the powers of horror

“got me a movie / I want you to know / slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know / girlie so groovy / I want you to know / wanna grow up to be / be a debaser” -Francis Black

I have been reading a lot of gender theory recently. I’m ambivalent about the genre as a whole, and had previously considered myself to be sitting in the stands of the opposing team when it comes to it’s application to pre-modern Japanese art history, should there ever be a dance-off between the two (there definitely will be). It’s dangerous and often irresponsible to apply these kinds of concepts backwards in time to a culture that did not recognize them. When looking for female perspectives in the artworks of a pre-modern society, it is very tempting to attribute more power and progressive ways of thinking to these women than they had; to try to liberate them retrospectively. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been artistic contributions by female artists in the past, just that it’s unreasonable to assume they considered themselves as speaking out against their patriarchal societies, or that we should construct elaborate interpretative theories that allow them to do so.

However. I have actually gotten a great deal out of this class so far – at the very least reading feminist theory and attempting to analyze images accordingly opens up a whole new way of seeing the material, which is illuminating in its own way whether or not you agree with the interpretation. Even so, I had to suppress an eyeroll after being handed an essay of feminist psychoanalytic theory the size of a telephone directory this week. I mean, come on. How helpful is it really to point at things and shout ‘phallic’? Sometimes a cylindrical object is just a cylindrical object. And no, that’s not penis-envy talking. It’s just a mother-f**cking pen. For crying out loud, that last sentence has nothing to do with Freud. I can’t say anything any more.

Anyway, so I started reading this tome by Julia Kristeva, who devotes a lot of her time discussing ‘the abject.’ This refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality). The abject is not a property of either the object or the subject, it is situated, rather, at a place in our personal histories before we entered into the symbolic order of language and concept formation, from a time in our infancy before we had separated ourselves in our consciousness from other things. It is a primeval state of between-ness, and when we are brought into confrontation with the abject we are threatened with the breakdown of the boundaries that we draw between self and other, which is um like, pretty much everything our functioning lives are based on.

So far, so psychoanalytic. In my class we are looking at images of female corpses in relation to the abject. Specifically, those series of decomposing bodies that make up the 九相詩絵巻 genre, or handscrolls of the nine stages of decomposition – part of a group of works originally intended for Buddhist meditative practices on the transience of corporeal existence. Corpses are pretty good at evoking the abject – images of their decay demonstrate the breakdown of the skin, the most tangible barrier we have between ourselves and the outside, that is, between self and other. According to early Indian sources, monks would actually visit charnel houses and observe the decay of the human body over time in order to truly confront the impermanent nature of corporeal existence (since living bodies emit fluids and wastes in a way thought analogous to the putrefaction of the corpse), and through disgust, vehemently reject it. Using exclusively female bodies in these representations is not accidental – across most periods and cultures, the feminine is identified with corporeality; nature and earth as opposed to intellect and reason. In Buddhism, women were generally thought to be incapable of achieving enlightenment since they were subject to the five (or seven, depending on who you ask) hindrances, necessarily confined to earthly realms by our inherently polluted bodies. Historically, Buddhism is centered around male institutions in which monks are supposed to live celibate lives, and meditating on the decay of the female body enables the practitioner to come to realize Buddhist truths about transience, and importantly, dissuade him from engaging in physical relationships with women. Women then, are not entirely bad – the sheer force of our repugnance can bring about the necessary conditions for (male) enlightenment. That’s kind of a back-handed compliment.

According to Kristeva, representations of the abject in art, literature, and religion are attempts to purify it. Like the catharsis we achieve by simulated terror in response to horror movies, we can take a kind of pleasure in confronting the abject, as it is closely related to what Kristeva terms ‘the uncanny’. The uncanny is the feeling of familiarity we can experience when we confront something that is nonetheless alien or previously unknown to us. It’s obviously hard to talk about the abject, since it is meant to be something prior to conceptual and symbolic formulation, but the relationship between the abject and the uncanny is made clearer in the wonderful quote from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed:

“A real fire is quite another matter: there the horror and a certain sense of personal danger, combined with the well-known exhilarating effect of a fire at night, produce in the spectator…a certain shock to the brain and, as it were, a challenge to his own destructive instincts, which, alas, lie buried in the soul of even the meekest and most domesticated official of the lowest grade. This grim sensation is almost always delightful. I really don’t know if it is possible to watch a fire without some enjoyment.”

