Regular readers will know that I’ve a long standing interest in the work of controversial artist Paul McCarthy. I’ve written about his pre-FIAC Paris installation over at The Conversation. Here you go.
Artists working against the backdrop of modernity have been preoccupied with cruelty. The target of this cruelty is consistently displaced from artwork to artwork. In can be the artist himself as in Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) a performance piece which saw Burden shot at close range in his upper arm by an assistant wielding a .22 calibre rifle. Cruelty can be directed towards an audience as in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) where the viewer’s desire for vicarious bloody violence is fulfilled, over-fulfilled and ultimately laughed at. A work of art can also be cruel with regards to its represented subject as Sade’s gleeful exploitation of his fantasies in a work such as Les 120 journées de Sodom (1785) or the seemingly offhand racism and misogyny of characters in Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules élémentaires (1998) demonstrates.
Maggie Nelson’s long, thoughtful text is an intensely personal attempt to get to the bottom of, to fully understand what is at stake when we talk about cruelty. Her approach, scholarly but still immensely readable, is somewhat more sympathetic than her more reactionary forebears. Paul Virilio, for example, in La Procedure silence (2000) over-simplistically described the output of the contemporary art world into two mutually-exclusive hemispheres: “pitiless” art, concerned with cynically exploiting art’s capacity to shock, and “pitiful” which evokes a degree of compassion for its subjects. For Virilio, who cites the work of the Viennese Actionists and the Young British Artists as evidence of such “pitiless” cruelty, the majority of contemporary artistic output falls into the former category, which excludes any redemptive pity. Whilst the art she considers could fall into Virilio’s category of “pitiless”, Nelson’s approach is far subtler, taking what she sees as the full complexities of cruelty into consideration: it might not necessarily exclude the “pitiful”. This book is an attempt to get a deeper appreciation of cruelty as artistic method by not dismissing it offhand, but rather by working with it and evaluating the legitimacy of such an approach. Indeed, Nelson suggests that her real aim in The Art of Cruelty might not only to be getting to the bottom of cruelty at all, positing that her real goal may be to get a greater insight into compassion, cruelty’s “far enemy” (p. 8). In such a way, whilst Nelson’s aim is frequently to investigate the bloody, the offensive, even the appalling, her approach is characterised by a clear optimism, a consideration of where the value really lies within the artworks under consideration.
The “reckoning” of the book’s title is, then, less a conclusive settling of scores than a critical consideration from all possible angles. As Nelson is quick to admit, this highly subjective approach is not always productive; she doesn’t have all of the answers. This refreshing honesty lends a slightly elliptical edge to the text: by embracing the cruelty of the artworks she discusses Nelson isn’t always immediately able to suggest clear conclusions. Discussing the work of American artist William Pope.L, which frequently explores identity issues affecting black American males, Nelson admits, “[…] this says something. What on earth it says, I have no idea. I like it, though, because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why” (p. 204). Such inconclusive conclusions are not unequivocally a bad thing, and, whilst it could prove frustrating for readers looking for immediate answers, who might be better served by Virilio’s text, are certainly preferable to disingenuously forcing a critical position. The ambiguous response is, as The Art of Cruelty argues, a valid one.
Nelson’s overall stance is most coherently articulated in the closing pages of the text. Rather than looking to take sides for or against cruelty within art, Nelson proposes a third way: “[…], a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things” (p. 269). In an age driven by snap media-fuelled judgements of a predominantly anti-intellectual mainstream where one is forced to assume a false position ‘for’ or ‘against’ art, arguing for the right to make an enlightened choice, to turn away, walk out, or close the book. Nelson’s approach is inspired by critic Roland Barthes’ late work on neutrality which proposes a less confrontational critical position. Nelson errs consistently on the side of thinking and making informed choices; filing the book on a high shelf rather than burning it, her text is thus an assertion of what she sees as the empowering potential of neutrality.
