Friday, February 26, 2010

The aesthetics of Dorian Gray

On a recent post I brought up what I see as the “Gothic” side of Bolano, and I’ve also posted a few things about the Necronautical Society, and their interest in trying to find forms of aesthetic expression that relate to death and nothingness. Below I’ve put up a few quotes relating to this theme. I don’t see an interest in how aesthetics intersects with death as being in any way morbid or willfully perverse. Only the most doctrinaire and utopian notions of artistic expression would think so. I also don’t see anything new in this--in fact, the manifestos by the Necronautical Society seem to have more in common with the often pitch-black sensibility of the Elizabethans than with many notions of the avant-garde that have circulated since the 60’s. But that is partly the point: for writers like Bolano and McCarthy, we aren’t marching toward some bright singular future free of death and shit and rot. Rather, they’re more interested (to paraphrase one of the sections of the Necronautical manifesto) in the ugly, horrifying portrait of Dorian Gray in the attic, not the static, beautiful one the public can see.

Bolano in 2666:

“He ushered in something that would later be known as the new decadence or English animalism…This painting viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly) was an ellipsis of self-portraits, sometimes a spiral of self-portraits (depending on the angle from which it was seen), seven three by three and a half feet, in the center of which hung the painter’s mummified hand…It happened like this. One morning, after two days of feverish work on the self-portraits, the painter cut off his painting hand. He immediately applied a tourniquet to his arm and took the hand to a taxidermist he knew, who’d already been informed of the nature of the assignment. Then he went to the hospital, where they stanched the bleeding and proceeded to suture his arm.” The great irony here is that the section of London where the painter lived begins to rapidly gentrify because of his grotesque success--more painters move in, then boutiques, then “cutting-edge restaurants.” In Bolano, nothing is stable for long. The site of this act of aesthetic horror becomes one more yuppified area of town.
* * * *
Plath famously loved the uncanny, and loved brining statues and such to a kind of life. One of my favorite poems from The Colossus, though, does the opposite: she poetically transforms a ruin into the remains of a decaying beast. This is from “The Burnt-out Spa”:

An old beast ended in this place

A monster of wood and rusty teeth.
Fire smelted his eyes to lumps
Of pale blue vitreous stuff, opaque
As resin drops oozed from pine bark.

The rafters and struts of his body wear
Their char of karakul still. I can’t tell
How long his carcass has foundered
The rubbish of summers, the black-
leaved falls.

One of the great things about this poem is the sensual delight the poet gets from decay. The details (the “char of karakul,” the “rubbish of summers”) are as lovingly described as flowers in a garden. It reminds me--to go back to the Dorian Gray metaphor--of how the monstrous version of the painting always sounds so much more vivid (and paradoxically alive) than the banal beautiful version.
* * * *
Kafka also focuses on this theme, especially in “A Hunger Artist,” where the very lack of purpose in the artist’s act of starvation could be seen as an ultimate example of art-for-art’s sake. After awhile, the hunger artist isn’t even starving himself for the public anymore. He becomes largely forgotten. There have been many readings of this story--political, psychological. But they usually wind up trying to do exactly what the hunger artist so successfully keeps from--namely, trying to fit his story into a more coherent and totalizing narrative. It is the senselessness of this aesthetic act that is important.
But there’s also his story “The Penal Colony.” One of the components of the brutal writing machine is the “Designer,” the part of the machine that is rearranged to form different words. The machine itself sounds like something one of the Viennese Actionists might have invented, though of course the condemned have no real choice but to submit to this act of violent physical transformation. Ultimately, the machine doesn’t write: it tortures.

“The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the bed was not turning the body over but only brining it up quivering against the needles. The explorer wanted to do something, if possible, to bring the whole machine to a standstill, for this was no exquisite torture such as the official desired, this was plain murder. He stretched out his hands. But at that moment the Harrow rose with the body spitted on it and moved to the side, as it usually did only when the twelfth hour had come.”


Blogger Farrah Field said...

I love it that you referenced 2666. That book is taking over my life right now.

5:40 PM  

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