July 2011 Archives

Hiroshima mon amour


After watching and utterly falling for Alain Resnais's and Marguerite Duras's 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour back in March, I was so enamored of the language—sparse, yet compelling enough that I recited phrases from the film to myself for weeks after watching it—that I had to search out Duras's original screenplay and spend some time absorbing the words at a slower-than-speech pace. Doing so only increased my admiration for Duras's work here, while at the same time helping me realize how much the visual and audio elements of the film augment and alter the words spoken. Having read with interest Amateur Reader's recent post on watching and reading plays, it was an intriguing exercise to go back and read a screenplay of a film I've already watched and savored.

In particular, Elle's hypnotic near-monologue from the opening of the film makes a different impression when stripped of the haunting score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, and of the shocking and heartbreaking newsreel footage of war devastation (and its counterpoint, near-abstract images of lovers' bodies). Emmanuelle Riva's cadenced delivery of these lines emphasizes the way in which Duras's prose veers, under pressure, into poetic verse and back out again. The score, in turn, underlines that growing pressure underlying Elle's narration, as she tries to convince her Japanese lover that she has seen Hiroshima, that she has witnessed and at some level understands the devastation of the war. Take the following passage, from close to the beginning of the film (all marks and emphasis mine):

      Quatre fois au musée à Hiroshima.
      J'ai regar les gens. J'ai regar moi-même pensivement, le fer. Le fer brû. Le fer bri, le fer devenu vulnérable comme la chair. J'ai vu des capsules en bouquet: qui y aurait pen? Des peaux humaines flottantes, survivantes, encore dans la fraîcheur de leurs souffrances. Des pierres. Des pierres brûlées. Des pierres éclatées. Des chevelures anonymes que les femmes de Hiroshima retrouvaient tout entières tombées le matin, au réveil.
      J'ai eu chaud place de la Paix. Dix mille degrés sur la place de la Paix. Je le sais. La température du soleil sur la place de la Paix. Comment l'ignorer?

The meaning in English is more or less:

      Four times at the museum in Hiroshima.
      I watched the people. I myself watched, pensively, the metal. Metal burnt. Metal broken, metal become vulnerable like flesh. I saw the bouquet of bottle caps: who would have thought? The preserved human skins, floating, surviving, their suffering still fresh. The stones. Burnt stone. Shattered stone. The anonymous hair that the women of Hiroshima found, fallen out, on waking in the morning.
      I was hot in Peace Square. Ten thousand degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square - how could you not know it?

However, many of the rhymes and echoes (in particular the "eɪ" sound common among the bolded syllables above) don't translate into English. Try to read it in French even if you don't understand the words, and notice how the rhyming or echoing words are grouped together, often in the shorter sentences. The rhyming/echoing "eɪ" sounds are generally on the accented syllable, and often directly precede a comma or period, which strengthens the stress on those beats. They are repetitive yet syncopated, building on each other to create a rhythmic tension which is alleviated by the counterpoint of the longer sentences, which descend back into a more prose-like rhythm (although the underlined syllables create another, minor rhythmic line). The overall effect is insistent, incantatory. Elle is building a story, a representation that is meant to convince her lover of what she "knows," what we all "know": the devastation and cruelty of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. But representations of something felt in the body tend to be problematic in Duras. The insistent yet fragile structure created by Elle's voice is cut short by Lui's stark refusal: "Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima, rien." (You saw nothing at Hiroshima, nothing.")

Although Duras communicates much of this rhythmic play via punctuation, the text alone simply does not have the power of the full filmic package.1 The score underlines everything I've been talking about with regard to the building rhythmic anxiety: frenetic piano, flute, and string parts underline brilliantly the tension during her speeches about the museum, while his refusals are marked by silence, or the single, elegant line of (I'm guessing?) a clarinet. Just to illustrate the exact points Duras is making, my analysis comes nowhere close to the experience of actually watching all elements come together:

The cuts back from the bomb footage to the lovers' bodies provide another method of contrasting the physical immediacy of Elle's current situation with the theoretical nature of her "knowledge" about the bomb. And the questions of reality versus representation are brought to yet another level by the fact that this is itself a piece of art, being viewed by an audience, yet it incorporates the same real newsreel footage that Elle keeps referencing. As the viewer, I feel I am coming face to face with the "reality" of the war, just as Elle feels she was brought face to face with it by going four times to the museum. My reaction was the same as hers: I wept. The impact of these images does not feel negligible, does not feel like something that can be so cleanly dismissed. And yet of course, my feeling is just as illusory as Elle's: our weeping does not indicate any privileged knowledge of Hiroshima under attack. That kind of knowledge is kept locked in the bodies of those who were there, and any attempt to communicate it in language (as Elle does with her own trauma later on) will lead only to forgetfulness, not to shared understanding.

Notes on Disgust

I've decided to jot down a few notes for each of my posts about how the book in question might make use of disgust, even if said book is not directly related to my Disgust Project. This is primarily so I can get a better idea what the most common uses of disgust might be.

Hiroshima mon amour is remarkable for how little disgust it elicits, considering its subject matter. The opening 15-minute montage, in particular, shows very graphic images of disfigurement following the atomic blast, yet (at least personally) I wouldn't say disgust is my primary emotion on viewing these images. I think this is because the disgust impulse has either been superseded by grief and pity, or has reached a tipping point of extremity into horror. (Since I'm American, there may also be a certain amount of cultural guilt around the knowledge that "we" were the ones responsible for the atrocities pictured. Despite the fact that the bomb project was not exactly a democratic decision and happened in any case long before I was born, and despite my strong dislike of nationalism, witnessing photographic evidence of the devastation wrought by one's own country is for some reason more upsetting than witnessing similar devastation wrought by others. As such, most of the disgust I feel when viewing these images is directed inward, if not toward "me" at least toward "us," rather than outward toward "them.")

Speaking from the small amount of reading I've done thus far, and from my common sense, disgust is a largely dehumanizing emotion, used to police boundaries between the "safe" and the "contaminating" (us and them, clean and dirty, etc.). The degree to which Hiroshima mon amour succeeds in breaking down those us vs. them boundaries can be measured by its communication of horror and grief (however limited or suspect they may be) rather than disgust, to the viewer, despite the inclusion of images which could easily disgust. Bottom line: Transformation of disgust into grief via sympathy.


1Which is not to say that I disagree with Amateur Reader's overall point: I enjoy reading plays and agree that we can stage them effectively in our imaginations. But the combined imaginative power of Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais far outstrips my own.


I read Hiroshima mon amour as part of Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. Thanks for giving me the motivation to pick this one up, Caroline—I knew I would love it and I did.

New reading + knitting space!


Although I may have contracted a case of the Summer Lazies which is preventing me from finishing up either of my projected end-of-month reads on schedule (apologies to E.L. Fay and Caroline for my tardy posts on Pamuk's Snow and Duras's Hiroshima mon amour), the end of July is not without bookish excitement. We've been spending a lot of time out on the trails lately, but what we were really missing was a way to spend time outdoors while still being at home. David and my place is quite urban, a small condo with no yard or outdoor space, and while there are a number of pretty parks nearby, it's just not the same as being able to chill at home and enjoy the nice weather with a book or a knitting project.