That’s not to say, however, that Nelson’s work is necessarily opposed to cruelty per se. Rather she seeks to provide a challenge to what she describes as of the dominant principles of the twentieth century avant-garde, the roots of which she traces to Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’. Nelson’s target is the assumption, which she describes, recalling the military strategy of obliteration of the enemy as “shock and awe” art, that artistic cruelty is somehow a therapeutic response to the alienated subject in society. She challenges the notion that art, through shock or violence, has the capacity to provide the individual with access to a higher or transcendent truth. Nelson quotes Haneke’s memorable, if abhorrent, description of the process of “raping the viewer into independence” (p. 4). There are, for Nelson, different shades of cruelty, and the subtlety with which she reveals the spectrum of cruelty is the true value of this text. Nelson’s analysis seeks to articulate a use-value for cruelty, to ascertain when it can be truly artistic or valid approach and moves beyond the shock, the point Virilio’s analysis stops. She is sceptical of works that claim to reveal or impose truths, instead aligning herself with artworks that provide new ways of seeing or understanding the predicament of the contemporary subject. Through reference to the work of RD Laing she describes such art as “works that give clear pictures of these knots or binds, rather than those that hope to offer a map out of them” (p. 11). Acceptable cruelty for Nelson, whilst it may be intensely visceral, is primarily intellectually enlightening rather than cynical, mindless or idiotic. Nelson formulates it as art:
“[…] which dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberties with, or at least pokes fun at the avant-garde’s long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence – be in in art or political action – might deliver us, through some never-proven miracle, to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative, and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow human beings” (p. 265)
This is at odds with the predominant culture of idiocy, or an “idiocracy”, “[…] in which low-grade pleasures (such as the capacity to buy cheap goods, pay low or no taxes, carry guns into Starbucks, and maintain the right not to help one another) displace all other forms of freedom, even those of the most transformative and profound variety” (p. 30) [Author’s italics]. Whilst Nelson’s text offers a study of the cultural field, there is much more at stake; her text consistently brushes with the societal implications of the observations she makes.
Nelson’s text is rich in its examples of artistic cruelty, both redeemable and otherwise. Her analysis, however, recognises that her examples can be viewed from either perspective. The visual work of Francis Bacon and the poems of Sylvia Plath are repeatedly explored and problematised, with Nelson, in both cases highlighting how the cruelty of their work has aspects which can be viewed in terms of both their brutal horror and the insight their work provides. As an example of idiot or purely thoughtless cruelty, Nelson posits cynical cinematic “torture porn” such as Roland Joffé’s fillm Captivity (2007).
One of Nelson’s most pertinent observations is the association she makes throughout the text between cruelty and clarity, citing Artaud, she asserts, “cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination” (p. 6). Her cruelty is one that stimulates thought; whether the starting point takes the form of physical violence or presents its viewer with complex truths and provocative questions, articulated by Nelson as the “brutality of fact”. Indeed a consistent thread running through Nelson’s text is a consideration of the legitimacy of the apocryphal equating of kindness with cruelty. Redeemably cruel art is, for Nelson, that which, whilst it may contain a certain shock value, cuts through the superfluous, discovering, if not truth, then alternative discourses, or another side to what is presented as truth by dominant discourse. As an example from within society Nelson cites the activity of the Yes Men, an activist group which launches media hoaxes to draw attention to the duplicity of corporate discourse. In 2004, the group, claiming to be representatives of the Dow Chemical company, gave a BBC interview revealing a $12 billion compensation payout for the 120,000 victims of the Union Carbide pesticide gas leak in India. This duplicitous declaration forced the genuine Dow to publicly re-assert its position that it “still had no intention of helping the people of Bhopal, or of detoxifying their land” (p. 158). The chemical company branded the Yes Men’s stunt “cruel”, illustrating the true ambiguity of the world; where does the real cruelty lie? In the stunt or with the chemical company? Similarly, Plath’s poems, albeit on a more intensely personal level evoke a poetic brutality, she wields not only a “scimitar of clarity” (p. 262), but the “meticulously coiled internal rhymes and consonance” of her poems are described as razor blades (p. 218).
In Plath’s case of course, given her ultimate suicide, these blades also prefigure very real self-harm. This metaphor, the linking of the act of incision to perform a search for latent truths or nihilistically demonstrating the fact that no such truth exists, has itself been consistently reformulated in the work of transgressive visual artists. It is characteristic, for example of the work of Damien Hirst whose 1993 work Mother and Child Divided comprised a bisected cow and calf and placed in gallery vitrines filled with his trademark formaldehyde. It equally calls to mind the performances of musicians such as GG Allin and Iggy Pop, known for their on-stage self-mutilation, cutting themselves in front of an audience to heavy rock soundtracks. As her example, Nelson selects, the work in the 1960s of the Viennese Actionists whose films of their “actions” from the period feature: “[…] multiple forms of mutilation, beatings, penetrations and bloodletting” (p. 21), and whose later work such as “actionist” Hermann Nitsch’s Six-Day Play (1997) has continued this spirit but within the context of performed rituals designed to explore and even create the mythic.
