Wednesday, 11 February 2009


The temptation to seek for a systematic explanation of how it is that horror films affect their viewers seems irresistible. Not only does Psycho, for example, combine to enduring effect the visceral destruction of the human body with a comedy of errors, it also succeeds in producing a sense of enigma such that the film may be found endlessly elusive and yet almost within reach. The paradoxical condition that is Norman’s self—Norman is the son of a mother he has both destroyed and become, a self created anew out of an origin he has himself engendered—seems to embody the dynamics of artistic creation as such. It is as though Hitchcock had found in him a figure through whom he could elaborate a dialectics of conflict which so shapes time that we can live—can participate in—the passage of the film’s elapsing, its duration, with unusual attention to the elaborate interweaving of its end and its beginning. Earl Wasserman has noted how, since the end of the eighteenth century, ‘the poet has been required to conceive his own structure of order, his own more-than-linguistic syntax, and so to engage that structure that the poetic act is creative both of a cosmic system and of the poems made possible by that system’ [Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), p.172]. On this view, poetry is addressed to the construction of the syntax that makes it possible, a process seen at its extreme in Mallarmé and T.S. Eliot. One might say that, whatever else may appear to engage the poem’s interest, its fundamental concern is with its own processes of coming into being. The crucial analogy is, of course, with music, a condition to which Psycho unquestionably aspires, an aspiration emphatically reinforced by Herrmann’s score. In other words, Psycho invites over-determination. Both its openness to a complex of literary traditions, and the obvious invitation posed by its title, encourage the search for some more abstract and unifying act of interpretation within which the film may be comprehended. However, such an act of interpretation is incorporated within the film itself, only to be dismissed in the moment of our encounter with the reality of what Mrs Bates actually is—an impossible being, whose mode of existence is that, not of a human psychology, but of cinema. It is as though Hitchcock were reminding us that the meaning of what takes place in Psycho is inherent within the totality of the film, and is not separable from it. It is the film itself which is constitutive of the myth that gives rise to it, and not an externally given system or a set of explanatory paradigms.

Given this order of subtlety, it is hardly surprising that Psycho should have drawn so forcibly to it writers whose conceptual structures were built on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The complex of attraction and repulsion embodied in Norman can be mapped onto the dialectic arising out of the nightmare’s expression of incestuous desire. Similarly, Norman’s mode of being, that of the ‘ne-uter’, his being neither woman ‘nor man’, can be re-described in terms of the objet petit a and the algorithms of fantasy, or the function of lack engendering desire. Norman, one might say, is differánce incarnate. Or, in another idiom, he just is the divided subject. A recent example of the assimilation of Psycho to psychoanalysis is Laura Mulvey’s attempt to locate it in relation to the death drive. She speaks of how the film moves towards death, as it ‘reaches towards stillness and then towards the dead: Mother’s skull appears superimposed briefly on Norman’s features and they merge’ [“Death Drives: Hitchcock’s Psycho”, Film Studies 2 (Spring 2002): 8]. There is, according to Mulvey, a homology connecting terms like ‘stillness’, ‘death’ and ‘ending’, as applied to cinematic narrative, which takes the cinema back to its own secret stillness and the death inherent within it. She would seem to be saying that the achievement of Psycho is to have made this ‘homology’ explicit, inasmuch as it has found for it what Eliot called ‘an objective correlative’—the Bates’ mansion, reverberating with archaic and gothic echoes of the House of Usher and other unheimlich dwellings of the Romantic imagination. However, if one responds in this way to the aesthetic achievement of the film, the claims of the psychoanalytic reading to explain that achievement dissolve. This emerges in relation to the Freudian account of the uncanny. Here, the persuasiveness of the notion, as Freud describes it, derives, not from Freud’s account of incest or the theory of castration, but from the power invested in the tearing out of eyes and sexual ambivalence by the achievement of Hoffmann’s story, ‘The Sandman’. If conviction does result from Freud’s analysis, it arises out of the effective and compelling realisation of the horror of the Sandman in the story itself, a power Freud appropriates as evidence for his explanation of it. In other words, it is Hoffmann’s story which constitutes the imaginative potency of the notion of the uncanny, and so the meaning of its psychic reality, not the Freudian exegesis. So with Mulvey’s essay: the theoretical body of her reading is parasitic on the film, and it is Psycho itself that gives life and illumination to her concepts. It would seem, then, that so far as aesthetic appreciation is concerned, psychoanalytic explanation cannot give us what we are looking for—what we need. This is not only a matter of reductionism, or of confusing a causal explanation with giving reasons for responding as one does. The point is that only for someone who has responded to the aesthetic life of the work do psychoanalytic explanations of that life have pertinence. Psychoanalytic readings presuppose what it is they seek to explain, and they do so by projecting their methods of explanation onto the objects they address. Just as Freud projects onto ‘The Sandman’ a reading whose plausibility the story has already established, a manoeuvre he achieves by re-describing the actions of the Sandman as those of the ‘castrating father’, so Mulvey projects onto Psycho a dynamic that is already internal to the film’s organisation—a drive towards death. The result is not in any sense an explanation of the film, but an attempt to construct what might be called an immanent experience of it. The idiom of psychoanalysis is deployed in a ‘creative’ recounting of the film that seems intended to suggest an empathic fusion between the director’s consciousness and that of the critic.


