THE DETESTABLE GENIUS HALL of FAME: EPISODE ONE

Leden

Q: Should we ban books and films that were produced by Sexual Predators?

A: Should we demolish skyscrapers designed by Racist architects?

Roman Polanski has been on the Erase the Oeuvre of This Evil Creep- List for decades. Woody Allen was put on the list more recently though, it’s important to point out, there’s no persuasive evidence that he legally or even ethically belongs on it. Robert Crumb has mostly managed to elude the Erase the Oeuvre of This Evil Creep- List (chiefly, I suspect, because the Maoist Millennials in charge of the current version of the Erase the Oeuvre of This Evil Creep- List aren’t conversant with the depth and breadth of Crumb’s stuff: some of them may be aware of Crumb’s racially outrageous Angelfood McSpade character, or those stunningly anti-Semitic drawings of his wife in Sexual She-Devil mode, but Big Baby… the pear-shaped, six-foot, toothless, hairless, pre-verbal, diaper-wearing infant-like character given to using Mr. Natural’s erections as Nuks… slips under their curiously slapdash radar). Bernardo Bertolucci got tossed on the list because of a misunderstanding: the actress Maria Schneider stated, in an interview, that the experience of filming Last Tango in Paris, with Bertolucci and Brando, left her feeling raped. Arthur C. Clarke is edging on to it. Even Bowie, who famously deflowered the 13-year-old who became (that same year) Jimmy Page’s main squeeze, and probably slept with many groupies of that age, may end up on that list one day.

The only actual (in my opinion) psychopath, of that famous, loosely-connected, vaguely  postmodernist cohort I’m thinking of (from c. 1960-1980)… the only one who seemed to actually be sexually/ spiritually longing to hurt women… young (very young) women, especially;  the only one I would not be surprised to one day learn is a suspect in unsolved murders of young women (has anyone thought to dig up the garden of whatever villa he was staying in in North Africa?) is not, as far as I know, even on that list. In any case: Has anyone yet called to have the books/ movies/ essays of Alain Robbe-Grillet banned?

Robbe-Grillet bothered me forty years ago, when I saw Trans Europ Express (1967) at the college cinema. Sensitive as my critical equipment remains, to this day, back then it was nearly skinless. When the protag tied his paramour to the bed (the methodical rope-tying filmed as “sensually” as though it were merely a deliciously kinky sex act; to AR-G it was) and strangled her for betraying him to the police, I was nauseated*. I lost any interest in watching any more films directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I considered the uncritically blossoming  revival of his (post-1980s) reputation to be a function of the culture’s sickness.**

Trans Eur Ex

A critic writes of Trans Europ Express:

A self-referential metafilm with self-deprecatory humour, a satire on the filmmaking process, a satire on the crime thriller genre and its usual tropes, a paranoia thriller/comedy, and what-not! That may seem like too many ways to describe a single film, but rest assured, it is by no means a stretch. Alain Robbe-Grillet experiments with the film within film device with successful results in his truly avant-garde and unique genre-bender, “Trans-Europ Express” (1966).

Which is naive nonsense. A film is not a novel. In a novel, the sentence “the fine bones of the fish at the center of the plate, under which the Matisse print danced, remained indifferent” may stand out more than the sentence “The station wagon rolled off the end of the peer”…  no particular word being weightier, in and of itself, than any other… but film each of those sentences, in turn,  and only one of the two sentences could ever be the emotional climax of a movie. What novel can compare to the persuasive power, the instant brainwashing capabilities, of film? It’s not what you say, it’s what you show, that counts in cinema.  The atmospheric minutiae of a film featuring the cool, methodical and pointedly “erotic” murder of a woman is nothing compared to the murder itself, which can only be the “money shot” and haunt the viewer more deeply than a hundred pages of abstract description in a book.

In other words, Robbe-Grillet was,  as a novelist, harmless… which may be why he moved on to film. To present a man strangling his lover as an erotic act is to overwhelm all “satire,” or any “self-deprecatory humour,” and any get-out clauses, built helpfully into the “avant garde” artifact,  with an atavistic call from the spirit of Imaginational Evil which ultimately powered the Death Camps. The adolescent Dadaist may snicker at  the earnestness of my attempt to make the connection, but I doubt very much that Robbe-Grillet would.

“[Robbe-Grillet’s] second novel, Les Gommes, was accepted by Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit, Beckett’s publisher. Les Gommes was both a neo-noir and a modern rewriting of the Oedipus myth, about a police inspector investigating a murder that has not yet taken place: he ends up killing the suspect, who may be his father. The critic Jean Cayrol read Les Gommes as an allegory about the German occupation and the French Resistance: ‘sadly,’ Robbe-Grillet later wrote, ‘I had been on the other side.’”

