This afternoon I thought I’d return to some choice passages from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition that reference works of Surrealist art I am unfamiliar with (that being most of them). Part of the difficulty for me in really grasping Ballard is the fact I was conceived decades after the political/social/traumatic events that provide the structure he deftly and darkly razes. Whether or not I place too much importance on the historicity of the text depends on one’s theoretical prescriptions, but I think it is really impossible to feel the brute force of Ballard’s atrocities unless one has at least a passing familiarity with celebrities and works of art which make coherent its strange geometries. Thus, while I can’t improve my familiarity with exactly what it felt like to exist during Elizabeth Taylor’s height of sexual celebrity and billboard omnipresence (beyond my awkward childhood memories of secretly sampling my Grandmother’s Elizabeth Taylor White Diamond’s perfume and shamefully trying to wash away the odors of my latent homosexual curiosities), I am at least able to research the works of Surrealist art so frequently referenced in TAE.
As I perused Ballard’s annotations (that have marvelously facilitated my reading of TAE), my first stop was upon the following passage that so deeply arrested my attention:
Catherine Austin stared at the objects on Talbert’s desk. These flaccid globes, like the obscene sculptures of Bellmer, reminded her of elements of her own body transformed into a series of imaginary sexual organs. She touched the pallid neoprene, marking the vents and folds with a broken nail. In some weird way they would coalesce, giving birth to deformed sections of her lips and armpit, the junction of thigh and perineum.”
And in Ballard’s annotation I find:
“Hans Bellmer’s work is now totally out of fashion, hovering as it does on the edge of child pornography. Yet it’s difficult to imagine any paedophile being excited by his strange dolls and dainty, Alice-like little girls with their reversed orifices and paradoxical anatomy. But his vision is far too close for comfort to the truth.”
As in so many other passages in TAE, we find the female body reduced to its geometries, its curves and its parts. The erotic is displaced and deconstructed, the female body is dismembered, and paradoxically it still produces an almost heightened sense of eroticism. I am struck by the queering of female penetration as Austin’s broken nail penetrates the vents and folds which obviously reference the vagina, transferring the need for masculine possession of the female to female control over her own parts. But of course, I realize I truly must view Bellmer’s work if I wish to get a richer and more fulfilling meaning (whatever the hell that word means) from this passage.
Bellmer’s work is at once disturbing, erotic, and familiar, especially to one reading TAE. We find the human female dissected and reassembled with doll parts, positioned in simultaneously erotic and banal positions. The woman/girl becomes an assemblage of parts, the automata unmistakably unalive and yet teasing with the threshold of animation. Bellmer’s girls are bulbous and shapely geometries of thigh and vagina and perineum often connected to another parallel geometry of thigh and vagina and perineum about a single solar plexus. Everything Ballard writes of reducing sexuality to geometries and parts, of making intelligible traumatic events of impossible proportions through the manipulation and reconstruction of female parts in a unique fusion of space/time, is on exhibit in Bellmer’s creations.
And of course the horrific nature of Bellmer’s art comes from its uncanniness. What is most uncanny about Bellmer is that I was just re-reading Freud’s “The Uncanny” last night, and then stumbled upon this one-liner from an essay on Bellmer:
“The Surrealist fascination with automata, especially the uncanny dread produced by their dubious animate/inanimate status, prepared the way for the enthusiastic reception in France of Bellmer's doll.”
The uncanny is the unexpectedly (and often unwelcome) familiar, so I was naturally titillated to come across this discovery after just reading Freud. In fact, to cite Freud on this matter:
“Jentsch believes that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an objects is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one…But, curiously enough, while the Sand-Man story deals with the arousing of an early childhood fear, the idea of a ‘living doll’ excites no fear at all; children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it. The source of uncanny feelings would not, therefore, be an infantile fear in this case, but rather an infantile wish or even merely an infantile belief.”
The infantile wish-fulfillment is obvious in both the psychotic nature of the Traven character in TAE and the paedophilic eroticism in Bellmer. In neither case do we get the sense of the Pygmalion wish for the material-perfected object to become animate; there is no wish in Ballard or Bellmer to traverse the boundary between human animal and object, merely to explore the edges of the line and determine where/how/when in place and time they exist in relation to the object. And explore the nature of a sexual impulse that can be removed from the human animal (through the dissection of the erotic person and shifting attention to the geometries of her/its parts) and refigured upon the inanimate object without necessarily anthropomorphizing the object (while Bellmer’s creations are unmistakably metonyms for complete humans, no viewer of the works can justifiably argue that the sculptures are meant to represent the living human but instead remove the impossible idea of unique human spirit from the body and remind the viewer the ego is merely a collection of parts).
Of course, Freud says of the uncanniness of the dismembered human:
“Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist…feet which dance by themselves…all of these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove capable of independent activity in addition. As we already know, this kind of uncanniness springs from its proximity to the castration complex.”
The manipulation of body parts by Ballard's protagonist and Bellmer are reactions against the fear of powerlessness created by the recognition that objects have a life unto themselves, an existence independent of human relation to them. Traven and Bellmer, by isolating the geometries and creating new representations of the parts, by creating new functions for them irrelevant to their perceived connectedness to the wholeness of a human being, engage in a futile act of trying to restore the castrated member, to regain power over objects that simply cannot be subjected to human control.