An approach I find exemplary for a clarification of what is involved in the critical appreciation of art is Wittgenstein’s response to the account in The Golden Bough of the Beltane fire festivals in eighteenth century Scotland. His comments come in the latter part of his Remarks on Frazer’s 'Golden Bough', and were probably written around 1948. The Remarks were not intended for publication, and they should not be read as though they made up a systematically revised body of work. Nonetheless, they are of great interest, especially for their treatment of a theme that is also crucial to Frazer, that of religion’s deep roots in human nature.

The pagan Celtic year was divided into two periods, with the new year celebrated at the beginning of November, at the festival of Samhain, or Hallowe’en. The second festival took place six months later, on May Day, or Beltane. They signal changes in the weather, Samhain preceding winter and Beltane the return of summer. Frazer was interested in the Beltane festivals in Scotland, particularly the lighting of huge fires, which took place on this day. He cites a description given by John Ramsey, laird of Ochtertyre, near Crieff, the patron of Burns and friend of Sir Walter Scott:

Towards the close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge, called am bonnach beal-tine—i.e. the Beltane cake. It was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. There was one particular piece which whoever got was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead. [J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 618]

Frazer sees the festivals as rituals of purification: the fires, he believes, were thought to burn up and destroy all malign influences, the chief evil being that of witches:

Again and again we are told that the fires are intended to burn up or repel the witches; and the intention is sometimes graphically expressed by the burning of an effigy of a witch in the fire. [Frazer, op. cit., p. 648]

Thus the pretence of throwing someone into the fire, or the burning of an effigy, are traces of something darker. As Brian Clack puts it, ‘previously human beings thought to be witches, or else representing evil forces, were really burned in the flames’ [Wittgenstein, Frazer and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1999), p. 139]. For Frazer, what remained of the Beltane festival in the eighteenth century was a survival of an earlier practice of sacrificing human beings regarded as witches in the fires.

Wittgenstein does not dismiss Frazer’s views, nor does he dismiss the worth of historical enquiry. As he says: ‘It is now clear that what gives this practice depth is its connection with the burning of a man’ [Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, ed. James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis and Cambrdige: Hackett, 1993), p. 143]. Were it the custom at some festival for men to ride one another, we might see nothing in this but a harmless game reminding us of men riding horses. But if we were to be told that in the past it had been the custom to use slaves in this way, we should then see in the harmless practice of our own times something deeper and more sinister. In other words, historical investigation may reveal sinister antecedents for what survive as apparently simple and homely customs. These antecedents may in turn colour our sense of the customs and make them appear darker and more sinister in the present. However, while this is so, it is nonetheless the case that, as Brian Clack points out, ‘what is crucial for Wittgenstein is that no historical research is required to show that the Beltane festival is sinister’ [Clack, op. cit., p. 142]. For Wittgenstein, what is at stake is the impression made by one specific festival—the Beltane festival—and beyond that impression no further justification for seeing it as sinister is required:

The question is: does the sinister, as we may call it, attach to the practice of the Beltane Fire Festival in itself, as it was carried out one hundred years ago, or is the Festival sinister only if the hypothesis of its origin turns out to be true? I believe it is clearly the inner nature of the modern practice which seems sinister to us, and the familiar facts of human sacrifice only indicate the lines along which we should view the practice. [Philosophical Occasions, pp, 143-145]