When WW2 declared itself done, officially, the Allies ended up executing a mere few hundred significant (though not Top, the very Top was comprised of unpunishable Industrialists) Nazis. At least ten thousand Nazis were key to the running of the Death Camps and how many hundreds of thousands were key to the national program and its spreading apparatus of Occupation? Not even a slap on the wrist for them and the really useful Nazis, the spy masters and medical experimenters and rocket scientists,  even got American Green Cards, green lawns and Health Insurance in the good old racist South (Cape Canaveral is deep in Rednecksville) . Imagine being one of the many Nazis, and Nazi sympathizers, who got off, at the end, scot free. One can imagine the weak-kneed euphoria of a near-fatal accident’s unscratched survivor. More, one can imagine how empowering the post-War life must have felt. Like a horde of Mittel Europäisches Aleister Crowleys winking and whispering Do What Thou Wilst is the Whole of the Law. Well, the late ’60s, early ’70s sort of savored of that vibe, no? Let’s be honest. That which did not kill Sado Masochistic Fascism made it strong, and bold… even smug.

You don’t have to be politically consonant with specific genocides to share in the heady lifestyle of the strong who assume a natural right to subjugate, torture and execute the weak. Like the kid who whispers an obscenity at Jesus Christ, in Sunday school, to prove that no lightning will strike him if he does so, the population-culling bloodbath of WWI, and  subsequent crypto-sexual excesses of The Third Reich,  called civilization’s bluff. The bulk of the leading perpetrators went unpunished and the resulting Jehovah  Silence inspired more Artists,  and “Artists” (including the murderer of The Black Dahlia) , I’d argue, than we’ll ever know.

What is Dada but Aestheticized Nihilism?

“Published six months before his death in 2008, [Un Roman sentimental] is the story of a 14-year-old girl called Gigi, and her initiation into S&M under the tutelage of her father, lover and master, a man known as the Professor. That’s a sanitised summary of the proceedings, described in meticulous prose in 239 numbered paragraphs over little more than a hundred pages. Fayard, his publisher, was worried enough to have the book wrapped in plastic with an advisory notice. It’s not hard to see why. France had been rocked by a series of scandals over child pornography, and Robbe-Grillet’s novel was a work of unrelenting and graphic sadism, in which women – or rather, barely pubescent girls – exist to be raped, tortured and murdered. Some are eaten alive by dogs (‘so they conserve the memory of the delicious scent and flavour of the thing that it is their mission to hunt down’), while others are given a ‘commercially banned ointment’ that causes them to come so violently they die. Robbe-Grillet’s proclivities were well known – Fredric Jameson called his sensibility ‘sado-aestheticism’ – but they had never before found such gruesome expression.”

“Back in the news for the first time in years, Robbe-Grillet had a lot of explaining to do. Always a forceful spokesman for his own work, he took up the task with his usual gusto, describing Un Roman sentimental, with a wink, as a book of ‘Flaubertian precision’. (He never missed a chance to tip his hat to the canon, even as he seemed to ask us not to take him at his word.) His aim was to purge himself of violent fantasies that he claimed were widely shared. Yes, he had ‘loved little girls’ since he was 12, but he had never acted on his fantasies. In fact he had ‘mastered’ them. And he continued in this half-facetious, half-moralising vein: ‘someone who writes about his perversion is someone who has control over it.’ He warned of a new ‘literary correctness’ (‘when one writes something incorrect, it’s as if one were committing it’), and seemed hurt by an interviewer’s suggestion that he had written a ‘masturbatory’ novel. On the contrary, Un Roman sentimental was, ‘like all my novels’, a Brechtian work, written in a glacial style so as to distance the reader from the book’s infernal preoccupations.

Un Roman sentimental was greeted with derision in France. Its author was a dirty old man, or a lunatic, or both. Robbe-Grillet seemed shaken by the reception. He now insisted that, although the novel’s prose was ‘irreproachable’, it wasn’t really a part of his oeuvre: it grew out of erotic notebooks he’d been keeping since he was an adolescent. The notebooks were separate from his literary journals, he said, as if a fortress defended the one from the porno-guerrilla attacks of the other. He had a point. Although the prose is unmistakeably Robbe-Grillet’s, the questions raised by Un Roman sentimental were rather different from those raised by the novels that made his reputation. His early masterpieces were narrative puzzles; each revolved, teasingly, around a blind spot or cavity. In Le Voyeur, the 1955 novel that brought him to prominence, we never learn if Mathias, a travelling watch salesman, has killed the precocious Jacqueline or merely fantasised about doing so: the crime scene, but not his anxious search for an alibi, has been erased from the narrative (‘the abnormal, excessive, suspicious, inexplicable time amounted to forty minutes – if not fifty’). Not only are we denied a resolution, but our thwarted attempt to find one, to assign guilt and fill that maddening cavity, becomes the real story of Le Voyeur. The novel’s ‘clarity reveals everything except itself’, Maurice Blanchot wrote in his magisterial review. ‘It is as if we were seeing everything, without anything being visible. The result is strange.’ Robbe-Grillet’s mother said it was ‘a fine book’, though she would rather it had not been written by her son. ‘It’s a good thing you wrote that novel,’ a psychoanalyst told him. ‘If you hadn’t, you might have murdered a young woman.’ (Robbe-Grillet would often cite this diagnosis with approval; he enjoyed his role as the resident psychopath in the republic of letters.)”

I always had very little interest in AR-G as a novelist; his theories exist at all, in my opinion, because novelists who wanted to get noticed, in the middle of the previous century,  had to have a theory, or theories, to propound.

What was important about “Experimental” Lit of the middle of the 20th century was the freedom to, indeed, experiment. At some point the experiments come to an end and the results must be analyzed. Too often, the “New Novel” from the various schools put the reader in the tiresome position of a student in a room full of Ikea components, one weird Hex Key and no instructions. Or a box full of cake mix and no water, no oven, no bowl: bon appètit. After much experimentation and frank analysis, we have learned that there are other, there are better, ways to be New.

A critic writing for the Guardian wrote, in 2010 (in a peculiar tense): “Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the ‘more modest, less anthropomorphic world’ we live in today – one which is ‘neither significant nor absurd,’ but simply is.” A sentiment so easily dispensed with that reading Robbe-Grillet’s theoretical pronouncements can become as addictive as pulling bad teeth: any form of fiction championing a ‘more modest, less anthropomorphic world’  is doomed from the beginning, since only Humans (those born anthropomorphizers) can read.

To go further in on AR-G’s theoretical template: the “objective” description of objects is all well and good in a text, but no Human (a word AR-G despised; we’ll deal with that in a bit) can look at anything, at any time, without evaluating it, attaching a cascade of fantasies  and/or memories and otherwise contextualizing the mechanical act of Seeing with inescapably Subjective interpretations. Objects merely are but Humans do and think about doing and among the doing there is Interpretation. “Banish” psychology from The Novel if you like (or can) but doing so because that supposedly reflects “real life” is so misbegotten an excuse that this “banishing” itself demands a psychological reading; the only place you will find an absence of “Psychology” among Human Forms and Their Objects would be in a Necropolis devoid of heartbeats.

The Sado-Masochist is a Control Freak; to hurt another is to control the target to the extent that the target remains in place to be hurt, despite its powerful natural urges to flee (to force the target to hurt you is, still, to control it). The Sadist must learn to balance the awful impulse to render a Living Thing into an Ultimately Controllable Thing… ie, an Object (and, btw:  what Object is more Controlled than an Object one has consumed?)… with the competing compulsion to Hurt the Living Thing (an Object can’t be Hurt) Forever: one can’t Have one’s Cake-Object and Eat it Too. From the Nazi collections of shoes/ teeth/ hair/ corpses… to the Nouveau Roman’s cold presentation of a ‘more modest, less anthropomorphic world’ … we see a larger dream-project, growing together toward a center point, from the opposite ends of the Human-hating scale: Silence.

Order.

The exhausted Silence at the end of a horrifically unilateral orgy.

“He is waiting, motionless on this uncomfortable chair, bolt upright, his hands crossed on his knees, his feet riveted to the floor, betraying no impatience. He is looking straight ahead at the little spots left by the raindrops on the windowpanes and, beyond, over the huge blue-glazed window of the factories on the other side of the street, at the irregular buildings of the suburbs, rising in waves toward a grayish horizon bristling with chimneys and pylons.

Usually this landscape has little relief and looks rather unattractive, but this morning the grayish yellow sky of snowy days gives it unaccustomed dimensions. Certain outlines are emphasized, others are blurred; here and there distances open out, unsuspected masses appear; the whole view is organized into a series of planes silhouetted against one another, so that the depth, suddenly illuminated, seems to lose its natural look—and perhaps its reality—as if this over-exactitude were possible only in a painting. Distances are so affected that they become virtually unrecognizable, without it being possible to say in just what way they are transformed: extended or telescoped—or both at once—unless they have acquired a new quality that has more to do with geometry…

Sometimes this happens to lost cities, petrified by some cataclysm for centuries—or only for a few seconds before their collapse, a wink of hesitation between life and what already bears another name: after, before, eternity.” —–The Erasers-Alain Robbe-Grillet

—Would I ban Robbe-Grillet’s work? Never.