Since the abject precedes conceptual divisions between self and other, its horror is something that we recognize as essentially part of ourselves, we partake of it in this undifferentiated state of being. We are, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject – and some of us (much) more than others. The subject of the meditational benefits of the cadaver can be traced back to the literature of early Indian Buddhism, but it is only in Japan that paintings of female corpses are usually found. Japanese art bridges an extraordinary contradiction here – Buddhism can be broadly characterized as an abhorrence of evanescence, and yet we must agree with Donald Keene in his assessment that impermanence is a “necessary condition of beauty” in Japanese culture. It is repeated to the point of cliche that Japanese art revels in the transient – falling cherry blossoms and turning autumn leaves are ever present examples of the Japanese taste for works that evoke the impermanence of beauty. It is impossible to think of these scrolls as having only didactic value without consideration to their aesthetic appeal – the female corpse is executed through laborious technique in meticulous detail. With layers of expensive pigment we are shown each hair of the dog’s pelt that gnaws her, the striations on the bodies of the maggots that consume her.

victim of a smear campaign

If you would be kind enough, please recall a poem I mentioned some time ago, written by the poetess Ono no Komachi (pretend you can). In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Komachi was identified in poetry and other literature with the rotting female corpse in these works, and occasionally explicitly mentioned on the scrolls themselves as having the dubious honour of the starring role. This was some time after her death and although little was actually known about her, from the thirteenth century on she had become a legendary figure. Her reputation was as beautiful and intelligent, but cold – she caused the men who pursued her to become consumed by desire and die. The later accounts describe her in her twilight years in a way that exaggerates the natural aging process to an almost comical degree – she didn’t just get old, she got decrepit, she didn’t just lose her youthful beauty, she was haggard, she became desolate and impoverished, and so on and so forth. Particularly in light of this interesting development it is easy to read these scrolls as being highly misogynistic; everything decays in Buddhism so it seems excessive to focus exclusively on the degeneration of the female body. There are no images of this type featuring male corpses. And singling out Komachi, known as the most beautiful woman in history and as the only female member of the legendary six poets of Japan, in order to revel voyeuristicly in her (constructed) fall from grace seems particularly vicious and unnecessary.

To me, as images they are of questionable value for meditation, since they are not of the abject. They do not really bring us into jolting contact with our own corporeality for it has been removed, codified and symbolized into a pictorial format, and further sanitized when viewed in its original context as part of a sermon. Since it is a pre-conceptual force, the abject cannot be represented and therefore defies any form of symbolic articulation, whether linguistic or visual. Some (female) scholars have attempted to read these images in a more positive light, in the tradition of the collapse of self and other that characterized the mode of Buddhist thought called hongaku. In hongaku, there is no such thing as a lesser being, since everything is recognized as one. There are no absolutes and no separation of the qualities of good and evil, ugly and beautiful. Differences are collapsed, and Komachi partakes of the Buddha nature just as the Buddha partakes in hers.

I’m somewhat more suspicious, but in any case it’s not because of a feminist perspective that I want to study images like this. I definitely do – I’ll take a gratuitous decaying corpse over a chocolate-box landscape any day of the week – and Kristeva claims to know why I (more than most) am perpetually drawn to depictions of the grotesque. But reading psychoanalytic theories about deviant emotional and sexual development is probably not a good idea when you’re unhinged. You’re bound to find something that fits; it’s like giving a hypochondriac a medical encyclopaedia and telling them to pick their top 5. Perhaps interpreting my own past according to these theories is just as irresponsible as applying them to pre-modern Japan. Sometimes you just have to close the book.

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3 Responses to the powers of horror

  1. Josh Warren says:

    “Buddhism can be broadly characterized as an abhorrence of evanescence” – I realise that it’s been over a year since you wrote this and no one may ever see this comment, but I just wanted to say I’m really enjoying these essays, and offer an alternative perspective on this characterisation of Buddhism in relation to putrefying women. So here’s a link!

  2. 1ppikiookami says:

    Aw, thanks Josh. That link is great. I have been thinking for a while about starting to write again, I lost confidence. Nice to know someone is reading them 😛

    • Josh Warren says:

      Please do! I think that in your combination of academic writing and self-scrutiny the two elements benefit each other. It’s good to read the voice of a *person* studying art rather than a disembodied intellect. And it gives me an excuse to fantasise about the academic career that could’ve been 🙂

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