The Beltane Festival is a practice exhibiting what Frank Cioffi has called ‘a physiognomy of terror’ [Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer (Cambrdige: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 87], and its meaning is revealed through that same physiognomy. Its ‘inner nature’ is such that the festival simply strikes us as having to do with human sacrifice, whether or not it actually originated there. Clack remarks: ‘the Highland custom strikes us as being like human sacrifice, and it is this which imbues it with its sinister atmosphere’ [Clack, p. cit., p. 144]. The aspect under which we see it just is that of human sacrifice. And this of itself impresses us, because what I see impresses me directly, without the intervention of a hypothesis: ‘If I see someone being killed,—is what makes an impression on me simply what I see, or is it only the hypothesis that here a man is being killed?’ [Philosophical Occasions, p. 149]

Wittgenstein compares the enactment of the festival with a play, since the Beltane festivities have something in common with a piece of theatre. Yet, despite the similarities, the events of the festivals are infused with a mood or state of mind that differs from that of a theatrical performance. Even were the festival performed in the manner of a play, we would still want to ask: what is the meaning of this performance? And irrespective of any interpretation we might give of it, our unease would not be wholly assuaged. The impact of the Beltane festival is not expressible solely in terms of an aesthetic appreciation. There remains inherent in the proceedings a strange meaninglessness (Sinnlosigkeit)—a queer pointlessness. The festival seems to embody an excess or expenditure that eludes conceptual grasp, and to this extent it strikes us as being in some way uncanny (unheimlich) or weird. Cioffi seems to have this in mind when he speaks of how the festival brings about an ‘eruption of the demonic into the quotidian’ (Cioffi, op. cit., p. 92). Clack elucidates Cioffi’s point by reference to two facets of the Beltane rite: the use of a cake to select a victim, and the carnival atmosphere that pervades the event. Wittgenstein finds the manner of drawing lots especially chilling:

The fact that the lots are drawn by the use of a cake is particularly horrible (almost like betrayal by a kiss), and that it strikes us this way is again of fundamental importance for the investigation of such practices. [Philosophical Occasions p. 147]

Something that has homely and convivial characteristics is being used in a new and threatening context. It is not surprising that the familiar takes on a sinister aspect. Similarly, as Clack suggests, ‘the uneasy balance between violence and merriment’ is also what ‘impresses us here, and it comes to the fore in certain accounts of actual human sacrifice’ [Clack, op. cit., p. 146]. He notes, in this connection, accounts of the gaiety of the crowds attending the sacrifice of human beings in Mesopotamia and Mexico, a point reinforced by Wittgenstein:

The concept of a ‘festivity’. We connect it with merrymaking; in another age it may have been connected with fear and dread. [Clack, op. cit., p.147. Cited from Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), p. 78]

Beyond these two points, there is a further aspect of the Highland festivals, having to do with the nature of those who participate in them. To get a sense of the horror of human sacrifice, one has to recognise the kind of creatures human beings are. Wittgenstein asserts that ‘what I see in these stories is nevertheless acquired through the evidence, including such evidence as does not appear to be directly connected with them,—through the thoughts of man and his past, through all the strange things I see, and have seen and heard about, in myself and others’ [Philosophical Occasions, p. 151]. The rites of Beltane are not isolated or idiosyncratic actions of a remote group of people in a distant age. Those who performed them reveal tendencies within ourselves, and their propensities are ones we also share. Clack compares Wittgenstein’s perception here with that found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel in which two men of high civilisation, Marlow and Kurtz, experience the awakening of brutal and forgotten instincts.