Enter my mom, a passionate gardener, who as a delayed Partnership Celebration gift generously offered to set us up with a couple of beautiful planters full of plants, as well as a set of chairs and a little table for our small, until-now-under-utilized porch area. The three of us made a trip to the nursery and had great fun selecting the large orange planter and the grouping of plants inside it, which include a delicate Japanese maple, two Pieris (otherwise known as andromeda), a lily turf, and a couple starters of cascading rosemary and cascading thyme (with which we can cook!). Here's a shot of the thyme, already making its way over the edge of the orange pot:


We already had the two smaller blue pots, and when I got my heart set on finding an oak-leaf hydrangea for one of them, my mom searched high and low for a healthy-looking example. She found the beautiful one you see here at her local farmer's market (this is taken from the other side of the arrangement, from the direction visible when we leave or arrive at our house):


Into the other blue pot we transplanted some yellow dahlias that were a Partnership Celebration gift from David's aunt and uncle, and which are flourishing in their new location (which is awkward to photograph, so you'll just have to take my word). David and I have been grooving on having this new extension to our living space, especially now that the warm and sunny weather has FINALLY arrived in Portland. We've been sitting out here every evening, sipping a glass of wine or tea and chatting, reading, knitting (me), or blogging. It's really reinvigorated my enjoyment of our house.


I've never been much of a gardener, but I have to say that having this beautiful area has made me appreciate much more the appeal of working with plants. Every morning before work I go out and water them, and observe the little differences in their condition one day to the next. They seem pretty happy; as you can see above, the lily turf has started putting up a spear of purple flowers, the thyme is flowering, and (although you can't see it) there are a ton of buds almost ready to flower on the dahlias. I feel a surprising affection for all our new flora.


Even better, since I've been watering our new plants with vitamin-enhanced water (to decrease transplant shock, or so my mother tells me), I've started using up the leftover water on our houseplants. One of them (above), which has never flowered before, suddenly put up a spear of these beautiful orange-pink flowers. Cool!

Anyway, this is something that's really increased my quality of life of late, so thought I would share. It's extra-special because we had such loving and expert help setting it all up, so thanks to my mom for her help, and for having the great idea in the first place.



Cross-posted with slight differences to Family Trunk Project.

Disgust Bibliography/Reading List


Universal Bibliographic Repertory

Since this disgust project seems to be gathering steam, I thought I'd take it to the next level and share the in-progress bibliography I've been putting together. I'm nearing the end of William Ian Miller's The Anatomy of Disgust at the moment, and it's given me some places to start both in terms of further reading and of organizing my thoughts. Since "the literary treatment of disgust" is such an unlimited category, I've been thinking about how to narrow things down and I've come up with the categories below. They're just a starting point and may change if they prove more of a hindrance than a help. I may make a little button for this post
in my side-bar, since I'm sure this list will continue to grow and change along with the project.

Disgust: Theory
(Theoretical works on disgust)

  • Cohen, William A. Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (2005). A look at the role of "filth" in modern life, and suggested by Litlove.

  • Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). According to Miller, Darwin was one of the first Westerners to write specifically about disgust, and his account is rich in racial and gustatory elements.

  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Although Miller spends much of his book dismantling Douglas's arguments, her idea of a disgust theory based on the uncanny or out-of-place (rather than the contaminating) is sufficiently intriguing to me that I'd be interested to pick this up.

  • Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process (1939). Read and reviewed back in 2008, pre-blogging. An interesting analysis of pre-Renaissance manners and what they imply about the process of becoming "civilized" in the Western World. Miller and many modern-day medievalists take issue with Elias's rather cartoonish portrait of medieval life, but much remains relevant and his citing of primary-source documents (etiquette manuals across 300+ years) makes this a fantastic resource.

  • Freud, Sigmund. WHERE TO EVEN START. Suggestions are welcome; I have only read On the Interpretation of Dreams, which is not the most useful here. I need to seek out his discussions of "reaction formations" and the repression of primal instincts. Isn't that, like, ALL his work? Help with a starting point would be appreciated.

    • Dora: Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), kindly suggested by Violet

    • Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913). Suggested by Litlove as providing a "concentrated focus on what we find unacceptable."

  • Gigante, Denise. Taste: A Literary History (2005). Considering my particular weakness for food-based disgust, this is a must-read.

  • Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995). I'm looking for a book that addresses the tendency of people to seek out gross-out experiences, and horror film is a prime way in which we do that. (And I mean "we" in the larger cultural sense, as I personally do NOT seek out horror movies.) This may not be quite what I'm looking for, but I liked Halberstam's Female Masculinity, so I doubt I'll regret reading this.

  • Herwitz, Daniel Alan. Aesthetics: Key Concepts in Philosophy (2008). As I have very little general background in aesthetics, Anthony was kind enough to recommend this primer on the subject.

  • Herz, Rachel. That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (2011). Upcoming from Norton, this looks to be a volume of popular nonfiction on the science of disgust, from an researcher on the psychology of smell. Thanks to Teresa for alerting me to its existence!

  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790). Recommended by Frances, along with the Kristeva.

  • Kelly, Daniel. Yuck! The Nature and Significance of Disgust (2011). Kelly was interviewed in Salon recently about his upcoming book on disgust.

  • Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2011). My partner David pointed me in the direction of Korsmeyer, and I am interested in her focus here on aesthetics and the less extreme forms of disgust. The common impulse seems to jump immediately to the most extreme manifestations of the emotion, but as with anything there are shades of grey.

  • Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982). Suggested by Litlove. I will totally be reading Kristeva in English; from what I hear she will be plenty difficult enough.

  • Meninghaus, Winfried. Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003). I know nothing about this study, but it was one of only a very few that I unearthed in my initial bout of disgust research.

  • Miller, Susan Beth. Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (2004). Suggested by Litlove as a theory book worth a gander.

  • Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust (1997). Miller lays out a helpful introduction to different types and categories of disgust, and some of the social functions it serves and problems it creates.

  • Morton, Tim. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste (2006). A recommendation from my former Romantics professor Kurt, this looks spot-on, particularly with my interests in food-related disgust. From the publisher's blurb: "Morton shows how food in the social and literary text provided complex and ambivalent ways of signaling ideological preferences." Excellent.

  • Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings (2005). Ngai examines the political and representational dilemmas represented by "ugly feelings," with a specific afterword on disgust.

  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2005). Another Litlove recommendation; this looks fascinating.

  • Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (1983). Recommended by Goodreads friend AC as "a masterpiece of classical scholarship" and relevant to the project, after reading my Mary Douglas post.

  • Pizarro, David et al. "Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals." Cognition & Emotion, vol. 23, no. 4 (2008). Thanks to Kaveri for a reminder of this interesting Cornell study indicating that a higher level of physical squeamishness correlates to more conservative politics in a large sample group. (I am linking to the reference at my alma mater library for easy retrieval later.)

  • Smith, Anne-Marie. Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable (1998). In case I need a bit of a Kristeva primer.

  • Wilson, Robert Rawdon. The Hydra's Tale: Imagining Disgust (2002). Rawdon's book is a study of the artistic representation of the disgusting over time, and as such sounds like absolutely essential reading for this project. A big thanks to Anthony for tipping me off to this one.

Disgust as Human Experience
(The work is interested in analyzing the experience of disgust from a subjective, personal point of view. I'd love more examples of this category.)

  • Heaney, Seamus. "Death of a Naturalist" (1966). Chronicle of the boundary between horror and disgust in the life of a young boy.

  • Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2004). Suggested by Rebecca, this nonfiction study focuses on the treatment of human remains, historically and in the modern day. I suspect this book might belong in a separate category, something like "Disgust Unveiled" or "Disgust as Everyday Life," but we'll see once I read it.

  • Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days (1989). Contains the essay that sparked this whole project, on Suleri's childhood experiences of food.

Standard-Bearers of Disgust
(The work endorses a disgust which the reader is expected to share [although may not], often using said disgust to make a larger moral point.)

  • Dworkin, Andrea. Intercourse (1987). I've read only a few selections from Dworkin's notorious treatise, but based on those it is a perfect example of this category. Readers who feel less keenly the sexual oppression of women by men will find Dworkin's disgust at heterosexual intercourse totally insane.

  • Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary (1856). Flaubert is disgusted by the Bovary wedding cake, the Bovary hat, the Bovary style of reading, and the Bovary penchant for kitsch—and he wants the reader to share that disgust. This novel is a great example of Miller's argument that late in the seventeenth century (in both French and English), the term "goût"/"taste" acquired overtones relating to aesthetic judgment, and from there became enmeshed in morality.

  • Milton, John. Paradise Lost (1667). The grotesque appearances of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost are a prime illustration of disgust that is transparent from the physical to the moral realm. They are conceived incestuously and as a direct result of Satan's fall; the moral repugnance of their existence is echoed graphically by the fact that Sin's womb is perpetually giving birth to, and being devoured by, a pack of dog-like monsters. The reader feels disgust when she reads of their appearance, and that disgust is immediately justified.

  • Solanas, Valerie. The SCUM Manifesto (1968). Suggested by Violet; based on the fragments of Solanas I have read, disgust may function for her largely like it does for Dworkin, but to an even more extreme degree.

  • Swift, Jonathan. "The Lady's Dressing Room" and other poetry. Here readers who do not idealize the physical forms of their desired sexual partners may not find it so repulsive that "Celia shits." In fact, they may find Swift's own tendency to obsess on the facial contortions of ladies mid-poop to be more troubling or disgusting than the ladies themselves.

  • ——. Gulliver's Travels (1735). I can't improve on Dorothy's excellent synopsis of Gulliver's Travels: "He feels lots of disgust when confronted with the Brobdingnagians and the Lilliputians are disgusted by him, and then he's disgusted by himself." It's true; Swift runs the gamut of disgust here and may actually be doing some things that take him out of the Standard-Bearer category. I would have to re-read.

Humanist Anti-Disgust
(The work problematizes a disgust that the reader or a character may feel)

  • Joyce, James. Ulysses (1922). Ulysses is the prime example of this category. Joyce chooses to include many things in the novel that are often considered disgusting: a bowel movement, menstruation, masturbation, nose-picking, flaccid penises, sadomasochism, the cooking and eating of organ meats. Yet his purpose is not to disgust the reader, but to argue for an acceptance or even a celebration of these oft-maligned elements of life. They are all a part of being human, all part of the great passionate muck.

  • Gaitskill, Mary. Veronica (2005) and other works. Gaitskill takes Joyce's philosophy of disgust-acceptance to a whole other level in Veronica, which I would argue actually insists on incorporation of the disgusting aspects of life as essential to human dignity.

  • Lawrence, D.H. Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). Contrast with Jonathan Swift's horror at the idea of his lover shitting, Mellors's statement to Connie: "'Tha'rt real, tha art! Tha'rt real, even a bit of a bitch. Here tha shits an' here tha' pisses: an' I lay my hand on 'em both an' like thee for it. I like thee for it."

  • Nabokov, Vladimir. King, Queen, Knave (1928). Franz's extreme fastidiousness in this, Nabokov's retelling of Madame Bovary, is much of what makes him such an unlikeable character.

  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). The problem with including Frankenstein here is that the monster is never satisfyingly disgusting. We can believe he's frightening and repulsive to the humans who see him, but to the reader he seems an incredibly sympathetic guy (my point: Shelley makes it too easy for us to admire his inner beauty and simply ignore his outward ugliness). Nevertheless, it is an example of a work that opposes outward repulsiveness to inner beauty in a direct denial of the parallel often drawn between the two.

  • Williams, Tennessee. The Night of the Iguana (1964). Hannah Jelkes: "Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent."

As-Yet-Unclassified Disgust
(Works that use disgust in seemingly complex and interesting ways, but don't fit into my nascent categories)

  • Bataille, Georges. Histoire de l'oeil (1928). Recommended by Violet and certainly sounds disgusting. What function the disgust plays, I'll have to see.

  • Boll, Heinrich. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974). Recommended by Litlove for its take on moral disgust with the media.

  • Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Three Trapped Tigers (1967). Classic 20th-century Cuban novel recommended by David Auerbach as pertinent to the project.

  • Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game trilogy (1985-1991). As I recall from my long-ago reading of this sci-fi trilogy, they feature an institutionalized form of OCD used by the government to control the otherwise ruling class, including a pivotal coming-of-age ritual which involves forcing the OCD sufferer into a confrontation with strong contaminants. Disgust as culture-control?

  • Despentes, Virginie. Baise moi (1993), and her work in general. Despentes comes recommended by Litlove and Caroline as "the queen of disgusting with a feminist slant."

  • Donoso, José. The Obscene Bird of Night (1970). Recommended by Richard and David Auerbach as possibly crossing "multiple categories of disgust/deformation/etc."

  • Duras, Marguerite. Le Vice-Consul (1965). Recommended by Litlove, who knows that I need very little encouragement to read more Duras. Duras's treatment of "various forms of disgust for humanity" in this novel certainly intrigues me; it is interesting that Hiroshima mon amour (on which she collaborated with Alain Resnais) largely avoids the disgust impulse, despite showing some devastating footage of destruction and disfigurement.

  • Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho (1991). I have actually been avoiding this book for the very reason that I felt it might disgust me, but it was only until Caroline suggested it that I thought to add it to this list.

  • Gainsbourg, Serge. Evguéni Sokolov (1998). The only novel by French singer/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg. Recommended for the project by Caroline.

  • Genet, Jean. Notre-Dame des fleurs (1943). Suggested by Litlove, Genet's debut novel deals with life in the Parisian underworld, including life in prison and homosexuality. Also on my general TBR list, and possibly relevant, is Genet's Les bonnes.

  • Grass, Günter. The Tin Drum (1959). A rotting horse's head swimming with eels figures in a key scene in this novel, providing a character with an idea about how to commit suicide. The closest I can get to a categorization here is "Disgust as Attention-Getter." There's nothing inherently morally bad about the horse head or the eels, but they suggest to the character a way out of her difficulties.

  • Grossman, David. See Under: Love (1989). Suggested by commenter Kate M. for several different takes on disgust in a post-WWII Israeli context.

  • Hazlitt, William. "On Gusto" (1816). Suggested by my former Romantics professor Kurt: an aesthetics based on power and passion rather than beauty does make room for the disgusting in art. I'll revisit for a more careful reading.

  • Houellebecq, Michel. Les particules élémentaires (1998), and his work in general. Recommended by Caroline as fitting in with this project; also described by none other than Michiko Kakutani as "a deeply repugnant read."

  • Jarry, Alfred. Ubu roi (1896), Ubu cocu, Ubu enchaîné. Discussed at length at the link above, I might categorize Jarry as "Digust as Rebellion" or "Disgust as Confrontation." As far as the function of disgust within the plays, I think in a way they're quite similar to the "Standard-Bearers" category: Père Ubu's physical grotesqueness reinforces his moral repugnance, and neither is really brought into question.

  • Lautréamont, Comte de. Les chants de Maldoror (1869). Richard reminds me that not only have I intended to read this pre-surrealist piece of ultra-misanthropy for quite some time, but it contains potential stores of disgust-related riches waiting to be mined.

