A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
It’s been a long time
Since I last saw you
But I don’t care where you’ve been
Cause you ain’t felt anything
Until you’ve been with me
So come here
This very instance
For tonight’s the night
That I’m going to be with you.
My love is like theft
A redistribution of assets
You always possessed
So many fine things
While I such little.
You’re a sensitive girl
You know it’s not fair
You know it’s not right
Isn’t it about time
That you aided and abetted
Become my accomplice
My partner in crime
Tell me it is just so
By opening the gates
Spreading your legs wide
Lying bare your defences
So that I may plunder
All the treasures buried within
Despoil the sacred sanctuaries
Until you admit defeat
And surrender possession
Of yourself in all entirety.
Love is an assassination
An elimination of identity
Now I do not know
Where I finish and you begin
Is it your mouth or mine
That forms the words
That remain forever unsaid?
As I have noted in my previous posts (Fire & Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) on the French artist Yves Klein his entire body of work is devoted to the concept of the void. As well as the beautiful blue monochromes (inspired by the pellucid light of his birthplace, the Cote d’Azur) painted in his own patented colour International Klein Blue which conveys the pregnant emptiness of both eternity and infinity, and the Fire paintings saturated with esoteric doctrine, Klein also organised an exhibition in 1958 called Le Vide (The Void)that consisted of a empty gallery room painted entirely in white, and the photo-montage Leap Into The Void.
Leap Into the Void was an artistic action executed in 1960 involving Klein jumping from a building onto a tarpaulin held by his friends at ground level. He commissioned the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to create the seamless photo-montage that gives the impression of flight and a wilful, ecstatic abandon. To further the illusion of flight Klein distributed a fake news-sheet to Parisian newsstands commemorating the event of the Man in Space! The Painter of Space Throws Himself into the Void!.
In contrast to Klein’s monochromatic mystical void, the Argentinian director Gaspar Noe, one of the most notable figures of the New French Extremity, fills the void with sound and fury in his crazed Freudian psycho-drama Enter The Void. A bold, brilliant and often infuriating, psychedelic exploration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the void for Noe is a state of mind, death and the return to the source. Below is the frenetic opening credits which Noe condensed as he considered that the film was already too long. Please note that it contains flashing images throughout.
J.G Ballard once noted that the Marquis De Sade remains the spectre at the feast of European letters and thought. On the rare occasions when anyone decides to let him in from the cold, he leaves bloody footprints on the welcome mat.
A fiercely contrarian spirit, the Marquis has been variously called, by admirers and detractors alike: revolutionary, radical, reactionary, an anarchist, a socialist. Depending on who you read he is either a much maligned libertarian or he paved the theoretical way for the homicidal tyrants of the 20th century. No one can quite decide where the Marquis lies on the political spectrum. The debate is probably fiercest regarding his views on gender and pornography, understandably so as the body in De Sade is always the locus of power and freedom, but even here views diverge. Virulent misogynist whose fiction continually degrade and devalue women, or a radical feminist who, in one of his darkest fictions, Juliette, shows the possibility of complete female emancipation?
Illumination cannot be found in his life either. Strangely enough for a man who is know for transgression and excess, his behaviour as a free citizen in Republican Paris shows an unexpected moderation. De Sade didn’t avail himself of the unique opportunities present during the Terror, instead he kept a cool head while others were losing theirs.
After his release from prison in 1790 (see Citizen Sade), he lived in Paris with his mistress Marie Constant Quesnet and her six year old son. His long suffering wife Renee-Pelagie, after standing by him during the long years of imprisonment had obtained a divorce by this time. De Sade was elected to the National Convention and was appointed to the local Section Des Piques, one of the forty eight administrative divisions in the new Republic. It was in this position that he could have condemned his loathed in-laws, especially his mother-in-law, La Presidente who was responsible for the lettres de cachet that had caused him to be under lock and key for over a decade, to death. But he refrained; the Marquis De Sade had always been a principled opponent of the death penalty. This restrain and his criticism of Robespierre led to the Marquis being detained again in 1793, where he narrowly escaped execution due to a clerical error.
De Sade wrote a number of stirring pamphlets in defence of the Revolution, notably the famous Yet another effort, Frenchman, if you would become Republicans, nestled in his libertine classic La philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom). In this text De Sade gives an outline of his version of Utopia, a minimal state that interferes as little as possible with the rights of the individual. I shall by reviewing this work in greater depth and further detail in the next post on the Marquis.
In 1789 the Marquis De Sade was one of eight prisoners held in the state prison of Bastille. For a number of years he had been detained under lettres de cachet, a system were the King could imprison a subject without trial and without the opportunity of appeal. Lettres de cachet were one of the most hated features of the ancien regime, as it was open to a wide variety of abuses, notably the possible life-long detainment of embarrassing family members by wealthy and noble petitioners.
On the morning of July 2, the Marquis was in a highly excitable state and nervously paced the confines of his cell. His wife had told him about the chaos on the streets of Paris. The Marquis had noticed the stepping up of military preparations within the fortress. At noon his warden came to tell the Marquis that his daily walk around the prison grounds was cancelled for today, by the order of the commandant. Outraged by the loss of this privilege, the Marquis grabbed a long metal funnel, that was usually used to empty his chamber pot into the moat below, but also worked as an impromptu megaphone, and began to harangue the crowds below that the guards were slitting the prisoners throats and called upon the assembled mob to storm the fortress. After being subdued with great difficultly by a number of guards the Marquis was transferred from the Bastille to the mental asylum of Charenton.