To give a more general characterisation of Wittgenstein’s discussion of Frazer and the fire festivals, one might say that what he is considering is the seeing or dawning of aspects. At one point, Frazer describes how the participants in the Beltane festival divide a cake into as many portions as there are people present. One of these portions is daubed in black, and all the bits of cake are placed in a bonnet. Everyone, now blindfold, draws out a portion, and whoever draws out the black piece is the devoted person, to be sacrificed to Baal. Wittgenstein remarks of this account that there is ‘something here that looks like the last vestige of drawing lots. And, through this aspect, it suddenly gains depth’ [Philosophical Occasions, p. 145]. Again, after comparing the drawing of lots to betrayal by a kiss, he says:

When I see such a practice, or hear of it, it is like seeing a man speaking harshly to someone else over a trivial matter, and noticing from his tone of voice and facial expression that this man can on occasion be terrible. The impression I receive here can be very deep and extraordinarily serious. [Philosophical Occasions, p. 147]

Rush Rhees has noted a connection between remarks of this kind and Wittgenstein’s discussion of aspects in Philosophical Investigations II, xi, where he speaks of ways in which ‘thought’ and ‘seeing’ run together, ‘not as components of a complex have to be thought of together, but as concepts may “run together”, and what we should mean by “seeing” is also what we should mean by “thinking” here’ [Rush Rhees, “Wittgenstein on Language and Ritual”, in Wittgenstein and his Times, ed. Brian McGuinness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), pp. 101-102]. The further significance of Wittgenstein’s position on aspect dawning has been drawn out by Avner Baz:

The most important thing about the aspect is that there is a sense in which it isn’t really there and a sense in which it is very much there; a sense in which to speak about ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with respect to it is to miss its point and yet another sense in which in seeing it and in giving it expression you are truer to the object than if you stick to objective terms – the terms, that is, of what Wittgenstein calls ‘the language-game of reporting’, or ‘the language-game of information’. [Avner Baz, “What’s the point of seeing aspects?”, Philosophical Investigations 23:2 (April 2000): 106]

The seeing involved in aspect seeing is not seeing in general, but seeing (the emphasis is one Wittgenstein employs throughout his discussion). The ordinary sense of ‘seeing’ goes hand in hand with ‘knowing’ and is to be distinguished from aspect seeing. This is clear from the fact that aspects do not teach us anything about the external world, if ‘teaching about the external world’ is understood on the model of giving objective information. To see an aspect is not see a property of an object, and so the expression of a change of aspect (as in what is perhaps an over-worked example, from duck to rabbit or back again), while it may have the form of a report of a new perception, is not quite such a report. As Baz indicates, Wittgenstein also says that the criterion for what you see, when ‘seeing’ in the sense of seeing aspects is involved, is your representation of what is seen. Thus, when Wittgenstein tells us that he sees a resemblance between the drawing of lots by using pieces of cake and a harsh manner of speech he could be lying, but he could not be mistaken. In this respect, then, the expression of the seeing of an aspect is not a report on objective fact: it is an Äusserung, an avowal.

As Baz notes, there are connections with the Kantian account of aesthetic judgement, and, more specifically, with Cavell’s reworking of that account: ‘Aspects, like beauty, hang somewhere between the object and the subject, and that position is constituted by the expectation, the demand, from our partner to see what we see, in spite of the fact that we have no way of making him realize that he should’ [Baz, art. cit.: 107. The reference to Cavell is: Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy”, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1969), p. 89, footnote]. Though the expression we give to the seeing or dawning of aspects may look like giving a report, it is not used for that purpose. Rather, its aim is the seeking of intimacy. This is not the intimacy in which one reveals something about one’s heart or inner feelings; in giving expression to the seeing of aspects we seek intimacy with someone else by trying to reveal, to bring out, something about the object [Baz, art. cit.: 108]. When we say ‘It’s running!’ in front of a painting of a running horse we are not doing so in order to inform other people: it is a reaction in which people are in touch with one another. It is intimacy in this sense that characterises the predominant tone of Wittgenstein’s remarks on Frazer, many of which are cast in the form of avowals. The idea of intimacy hangs together with two further points, both of which have relevance to Wittgenstein’s discussion. The first is that aspects are subject to the will. The second is that an aspect is something that strikes us. Dependency on the will means that it makes sense to say: ‘Now see the figure like this’. In real life situations, it makes sense for me to ask you to see, or at least try to see, the resemblance between two faces that has struck me, and it makes sense for Wittgenstein to ask his readers to see the resemblance between the drawing of lots and a manner of speaking. Thus, if there is an air of paradox attaching to the dawning of an aspect, it derives from the fact that the aspect ‘appears over there, in the object, and yet we know we must have had something to do with that appearance’ [Baz, art. cit.: 110]. We know that what has so radically changed, now that we have seen or been struck by the aspect, has in another sense not changed at all. It is as though we were bringing a concept to bear on the object, which is why, as Baz points out, ‘the aspect cannot be our (or the) usual, obvious way of seeing the object, but rather has to be new to us’ [Baz, art. cit.: 111]. The aspect is not obviously there, as a property might be, but neither have we placed it there by a pure act of the imagination. Baz writes:

