The Artist as Serial Killer

The story of Pygmalion is a gloss by an optimist upon what gets done by artists. So in this story there’s no murder. Having created her out of ivory, the artist falls in love with Galatea. After she is brought to life by Aphrodite she goes on to bear him a son.

Or perhaps you should ‘murder your darlings’. This was Q’s advice (Arthur Quiller Couch: On the Art of Writing, 1914) though it’s been claimed on behalf of others. The context is what Q calls ‘purchased ornamentation’. The ones you fall in love with are the worst. The artist must be rigorously unsentimental about such things and always chuck out what is dross.

Then there’s Beckett’s onwards and upwards version, likewise fairly terse: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ which comes from Worstward Ho. Do it better next time, if you can: a story of making progress.

So ‘fail better’ towards some end? Which is where progress always leads us. Not necessarily. The same phrase was recently used, unacknowledged, as the title for a piece by Zadie Smith on writers and readers in The Guardian. Though she does quote Adam Zagajewski: a story of Hunt the self. But what exactly is the self? ‘It likes to dress up, to masquerade’:

‘Neither custom officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.’
(Adam Zagajewski, from The Self)

‘To me,’ Smith comments:

‘writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation – as Zagajewski suggests – is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience.’
(Writing as Self Betrayal, from Fail Better)

But unfortunately there’s a kind of prurient chastity about this sort of thing. The self plays Peekaboo. At the point of total disclosure time would stop. Whereupon the self would presumably stand there motionless and naked like the girls at the Windmill Theatre. Yet time doesn’t stop like that. Rather it avoids such indecent truth because if time really were to seize up there would be no more artistic production, no more ‘analysis’ in Lacan’s terms. Instead time just carries on regardless like the Ford or Fiat production lines in 60s capitalism. And in that case doesn’t writing (don’t all the arts indeed) become a sort of all encompassing narcissism (a kind of personal subsumption by each artist) for ever holding the floor and yet never quite reaching the end? I’d tell you everything about myself, is what’s implied by this conception, except that isn’t possible. Which also leaves the arts without any social dimensions. Or, like Mobius the Stripper in Josipovici’s titular apothegm, a surface with only one side. (In Josipovici’s split screen story Mobius reveals himself psychologically across the top half of each page. Eventually he kills himself, leaving the final top half blank. Conversely it is only during the remainder of that page that a writer who has been struggling to engage with what he’s doing across each lower half can now begin writing fluently.)

Obviously there’s a connection here with Ovid. Like Zagajewski’s quoted poem, Ovid’s telling of the Narcissus myth is a sort of parable of nominalism (how the word for the thing and the thing itself become detached from one another) and maybe too of phenomenalism: how the things of the world become bundles of sensory inputs. Echo loves Narcissus but she can only echo him, and so she pines away; she leaves behind only her voice. Narcissus loves the image of himself, and ends up suicidal.

But with this difference, that implicate in this version is the social dimension. Without a sense of herself, in other words, Echo is nothing; but without a sense of other people, Narcissus is also doomed.

*

And yet ‘each man kills the thing he loves,’ according to Oscar Wilde. So the impulse towards murder isn’t just about moving on or about failing better despite what’s been said above. Nor yet is it about something that’s postponed through endless self revelation or about bringing all that to an end.

It’s implicit in Catullus, for example:

Odi et amo, quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and love. Perhaps you ask how I can do this.
I don’t know, but I feel it happen and I’m crucified.
(Carmen 85)

Here a chiasmus structure binds together exteriority and interiority, positive and negative, empathy and exclusion (‘hate and love’ versus ‘feel it […] and am crucified’) into a single unit, a completed conceptual object full of potential for action but without the action itself.

But whereas Catullus creates an object kept suspended in the present, Rodchenko describes an inflection of this, an object which is receding into the past or from which he himself is moving forward into the future: The lingering last hopes of love are destroyed, and I leave the house of dead truth’. This is history conceived of as a sort of numinous object: ‘The crushing of all -isms in painting was for me the beginning of my resurrection,’ was how he had also put it. It’s something that results from some sort of course of action, that’s equipped with both an outside and an inside (like the inclusion and exclusion in Catullus) even though it’s since been emptied of its potential and is thus described as ‘useless’, and with a structure that had been sketched out through time rather as a building is stretched out in space but which now obtrudes, albeit briefly, into the present:

‘When I look at the number of paintings I have painted I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them. There are over 10 years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose.’
(Alexandr Rodchenko, in Novyi Lef, no 6, 1927)

The filaments of Kafka’s Odradek, another inflection, in Die Sorge des Hausvaters: The Cares of a Family Man, stretch out not only through time but also in space. For Kafka, though, it’s the narrator who is history, exceeded by his conception, some ‘useless’ thing or creature, some ‘strange bobbin whose true form we will never know, still less the purpose of its existence’ but which moves nonetheless in a contrary direction to that of Rodchenko’s church, out of the past, through the present and so on into the future, like the progress of DNA, as Kafka contemplates his own extinction with disquiet.