  • Leduc, Violette. La bâtarde (1964). Recommended by Caroline as having possible ties with disgust, and also one I've been meaning to finish for ages.

  • Lovecraft, H.P. At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), and his work in general. Recommended by David Auerbach (and indirectly by EL Fay) as part of the early-20th-century American pulp attitude toward disgust.

  • McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian (1985). My mom reminded me of this book, which surely remains "the most grotesquely violent novel I have ever read," as I said back in 2009. The gang members' own desensitization to the disgust (or horror) that almost any reader is bound to be feeling at their actions, works to reinforce their amorality, and in this sense McCarthy could be grouped with the Standard-Bearers. On the other hand, the cocktail of emotions he elicits in the reader, which juxtaposes revulsion with extreme aesthetic pleasure in the beauty of his language, is doing something less cut-and-dried.

  • Nothomb, Amélie. Hygiène de l'assassin (1992). Recommended by Frances for strongly disgusting and "slyly intentional" food-related scenes. As gustatory disgust is one I personally strongly relate to, this is not to be missed.

  • Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). William Ian Miller calls Orwell "the twentieth century's real poet of disgust," and discusses at length the way Orwell's socialist ideals run up against his unavoidable disgust at the living conditions of the urban poor.

  • Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), and his work in general. David Auerbach pointed out that Poe and Lovecraft deal in disgust quite frequently, and I'm not at all sure that these three stories are an ideal representation of Poe's top disgust-related concerns (I've read quite a bit of Poe, but not very recently). Specific suggestions are welcome.

  • Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Recommended by Mel, with the interesting implication that the book uses disgusting acts as a purgative or cleansing agents. This would be a pretty unusual literary use of disgust, a kind of double-reverse that makes use of digust's role as policer of purity and impurity to restore a state of cleanliness to the humiliated party. Definitely intriguing!

  • Sade, Marquis de. (1740-1814). I'm not sure where to start with de Sade but he's certainly famous for disgusting his contemporaries and, I would expect, playing with the boundary between disgust and...something more pleasurable? Any insight would be appreciated. In the absence of other feedback I would probably start with Justine.

  • Saer, Juan José. The Witness (1983). Recommended by David Auerbach as an Argentine take on disgust.

  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. La nausée (1938). Disgust as indicator of existential truth? It's possible this might relate to the function disgust plays in The Tin Drum: essentially, one of either getting a character to sit up and take notice, or as an indicator that they have done so. Or, I may be way off on that idea. Recommended by my fellow Sartre-and-Beauvoir fan Anthony.

  • Shakespeare, William. Complete Works, but I'm thinking particularly of King Lear, where some of the disgusting elements, like the blinding of Glocester, reinforce the rotten morality of the perpetrators (so would fit in the "Standard Bearers" category), but other disgusting elements do not (for example, the murky mires in Edgar's "mad" speeches). Lady Macbeth's "Out, damn spot" monologue is a good example of the intersection of horror, disgust and guilt.

  • Suskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2001). Recommended by Jenny as evoking the scent of the human body as both disgusting and somehow encapsulating our essential humanity/individuality. Sounds like a rich possibility.

  • Travis-Henikoff, Carole A. Dinner with a Cannibal: the Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo (2008). Suggested by Stefanie, this nonfiction study deals with a subject that's extremely relevant to the subject of disgust, but this isn't exactly disgust theory...so not sure where to categorize it. Looks interesting, though!

  • Tournier, Michel. Le roi des Aulnes (1970) or La goutte d'or (1986). Recommended by Litlove as blending disgust with philosophy and spirituality in interesting ways.

Of course there's also the "Disgust as source of amusement" category—the belching slugs scene in the second Harry Potter book, for example, or the Walter the Farting Dog series of kids' books. Although I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next person, I don't think I'm particularly interested in this modality unless it's doing something a little more unusual or subversive than just playing the gross-out for laughs.

On the other hand, there are a few things I'm looking to add...

Things I'm particularly interested in adding to the list:

  • Subjective descriptions of the experience of disgust (the "Disgust as Human Experience" category);

  • Works that confront or problematize the easy equation of physical and moral repulsiveness (books which, for example, feature a physically disabled or deformed person with a non-predatory sex drive and/or healthy sex life);

  • Works which, on the other hand, present an extreme parallel between moral and physical disgustingness, in a way that's either a solid "typical" example or goes far beyond the norm (I want examples of this but it's so common that I can hardly do an exhaustive catalog);

  • A book of theory that looks into the human desire to seek out "gross-out" experiences (one assumes it's about the thrill of transgression, but why that type of transgression in particular?);

  • Works that portray disgusting things neutrally, as a simple fact of life.

And really, anything that leaps to mind after reading through this early bibliography, I'd love to hear it!

Ubu roi (Ubu Rex)


Like most of the participants in Ubu Week, I am at a bit of a loss when it comes to actually writing about Alfred Jarry's aggressively odd contribution to French theatre. Having only read the first play in the series, Ubu roi (which I understand is not the best), I am left with an impression of frat-boy humor that is somehow also a revolutionary step toward surrealism; a piece that invites comparison to everything from Shakespeare's Falstaff, to Monty Python's exploding man sketch, to some kind of appalling reality show on competitive cannibalism or something. ("Next, on FOX...") Seriously, what to say?

Regular readers may remember that I'm slowly and very casually compiling a reading list around the literary treatment of disgust and the disgusting, and this is probably the angle from which Ubu roi most interests me. Its main character and raison d'être, Père Ubu, is viscerally disgusting both morally and physically, and indeed eliciting shock and disgust, and expressing Jarry's own disgust with certain personality types and social assumptions, seems to have been a major goal of the plays to begin with. As such, they're a great jumping-off point for a catalog of possible sources of literary revulsion.

So, what's so disgusting about Père Ubu? His physical form, famously obese and with a head and face distorted to the point of inhumanity, makes a good start. The costume suggested by Jarry even includes a mask, which further separates Père Ubu from the world of the human.


From Dorian Grey's portrait to Lord Voldemort's snake face, it's always tempting to make a morally repugnant character physically repulsive as well, and even before Ubus père and mère become splattered with brains, they are a pretty repellent pair. (I question whether a production staged with marionettes, as this one sometimes has been, could achieve quite the levels of disgust possible for flesh-and-blood actors, although the puppets would add an extra level of inhumanity.) Père Ubu looks like the grotesque embodiment of id that his actions quickly prove him to be, with a giant spiral marking his insatiable stomach or "gidouille," the pit into which more or less anything is liable to vanish, and the before-mentioned mask obscuring his facial expressions just as the monotone voice which Jarry recommended for him, would mask vocal intonation.

Père Ubu's physical form, then, combines at least three modalities of disgust: the disgusting-as-distorted-or-out-of-place (the mask, the grotesque proportions); the disgusting-as-corporeal (his messiness and fatness; the references to his various orifices); and, in seeming contradiction to the second, the disgusting-as-void, a modality which might even verge on the eerie or frightening, rather than the disgusting. Anything can be subsumed into Père Ubu's gidouille, and while it's certainly disgusting to think of ingesting human flesh, for example, it's also horrifying to think of being eaten and thereby eliminated, assimilated by another. I think it's the combination of all three modalities that makes for a true coup de dégoût: Père Ubu combines the monstrous and bestial with the undeniably and uncomfortably human in a way that can't fail to repulse.