It is this peculiarity of the aspect – its being something that fits the object, and at the same time something that we bring to the object; its being a way of seeing something anew while remaining faithful to it – that gives expressing it its point in ordinary contexts. [Baz, art. cit.: 111]

It is precisely this dynamic that Wittgenstein respects in his account how he stands towards the fire festivals. His consideration of them is subtly balanced, between the ‘inner nature’ or physiognomy of the rites themselves, and the character of the people who celebrated them. It is for this reason that the festivals can only be understood in a certain spirit, one which we impute to those who performed them from an experience in ourselves.


The pertinence of the discussion thus far to the manner of our response to horror cinema may, I think, be established by reference to the work of Jean Louis Schefer. Schefer writes:

It’s true that we – all of us – go to the cinema to see simulations that are terrible to one degree or another, and we don’t go to partake of a dream. Rather for a share of terror, for a share of the unknown, things like that. . . . . Which is to say that, at bottom, the cinema is an abattoir. People go to the abattoir, not to see images coming one after the other. Something else happens inside them: a structure that is otherwise acquired, otherwise possible, painful in other ways, and which is perhaps tied inside us to the necessity of producing meaning and language. [The Enigmatic Body, ed. and trans. Paul Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 120]

Cinema appears, for Schefer, to be less an art-form than a kind of public spectacle of death and deformation—an abattoir, or perhaps a freak-show, or even an execution. An instance of his approach is his discussion of Tod Browning’s Freaks. It is a film that puts before us the tantrums, pain and anger of dwarfs, their emotions expressed in high pitched voices, and reduced, as Schefer puts it, to tiny clenched fists and minuscule tears. And because of the reduction in scale of the persons who suffer, there is invoked in us a sense of revulsion. Our bodies are not like theirs, and the pain of their unrequited love ‘is for us nothing more than the fate of painfully small dolls’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 121]. This he condemns as frightening—the worst kind of butchery. In the cruelty of our sarcasm, we look down on them, and it seems that there is no way for the small protagonist, a being in the process of discovering the world’s bitterness, to escape his fate, when he can’t even reach the door handle. The meaning of the scene dawns on us only later, ‘in the wake of the emotional instability of such tiny bodies. It arrives when we begin to ask, “Why is our hell so small?’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 121].

These comments read like a gloss on a remark Schefer makes elsewhere: ‘The image can only be seen by way of what it lacks’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 120], in which he seems to be giving voice to an idea not unlike Wittgenstein’s, concerning what it is to be struck by an image. For Wittgenstein, there is a kind of double movement, whereby we bring a concept to what we see, so that seeing an aspect might be likened to an echo of a thought in sight or a palpable reverberation of such a thought. And so it is in the case of Freaks, where, according to Schefer, we come to see the film later, as though our thought were echoing from it back towards us. In a subtle and intricate passage, Schefer develops this idea, suggesting that there is a mystery attaching to the meaning we add to an image, which is linked to something we can never be sure about: what we are adding to the image may simply be ‘ourselves’. There is meaning in what in what’s projected, a meaning that is not simply an extension of ourselves, and yet we recognise ourselves in it. Schefer wants to say that words like ‘guilty’, ‘criminal’ and ‘sin’ attach themselves to our involvement in this spectacle:

Crime isn’t the act of extortion in the world. It designates a man tied by signs to the limits of his universe, and this man, guilty even before infringing any laws, is guilty because he reveals himself as a subject in this universe, and because within him there is the consciousness of this world without freedom to which he himself is the link. [The Enigmatic Body, p. 130]

