely consuming the corpse. though it’s apparently a reference to the scaly skin that addicts get after prolonged use. the association here, i think, is a constellation of concepts: commerce, ingestion, desire, destruction, the corpse, the living dead, decomposition?

  2. Johannes

    Oh, Phil you would love Noren’s poems from teh 60s and 70s. I might just have to translate some just for you.

    Yes, I think part of what makes Noren’s poems so great is exactly that it stages a kind of struggle. IT doesn’t succeed. I suppose the diary is the ultimate attempt but it’s incredibly metaphorical.