This relationship between art and truth is particularly pressing for Nelson’s consideration of the links between art and extremity. Nelson makes a clear distinction between an older generation of artists, such as Nitsch, who seek to use ritualised transgression at the centre of their art as a way of exploring or uncovering truth, and a younger generation epitomised by tRyan Trecartin whose work, which all plays out within the hyperreality of his videos suggests, and even celebrates, the impossibility of transcending the media spectacle to find any such truth. Nelson’s response to the ‘canonical’ trangressors, such as the Actionists and their theoretical forebears Nietzsche and Bataille, is pleasingly iconoclastic, and is not adverse to ridicule; Bataille and Nietzsche are criticised for the implicit misogyny of their work, whilst the supposedly provocative work of the Actionists is frequently held up as pompous, mindlessly offensive or just worthy of being laughed at.
Indeed laughter is posited by Nelson as an important and, as she argues, a valid response to “shock and awe”. The pantomime qualities of Nitsch, Sade and Bacon’s work, their tendency, intentional or otherwise to provoke laughter, are repeatedly noted by Nelson. Laughter is for Nelson a legitimate response to extreme art, particularly when that art is po-faced and dictatorially performed in the name of enlightenment. Laughter as response, however, can naturally be misconstrued as dismissive or inappropriate as with the case, which generated a media-led furore and recounted here, of a group of adolescents who responded in that way during a screening of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
Legitimate laughter as opposed to mocking derision as a response to artistic extremity is a novel consideration, as is Nelson’s interest in the spaces around the video screens in an installation of Paul McCarthy’s gory and gloriously anarchic Caribbean Pirates (2001-2005) rather than the on-screen action. Nelson’s work is most interesting when it takes a similarly tangential or unorthodox approach to its object of study. The notion of brutal honesty, in the form of “right speech” (p. 155) is also a key component of Buddhist ethics and Nelson’s analytical position in The Art Of Cruelty is informed as was Barthes’ work by Eastern thought systems. Indeed, the metaphor of incision considered above can be extended through the Zen notion of swordsmanship (pp. 207-208). This is particularly relevant from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism where, for example, the Bodhisattva Manjushri is often depicted with a flaming sword. Nelson notes: “[i]ts task is to keep slicing through all of the ways in which we attempt to hold onto a sense of solid ground, all the ways in which we resist the fundamental impermanence of all things” (p. 209). In a way, the Buddhist approach is in itself transgressive encouraging, as it does, a perspective which strives to allow the individual subject to cut through the superfluous within experience, to move beyond the discourses and desires generated by contemporary society to find neutral balance and in so doing discover the innate fluidity of truth, rather than higher or imposed truth. This is the same role that Nelson appears to cast for her artistic form of compassionate cruelty which gives an insight into man’s predicament, rather than forcing a solution. Transgressive Buddhism is just as violent to our notion of reality as the works of Bacon or Plath, but this violence differs in terms of its practicality, offering a direct possibility that our perception can be changed rather than offering an experience that remains within the cultural.
Nelson also makes a number of valuable ethical observations relating to complicity and the key role played by our consent with regards to extreme art; more specifically the consent a gallery goer, audience member or reader gives to be shocked by a piece of art. She observes, for example, that there is a fundamental difference between the way we respond to literature, where the mind is frequently fully imaginatively engaged in the production of a text’s effect, producing emotional feelings of guilt and collusion, whilst an ‘assault’, felt as a shock most frequently comes via an explicit visual image. There is additionally an undercurrent of politics to Nelson’s work, arguing that the contemporary US climate (Nelson is an American, writing in America) notably propagated by the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush administration can arguably be defined in terms of its cruelty.