The guilt here is that of an ‘original sin’, arising from the primordial separation that makes meaning possible: guilt is inherent in the very fact of signification. It is this truth that the monsters and freaks of cinema embody. They exist frequently as impossible figures outside conventional meaning who return us to what Schefer calls ‘the interior body’, the enigmatic uniqueness of the individual existence of each one of us that is essentially paradoxical, a grounding of our being outside the law in what is ungraspable. It is this, the being of my being, that the freaks Schefer discusses make me aware of. Dudley Andrew has argued that Schefer ‘lodges the dialectic at the very heart of this primary fact of viewing: at the cinema we are both ourselves and the representation built for us’ [Concepts in Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 189]. We are, so to speak, subject to the representation and yet at the same time have dominion over it. Hence, the viewing experience is, as Schefer presents it, an interminable repetition of the dawning of aspects, inasmuch as it involves a developing interplay between the confined and the excessive, the doxical and the paradoxical. It is to explore this that he turns to concrete instances, in the manner of the later Barthes, eschewing the systematic structures of explanation to be found in Metz and other film theorists of a similar psychoanalytic persuasion. Again like Barthes, he is prepared to give himself over to the fascination of the image, a memorable example of which is the section entitled The Sausage, another consideration of a moment from Freaks.

A white man, in medium shot, on the right of the frame, stands casually, addressing a black man lying on a table. His right hand is extended, having just placed a cigarette in the black man’s mouth. The figure on the table lacks arms and legs, and is dressed in a white woollen sweater, with a darker woollen strip like a cummerbund around his waist. The sausage man has just lit the cigarette, using only his mouth to strike a match from a box placed on a small plinth in front of him. Schefer asks: ‘Is this still a man, or a monster? Is it a man other than in the face, where he can seem indifferently sublime or horrible?’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 123] Then something strikes him. The figure, reduced to a single swaddled member, suddenly evokes the idea of the Husserlian reduction, or bracketing, of phenomena, that allows us to get at essences. This avowal is then developed further, into a series of more disquieting questions. ‘What does such a sausage do, not about his desires or about sleeping, but what does he do with his excrement?’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 123] Do we not feel our own arms stuck to our sides as his are? Could it be that we too are that larva, without arms or legs? Could it be that maybe what we see here in this primordial form is a being that is also profoundly ours? Perhaps the cigarette stuck in his mouth is meant to prevent him speaking to that part of ourselves that is indeed that. Did this man ever know the pangs of love? It may be, says Schefer, that a monster is nothing other than a perpetual suffering of love, and its animal lament.

This account of The Sausage corresponds very precisely to Dudley Andrew’s description of how Schefer’s writing ‘answers to the call expressed by the text in the aspirations and gutturals of its voice. To utter an expression is more than to designate a meaning; it is to respond to a situation with a certain cry’ [Concepts in Film Theory, p. 190]. There is evident in Schefer’s avowals an expressive and unhesitating response which is inseparable from being struck by an aspect of something, and it is equally clear that his basic response is one of horror. According to the tradition within which Schefer situates himself, a tradition deriving from Hegel, and whose literary exemplars include Mallarmé, Valéry and Ponge, the act of writing is inseparable from death—the death of things as things. The act of naming, of substituting a word for a thing or sensation, delivers things to us, but only at the cost of subordinating them to concepts and so depriving them of their being. To write is therefore to murder, and every poem is—as T.S. Eliot has it—an epitaph. Maurice Blanchot has made the position clear:

For me to be able to say, “This woman” I must somehow take her flesh and blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost its being─the very fact that it does not exist. [Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill, 1981), p. 2]

Tzvetan Todorov takes a similar view. He argues that literature cannot be simply a tracing or image of reality, of what is not itself. Words do not have their life in relation to the things to which they refer; for writing to be possible it must be born out of the death of what it is speaking about. And yet this death makes writing impossible, since there is no longer anything for writing to engage with.

Literature can become possible only insofar as it makes itself impossible. Either what we say is actually here, in which case there is no room for literature; or else there is room for literature, in which case there is no longer anything to say. [The Fantastic, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 175]

