Janice Lee’s Damnation

by on Jan.09, 2014

 Unknown 1. One of the things images of heaven and hell have in common is that both are static. As David Byrne sings, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” But hell is like that too. In Dante, the lustful ones will always be caught up in wind, Judas will always be in the pit of hell. Only on earth and purgatory is movement possible.

But what if earth is seen as static too? This is one of the principal motifs in Janice Lee’s book Damnation. As Jon Wagner says in his introduction to the book, the landscape in Lee’s Damnation is frozen, unmoored from chronology and redemption and progress. As he puts it, a place “without redemptive return.” It is, I’d argue, materialist not in the Marxists sense, but in the Robbe-Grillet sense. A world thick with things that exist beyond our desire to conceptualize them and fit them into narratives. As Lee writes early in the book, “Outside, the thickness of air, like a heavy silence or constant din of angels’ whispers.” There is a long tradition that portrays the world as a static sphere: Beckett especially, but also Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Francis Bacon, Guyotat, the harsher novels by Duras. A place of mud, rain, and repetition.

2. The title is taken from the 1988 film by Bela Tarr, though the book as a whole is inspired by all of Tarr’s work, as well as Tarr’s frequent collaborator, the novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I haven’t seen any of Tarr’s films — I’ve been meaning to for years — but I have read quite a bit of Krasznahorkai, a writer with a style so precise and his own that any imitation of it verges of parody, much like Faulkner or Woolf or Proust. One of the great things about Lee’s book is the way she keeps away from this danger. The spirit of the novelist is there, but not the letter. The enclosed, rotting spaces he is famous for is present, but Lee’s Damnation has a sensibility of its own, being heavily fragmented, with the emphasis on landscape and dialogue often spoken in a sort of no-place. If anything, Lee’s worldview is even more claustrophobic than Krasznahorkai’s, who has the sweep of narrative to carry us along.

I kept thinking of Guy Maddin’s early films while reading Damnation, and the way those films continually place you in small realms, with small slivers of narrative (even the huge battle scenes are clearly on some stage). As we read near the end of the book, “All stories eventually are stories about disintegration…yet, the hero continues on his path to ruin, because he knows nothing else outside of that purview.”

images 3. Lee doesn’t reference Tarr and Krasznahorkai in the book. That is, we don’t get any scenes where, as in a Pirandello play or Godard film, there is a moment of the lights turning on in the theater, with someone — the author, the characters themselves, voices from the sky — starting to discuss Tarr as a filmmaker or Krasznahorkai as a novelist. I don’t mean this as a criticism: if anything, there’s something brave about a book that is so obsessed by its source material that it lingers with it without the need to take out the critic’s mask (a mask that all too often becomes an actual face). This moves makes sense, given how anti-teleological the book is: these days, “critique” has become our favorite form of telos. Lee doesn’t let us off so easily.

 4. Damnation. In Lee’s book, it’s a kind of gravity, a weight pulling us into the mud, into a constant state of corruption. We’re all damned to this state of things. The lover, the machinist, the eerie girl and her cat, the doctor: all of the figures in this book live in the shadow of the guillotine (to quote Victor Hugo). The book itself opens with the arrival of a mysterious book, “a strange looking copy of The Holy Bible.” It causes confusion, fear, sadness. If the Bible is often seen as a book of comfort and Messianic visions, this book would seem to be the anti-Bible.

And yet, is it really? The Hebrew Testament is filled with the weight of things, with a God who proudly proclaims His own mysteriousness, a mysteriousness that exists beyond our concepts and stories. In a Nietzschean reading of Job, God is not a figure of senseless contradiction, but a figure of power and strangeness, a figure who seems mesmerized by His own enigmatic being. In Lee’s book, He is more of an It, an absence among the weeds and cows and rain, but even this absence has a spark of awe in it. As a character says near the opening, “What is holy in this world of everlasting flood and devastation? The Word is…And the word is all around us.”

            This also reminds me of a scene in The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh’s spiritual brother Enkidu has a vision of death that involves a house of dust and meals of clay. One on level, Damnation is a very new type of book, one of fragmentation and cinematic obsession, and yet it is also very old, going back centuries…

 5. But I don’t want to leave the impression that this is a book of misery and woe. Deleuze argued that Bacon, all appearances to the contrary, was not a miserablist. The athleticism and vigor of his work convey a strong sense of affirmative passion. So to with Lee’s book: the attention to language, the roughhewn musicality of the syntax, more than keeps this book from being a work of despair.

6. An epitaph to Nietzsche’s surprising compassion (who famously embraced a horse that was being beaten in the streets of Turin one month before never speaking again): “Everyone thinks the end of the world will be with some kind of cataclysmic event. But all there will be is the beating of a horse.”

7. I can’t think of a better book to start this new, cold year off than Lee’s Damnation.

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