The speech and actions of the Ubus, of course, only reinforce this triple threat of repugnance. From the famous first word ("Merdre," a verbing of the French word "merde" or "shit"), the couple's odd coinages continue the theme of distortion and the out-of-place while at the same time making words and ideas that were already obscene, even grosser and messier. At the same time, Père Ubu's behavior takes the corporeal aspect of disgust to new levels: before a dinner party, for example, he gorges himself on the food laid out for the guests, then sits in a corner groaning about how fat and full he is, before proceeding to poison the food that all his guests are eating. The disgust of satiety is well represented in this scene: not only are we confronted with someone who has stuffed themselves to bursting before the meal even begins, but Mère Ubu's menu is comically large (thinking of eating so much food is disgusting), and features such delicacies as choux-fleurs à la merdre, or cauliflower à la shitting (thinking of eating this is disgusting all by itself). Add to the ideas of surfeit and coprophagia the body's reaction to having consumed poison, as well as Père Ubu's frequent threats to eat Mère Ubu, and you get a very disgusting scene indeed.

Interestingly, the most morally reprehensible actions in the play are the ones I, at least, found least viscerally disgusting. The murder of the Polish king, for example, is not particularly played for the gross-out. Nor is the scene (which I found to be one of the funniest in the play) when Père Ubu and his two lackies are attacked by a bear, and Père Ubu lets the lackies kill the beast while cowering in a corner—later telling them, in a very Falstaffian move, that

Vous pouvez vous flatter que si vous êtes encore vivants et si vous foulez encore la neige de Lithuanie, vous le devez à la vertue magnanime du Maître des Finances, qui s'est évertué, échiné et égosillé à débiter des patenôtres pour votre salut, et qui a manié avec autant de courage le glaive spirituel de la prière que vous avez manié avec adresse le temporel de l'ici présent Palotin Cotice coup-de-poing explosif.
You can flatter yourselves that if you're still alive to tread the snow of Lituania, you owe it to the magnanimous virtue of the Master of Finances [Père Ubu himself], who strove with great effort, yelling at the top of his voice, to discharge Pater Nosters for your health, and who handled with such courage the spiritual sword of prayer while you took on the here-present temporal weapon of the Knight Errant's explosive fist-punches.

This, and the seemingly random and jubilant execution of the nobles (the moral vacuum of which scene Amateur Reader addresses here), are the scenes that perhaps should disgust us the most—in the scene of cowardice, even Père Ubu's lackey calls him a revolting swine. But at least for me, they're not the most disgusting, which is an interesting commentary. Our perceptions of moral and physical disgust are so intertwined (often, of course, mistakenly, although not in the case of Ubu roi—this is an aspect of the play that's not particularly subversive), that it's easy to believe that a character who looks and speaks like Père Ubu will act in a cowardly, cruel way. What one does not expect, however jaded one might be, are threats of debraining.

Perhaps, also, one needs a deep sense of a victim's humanity before one is able to feel deeply disgusted by moral flaws like cruelty and cowardice. This is the point of those human-interest stories highlighting individuals who, for example, lost their retirement savings due to the greed of Enron executives, or their homes as a result of speculation on the housing market. Moral outrages tend to sicken only when embodied, when we can see the concrete pain that has been caused. Since all characters in the Ubu plays are broad, satirical sketches, not intended as real-seeming humans, and since Père Ubu's more reaching atrocities tend to be oddly uncoupled from the extreme embodiment found in the shit-eating, debraining, and cannibalism sections of the plays, said atrocities often achieve comedy and occasionally horror, but seem (especially by contrast) strangely devoid of disgust.

So. Are we all grossed out yet? One more note on disgust in Ubu roi: it interested me, especially given the prominence of the husband/wife duo, that sex-as-source-of-disgust doesn't really feature in this play. Those who have read the next in the cycle, Ubu cocu, can tell me: does it feature in that one? For a work that seems methodically to hit all the major categories of disgust, it seems a glaring omission, especially since Père Ubu's void-like gidouille functions like a kind of ungendered vagina dentata: the monstrous and amoral body part that will consume whatever comes into contact with it.

And with that, my friends, I'm off to take a shower and brush my teeth. Thoroughly. Several times.


I read Ubu roi as part of Nicole and Amateur Reader's Ubu Week, which sadly ended several weeks ago. Sorry to be late to the party, you crazy kids.

Also, translations above are mine but probably not as good as the ones by Cyril Connelly and David Ball that are available in the market for ready money.

Seraph on the Suwanee


A former professor of mine once said, while discussing DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, that it's a book about female pleasure and female identity but not necessarily about female independence. The same can be said about Zora Neale Hurston's compelling but in many ways frustrating 1948 novel Seraph on the Suwanee. The character arc of the protagonist, poor white "Cracker" Arvay Henson, is in some ways an ultra-traditional one: she must learn to be the best wife possible to her husband, Jim Meserve. Nor is there anything progressive in the Meserve definition of a "good wife": early in the novel, Jim lays out for Arvay his vision of matrimony and gender relations:

Women folks don't have no mind to make up nohow. They wasn't made for that. Lady folks were just made to laugh and act loving and kind and have a good man do for them all he's able, and have him as many boy-children as he figgers he'd like to have, and make him so happy that he's willing to work and fetch in every dad-blamed thing that his wife thinks she would like to have. That's what women are made for.

Jim is not a caricature of Southern male arrogance. He's a sympathetic character; possibly the most sympathetic in the novel. He genuinely loves Arvay and he's an extremely hard worker, doing his utmost to live up to his own image of husband as reliable provider. What's more, he's up front about the contract he wants Arvay to enter into, although her initial reaction is "this deal is too good to be true," she eventually agrees. The rest of the book deals with Arvay's (very) slow realization that it's harder than she expected to live up to the terms Jim laid out, and with her even slower metamorphosis into a person able to hold up her end of the arrangement.

As a modern-day feminist fresh off of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the most difficult thing to wrap my mind around here is the question of whether or not Hurston is critiquing Jim's worldview. It would be easy to jump to her notoriously controversial biography and her other books to feed conjecture on this issue, but sticking to the text of Seraph on the Suwanee: what is being presented here? Is Arvay to be taken as an unfettered agent, who enters freely into a legal and emotional contract with Jim Meserve and is therefore bound by love and honor to conform as best she can to his proposed marriage model? This is certainly the reading that suggests itself initially, complete with a happy ending for the couple when Arvay finally finds the courage, assertiveness and commitment within herself to be the wife Jim wants. On a subtler level, though, does the very length and difficulty of Arvay's journey imply a critique of Jim's expectations? Or of the social context in which the couple lives? It's a question on which I'm still vacillating.

A few examples of the trouble between Jim and Arvay. While Jim's initial portrait of married life seems to remove most agency from the wife (her decisions don't matter because she doesn't have a mind to make up; she need only laugh, act loving, have babies and get waited on—oh, and "make [her husband] happy"), Arvay soon finds that her own passive yet insecure personality is a surprisingly bad match for these expectations. It's not so easy, after all, to act loving, kind and carefree when her husband decides to delay a move she's desperate to make; or when he takes her religion in vain; or when she finds he's been running an illegal liquor still on their property for fifteen years and never mentioned it. It's not so easy to be the person who is supposed to like all the decisions, but gets to make none of them.

