Tag: Steven Spielberg

Atrocity Kitsch

by on Aug.18, 2010


An Autobiographical Skit:
My dad was a journalist in Eastern Europe when I was a child. With some frequency he’d be put in jail for interviewing “non-existing” (ghosts?) people or trying to smuggle out documents or people from Eastern Europe. He’d come back after a few months and tell fantastic Peer-Gynt-like tales about escapes and chases (my dad is a great embellisher, mythomaniac). The anti-communist Croatian underground met in the living room in our shitty little rowhouse in suburban Sweden while I played with legos on the floor. When our house was bomb threatened, we were given big walkie-talkies and police guards.
I couldn’t sleep when I was a kid. So I’d stay up and watch the news and documentaries with my dad. I was fascinated by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. Once when I went to the bathroom the bubble in my urine made Saddam’s face and I hopelessly tried to keep others from ruining it (if I had been born a few years later, I might have called it “Piss Saddam,” the ultimate work of kitsch). My favorite books were two coffee-table picture books: The Third Reich and Stalin’s Gulags.
But my dad wanted me to be a film-director, not a journalist (because this had been his secret ambition all along), so by the time I was just a few years old, I had watched countless movies by Hitchcock and John Ford (my dad did not have a high-falutin taste).
From my mom I got: the songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
From the welfare state I got: a panic about the human body, a pornographic imagination, xenophilia (exactly what I was not supposed to get).
Many of my parents’ friends (especially when we were very young) were leftists, folk singers, agit-prop artists. I remember going to parties where singer Mikael Wiehe would sing communist anthems with his acoustic guitar. The grown ups would put on cautionary puppet theaters about the evils of capitalism and/or the atom bomb.
This is just to say: I was always interested in kitsch and war.

Cue: Ronald Reagan riding into the White House on a White Horse. Cue: The Manson Family staging a tacky mass-murder complete with actresses and a goofy soundtrack (both The White Album and Manson’s own songs naturally), not to mention captions written in blood (ready for documentation Beuys-style). Cue: David Lynch’s restaging of the Manson murders in Blue Velvet (complete with cheesy 50s music), except instead of a murdered would-be mom with her womb torn open, he has a father with his brains torn out. Cue: the Abu Ghraib photographs (preferably on a powerpoint presentation at an academic conference).

Given this, I can’t understand why I don’t have more sympathy for Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, an anthology of wonderful poems from the 20th century.

This is the third entry about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. As I’ve noted in my other entries, what interests me most about this film is the “garish” vignettes that the movie tries to, but cannot quite make sense of, using trauma and murdered children.

Of all the garish vignettes in Scorsese’s movie the most garish of all are no doubt the highly staged flashbacks to the liberation of a concentration camp. Daniels has frequent dreams about the corpses piled up in train cars etc. Of course what sticks out about these dream is how artistic they are; what makes them horrific is that they make art out of corpses.

It is interesting to me to look at these garish vignettes next to a much more celebrated case of corpses-as-art: Spielberg’s Shindler’s List. Both Scorsese and Spielberg make use of similarly ultra-staged imagery of concentration camps: holocaust installation art. But while Scorsese’s film has been viewed as garish, Spielberg was not only given a pass for his highly asetheticized holocaust imagery, he was turned into a figure of great moral importance. This guy who made Jaws and ET in much the same spirit he made his holocaust movie gained this moral weight because he constantly insisted (in the movie but also outside of the movie) that he was using atrocity art for a moral purpose – to memorialize the historical trauma of the holocaust. In other words, the Holocaust served the same purpose the personal trauma serves in Shutter Island: it explain the art, it gives it a greater function.

Or to invoke Joyelle’s earlier post: Spielberg establishes his film as a genre – What Carolyn Forche might call “poetry of witness”, “against forgetting.” His film was not garish, not waste, it was not kitsch.

Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting is a collection of great poems and a work of utter atrocity kitsch. It includes garish (and often great) poems made useful by a framework of “witness” that itself – unbeknownst to Forche it seems – is one of the most garish critical frameworks I’ve ever come across: poems that come out of atrocities.

The anthology is divided into an Epcot Center of European genocides: one section for the Armenian genocide, one for the Holocaust etc. Forche’s criteria for inclusion: “…significant poets who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century – through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare and assassination.” And: “The criteria for inclusion were these: poets must have personally endured such conditions; they must be considered important to their national literatures; and their work, if not in English, must be available in quality translation.” (30)

It is both the fetishization of horrors and an attempt to contain that garish fetish. To turn her perverse fascination into a textbook. But of course perverse fascinations are more powerful than textbooks; if you try to turn perversion into a textbook, you’re likely to end up with a perverse textbook. And that’s what Against Forgetting is. A perverse textbook about atrocity kitsch.

