Armed With a Pin
by BARBARA GALLETLY
As I was reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning a young woman was murdered by a stranger. When this happens, it is unnerving. It passes because we have to let it. But this was a friend of friend's, in a house that is down the street from mine, just after she got home from a New Year’s Eve party. Someone had followed her home, and stabbed her while her friend was in the bathroom. On the same block a woman was knocked down in the street twice, maybe by the same man, before and after she called the police to report the initial attack. A third woman was in her bedroom, in her bed, while a few friends slept on couches and on the ground in her apartment when someone, maybe the same man, came in and strangled her until she passed out. I think he also undressed her, but it's unclear. On the same block my friends were celebrating 2011 or 2012 together, and coming and going. It does not make sense. No part of it is all right. One awful side effect is that the rest of us are now mortal too, terrified by the uncontrollable and random cruelty that comes for us out of the dark when we do not think it can touch us. I wasn’t even there, I don’t really even know what happened, and I still couldn't sleep without falling into brutal dreams.
A year ago I was sitting in a sunny yard in Los Angeles when I first heard Maggie Nelson read from The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning. She shared a section on the writing of Paul Bowles' wife, Jane. I held my breath as she described Bowles' creepy deftness at revealing the bitter, dishonest underbelly of truisms. Her examination of Bowles’s story “Plain Pleasures” centers on two very reserved middle-aged people (Mrs. Perry and Mr. Drake) who are neighbors on an attempted date. The story results in their evident failure to connect, Mrs. Perry’s subsequent drunkenness, which leads her to drop her borrowed pearls in her gravy and proclaim that she is no one’s mashed-potato masher before she escapes the scene. The tale ends as she awakens the next day with the revelation of the possibility of rape, her unwitting aloneness, and what may be a failure of hope. This sounds like a sad ending, but more interesting to Nelson is that Bowles doesn’t actually ask us to read sadness into this, or feel badly about any of it.
When Mrs. Perry wakes up naked, alone, unaware of what happened the night before, she is happy: the "blacked-out lacuna at the story’s navel is one of literature’s most understated slivers of cruelty. But cruelty to whom? Indeed, one of the more remarkable things about Bowles’s stories is that more often than not they leave the reader not knowing how to feel." It’s not just wickedness but multivalence. "It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin." Nelson is pointing out what we are eager to avoid, articulating the cruelty inherent in the mundane, the multivalent. The unremitting debunking of niceness in the world that interesting art performs.
But cruelty can spring from love too, and these two things are little more than opposite sides of a single coin. She discusses a line from William Carlos Williams, "The business of love is cruelty, / which, / by our wills, / we transform / to live together", which has long captivated her curiousity:
I don’t particularly agree with its temporal proposition — that the business of love begins as a form of cruelty, which can be subsequently (heroically?) altered, until we all get along. I do, however, like its calm admission of the coexistence of love and cruelty — its acknowledgement that they can exist within one another, rather than at opposite ends of the spectrum, or locked in an oppositional embrace. That there might be an alchemical, rather than a conflictual relationship between them. That the possibility of transformation is always alive, always ours.
Maggie Nelson is not exploring foreign turf, she is a cruelty artist herself. One of the most unnerving books I have read is her 2005 book Jane: A Murder, a memoir (in prose, poetry, and found text) that she wrote to explore the life, rape, and murder of her mother’s sister.
There was an argument going on, one with subtle terms.
Can anyone like blood the way one likes the mountains or the sea?
Two slugs turn the light of the mind into dull meat.
For pain comes not just in witnessing or bearing cruel acts, but when "frivolousness" is cut away, leaving nothing but the inevitable vulnerability of mortality to hang from the meat hook. In a chapter called "A Situation of Meat" Nelson expands on the deep horror implicit the fact that "the spectre of our eventual 'becoming object' — of our (live flesh) one day turning into (dead) meat — is a shadow that "accompanies us throughout our lives."
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning is not just a book about what happened or how to respond, it’s about how we address and interpret cruelty in art, how we look at that art, and where such spectatorship leaves us. This is also a book about looking for a response to questions of what it is to be cruel, to kill, what it is to die, on the one hand, and on the other of how to keep going regardless of the answer (which doesn’t always feel less awful). It is poetry, but also about something very real.
In The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Nelson is clear that cruelty is a frightening focal point, unflinching regardless of our gaze. Naturally the author herself is dubious of contributing to its grip on us. In her introduction she cites the Buddha on the importance of avoiding the topic, and even Lionel Trilling, who says, "It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it." Regardless, we struggle with cruelty, flirt with it and worry over it.
This focus is not cynical. Rather, it stems from my belief in the paradoxical yet sage statement once made by the poet Fanny Howe, that "the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn't…"
The result, in this volume, is an attempt to get at the root of the action, the use or purpose or value of cruelty in art, whether such cruelty stays at a healthy remove or seeps out of its frame to touch us too closely. The ultimate goal is to make distinctions between what is worthwhile and not, to address but not resolve its problematic nature.