Like Lawrence's Lady Chatterley, therefore, Arvay is constantly holding back a part of herself, hoarding her own wilfulness against her partner and refusing to submit herself to his will. And because she's devoting so much time to resentment and doubt, she doesn't see all the things he's constantly doing to support her and even, one could argue, submit himself to her in turn. He moves to a new place because she wants to, and scrambles hard to establish himself there (she doesn't realize how hard he's working or how broke they are, because he never mentions it and does his best to hide it from her). She talks frequently about how scared it makes her to live next to a swamp, so he plots and plans a way to clear it (at which point she is confused about why he went to so much trouble). He doesn't insist on institutionalizing their violent son, because he sees how much it means to her (but she resents him for even suggesting her son could act violently). And so on. It's only after she lets go of her insecurities and directs her self-will toward supporting, rather than resenting, her husband that she is able to look outside herself and notice the ways in which Jim has been loving her with his actions all along.

But those actions, those unexplained and hidden actions. They're a source of the real frustration in the novel, and the possible source of any critique Hurston may have for Jim Meserve's marriage model. Because, seriously: this is a couple the majority of whose problems could be completely resolved with a few heart-to-heart conversations. If Jim were able to say, "I cleared the swamp because I knew it scared you and I didn't want you to be scared," or if Arvay could put aside her passive-agressive anger and really speak to Jim about her pain over his indifference toward their disabled son, and if the other person could just listen: ninety percent of problems SOLVED. Instead, sitcom-like, they indulge in three decades of unnecessary misunderstanding.

Jim dropped down and began to unlace his shoes. He got more quiet and took a long time before he looked up at Arvay again.
      "So you really ain't got no notion why I wanted that swamp cleaned off, have you, honey?"
      "Naw I told you. Not at all."
      Jim jerked off first one heavy shoe and then the other.
      "Well, maybe it'll come to you some day."
      They didn't talk about it anymore and went on to bed.

Yes, heaven forbid they should talk about it. In Jim's mind, if Arvay doesn't see his motivation on her own, she won't truly believe or appreciate it if he tells her. On the other hand, his own glorification of female mindlessness and passivity makes a bad training for the kind of active, intuitive reading he's looking for here. What's more, Jim's gender formulations are those of the culture at large: this is a group of people who use the word "rape" for consensual, passionate adult sex—presumably an extension of the assumption that women need their decisions made for them. From my perspective, then, the tension in the relationship is largely due to Jim's insistence on an "actions speak louder than words" ethos, even in the face of Arvay's demonstrated inability to read actions. Neither partner is willing to train the other, and they have the bad luck to have ended up with communication styles that are actively opposed.

In the end, Hurston grants Arvay agency up to at least this point: while Jim says that women have no minds to make up, and that all that will be required of a wife of his is to laughingly receive bounty, he is actually looking for a much subtler understanding of how to read and perform acts of love and consideration, and perform them bravely and well. When Arvay finally breaks through her cloud of self-centered vagueness and commits to her husband, she likens her situation to a battle, if only a battle to stand by her man whatever he may do.

Nothing ahead of her but war, and she was ready and eager for it to start. She sat down again on the coil of rope and pleasured herself with the night. She sat and fed her senses with the light, the movement of the sea and the march of the stars across the sky. This was all hers until death if only she had the courage and the strength to hold it, and that she meant to do.

Hurston is one of those writers, like Willa Cather, whose work sits uneasily at the border of feminism—and nothing of hers I've read is AS uneasy at that border as Seraph on the Suwanee. As a person who believes submission and domination relationship models are inherently flawed, this is a challenging novel for me—not because I'm incapable of reading books that diverge from my personal ideology, but because I spent this reading unsure to what degree my concerns were or were not the concerns of this book. By focusing on the power dynamics of gender, am I a good reader or a bad one for Seraph on the Suwanee? I'm still not sure. But as usual, Hurston provides ample food for thought.

Louvre art books: Cy Twombly

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Today continues my series on a couple of the lovely Louvre-produced art books I picked up on my recent trip to France. As I wrote in my previous post on François Morellet's "L'esprit de l'escalier," both books are slim hardcovers edited by Louvre Contemporary Art Curator Marie-Laure Bernadac. Bernadac has included a helpful selection of supplementary material on each artist, including essays that speak to the place of each installation piece in the larger framework of the artist's oeuvre, and conducted interviews with both men about the conception and execution of their Louvre pieces. Today's book features Cy Twombly's ceiling mural, commissioned for the ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes Antiques. For some reason, possibly because Twombly is American, The Ceiling is presented as a bilingual English/French edition, whereas L'esprit de l'escalier is a French-only text. Since I stuck more or less to reading the English, and have a few extended quotes, I'll include them in Jennifer Kaku's "sanctioned" English translation only.


Cy Tombly: The Ceiling: Un plafond pour le Louvre

I think what first struck me about walking into the Salle des Bronzes Antiques and seeing Cy Tombly's ceiling there, was the seamless integration of the ancient with the thoroughly modern. No one would mistake Twombly's piece for anything but modern or contemporary, and yet it harmonizes so well, both with the Renaissance architecture of this room—in one of the oldest areas of the former palace—and the even older pieces being displayed in that room, which date from Greek and Roman antiquity. Indeed, in Twombly's interview with Marie-Laure Bernadac, he stresses that his primary aim in designing the ceiling was "to make something that was, above all, a response to this particular space," and that because of that, he approached the project differently than any of his other paintings: "I couldn't conceive of anything I did before as something that could be used for a ceiling." I wasn't familiar with Twombly's work before picking up this book, but after looking through a selection of his paintings I can see evidence of this different approach: even the mediterranean color scheme is a radical departure from his usual palette of greys, reds and beiges, and the calming, floating circles on a blue sky bear no obvious resemblance to his more famous style of all-over kinetic scrawls.

But one way in which the ceiling is of a piece with Twombly's oeuvre, is its integration of pieces of text into the visual whole, which is done in a way that stresses evocation, and imaginative work on the part of the viewer. He has many works that use a single name or poetic phrase—"Ovid," for example, or "Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor"—to evoke whole worlds of association in the mind of someone looking on. The ceiling works in a similar way, with the names of seven legendary Greek sculptors written around the edge of the piece in a style hinting at chiseled lettering. The relationship of Twombly's work with the art and literature of the past is one of the most intriguing aspects of it to me: other than the ceiling, I don't love his aesthetic, but I do enjoy thinking about the evocative power of names and literary fragments. Twombly himself, in a comment that reminds me of Faulkner, says

The past is a springboard for me. I get the impulse and excitement from the subject of the work. And then painting gives you a rush to do it in the way you do it. Anything interesting has a life of its own, like most aesthetic and creative things. Ancient things are new things. Everything lives in the moment, that's the only time it can live. But its influence can go on forever.