Nelson’s exploration of cruelty also has implications for the role we expect art to play within society. For all of The Art of Cruelty’s insistence on art that crosses boundaries, the corpus of Nelson’s study, why it does on occasion refer to mainstream cinema and TV (such as the series 24), is broadly confined to the intellectual worlds of literature and art, which the vast majority of her examples are drawn from the world of so-called high art. Despite her compassionate intent, Nelson explicitly turns a blind eye to what she terms (p. 10) “stupid cruelty”, the targets of whom are arguably most eagerly in need of a compassionate response. “Stupid cruelty” for Nelson is “misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia [and] racist norms”. The sad fact is that “stupid” or ignorant cruelty is a dominant force within contemporary society, certainly more of a force than the redeemably cruel art that Nelson advocates in her book. The rise of social media has, for example, seen the regrettable rise of “trolling” with individuals deliberately looking to provoke or shock the sensibilities of others with upsetting Tweets or blog posts. Equally, the worldwide phenomenon of reality TV where candidates are subjected to humiliation after humiliation for the dubious honour of ‘celebrity’ and the monomaniacal outpourings of Fox News or the Daily Mail are symptoms of a world where cruelty is a particularly pressing issue. The Art of Cruelty is an impressive attempt to delve into the implications of a dominant artistic trend. A fully compassionate study of cruelty will, however, be one that gets to grips with, and perhaps offers a way out of the stranglehold it has throughout society.
It’s been about eighteen years since I last went to a heavy metal gig. Even back then I was more interested in the relatively mainstream output of Metallica, Sepultura and the (still) hilariously-named Pantera. Unsurprising, then, that I was a feeling a little trepidation, maybe even slightly scared as I dithered outside the Divan du Monde for a gig by Mayhem, ready to investigate the darkest realms of the genre: Black Metal. Back in the mid 1990s, I’d only really flirted with the dark side, leering fascinatedly at the pages of Kerrang! which detailed the exploits of the band which, along with Burzum, came to represent the radical Norwegian scene. Mayhem became notorious for their extreme brutalist metal, having pigs’ heads on sticks onstage, wearing corsepaint, making sinister declarations and liberal use of Satanic imagery. There is more than just a whiff of the macabre about Mayhem: they are best known for their off-stage behaviour: the very real-life suicide of their original singer, the appropriately-named Dead, and for their guitarist Euronymous’s murder by Burzum’s mainman Varg Vikernes.
Now, I’m old, but curious and (mostly) without fear, I’ve been recently revisiting my old interests in metal, as part of a broader appreciation of sonic extremity. I thought an intimate gig by the black metal legends, generally associated with slots at Eastern European enormo-fests, on their thirtieth anniversary tour was an opportunity not to be missed. I temporarily put my rabid objections to some of the members’ abhorrent comments to media over the years (more of which later), to one side to see what the appeal was and dive headlong into the black void. Loitering on the pavement outside the venue, however, and watching the motley assortment of black leather-clad metal heads, mostly unsmiling and including a fair number of really sinister looking fuckers, traipse into the venue, I was having my fair share of second thoughts. Not the least of these was down to feeling massively underdressed. I’ve never been known for my sartorial elegance, but I thought sporting a specially-purchased Mayhem t-shirt underneath my tatty anorak was going to be enough to let me pass under the radar. How wrong I was, once I shuffled into the already packed venue, I became aware that I stuck out like, well, a university lecturer at a Black Metal gig.
The venue was also part of the appeal. I’d last been to the Divan du Monde for a sparsely attended gig in what must have been 1999, but back then I hadn’t known that the venue was originally known as the Brasserie des Martyrs, a popular drinking spot for the mighty French poet Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, lest we forget, was a highly scandalous figure, perhaps most famously for his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) which is liberally and intentionally provocative, blasphemous, anti-Christian and makes liberal use of darkly Satanic imagery. It is highly appropriate, then, that Mayhem, who do all of the above in their art, are strutting in exactly the same space as their poetic forebear. Le Divan du Monde has been renovated since my last trip, but is now a pretty place, too pretty for the black metal hordes, and has been re-done in a post-colonial style. There is a pretty shallow irony in the interior design, since the décor features busts of exoticized black slave characters, gazing down from the upper balcony. Mayhem’s drummer, Jan Axel ‘Hellhammer’ Blomberg, is on record as saying that ‘Black metal is for white people’. Statements such as these deserve, of course, to be treated with wholehearted contempt. While the venue’s décor is crass and nostalgically twee, comments such as those from ‘Hellhammer’ are acutely damaging and idiotic but deserve repeated mention. Highly inappropriately, and more amusingly, for a black metal public no doubt raised on strong cider, animal blood and freshly-roasted human sacrifices, the bar had a special offer on glasses of house white Vouvray.