—Would I argue that the oeuvre should continue to be promoted, largely, in a contextless vacuum in which Robbe-Grillet’s meta-oeuvre, his confessed passions and worldview, are glaringly absent? Never.

The Writer who means for His/Her oeuvre to exist independently of Her/His biography keeps Her/His biography hidden and Her/ His commentary to a minimum. E.g.: If Allen Ginsberg wanted his Poetry to be read in a “pure” state, why would he become a high-profile member of NAMBLA? 

Teach the Oeuvre along with its constituent Evil. Especially if the Oeuvre is Brilliant: this is an opportunity for genuine investigation, no? Flannery O’Connor was both a Literary Genius and dyed-in-the-wool Racist: don’t bury it: dig in.

Celine, the Jew-hater: investigate it.

Lewis Carroll the Pedo, Walt Whitman the Racist, Gertrude Stein the Vichy Collaborator: dig in. How are these not rich fields of literary study?

What kind of monster or not-monster was the wife-murdering genuine-Genius William Burroughs? The Artist himself, who spoke often of Joan’s death and connected that death to a so-called Ugly Spirit, which sometimes inhabited him, invited the investigation. If one can do a Reichian reading of Naked Lunch, or a capitalist reading of The Sheltering Sky, why can’t one do a biographical reading of The Sun Also Rises? Yes, obviously, an aesthetic or technical reading of a text doesn’t require biographical context but those aren’t the only two ways to read that text and reading a specific novel is not the same as reading the Oeuvre the novel belongs to. Oeuvres can be read, quite fruitfully, biographically. But only if done so unflinchingly, without evasion or ready-made alibis. Fiction illuminates The Human with one light; the forensic meta-biography with another.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: I never considered him a genius of any sort (perhaps if I could read the novels in the original, they would strike me as somewhat better than the crony-hyped, programmatically Talentless Tom McCarthy books which famously cannibalize them) but there is one film in which A R-G’s not bad eye for Art Direction (unless that gold star goes to his Art Director or Cinematographer) served him well. The only artifact of Robbe-Grillet’s Oeuvre I respect. 1970’s L’éden et après. 

What an interesting  film the sick fucker created.

This essay of mine was a laudatory film review, masquerading as a take-down of the Nouvelle Roman, or as a meditation on how to metabolize Art by Evil Artists, all along. 

Just this one film, L’éden et après (Last Year at Marienbad works much better as a stately ’90s perfume commercial than anything I can sit through for more than thirty minutes; the eventual revelation that it was constructed around a Sci Fi text,  whose structural chassis had been all-but-banished from the final production, added nothing but a little “ah” to the film’s contemplation). I watched L’éden et après  grudgingly, the first time, only recently, and was quite surprised. It has dated quite well, for one thing; compare it to anything, from the same era, starring Elliott Gould or Robert Culp.

The genius of  L’éden et après  flows not from A R-G’s eye but from its protagonist’s astonishing portrayal of preyCatherine Jourdain: to watch her in L’éden et après  is to feel the psychosis that has to infect any sensitive creature alone in a Universe in which said creature can only be food, of one kind or another, and never knows where the jaws will come from. The way she flinches, twitches, recoils, shudders, runs, jumps, looks over her shoulder, swoons, cringes, winces, doubles-over, writhes and stares with uncomprehending terror…. is, I think,  one of the best unsung performances in Western Film History.

Or perhaps it is only that she was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s mistress at the time?

 

 

 

*Just as nauseated as I was to watch cult-favorite Get Carter’s protag, Michael Caine, tie up a half-dressed woman and deliberately give her a lethal injection; again, as an act of  (film-logic-justified?) retribution.

**From the 11-minute, real-time, graphic CGI-enabled ass-rape and beating death of Monica Bellucci in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (I walked out of the film before that scene), to the graphic girlfriend-beating in the film of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (directed, disappointingly, by Michael Winterbottom, a director I otherwise rated; I guess in 2009-2011, graphic CGI beatings/ murders of women were an unavoidable film-vocabulary  fad; 2003’s  brutal, explosively end-loaded 29 Palms was ahead of the curve; even Mr. David “Transcendental Meditation” Lynch brings back, years later, a version of the dead heroine, of his original Twin Peaks series, in order to have the beloved doppelganger  beaten to death onscreen, “correcting” the offscreen death of the original )

 

 

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