"Ancient things are new things": concisely and appealingly said. When we encounter some ages-old artifact that resonates with us, we're not seeing simply an object that was left behind centuries ago and ceased to interact with the world, but the repository of a whole set of histories that stretch from the date of its original construction (or, often, from before that) all the way up to our own times. And, in addition, we bring all our own associations to to object, and (to borrow from Wordsworth) those associations "half-create" the object we see. So that the name "Virgil," dropped into the void, conjures up images, not only of the Roman author of the Eclogues and the Aeneid, but also, depending on the hearer, the long history of European classical education, young boarding-school boys with book-straps and short pants, memorizing verses by rote and playing pranks on each other in chapel; and then possibly, for example, Virginia Woolf's novella Jacob's Room and the way in which its protagonists use Latinate words and Classical quotations to demonstrate their affection for each other, and Jacob's real-life model Thoby Stephen, the golden boy dead of typhoid at 26 while touring Greece, and so on and so forth. For someone else, the set of associations will be completely different. But If we don't bring our own associations or in some way imaginatively recreate the path from past to present, the object will likely not resonate with us at all and will seem a dry, lifeless lump of material. The ceiling uses this power of evocation to place seven legendary sculptors in the context of the Mediterranean modernism of the piece—but also in the context of the pieces on display in the Salle des Bronzes Antiques, which, as Richard Leeman points out in his essay on Twombly, does not actually contain any sculpture by the artists named:

And yet, quite paradoxically, this "room of the bronzes" does not contain any works by the sculptors referred to by Twombly, and the objects—rings, bracelets, fibulas, mirrors, vases, etc.—and sculptures that it does contain are, in fact, anonymous. Thus, between the names that embody, in Twombly's sky, the essence of sculpture and the very real objects and sculptures to which no name on earth is attached, there is a kind of optical illusion—which is in itself very Platonic. One of the reasons there are no works by the sculptors named by Twombly is that, in reality, very little remains of their sculptures. What we know about them comes either from copies or from literature: Description of Greece by Pausamias, for example, or Pliny the Elder's Natural History. This is precisely one of the effects of the "nominalist glory" that Barthes wrote about, once again, with regard to Twombly's names: language makes it possible to evoke what is not there or what is no longer there, and, in particular, famous works that exist only in name, in description, or in copy.

So interesting! By naming sculptors whose work is no longer extant, Twombly is exaggerating the phenomenon of evocation: there is no sculpture we moderns can look at, so the legends and associations are all that remain. In addition, though, the contrast between the named sculptors in the absence of the objects they made, and the displayed objects in the absence of named sculptors, creates such an appealing mirror image and brings the whole room together as a cohesive installation. I love that my first and final impressions of the work are similar to one another: raw gut reaction and intellectual analysis both stress the integration of the room as a work of art.

Louvre art books: François Morellet

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I was feeling a bit under the weather after a long weekend of festivities relating to my cousin's wedding, so figured it would be an ideal time to peruse some of the lovely art books I picked up in France. These two titles, François Morellet: L'esprit de l'escalier and Cy Tombly: The Ceiling, are matching Louvre-produced editions that focus on installation pieces commissioned by the Louvre from contemporary artists, and incorporated into the architecture of the museum. (I wrote about seeing both these pieces back in May.) Both books are slim, handsome little hardcovers, appealingly produced, with fold-out pages depicting the featured pieces and a nice selection of supplementary text and images, including brief historical essays about the history of the spaces in which the pieces are installed. Both editions are edited by, and feature interviews with, the Louvre's Curator and Special Advisor on Contemporary Art, Marie-Laure Bernadac. I'll be posting on the first of these today, and the second tomorrow or the next day.


François Morellet: L'esprit de l'escalier

I suspected as soon as I saw the playfully modern leaded-glass windows in the bays of the Lefuel staircase, that I would appreciate the sense of humor of their creator, and this volume only confirmed that suspicion. Morellet comes off in his interview, and in the other works of his I've seen, as a witty, unorthodox person, the first to poke fun at himself along with the institutions and assumptions of the art world. When Bernadac asks him whether he, a self-professed auto-didact, frequented the Louvre as a young man, he exclaims "Voilà la question que je redoutais!" ("The question I was dreading!"), and goes on to explain that, in his youthful rebellion, the Louvre seemed to him a bastion of stuffy authority, a place teachers told him to go rather than one he chose to frequent. It was only later that he discovered inspirational geometry and repetition in the museum's collection of Pacific Islander Art. (He finds the same qualities inspiring in the Islamic and Moorish art of the Alhambra and the Middle East).

Morellet's interest in geometry and repetition leads to an interesting exchange about the (in many ways arbitrary) division between "fine arts" and "decorative arts," which as a textile artist is always an interesting conversation to me. Morellet says that

[U]ne oeuvre qui est considérée par le spectateur comme vide de tout message, qu'il soit clair, occulte ou inconscient et qui d'autre part, circonstance aggravante, ne porte aucun trace des précieuses imperfections de la réalisation manuelle n'aura pas le droit d'entrer dans le monde des "beaux arts." Elle sera reléguée dans la section "art décoratif," qui a ses propes écoles et ses propres musées. [...] D'ailleurs, apparaît une autre raison de ne pas admettre ces oeuvres dans la catégorie "beaux-arts," c'est-à-dire la grande place laissée à la géométrie, à la logique, aux systèmes..., c'est-à-dire à ce qui s'approcherait un peu de ce que l'on nomme bêtement l'intelligence.
[A] work that the viewer perceives to be empty of any message, be it obvious, concealed, or unconscious, and in addition—aggravating circumstance—does not bear any trace of the precious imperfections of hand-production, will not be accorded the right of entry into the world of "fine arts." It will be relegated to the "decorative arts" section, which has its own schools and its own museums. [...] For that matter, there is another reason not to admit these works into the "fine arts" category, which is the importance accorded in them to geometry, to logic, to systems..., that is to say, to areas approaching that which we stupidly call intelligence.

This aversion to thinking of the fine arts (visual arts, at least) as averse to "intelligence" is an interesting point, and probably connected with the widespread desire to see "art" as the product of some kind of miraculous god-given inspiration or instinct, rather than as a craftsmanly process requiring thought and practice as well as intuition. Fabric-printing and book-binding, though—people are fine with the idea of those as originating in the human realm. Morellet blurs these lines, being considered a fine artist but working primarily in the realms of logic, geometry, and humor, rather than in any kind of confessional style.

So too, Morellet has interesting things to say about permanence and deliberate anachronism. The "L'esprit de l'escalier" windows are executed with a leaded-glass technique that originated in the middle ages; this medieval technique is used to superimpose a skewed version of the 19th-century grillwork that already existed in the windows. Adding another temporal layer to the mix, the entire piece was planned in 2008 and executed in 2009. Morellet says that this mélange of eras "pleases him greatly," and I can only agree—the windows become a palimpsest of different artistic traditions, which is very fitting considering their placement in the world's foremost bastion of Western art. He goes on to say that many of his installation pieces have been time-limited, which contrasts with the permanent quality of "L'esprit de l'escalier." He makes the point, though, that so-called permanence is often anything but: of the hundred or so "permanent" installations he's done, the majority have already been swept out of existence. Not that this is a new observation ("My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings," etc.), but it is a striking figure: over half the "permanent" works of a living artist no longer exist. It makes a person think a bit differently about artists whose work is explicitly ephemeral; perhaps they're simply more realistic about the final fate of all works of art.

Lastly, I was ticked by Morellet's thoughts on creating for a select audience rather than le "grand public." He says that he likes his installation pieces to be discreet, almost secret, only perceptible to the small number of people who are attuned to his work.

De toute façon j'essaye pour ces intégrations, surtout si elles se trouvent dans des lieux très tréquentés par un public non spécialisé, de rester discret et idéalement de n'être visible que pour mon cher public un peu spécialisé.
Anyway, I try with these integrations, especially if they're located in places frequented by a non-specialized public, to keep them discreet and ideally invisible to everyone except my dear, particular public.