The conclusion is inescapable: for writing to be literature it must be literature, and, at the same time and in the same sense, not literature. It seems obvious enough that a statement of this kind amounts to a violation of the law of non-contradiction, that is, that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true. Todorov would thus seem to have committed himself to a genuine contradiction, saying of the same thing that it exists and does not exist. It is, however, a contradiction that is more apparent than real. The position derives from an identification of a Kantian concern for the possibility of meaning with the ‘transcendence’ of meaning, with that which is taken to lie beyond meaning. It is an identification—or slippage—that serves to locate the possibility of meaning in its impossibility, and the resulting equivocation, while important for Todorov’s critical endeavour concerning the modern fantastic, is no less fundamental to Blanchot, especially in relation to his exploration of romantic, symbolist and post-symbolist poetry, a poetry he encounters crucially in the work of Hölderlin, Mallarmé and Rilke. What contradiction amounts to here is the proposal that within the actual practice of specific poets a set of conflicting assertions is put into play, and the resulting self-conscious juxtaposition of different perspectives on what is represented calls the status of literature into question. Hence, the modern fantastic does not induce hesitation concerning what it represents; it stands in a hesitant relation to itself. It is an art based on equivocation and ambivalence, and like the poetry of symbolism it attends above all to the process of its own coming into being. In this sense, it may be said to articulate its own impossibility. As Rosemary Jackson has noted, the fantastic understood in this way is based on a split between things that have no names (It, The Thing, and so on) and empty signs, which are devoid of meaning (names such as Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu’ or ‘Nyarlathotep’, or Poe’s ‘bobok’), and whose only reality derives from their own palpability as words [Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy:The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 38-40]. Jackson quotes Sartre, who considers the modern fantastic, as exemplified by Blanchot’s Kafka-like récit, Aminadab, to be a language of non-signifying signs, which lead nowhere. They are means without ends, which appear full and yet are capable of achieving only a terrible emptiness. In Sartre's words:

The law of the fantastic condemns it to encounter instruments only. These instruments are not…meant to serve men, but rather to manifest unremittingly an evasive, preposterous finality. This accounts for the labyrinth of corridors, doors and staircases that lead to nothing, the innumerable signs that line the road and that mean nothing. In the ‘topsy-turvy’ world, the means is isolated and is posed for its own sake. [[Jackson, op. cit., p. 41. Cited from Situations 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 130]

As with the Beltane Fire Festivals, we experience a mode of uncanny meaninglessness, an experience part of whose horror lies in its lack of purpose.


I will seek to bring the themes of this essay together by reference to two films, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece of 1943, Day of Wrath. Hooper’s film contains in its last reel a scene of extraordinary ferocity and madness, in which Sally Hardesty, the one person left alive after the depredations of Leatherface, is subjected to a horrifying ordeal by the crazed family whose captive she is. The living members of the family would seem made up of a grandfather and three grandsons, the old man having worked in his younger days killing cattle in the slaughterhouses of Texas. The grandsons urge him on to repeat his exploits by killing Sally in the same fashion, by hitting her on the head so hard that she drops dead. The old man is too feeble, however, and the hammer falls nervelessly from his withered hand, clattering into a tin bucket, above which Sally is held by the brothers. Her screams are piercing and interminable, driven as she is to unmitigated dementia by fear and horror. The power of the scene derives in part from its combination of the domestic—the brothers are sitting down to a dinner of meat cooked by Leatherface, who takes on the role of mother—and utter derangement. It is quite possible see the film against the background of the Western, and to contrast the heroics of Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking with the abject degeneration of Leatherface. [Compare Horror, ed. Phil Hardy (London: Aurum Press, 1985), p. 298.] One might also contrast the themes of wilderness and civilisation, in order to suggest how the degeneracy of the family involves a confusion of that opposition. Degenerate descendants of the pioneers though they may be, they also represent the values of business (the older brother complains bitterly about the power of big government and the burdens of taxation) which have destroyed the wilderness the pioneers opened up. Nonetheless, the film reaches beyond these possibilities of interpretation and meaning, into a weird carnival of human destruction. The scene is protracted beyond the needs of the narrative, until the exuberance and jubilation of the family and the monotonous screaming of the girl combine to create an effect of suspension. The film seems to fold back on itself, as its kinetic energy slows down in response to the repeated actions of the family and the unvarying agony of the girl. An uncanny meaninglessness attaches to what takes place, and the viewer is brought—as in Schefer’s tableau of the abattoir—not to see images following one after the other, in narrative order, but to share in the unknown, and to sense something of what exists there. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre creates a parodic vision of tribal transgression, in which, for the duration of the festivities, the forbidden becomes the norm and the appeasement of the divine urge to ruin and destroy becomes the ground of action. The sublimity of so outrageous a pretension is acknowledged in the film’s final image, as Leatherface swings his chainsaw in great sweeping arcs above his head in salutation to the rising sun.

Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, is set in 1623. Witchcraft and the burning of witches are central to it, an issue that ultimately focuses on the figure of Anne. She is the young wife of an elderly priest, Absalon, living in his house with him and his mother, Merete. The first part of the film lays out the indictment for witchcraft of an old woman, Herlofs Marte, and her subsequent capture, trial by torture and burning. Absalon plays a crucial role in this, authorising the indictment, overseeing her trial and signing her death warrant. Following the old woman’s death, the second section of the film centres on the love between Anne and Martin, Absalon’s son, concluding with Absalon’s death. In the final sequence of the film, Anne, Martin, Merete and the elders of the church are gathered around Absalon’s coffin. It is here that Anne is accused of the murder of her husband by witchcraft, and the bewitchment of Martin. The accuser is Merete, the priest’s mother. On hearing the denunciation, Martin abandons Anne, moving around his father’s coffin to stand alongside his grandmother. Anne herself has been a figure of ambivalence throughout the film: there has been a consistent hesitation in the manner of her presentation, and we are never certain as to whether or not she is possessed of demonic powers. In effect, the film offers in Anne a clear focus for what Todorov defines as the classic dynamic of the fantastic—we hesitate between a natural explanation for her actions and a supernatural one. This same hesitation continues now, as she confesses to the crime, a confession that must send her to the stake. The motivation for the confession remains unclear and Dreyer does nothing to establish it more certainly. At the very end, Anne raises her eyes from her dead husband, lying before her, and looks off-screen, an act David Bordwell reads as follows: ‘The look, at nothing, breaking once and for all from the gazes of the social and natural worlds, defines her entry into a new realm’ [The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (Berkeley: University of califormia Press, 1981), p. 139]. Bordwell takes this view to be supported by the film’s transition at this point to the Dies Irae scroll, which intervenes finally to break off the narrative in a moment of abrupt intervention, as the words of the scroll move up the screen, accompanied by images and music. Bordwell contends that the image supplementing the first verse, showing souls being transported to heaven, and that supplementing the second verse, of men and women kneeling at the foot of the cross, is an implicit act of absolution. Anne is absolved in this way of whatever she has done, and the film’s hesitations about her motives are negated by fiat [The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, p. 140]. However, the final image of the film is of the black cross superimposed over the scroll. The cross remains after the scroll has left the screen, placed on a white ground (in a manner reminiscent of the ending of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest). As we watch this final image, two diagonal pieces appear at its top, pointing downward, a witch emblem, evoking the cross present at the immolation of Herlofs Marte. The cross signals to us that Anne has similarly been burnt alive in the name of the cross. The question of absolution remains as uncertain as the question of Anne’s spiritual powers, and the juxtaposition of these images in no way resolves it.

Day of Wrath points in exactly the same direction as do the descriptions of the Beltane Fire Festivals. What is deep and sinister in Dreyer’s film arises from the eruption of the demonic into a world that is recognisable in its stability or order, while in the people themselves there is something that induces an impression of terror and sense of dread. The awfulness of the solemnity with which the torture of an old woman is conducted, the fact that when she is burnt her immolation is accompanied by a choir of young boys, the grave hypocrisy of Absalon’s piety, the implacable hatred visible in Merete’s face whenever she sees or speaks to Anne, the failure of Martin to support the woman whom he has assured of his love when confronted by Merete’s denunciation—these confirm one’s sense of how human beings are, ‘of what I have seen and heard about, in myself and others’. The meaninglessness of what we see, and the lack of redemptive significance in it, return us to the darkness within ourselves. In other words, Day of Wrath betrays itself to its own undoing. The film is split from itself, in a movement of double negation that turns it towards the outside, the exterior, beyond language and concept, where there is no intimacy, no place to rest. The work says the nothing that is the condition of its simultaneous possibility and impossibility. And this nothing is made palpable in the final image of the cross. Here, too, we may be struck by the pertinence of Freud’s discussion of the uncanny: das Unheimliche, in art as in life, is the occurrence of a consciousness that is attenuated, incapable of mastery over its own negativity. Like the narrator of Poe’s 'The Premature Burial' or the protagonist of Dreyer’s Vampyr, it is as though in certain horror films we were solicited by images from which we cannot escape, and which condemn us to the ultimate horror—that of the impossibility of dying.

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