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning takes the form of a most delicately constructed house of horrors that we enter through Antonin Artaud’s "theatre of cruelty" in the 1930s and takes us through performances and expressions and violent acts of cruelty of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. From the Texas Virtual Border Patrol Watch Program, which allows viewers to observe border checkpoints and report sightings of “illegal” people or activities, and the dissociation from reality such a creepy program encourages; to reality television in the form of Fear Factor and To Catch a Predator; discussions of spectatorship and the possibility of cruelty in art as catharsis; to Sontag and Arendt on the banality of evil and the effects of its depiction; horror films and objectification of victims to sacrificial or pornographic acts of violence reenacted in performance art; a careful if not exhaustive collection of the ways in which we have, as a civilization, recently hurt and been hurt by one another. And the roles we, when engaged in such cruel art, play as witnesses and victims.
Nelson is clear that the acting of observing cruelty should be and is a two-way street. Most important is that we really should not disparage the act of thinking about what we are seeing, reflecting, even meditating on it before we attempt to pass judgment and move on. But this is really hard. For example, a major focus of the book is that women are more often victims than aggressors, as Nelson knows well. And of course there is a great popular demand for glamorized cruelty against them (us). In Jane: A Murder she quotes Edgar Allan Poe:
’Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’
She takes the case of a 2007 film Captivity, which stars Elisha Cuthbert as an extensively tortured “heroine” whose physical and mental defeat that looks a lot like torture-porn. This is not just readily available but an overwhelmingly popular trope of mid-aughts media. A counterbalance to the real life terrorism enacted at by the United States. At Abu Ghraib, for example.
When I saw Cuthbert’s face I saw not just the airbrushed image of another blonde actress pretending to be held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, but the nameless bodies of all the real brown people being held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, and this huge sexed-up, Aryan, crying face standing in the way…
On the other hand though she documents the efficacy of feminist efforts at staking a space for women in the arena. She cites Karen Finley, a performance artist whose work has often served as a protest against objectification and victimization of the body, and Marina Abramovic, as two of the most well-known and powerful actors in this field. But most striking was her description of performance artist Ana Mendieta’s work. I am so glad that as I read I could not find any more than a few still photographs of Rape Scene (1972) and Rape Piece (1973), in which she recreates the scenes of violent crimes (rape, obviously, and murder) and poses, naked in both cases, smeared with blood, for her friends to discover her.
Or 1973's People Looking at Blood, Moffitt, in which she pours chunky blood on the sidewalk and photographs people as they walk past it. Nelson has sought out and described films made of the performances, picking apart the discomfort they evoke in those who stumble across them, the deep unease she, a most sensitive observer above all else, experiences herself.
Distance or distinction of art from reality is very hard to maintain when we see a video of a performance of a violent act, or a television show in which a “criminal predator” is captured in the commission of a simulated act of cruelty. It seems very real. It might be easier when we read, when we have to turn each page to get more, and when we maintain control over all of our senses but sight. In creating a multi-scene theatre of cruelty for her reader and allowing so many works of cruel art to speak through her as a medium, in providing a window we are compelled to fog with our breath, Nelson affords us the opportunity to really look closely through her. She also encourages us to maintain autonomy:
The freedom is important. It allows for a dance; it allows you to see yourself dancing in reaction. There’s information there. Your choice to keep going can itself become a cause of puzzlement. Or, if you choose to abandon ship, you can then ponder the classic question, did I fail the work, or did it fail me? When, or what, was the tipping point, and why?
One reason the art of cruelty is so captivating is that it is not a simple force, easy to control. It bleeds quite effusively back into life. But Nelson does not talk about the early death of Jane Bowles, from a combination of alcoholism and related health problems (including acute aphasia and visual impairment brought on by a stroke), or the fact that Ana Mendieta died at the age of 36 when she fell from her bedroom window after fighting with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre.
When I got back home I placed scissors, mace and a rape whistle around my bed. As if they might help. It took me months to read the whole book and until the very end I felt like I was pulling myself forward through it with my fingernails — but I couldn’t stop myself from reading. For me there was not another way out of the situation. There was no way to undo, go back, erase, un-know. Not that my reaction was correct or that I felt it to be. I couldn’t fall back on the anonymity of a big city and chance, and I had to do something with my fear. And Nelson did not leave me without hope.
Cruelty isn’t just an external artifact, document, or technique. It is something we each have to come to our own terms with in order to keep going. Refusing to shy away from it might help, refusing to be cowed. But this is more likely to beget more violence than anything else. In a more compassionate gesture, Nelson shares a suggestion from Roland Barthes. We might claim, in his words, that a third term he calls the Neutral proposes "a right to be silent — a possibility of being silent…the right not to listen… to not read the book." Or in hers, "It allows for 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." It is this, a more compelling alternative to not reduce, simplify, ignore, or reconcile, which in the end "deserves to be called sweetness." This is our weird, unnecessary, thankfully unremitting capacity for compassion, the near enemy of both cruelty and love. The thing we have to learn to live with is that we tend to confuse love with sweetness, but love itself is not sweet at all.
Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She last wrote in these pages about the world burning. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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