My translation isn't great—there's no sense that Morellet's ideal audience is a group of specialists in the professional sense, just that he wants to make art that is a bit low-profile, so that only people prone to delighting in details and appreciating his sense of humor will notice them, and everyone else can go about their business unmolested. This is an idea I love—that of a piece of art hidden in plain view, appreciated by those who take the time to notice it. A "specialized" audience need not be an elite one—indeed, Morellet himself is self-educated, and there is nothing about "L'esprit de l'escalier" that privileges classical education. Rather, it selects for a group of people who may be disparate in other ways, but who appreciate a subtle, humorous skewing of the expected norms. Morellet is an artist for whose work I will continue to look out.

Les mouches (The flies)


Once, when I was enrolled in a Victorian Literature class in college, reading novel after essay after poem that grieved deeply over the religious upheaval brought on by the scientific breakthroughs of Charles Darwin and others, I asked my professor whether there weren't any 19th-century authors who felt liberated, rather than bereft, by these developments. As a profoundly a-religious person myself, I can try to imagine myself into the position of Arnold, Tennyson, Ruskin and others, who either grieved the loss of, or struggled to reconcile, their Christian beliefs with new geological and biological evidence. (Though I have trouble understanding the objection to a metaphorical reading of the Bible, which would seem to tie up all these problems with a neat little ribbon). But I would have thought that some 19th-century writers would embrace the demise of the god-concept and welcome a life of intellectual freedom and self-determination. My professor thought a while and then said yes, there were those writers, but that we wouldn't be reading Nietzsche in this class.

Nor have I read him since. But Jean-Paul Sartre's Les mouches (The Flies), an existentialist re-telling of the murder of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra at the hands of Orestes and Electra, comes close to what I was looking for back then, despite not having been written until 1943. Sartre takes the classical Greek tale, in which Orestes returns from his exile and is egged on by his long-lost sister Electra to avenge their father's death by killing their mother and her lover, and turns it into a parable about the changeable reality of gods in human lives, the role of remorse, and the power of free will. Having just read Anne Carson's translation of Sophocles's Orestes, the contrast was particularly clear in my mind between the crushing inevitability of the characters' fates in Sophocles, and the clarity with which Sartre's Orestes freely creates his own destiny.

There are other differences. In Sartre, we see the effects of Clytemnestra's and Aegisthos's crime on the regular citizens of Argos. The common people share in their rulers' guilt—something that feels alien to the royalty-centric worlds of Aeschylus, but very appropriate to a France of 1943, in which citizens had to decide whether to support the Resistance or collaborate with the fascist Vichy regime. Fifteen years before the play's action, Clytemnestra and Aegisthos murdered Agamemnon (Argos's king, Clytemnestra's husband), but were immediately seized with horrified remorse at their action. This remorse has taken over their lives and their style of ruling, becoming the ruling cult of Argos. As Electra tells her disguised brother,

[L]a reine se divertit à notre jeu national: le jeu des confessions publiques. Ici, chacun crie ses péchés à la face de tous; et il n'est pas rare, aux jours feriés, de voir quelque commerçant, après avoir baissé le rideau de fer de sa boutique, se traîner sur les genoux dans les rues, frottant ses cheveux de poussière et hurlant qu'il est un assassin, un adultère ou un prévaricateur. Mais les gens d'Argos commencent à se blaser: chacun connaît par coeur les crimes des autres; ceux de la reine en particulier n'amusent plus personne, ce sont des crimes officiels, des crimes de fondation, pour ainsi dire. Je te laisse à penser sa joie lorsqu'elle t'a vu, tout jeune, tout neuf, ignorant jusqu'à son nom: quelle occasion exceptionelle! Il lui semble qu'elle se confesse pour la première fois.
The queen is just amusing herself at our national game: the game of public confessions. Here, everyone shouts their sins in each others' faces; and it's not rare, on feast days, to see some merchant, having closed up shop, crawling on his knees through the streets, rubbing dirt into his hair and yelling that he's an assassin, an adulterer, or a liar. But the people of Argos are starting to get bored. Everyone knows everyone else's crimes by heart; the crimes of the queen, in particular, no longer interest anyone, they're official crimes, founding crimes so to speak. I'll leave you to imagine her joy when she saw you, young and new, not even knowing her name: what an extraordinary opportunity! It feels to her like she's confessing for the first time.

Thus the guilt and penitence of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra have become the dominant characteristic of the entire society—everyone is defined by their misdeeds, and are forever trying to leech some kind of absolution out of everyone else—a vicious spiral that becomes more and more insular and stagnant as time goes on, as symbolized by the plagues of flies that infest the city. The big national fête, for example, involves twenty-four hours of heightened fear and remorse for the citizens of Argos, as a priest moves a boulder away from a cave entrance, and Aegisthos declares that the city's dead have returned from the underworld. (Whether or not the dead actually have returned is a point of contention among the citizens, highlighted by a darkly funny conversation between two guards about whether the dead flies return on this night, or only the dead humans.) Jupiter, god of flies, death, and decay, rules over Argos, feeding on the back-looking contrition of its citizens, and he often demonstrates his vested interest in keeping the Argos people enchained.

Into this pit of recreational remorse steps Orestes, reared in privilege away from Argos and only recently informed of his parentage. Until now he has had no real ties, wandering the world at liberty, belonging to no one and with no one belonging to him. The central conflict of the play, then, involves Orestes's inner struggle over how to claim ownership over his ancestral past, not having shared his sister's years of servitude and hatred, and whether he can or should act to break the cycle of fear and remorse in Argos. In Sartre's hands his eventual murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos becomes a declaration of independence, a unique, freely-chosen action, over which Orestes takes full ownership and for which he refuses all regret. The furies, who in classical Greek tragedy haunt Orestes to madness after he murders his mother, are here sent by Jupiter as partisan beings who attempt to bully him into remorse—and must fall back when they see that he does not fear them, or regret his action.

It's such an interesting take on the story, because if I were to choose any era of literature that inclined least toward an expression of free will, I would probably choose ancient Greek tragedy. In a way, Sartre himself accomplishes something similar to Orestes's coup in overthrowing the dominant worldview in Argos: just like the people of Argos have believed for years that they are defined by the confession of their sins, the tellers of this story have always believed that the events therein were fore-ordained and controlled by the gods. For Sartre, however, as Jupiter unwillingly admits,

Quand une fois la liberté a explosé dans une âme d'homme, les Dieux ne peuvent plus rien contre cet homme-là. Car c'est une affaire d'hommes, et c'est aux autres hommes—à eux seuls—qu'il appartient de le laisser courir ou de l'étrangler.
When once freedom has burst into the soul of a man, the Gods have no power to act against him. Because he's now a human affair, and it's up to other men—to them alone—to let him run or to strangle him.

I've hardly mentioned Electra at all here, but Sartre's depiction of her was another unique feature of Les mouches, and the only part of this play that was a bit disappointing to me. In Sophocles and Euripedes (I haven't read Aeschylus's version of events after Agamemnon's death), Electra is if anything the stronger, more vengeful, more obsessive sibling, the one who never falters in her quest to see her mother dead and her father avenged. She is the one who cares for Orestes after the murders are done, the one less affected by the furies. In Sartre this dynamic is reversed: although Electra initially desires Orestes to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthos, she recoils when faced with the reality of the deed. In the end she can't resist the pull of the remorse-cult on which she was raised, fleeing back into the killing arms of Jupiter. It's an effective choice, I think, and I understand why Sartre worked in this contrast between brother and sister, but I was still a tad bit disappointed not to encounter the blazing, defiant Electra I have come to expect.

All in all, though, another fascinating foray into existential theater, and a rare opportunity to see enacted a celebration of human self-determination, even when that self-determination is difficult and morally ambiguous.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography