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Etonne-Moi!

by: Andrew Marzoni

“When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”
—Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals

1. Roland Barthes: Freudian subject. Read Camera Lucida. No more needs be said. For now, anyway.

2. Apparently, sometime in the 1910s, Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes, challenged Jean Cocteau—French poet, filmmaker, et al.––“Etonne-moi!” Astonish me! Or, as Dennis Hopper remembered it in a drunken conversation with William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern in the late 1970s, “Astonish me, man.” The “man” may or may not be insignificant. Nonetheless, the same challenge led Cocteau to write the scenario for the 1917 ballet Parade (designed by Pablo Picasso and scored by Erik Satie), and Southern to write the screenplay for an ill-fated, never-produced adaptation of Burroughs’s first novel, 1953’s Junky.

3. In an interview with Jane Howard which appeared in the August 21, 1964 issue of Life magazine, Southern—at that point, author of the novels Flash and Filigree, Candy (with Mason Hoffenberg), and The Magic Christian, as well as the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—declared, “The important thing in writing…is the capacity to astonish. Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish. The world has no grounds for complacency. The Titanic couldn’t sink, but it did. Where you find smugness you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.” This statement came a year after the publication of Writers in Revolt, an anthology initially titled Beyond the Beat, compiled and edited by Southern—hipster scenemaker, father of New Journalism, American pioneer of “eroticism” (often referred to by others as “pornography”) and official tour scribe of the Rolling Stones’ infamous jaunt across the U.S. in 1972 (also documented in Robert Frank’s almost unseeable documentary, Cocksucker Blues)—along with Richard “Dick” Seaver (American translator-at-large, sometime editor of presses both Grove and Viking) and Alexander Trocchi (under-celebrated Scottish novelist, longtime heroin addict). The anthology essentially amounts to an extraordinarily self-conscious literary genealogy, interspersed with introductory essays by Southern, Lawrence Durrell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others: Beginning (perhaps as a sort of aesthetic thesis statement) with an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the anthology proceeds more or less chronologically with the Marquis de Sade, covering the work of Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Artaud, through a more contemporary generation (or rather, generations) of writers: Céline, Malaparte, Genet, Henry Miller, William Gaddis, Burroughs, and Beckett. Unsurprisingly, the book anthologizes only one woman writer, Iris Murdoch: Irish-English novelist, early Anglophone champion of Sartre’s philosophy. The book’s introduction, “Toward the Ethics of a Golden Age”—which is unsigned in the anthology, but written by Southern with Seaver’s editorial oversight (Trocchi was too doped-out at that point for his contribution to be likely)—concludes, “Throughout the whole body of psychoanalytic knowledge nothing is considered more dangerous or despicable than the double standard; it is known, of course, in its clinical extreme, as schizophrenia. Because of stigma, no less than because of knowledge itself, we are now consciously tending away from double standards. What is required, then, is the deliberate avoidance of lip service to assumed values, and adherence instead to deeply personal impulse, as well as the active response to the most private inclinations. For it is in this way alone that the great hollow symbols by which cultures pretend to live are given face and substance, the dead lips color, warmth, and, perhaps, in the end, something meaningful to say.”

4. Freud, stigma, personal impulse, active response, private inclinations, color, lips, warmth. Where is sex here? If they have anything at all in common (indeed, they have plenty), the works collected in Writers in Revolt are most unified in their unabashed treatment of the erotic: Sade, Ginsberg, Genet, Miller, and Burroughs, especially, all at the center of the most notorious obscenity trials of their times (let us not forget Joyce, Lawrence, and Nabokov, whose absence, in this context, is screamingly present in legacy). Beyond “psychoanalysis” serving as a sort of code word for “eroticism” here, it is good to keep in mind that Southern-the-Editor’s notorious novel Candy—published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in 1958—was still embroiled in censorship prosecution in the U.S. which would continue until the following year (1964), and in France and the U.K. for a few years longer. The American legal system’s interest in pursuing charges of literary obscenity would not end until 1966, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (also originally published by Olympia, in 1959).

