Wednesday, April 07, 2010

possession and poetry and Artaud

Johannes and Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreno have been discussing the issue of possession and poetry recently, with Artaud being an especially important figure. Artaud was haunted by a sense that his life spilled out beyond his everyday perceptions and there’s an element of the inhuman in that. He wrote: “Art is not the imitation of life, but life is the imitation of a transcendental principle which art puts us into communication with once again.” (Switch the words “transcendental principle” with “force” and the quote could be coming from Deleuze.)

Yet this “principle” isn’t humanized, it doesn’t wear a human face, or any face at all. Similarly, the demon that possesses Linda Blair's character in “The Exorcist” is less of a "demon" and more of a demonic principle. The demon-principle seems to make no real demands, and doesn’t seem to have any grand scheme--it simply possesses Blair because it wants to possess Blair. It does say, “The soul is mine,” but in the way a child might shout that this random marble or stone is his or hers. One of the odd things about the film is that the question of why the girl becomes possessed is never really answered.

Durbin is right about the artifice element too: the demonic principle likes to perform. There is the spider walk, the head turning scene, the masturbation scene with the crucifix that could have come from a Bataille novel. Artaud’s theater of cruelty is also one where performance-as-performance is highlighted. He wrote: “We intend to base the theater upon spectacle before anything else, and we shall introduce into the spectacle a new notion of space utilized on all possible levels and in all degrees of perspective in depth and height…Thus, theater space will be utilized not only in its dimensions and volume but, so to speak, in its undersides.” Everything, in other words, will be touched by spectacle/artifice.

But spectacle isn’t representation, or at least not representation as we usually think of it: “The theater must make itself the equal of life--not an individual life, that individual aspect of life in which CHARACTERS triumph, but the sort of liberated life which sweeps away human individuality and in which man is only a reflection.” (This relates to Deleuze also, to his division between the representational and the expressive.)

I thought I would post the section from “Deleuze, Wittgenstein, and the Political Grotesque” that talks about Reines’ The Cow, since it is also related to this issue of poetry and possession:

Ariana Reines' The Cow is a book similar to Spahr's in its obsession with our physicality ("I was a LUNG," she writes), but unlike Spahr, who sees our physical nature as the literal tissue that we all hold in common, Reines views our material selves as full of divisions, holes, with the recurring imagery of the slaughterhouse blending into "human" sex ("Boys rinse their arms in what falls from my carotid. My body is the opposite of my body when they hang me up by my hind legs") and death ("I have to get to the other side of the animal"). There is a horror film atmosphere to the text overall, and not simply because of the amount of carnage and slaughter that occurs in its pages, though carnage does appear everywhere in the book, including its jarring cover. Rather, the voice itself seems monstrous at times, and possessed. In some of the poems, such as "In Which She Pays For Her Tardiness," the poet's persona speaks in such a sputtering, uneven manner ("I was a rock PLUGGED / I was a whole EMPTIED") that the voice seems possessed by a multitude of struggling voices, similar to Linda Blair's demon voice in “The Exorcist” (where even her sleep-breathing sounds like a room of patients in a sanitarium). And in the poem, "Nico Said Excrement Filters Through The Brain. I's A Kit," the "I" enters "somebody else's house," masturbates, bleeds in the sink, and shits with the door open ("because there's nobody here") - and the persona here has the numbed menacing aura of the character Henry in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Instead, Reines is working in a similar vein as Burroughs and Godard, who were committed to stealing from any genre that they might find useful in order to create effects that a more normalized aesthetic (the art film, the literary novel) could never achieve. In the case of The Cow, it could even be said that Reines uses horror film effects partially because the horror film is one of our most subversive genres - a good example of this being seen in the film "28 Weeks Later," in a scene that begins on a highly sentimental note (Father is reunited with Mother) and then quickly turns obscene and disgusting (Father eats Mother). In the world of The Cow, as in the world of the horror film, love and Eros do not so much turn into hate (that would be the world of the thriller) as into something monstrous and inhuman: "His thick thick thick in my Warsawa. So basically you peel the skin off and slice the thing in half with a chainsaw, vertically. Does every man really want to split me open." That said, though, I don't think that Reines indulges in the easy misanthropy of most horror films. What seems to fascinate her is not the horror film's paranoid notion that there are dangerous, sick individuals out there who perpetually threaten to obliterate our normal life: instead, she is interested by the more uncanny element in some horror films that suggest there is something shocking and grotesque about material reality itself.