Forche’s book begins with a corpse: the corpse of Hungarian poet Radnoti, which is flung into a mass grave toward the end of World War II. When his widow exhumes the body, she finds his book of poems in his pocket “soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth.”

What we have here is of course a garish corpse vignette that would fit right into Shutter Island. But it’s more important than that to Forché. It provides her with a model of authorship: the corpse as author. It seems the easiest political stance we can imagine is the body of the victim. In order to think of the politics of surrealism (which is of course very radical), Forche has to turn it into the politics of the victim body (as opposed to the French Surrealists, for example, who imagined the artist as someone shooting into a crowd).

Throughout her introduction to an anthology of incredibly garish, wild, often surrealist poems about atrocities, Forché emphasizes that the reason for these fanciful poems is the atrocities, that the atrocities in all their horror wrote the poems more or less. The poets were just writing down their “witness, “ not engaging in fanciful and decadent and garish artistry.

Or as she notes, “extremity produces a new kind of postcard.” Ie, the atrocities makes the postcard (kitsch!), not the author.

Here’s the piece by Radnoti that this refers to:

Blood saliva hangs on the mouths of the oxen.
Blood shows in every man’s urine.
The company stands in wild knots, stinking.
Death blows overhead, revolting.

[It seems implied that American poetry is not like this because we don’t have traumas to produce this kind of atrocious postcard. Which of course is false. Pace the actual postcards sent from lynchings in the first half of America’s own wonderful 20th century. Forché does include US poetry but only from the Civil Rights movement and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as if there was not extremity or violence outside of these very visible instances of violence, as if capitalism isn’t built on systemic violence.]

Forche comes off as someone fascinated by the wild and powerful imagery of poetry written in World War II and under suppression in Eastern Europe, in particular Surrealist poetry, but she doesn’t feel quite comfortable just liking it. She has to find a genre for it, a purpose for it, a trauma to make sense of the garish imagery.

But also: She is fascinated by corpses and she has to find a use for it.

I think about Forché’s context: the highly anti-kitsch, highly regulated (“you must earn the image”) Quietist Workshops. Workshops that produced very tasteful, regular, uninteresting, apolitical poetry in droves. She finds this wild surrealist poetry that doesn’t at all abide by the rules of the Quietist Workshop (Can you imagine someone turning in Celan’s “Death Fugue” to a traditional workshop – “this poem is garish” or “it goes too far” or “you haven’t earned these images” would not doubt be the response, more about this poem in the next post). The way she deals with it is to say that this wild poetry is wild because it is written under extreme duress; the atrocities are “imprinted” in the poetry. As if the poetry wasn’t written at all! As if it were in fact quietist poetry, but the difference is that we live in nice, wholesome America and these European poets lived in horror.

In order to allow herself to be more striking/surrealistic/wild, she invents the project of The Angel of History: to re-inhabit the suffering of World War II. Thus she makes her poetry much wilder, imagistically striking etc.

But she’s not entirely recreating surrealist poetry. There are images (a wedding dress in a shed etc) that are garishly striking. But there’s a huge difference between the european poets and Forche’s own poetry: Her poetry is very much framed by the typical poetic subjectivity, which paradoxically provides a distance from the images. The images are always framed by her subjectivity. We know we are good and that others are bad. We are always safe in this poem.

Note to self: I must stop using the word “garish” soon. I just love it too much.

One interesting intertext is Sylvia Plath with her montage Hiroshima fevers and Nazi-Daddies and skin made of Jew linen. Plath was influenced by the Surrealists and some of the same poets that are in Forché’s anthology. But in difference to Forché, Plath is not interested in making these poets and their poetics useful, tasteful; she’s interested in the garishness of their imagery and in making them even more garish, even less tasteful. She is interested in the trauma, but she does not want to historicize the trauma, contain it; in her poetry trauma saturates the text.

One can also bring in Andre Breton and his use of shellshock and hysteria in the creation of Surrealism (the key movement for this anthology): The shellshock was the reason soldiers started to ramble from the unconscious, but it is not an end point, it’s an opening. It holds a similar role in the originary myth of Surrealism as Breton’s movie-hopping experiences, which left him “charged-up” for days.

To Be Continued….

(Next Episode: Ken Chen’s the Sublime and Atrocity, Total Art, Aase Berg’s Dark Matter etc)

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