The bill promised ‘Mayhem and Merrimack’ which, quite frankly, sounded more like an Incredible String Band song title or a folk dancing troupe rather than an evening of evil entertainment, latently racist or otherwise. French black metallers Merrimack were first up. It was a solid example of the genre: they were loud; it was ugly; the complex guitar parts and the drums appear to be going in radically diverse directions and the singer, who had the filthiest hair imaginable, half screamed-half barked his way through the songs as expected. The band made liberal use of corpsepaint, which was pleasing to see. I’d have been disappointed if there hadn’t been any in evidence tonight. There is, though, a pretty good reason why grown men are generally wary of face painting – despite the very clear temptation, you rarely see anyone post pubescent queuing up for the make-up artist at church fetes or village hall events. The reason, of which Merrimack are a sorry example, is the unhappy relationship between face paint and facial hair. You never see photos of Baudelaire with stubble – was it, one wonders, to facilitate the corpsepaint?
While Merrimack pressed all the right black metal buttons musically, they were also a shining example of a key problematic of the genre. The big bloody (corpsepainted or not) elephant in the room when it comes to Black Metal and, one suspects, metal more broadly is that it is also deeply, frequently hilariously, absurd, an absurdity that also often spills over into laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. There was a moment near the end of Merrimack’s set where all the guitarists stood at the front of the stage in formation, each one foot on the monitor à la Nigel Tufnell, and I actually found myself stifling a giggle. It is just this ridiculousness that is symptomatic of the genre and, for all of its po-faced seriousness and offensive media comments, is naturally tempting to question just how seriously the BM practitioners take it. I suspect the answer, is very seriously. I’m reminded, for example, of how Mayhem bassist and founder, the hilariously named Necrobutcher, responded on having his band described as ‘the Village People in hell’ by journalist John Doran. For all of the songs about death, murder, Satan and suicide, there is indeed something deeply pantomime about Mayhem that seems to undercut the seriousness: Hellhammer’s oversized drum kit/cage, for example, which comes in bigger than many Parisian apartments and (probably for the best in the light of his comments) completely obscures the drummer from sight; the fact the merch-stand sells Mayhem-branded ‘sexy’ knickers and the stern hyper-seriousness of the guitarists Charles (ex-Cradle of Filth) Hedger and Teloch who flanked the stage, one unsmiling, the other actually wearing a monk’s cowl but you can bet he wasn’t grinning like a crazy man underneath.
That said, for all of their absurdity, Mayhem certainly pack a significant punch live. Paris audiences have a reputation for being somewhat staid, but there was a genuine buzz around the venue as the lights dimmed and the band’s traditional entrance music, Silvester Anfang, actually composed for the band by Tangerine Dream’s Conrad Schnitzler, kicked off before they raced into Pagan Fears, arguably the standout track from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994). Happily, the band played a smattering of tracks from this album, also arguably their best, as well as from the semi-legendary Deathcrush EP (1987) alongside less impactful and more generic tracks from their more recent work, including the most recent Esoteric Warfare (2014).
The centre of the Mayhem circus is undoubtedly vocalist Attila Csihar, who has both a presence and a vocal range that transcends the genre and keeps the band from lapsing completely into pantomime. Indeed, it is pretty much exclusively the presence of the Hungarian Csihar, a respected vocal artist in his own right and soon to release his debut solo album, that makes Mayhem a compelling live proposition. I’d even go as far as saying that his presence, here dressed as a blood-splattered ancient Pagan priest and carrying a human skull and doing his distinctive brand of Black Metal voguing, in at least some small way rebuilds at least a small part of the band’s credibility following Hellhammer’s offensive offstage comments. His performance – vocally and theatrically – for the iconic My Death – as he stalked the stage swinging a noose was, aside from the opening track, a highlight of the evening. He certainly provided a more credible counterpoint to Necrobutcher, oafishly swigging from a bottle of champagne and moronically introducing a song by declaring ‘This song is for your girlfriend….she’s a WHORE!’. C’mon, Necro.
In short, Mayhem are a tight and impressively marshalled band but without Csihar’s presence, I’m not sure they’d have sustained my interest for the duration of the set, right up until traditional set closer Pure Fucking Armageddon. For all the dark trappings, the music is at best not much more than a very heavy punk. For me there is, as Spinal Tap memorably declared, a fine line between ‘stupid’ and ‘clever’, and this is exactly the line that Mayhem seem to walk and, despite the best efforts of their frontman, repeatedly stumble over. As my journey into the dark heart of rock continues, I suspect this will be a recurrent trend.
Regular readers of Urban Landfill might be interested to know that I’ve been reviewing books for the Independent on Sunday recently.