5. Astonishment, shock: quelle est la tadium ce? Shock, Southern acknowledges, is old-hat, a symptom of the pornographic, and not the erotic—his privileged term. But for Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, shock is the predominant experience of the modern age. In his second most famous essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin introduces the concept of shock in order to approach Freud’s theory of a consciousness which protects the organism against external stimuli, which Benjamin registers as “shocks.” For Benjamin, “Psychoanalytic theory strives to understand the nature of these traumatic shocks ‘on the basis of their breaking through the protective shield against stimuli.’” Because of the vast increase of external stimuli—planes, trains, and automobiles, radio, film, the usual suspects—which comes with modernity, human consciousness must come to be more constantly “alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfarhung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour in one’s life (Erlebnis).” Shock, then, is not transcendent—it is extremely temporal. The reason that Baudelaire stands out as a writer of modernity––along with Poe, Proust, and Valéry—is that he places “the shock experience at the very center of his artistic work,” a work that is inextricable from the nineteenth-century Paris in which it was written—the Paris of the flâneur, arcades, wine, and hashish.

6. Though Benjamin was, as Marcus Boon writes, an unapologetic “connoisseur of the recently outmoded,” he was not nostalgically unrigorous enough to let Baudelaire represent the modern age, carte blanche. While the shock of the Parisian crowds is indeed central to Baudelaire’s poetics, it is not intended to shock its reader—or, at least Benjamin doesn’t seem to think so. Rather, shocking the audience is a twentieth-century project, the work of Dadaist painting and motion pictures. Dada, Benjamin writes in his first most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is the quintessential movement of the modern age, attempting as it does “to create by pictorial—and literary—means the effects which the public today seeks in the film.” By stating the destruction of art—specifically, the media of literature and painting—as its mission, Dada fulfills one of “the foremost tasks of art”: “the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” Dada’s requirement “to outrage the public” creates a “moral shock effect” which is only physically manifest in film. Benjamin writes, “The painting invites the spectator to
contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested.” The shock effect of film, thus conceived, is that “the spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change…By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect.”

7. By becoming physically manifest in the technology of film, not only does literature lose its capacity for shock, the capacity of shock itself to effect lessens significantly. If modernity is the era of shock, it is because it renders shock irrelevant, redundant. Shock is taken for granted, and is therefore rendered moot. Enter astonishment. Southern, one of our prophets of étonnement, poses this as a problem for art, and for writers, specifically. In a 1962 essay
for The Nation, titled “When Film Gets Good,” Southern writes, “It has become evident that it is wasteful, pointless, and in terms of art, inexcusable to write a novel which could, or in fact should, have been a film. This ought to be the first principle of creative literature and of its
critical evaluation; without it the novel, in the present circumstances, has only a secondary
function of art.” Ironically, Southern fails to follow his own advice: his own 1970 novel, Blue Movie––a story of a Hollywood auteur’s attempt to make a big-budget, aesthetically honest pornographic film––should have been a film, and not a novel. Of course, Southern’s own attempts to turn the novel into a film were met with the same red tape of bourgeois respectability as that met by Blue Movie’s protagonist, “King” Boris Adrian, the Fellini/Bergmanesque director of the film-within-the-novel, whose production is ultimately shut down by a mob of irate cardinals, who end up keeping Adrian’s obscene reels deep within the Vatican for their own, private screenings. Despite all of its graphic gangbangs, lakeside lesbian cunnilingus, and brother-sister anal sex—who cares about a blow job performed by a one-eyed, one-legged, hairless nympho-starlet in the wake of Hiroshima (or The Human Centipede, even)?––Blue Movie is unable to shock, and as a novel, fails to astonish. It’s a formal problem, medium-specific.

8. Susan Sontag––priestess of sensibility, American importer of Barthes, Benjamin, and European art cinema––calls, in 1964’s “Against Interpretation,” for an “erotics of art,” in stark opposition to masculinist hermeneutics: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” A novelist herself, Sontag sees in cinema, as a medium, a unique capacity to evade “the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone”: for “the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms—the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting, and composition of frame that goes into the making of a film.” Sontag attributes the cinema’s resistance to interpretation (partly, anyway) to its multisensory nature, in other words, its appeal to the embodiment of the viewer. Interestingly, Sontag here anticipates her own hero, Barthes, who waits until 1973 to explicitly conceive of the reader’s engagement with a text as a fundamentally sexual, embodied experience: “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do,” he writes, in The Pleasure of the Text.

9. Perhaps it is this renewed interest in the body, and particularly the senses, which draws Barthes to the art of photography at the end of his life. Of course, Barthes’s interest in photography can easily be witnessed in a text as early as 1957’s Mythologies, but 1980’s Camera Lucida—which along with Sontag’s collection of essays, On Photography, published three years earlier, has since been canonized as a seminal text on the theory of photography (as well as being fingered onscreen by Ben Chaplin in 1996’s The Truth About Cats & Dogs, oddly enough)—is Barthes’s first sustained study of the medium. In it, he proposes the twin concepts “stadium” and “punctum,” which considered alongside his earlier concepts, the readerly and the writerly, illuminate how Barthes’s theory of textuality opens itself to a consideration of literature as one medium among many, and as a consequence, defines reading as an embodied encounter between a person and a text, regardless of whether that text is composed of language, images, or even sounds. Barthes introduces stadium and punctum over the course of a formally plural text: part memoir, in which Barthes mourns the very real body of his late mother; part photographic essay, whose text is integrated with images captured by Robert Mapplethorpe, William Klein, and many other photographers; part self-conscious, in-progress attempt at a working theory of the photographic image. Stadium and punctum are distinguished as two affects felt by the viewer of the photograph (in this case, Barthes himself): stadium refers to the extent to which the viewer receives the images “as political testimony or enjoy[s] them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in stadium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures the settings, the actions.” The stadium, then, “is of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right.’” The punctum, by contrast, “will break (or punctuate) the stadium”—a photograph’s punctum, Barthes writes, “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” The attraction of the punctum is mysterious, but it is from its very mystery, its indecipherability, that the pleasure (or pain) experienced by the viewer derives. Camera Lucida—Barthes’s final book, published just months before his death—identifies the indeterminacy of the sign in the photographic representation of the human face. As such, photography––a medium not chained to the realm of the symbolic, like language, literature—creates new concepts which serve to reinforce Barthes’s earlier theory of the text. Barthes’s turn to a different medium—photography—signifies a return to the body, asking as it does: how are we to assign meaning to a text—the alienated symbolic—when we cannot fix the meaning of a glance, a snapshot of a smile, the human face itself?

10. So: astonishment. Qu’est-ce que c’est? “The Photograph,” writes Barthes, “astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly,” arousing the desire for the image contained therein—the dead mother—in the body of the observer. An unfulfillable wish. Unlike shock, the effects of astonishment are perpetually deferred. It is a productive experience in that it generates nothing but itself, providing an avenue to thought, contemplation. This is no prudish gasp of blue-haired old ladies (though, nor is Benjamin’s shock, for that matter). To mistake it as such would be tragic, a death-blow to contemporary thought—Blue Movie, scandalous in content but tired in form, makes this very mistake, prompting Norman Mailer to write to Southern on April 26, 1971, “You are certainly the funniest writer in America, but between us I don’t think you took yourself seriously enough. I think you could have had a great novel there but you sloughed it.” Barthes, too, understands the importance of étonnement, and is similarly disappointed in failed attempts to astonish. In “Sade-Pasolini” a review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s scandalous 1975 film adaptation of Sade’s equally scandalous 1785 novel The 120 Days of Sodom, Barthes writes, “A flop of figuration (both of Sade and of the fascist system), Pasolini’s film has worth as obscure recognition, poorly mastered within each of us, but surely bothersome: it bothers everybody, for, on account of Pasolini’s own naïveté, it prevents anybody from getting cleared through customs. That is why I wonder if, at the end of a long concatenation of errors, Pasolini’s Saló is not, all things considered, a properly Sadean object: absolutely irredeemable: no one indeed, so it seems, can redeem it.” Barthes—an admirer of Sade, and therefore necessarily no prude—faults the film for attempting an image of Sade’s universe where no such thing is possible, because that universe is “entirely given over to the power of écriture. …the phantasm can only be written in script, and not in description.” In a parallel fashion, the film’s commentary on fascism—Pasolini restages Sade in the final days of the Italian Fascist regime—fails to astonish, and therefore be powerful as art: “Fascism is too serious and too insidious a danger to be treated by simple analogy, the fascist masters coming ‘simply’ to take the place of the libertines. Fascism is a coercive object: it forces us to think it accurately, analytically, philosophically. All that art can do with it, if it deals with it, is to make fascism believable, to show off (demontrer) how it happens not to show (montrer) what it resembles; in brief, I see no other way to treat it than à la Brecht. Or, better yet: it is a responsibility to present this fascism as a perversion; who will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salo: ‘I am really not like them, I am not fascist, since I do not like shit.’” The horrors of the world have already been shown—all art can do with them is to show them again. The remonstrative power of the photograph, it seems, is equal to the ability of art to astonish—but a purely mimetic theory is not what remains. Rather, a work of art’s capacity to astonish is in fact equal to its willingness to present itself as non-art: an object, an event, present once. A photograph of mother.