Girolamo De Michele writes of it thus:

‘It exists but it doesn’t have any function; it has a form, and yet it is formless. It is suspended in an intermediate dimension, as though halfway between some useless object that has lost all function and an object that’s going to be reused for purposes that are both new and unexpected.’
(Girolamo De Michele: New Italian Epic e allegoria, in Carmilla)

And Kafka himself writes as follows:

‘I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that I can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I do find almost painful.’
(Kafka: Die Sorge des Hausvaters, The Cares of a Family Man)

Of course, an object that’s ‘lost all function’ has become entirely external in how it is perceived. Its pointlessness excludes us or we have turned away from what’s within. However, it is still an object, something that’s been created, retaining full interiority nonetheless. Conversely the object ‘that’s going to be used for purposes that are both new and unexpected’ (the example De Michele himself comes up with is the McGuffin, the television protagonist of Wu Ming’s 54) may have no content as such (the McGuffin lost its innards). However, it can still offer possibility, the possibility of approach and entering into, of filling with new content, thereby remaining an object. Even the surprise of disappointment is on offer:

‘When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me, so of course I was surprised.’
(Wittgenstein: Culture and Value)

Or that which Duchamp offers in what Lazzarato calls the ‘null set’ of the readymade, which also remains an object, to which there’s nothing added except the artist’s choice.

*

In Hi/story, I wrote of time as extension (the winding road, the hands of the clock, how many hours have gone by) against time as intension: of how it feels to be here now, to be doing these things and to have these affiliations. The mechanisation of time is, in many ways, the beginning of its failure as a whole. Indeed the Taylorised factory may have begun along with the clock, whose hands complete and re-complete their frictionless journeys endlessly, over and over, without accumulation or result.

When Q advises murder it’s in the service of one’s craft, in the pursuit of some single and excellent object: excellence as a remainder. For Beckett that pursuit is in the plural, of better and better objects: steady progress up a hill. But for Zadie Smith it’s the production line itself that really counts: an endless succession of essentially fungible manufactures, where time is never switched off.

In Carmen 85 the ‘object’ Catullus creates is fully formed, but all movement is in potential. That is, it has no extension, being virtually pure intension, pure affiliation. Rodchenko’s 10 years’ production, on the other hand, is his own artistic practice perceived as a sort of perdurance: thingness dividing itself into its various temporal parts as the world gets divided even as we travel along the road, through different towns and villages, watchful of the scenery. Whilst his ‘useless … church’ is a sort of endurance: a sense of the temporal wholeness of the world as it continues, along with us. So that any decisive movement there is, whatever distance he sets, is not of time but of the attention and of purpose: he moves forwards, leaving his ‘church’ behind as a sort of detritus. Whereas Kafka privileges the object over the human, endurance over perdurance. So that whilst Humanity is maintained through successive generations the continuance of Odradek, by contrast, is as an entity that is permanently single, undivided.

In other words time, as a concept at least, persists.

*

And yet sometimes something happens that’s quite different, that finally cuts through time. In Antonio Scurati’s Il sopravissuto, a boy walks into the gymnasium of his school. He’s meant to be taking his viva. Instead, in a destructively creative act (Scurati is explicit about ‘the basis of its analogy with the work of art’) he shoots dead seven teachers. Only one is left behind: the ‘survivor’ of the title.

So why exactly does he do it?

One theory (that of the criminologist, Dr Salini) is that the ‘serial killer’ works in a circle, that he selects ‘trophies’ (aspects of the loved one reflected in the victim), constantly narrowing in a deferred or indirect way the gap between ‘the original’ (the one that’s loved and hated) and ‘its similar’, who’s the victim, until Browne’s ‘mortal right lined circle must conclude and shut up all.’ Until, that is, the circle reaches its end (or its beginning) ‘either with the capture of the murderer or with the death of the loved one’.

Significantly, Salini delivers this explanation within the gym itself, where it’s framed by an obscurity, by a lack of differentiation that’s on the one hand both external and geographical (‘[O]utside the gym … in whatever direction one turned, North, South, East or West, one saw only accumulations of water vapour in suspension’) and on the other both internal and temporal: ‘Everything in the gym, the walls, the furnishings, the men, was pasted together out of blind materiality. One was in the instant prior to the creation of a universe that was endlessly deferred.’

So time has stopped. At least for now.

‘We are living,’ as the text announces later, ‘through a back-to-front creation.’ A more social situation than had been described within the gym, and one in which, as the survivor puts it, the killer (or the artist):

‘wants it to be us that finds the reason for what he did, the reason not even he can understand. We and he are complementary moves within the same debate. In killing he has put the question. In living we have been asked to come up with the response. We have been called upon to complete that which he has begun […] This is what he wants from you: he wants you to be the one that closes up the circle […]

‘Don’t pay any attention to common sense. Here in the zone of contact, the cause does not precede the effect. Here the chronological order doesn’t matter. Here the cause of what has been done not only still has to be discovered but actually does not yet exist.’
(Antonio Scurati: Il sopravissuto)

Almost as though reprising Michaelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the killer had even pointed his finger out towards the survivor (‘It wasn’t an act of aggression, rather it was an election’) during the very moment of the killings. But with this difference, that in Scurati’s version of what happens Andrea Marescalchi has to step forward from the crowd through the fact of his survival, through his (negative) selection by the killer, whereas the killer himself, Vitaliano Caccia, seems to recede from view altogether, just one amongst a crowd of disaffected youths, ‘the pointed end of the arrow’. Indeed he has acted, according to the Public Prosecutor, having been ‘chosen from within by a group of his own age to complete a death mission’, ‘a kind of collective mandate set by a group of his peers.’

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