My piece on Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo can be found here.
I also recently reviewed Decoded by the Chinese writer Mai Jia, here.
Slightly less recently, I wrote about Régis Jauffret’s Severe, here.
A recent piece on Laurent Garnier for the Times Literary Supplement is here (but you’ll need to pay).
Virginie Despentes first achieved notoriety on the French literary scene with 1994’s Baise-Moi, a feminist rape-and-revenge tale that sparked controversy for its blend of graphic sex and comic book violence. Since then, her novels have frequently packed a similarly visceral adrenaline-fuelled punch. Her literary ‘manifesto’, King Kong Théorie (2006), clarified her approach: she writes from the ‘outside’ to subvert the white, pretty, submissive, skinny, maternal, female media stereotype. She writes for the ugly, the undesirable and the unhappy: ‘toutes les exclues du grand marché à la bonne meuf’. Given such a commitment to the marginal, it is perhaps surprising that Apocalypse Baby was awarded the high-profile, and conservative, prix Renaudot in 2010. This mainstream acceptance does not, however, reflect any diminishment in her power to provoke. The uncompromising social vision that has made Despentes such a distinctive voice within contemporary French fiction is still here, but is tightly woven into a highly-readable narrative.
Apocalypse Baby showcases Despentes’ oft overlooked ability to tell a story. It has a fast-paced and compelling detective plot at its heart. Lucie, the first-person narrator and private investigator, is trailing Valentine, a troubled rich teenager, when the latter disappears. Given the chance to make amends, Lucie teams up with the enigmatic, ‘mythical’ and sexually-charged ‘Hyena’ to track her down. As the search intensifies, the reader is drawn from bourgeois Paris on a road trip to the non-conformist squats of Barcelona. The journey takes in many of the hallmarks of Despentes liminal literary world: sweaty punk gigs, graphic lesbian sex, liberal drug use and underground anti-capitalist groups. Sentences are short and make liberal use of coarse contemporary argot, with Lucie and the Hyena’s snappy mutual distrust particularly well rendered into English by translator Siân Reynolds.
Despentes’ text presents a physical journey, but also a trip into the past of its characters. The novel succeeds in stressing the neurotic insecurities of all of her protagonists – even the most self-assured. Lucie’s narrative is interleaved by shifts of narrative focus to the the characters they meet en route. François, Valentine’s father is a mediocre right-wing novelist, hooked on painkillers and obsessed with his waning literary profile. Vanessa, his ex-wife and Valentine’s mother, is a cynical money-grabber and desperate to cover up her North African roots. Yacine, her cousin, is a knife-carrying bad boy from the banlieu tower blocks and bristling with spite. The Hyena is particularly memorably-drawn: androgynous, alternately charming and acutely aggressive and intensely attractive to both males and females alike, but with a dark secret. Lucie, by contrast, is more reserved and self-evasive, described as a ‘dozy mollusc’ (p. 241) but undergoes a radical turnaround on reaching sunny Barcelona.
Alongside the skilfully-plotted story, Apocalypse Baby is also a highly-provocative novel. It paints a pitiless, unsparing picture of contemporary urban life. Very little is free from the text’s ire. Paris is ‘grey, noisy, depressing and morbid, while the ‘shipwreck of heterocentrism’ is frequently highlighted as a problem (p. 146). Young people, the rich, mothers, Christianity, journalists, marriage, airports, celebrities all find themselves under Despentes’ acerbic gaze. We live, the novel suggests, in an age where tension, cynicism and ‘vulgar indifference’ (p. 32) are the norm. As the Hyena stresses: ‘There is no dignity, there is no gentleness. All the people who were good and honourable, all the nice guys, have been wiped out’ (pp. 119-120). The novel is also repeatedly critical of the internet which, rather than an online utopia, encourages mindless narcissism. François writes his own glowing Amazon reviews and the Hyena observes a ‘frenzy of desire to broadcast, but without any receivers’ amongst the snap happy tourists she encounters (p. 210).
Is there, then, an overall message to Apocalypse Baby? It can be hard to tell since there is an overall unsettling ambivalence to Despentes text. The novel appears to desire a change to what it paints as the contemporary patriarchal capitalist status quo, but stops short of proposing any conclusive solutions. Indeed, the extent to which it ultimately endorses the novel’s unexpected, and explosive, conclusion remains devastatingly ambiguous. If there is a moment of hope that challenges the nihilism within Despentes’ bleak yet skilfully drawn novel, it comes from within human relationships, friendships and even love that can blossom against the odds, and often when least expected.