Blogger John B-R said...

You really might want to check out Collapse IV over at Urbanomic. "Collapse is an independent, non-affiliated journal of philosophical research and development, launched in 2006 bring together philosophers and theorists, artists and scientists to explore fundamental themes and ideas which academic philosophy, in its tendency towards specialisation and partisanship, increasingly fails to address. ...." Collapse IV topic: Concept Horror. PS I'm not in it, or affiliated or anything ... it just seems germane.

1:46 PM  
Blogger JP said...

Thanks for the suggestion, John B-R. I'll check it out...

7:11 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I'm writing on Artuad in relation to the body and madness at the moment - I'm working on saving his madness from the romanticisation of Deleuze - the Pain of madness is important I think - there may be some kind of Batiallian economic principle at work there.

This is a minor comment, I don't really want to get involved in anything at the moment, as I don't have the psychic resources for it.

One small thing though (and it goes back to performance), I'm pretty sure the line is "the SOW is mine" - it's all about disgust, (cf Reines and the body), and the body. Blair's body is taken, abused, transformed and sexualised in a display of affective abasement and callousness (I think there might be something worth comparing with the BWO in Anti-Oedipus...) - Primo Levi (in a similar callousness) "there is no why"; kinda like the end of Othello, where Iago refuses to speak, to explain himself. Causality is erased, leaving only the abomination.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I hear what you're saying and certainly Deleuze is often made into a hippy-ish figure (everybody wants to be "rhizomatic" etc) - and that's definitely to be avoided (in fact I just talked about this in my paper on "immigrant poetics" at the AWP) - and yet I have to express some concern over the term "romanticisation" here: certainly that's not what James or Kate are doing - and yet there's something about this term that tends to act like an oppressive resistance to this kind of poetry (Artaud, Durbin, J.Pate, Ariana R, the gurlesque etc) much the same way the fear of "exoticization" tends to oppose a lot of poetry (and even more so: poetry in translation) as "problematic" - see "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath" -


7:08 AM  
Blogger Kate Zimmerman said...

oh! i just got the haunting of sylvia plath from the library! should i not read it johannes? is it terrible? i might read it even though it is terrible.

i think deleuze's position on artaud (& madness, as artaud is his mad figure versus lewis caroll his child figure) changes much from logic of sense to anti-oedipus...certainly he pathologizes artaud more in logic of sense i thinkt...he certainly looks differently at artaud in anti-oedipus, i would say maybe valorize as opposed to romanticize...

but yes pain/suffering is important to remember when talking about history of madness. but perhaps not as important when talking about aesthetics...?

although haven't reread james' excellent essay on the cow he just reposted, although remembered how marvelous it was the first time i read it. must go reread.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

ugh. I was really unclear. The Haunting is actually about in many ways the way scholars have tried to de-problematize Plath, about the critique of "romanticizing" her "madness" etc. I think it's an interesting book.


10:36 AM  
Blogger JP said...

Hi Ross

Thanks for correcting the quote--I haven't seen The Exorcist in about a decade, so my memory is a little fuzzy...but I think the lack of demonic motivation (weird as that probably sounds) is crucial in that film, that sense of random possession. Which relates to Artaud also, how the inhuman never has a psychological dynamic. Artuad is always against the human face.


12:25 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The more I think about this, I think my problem is as much with a simplistic idea of "pain" that is often deployed in discussions of Artaud (and plath etc). I think there's a lot of joy, ecstacy in these two writers, and that ecstasy is not the kind that can be entirely divorced from pain, violence etc.


6:48 AM  

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