Salò is regularly both celebrated and decried as being the most obscene film ever made. It has been wailed about by critics and regularly tops Internet top tens of cinematic excess. Its relentless depiction of the torture and humiliation of Italian youths held prisoner and presided over by four sadistic libertines certainly isn’t easy or comfortable viewing. The subject matter is about as bleak as imaginable: an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s blackest book set in an occupied chateau in fascist Italy. Pasolini’s film has been understood in many different, and legitimising, ways. It has, naturally, been understood as a reading of Sade’s thought, a comment on totalitarianism or, as the director himself suggested, a critique of consumerism and a consideration of sexual politics. But what if we read it as a comedy?
I’ve seen Salò twice now. Some might suggest this is two times too many. The first viewing, at a sparsely attended screening at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2001 was, of course, unsettling. My most recent viewing was at a packed Paris Cinématheque as part of the current Pasolini season and the experience was a little different. Yes, the film was still difficult to watch, but the screening was notable for the sniggers and ripples of laughter that spread out throughout the film once the torture scenes got underway.
Why laugh at Salò? It could, of course, have been uncomfortable laughter as the audience struggles to process the brutal scenes of sexual abuse, humiliation and coprophagia. Maybe the laughter was one of relief that the film wasn’t as shocking as the hype had led them to believe it was. An uncharitable observer might note cultural differences between friendly Mancunian and colder Parisian crowds. I’m not quite what sure the nature of this laugher actually was, but there were however, more giggles at Salò than at some more traditional comedies I’ve seen.
Writing about the film in October, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, have noted that there are a number of jokes or straightforward old-fashioned corny verbal gags in the film, easily overlooked amongst the more striking scenes of torture (Vol. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 22-35). At one point, as Bersano and Dutoit note, the head libertine, or President, asks: ‘What is the difference between the number 8, a gate and a family? An 8 is always closed, a gate is sometimes open. “And the family?’ asks the other person. “They’re fine, thanks,” answers the President, overwhelmed with glee’ (p. 29). There are, I think, other comic moments to be found throughout the film. Rather than purely horrific, there is a sustained slapstick quality to many of the scenes as the libertines’ frenzied excitement sees them often literally fall over themselves to realise their desires. Equally, the sheer extremity of the ‘narratives’ that are provided to accompany and inspire the libertines sexual excesses have their own degree of burlesque, if very dark, humour. The incongruous ridiculousness of the libertines’ drag attire, particularly that of the bearded libertine Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) and the acutely strange looking and cross-eyed President (Aldo Valletti), prime candidate for a comic lead, if indeed the film has one, also clearly add a degree of humour.
The film has been pored over by theorists, but the humour in Salò has been noted by John Waters, himself a controversial film director. For me, there are even striking resonances between Water’s comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), released three years before Pasolini’s film in both Divine’s outrageous drag, that of the libertines, and, of course the scatological preoccupations of both films. Is Pasolini making an intertextual nod to Waters?
I think we’d be wrong, and perhaps slightly twisted, to watch Salò exclusively as a comedy. Although I believe there is humour in the film, it is ultimately, however, overwhelmed by the relentless torture and excess. What role, then, does laugher play in the film? Perhaps Salò’s relationship with resistance is revealing from this perspective. At a key moment, when one of the chateau’s prisoners is discovered having unauthorised sex with a serving girl and is about to be shot for his transgression, he confronts the libertines with a raised first, a universal leftist symbol of resistance and rebellion. This gesture is, however, futile as he is shot after a brief, but tense, stand-off. There is also a similar sense of futility in the film’s absence of narrative progression. As Éric Marty has suggested Salò is in many ways a very shallow film – there is no development of character or plot (Pourquoi le XXe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux?, Seuil, 2011). In this way, any value, meaning or satisfying resolution that a viewer would be able to take from the film through a happy ending, or any conclusive ending at all, is not supplied. This reinforces the overall inescapable horror of the Sadean, fascist and consumerist systems sketched out by Pasolini’s film. A satisfying narrative pay-off would, like the raised fist and, ultimately, the humour in the film, be futile in the face of these systems according to Pasolini’s pessimistic vision. If not, then, a comedy, comedy plays a role in the film in a way that captures a spectator off-guard but closes off the possibility of a redemptive reading of the film. Sniggering is futile.