Just 12 days later the Bastille was indeed stormed by the revolutionaries and the weapons and ammunition’s cache were seized. As a symbol of Royal authority its fall was especially significant. The French Revolution had begun in earnest and the world would never be the same again. One of the first things the new government did was to abolish the lettres de cachet and so on April the 2nd 1790 the Marquis Donatien Aphonse Francois De Sade left Charenton a free man for the first time in over a decade: and with this release was born Citizen Sade, revolutionary and man of letters.
The above imaginary portrait by Man Ray refers to this central event in De Sade’s life. De Sade is the imprisoned man whose entire countenance is made out of prison bricks who dreams of an absolute and terrifying freedom, looking on at the conflagration of the hated citadel of oppression. The text at the bottom of the painting is a quote from the De Sade’s last will and testament.
The interplay of light was different, even the seemed different to Max. As they walked along the avenue, the horizon stretched out before them indefinitely. He could detect the curvature of the earth —meaning that if they carried on walking as did, in a perfectly straight line, they would eventually reach this point again. There was no end. They were two tiny specks scurrying across the crust of a tiny ball spinning in space. For the first time, Max understood, really comprehended, that the world was round.
A heat haze shrouded the street, as the sun slowly but perceptibly leeched away all colour from their surroundings. Margot had dug out a pair of sunglasses from her small black handbag. As Max raised his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off the windscreens of the speeding cars, he cursed himself for not showing the same foresight. Each flash of light was like a blade slicing into his pupils. Max felt as exposed as a shucked oyster beneath a half lemon, poised to be squeezed. Glancing at Margot, he noted that she was as composed as ever. Nevertheless, she must have realised —either by intuition or telepathy, perhaps— his distress, because she paused and raised an arm.
Almost immediately, a black cab pulled over and they climbed in.
‘Euston Station, please.’ Margot said to the driver.
The driver started the meter and turned around to face them.
‘Are you young folks catching the train to anywhere nice?’ he asked.
Max looked at him in bewilderment. He was young for a taxi-driver and although his English was good, he spoke with an accent, perhaps German? That wasn’t the strange thing, though. His features were sharp and angular, yet the planes of his face failed to intersect. It was quite unsettling.
‘Oh, not really, just off to Birmingham to visit some friends,’ Max answered, bemused that he had lied for no reason whatsoever.
‘OK then, what time is your train?’ the driver asked, as he started up the engine. ‘Traffic is quite heavy and it is cross-town.’
Max turned to Margot but she was nestled in the corner, staring out of the window at the passing pedestrians. Obviously, it was up to him to make conversation with the driver, who, with his accent and heavy dark jacket (in this weather!) looked like a member of the Gestapo or the Stasi.
‘No particular time. I mean, we haven’t booked it or anything. I believe they run quite frequently, though. Maybe every hour on the half-hour… or is it every half-hour on the hour and at half past? Something like that, anyway… I think. Besides, I am sure we will get to Birmingham before night-time.’
The driver nodded without turning his head. Max hoped this was a sign that he could now stop babbling nonsensically, as it was a real effort not to give himself away. Surely, the driver could tell that he was out of it. Max imagined that the driver wasn’t a taxi-driver at all. He certainly didn’t look like your archetypal, loud-mouthed, pink-shirted, London cabbie. Maybe he was a former Stasi agent freelancing. Max looked again to Margot who, this time, returned his stare after pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head.
She didn’t speak, but in his head he could hear her saying not to panic. ‘That’s the cardinal rule, never ever panic.’
Was it a memory? Telepathy again? Whatever the case, Max felt calmer. His hand sought Margot’s hand lying limply on the seat between them, and when they touched, she interlaced their fingers and gave his hand a good squeeze. There, there now, that was much better. Much, much better. He could relax a little, despite the taxi driver watching them intently in the rear view mirror. Max was tempted to tell him to concentrate on the road ahead instead of spying on them, but thought better of it. It probably wouldn’t help matters, might even further arouse his suspicions.
The driver started rooting around in the glove compartment when the taxi stopped at a blocked intersection. After muttering what Max assumed were a string of German swear-words, he exclaimed with evident joy upon finding whatever he was searching for.
The traffic still hadn’t moved when the driver lit up what Max now realised was a joint. He opened the sliding glass panel and offered the joint to Margot, who accepted with a ‘why ever not?’ and an innocently winsome smile. Her left hand remained nestled in Max’s right hand, thankfully. He desperately needed that contact. The puzzle of the driver’s face was still terribly unnerving. Perhaps in some other dimension, those angles would form a pleasing symmetry.
After a couple of drags, Margot asked the driver if she could offer the joint to Max. The traffic had managed to unsnarl itself and they were at last, moving again through streets Max didn’t recognise. The driver nonchalantly waved his hand and said, ‘of course, plenty more where that came from.’
Max took the joint in his free left hand and inhaled deeply. It was strong stuff and it immediately reinforced the effects of whatever hallucinogen Margot had slipped him earlier. After a couple more heavy drags, he passed it back to the driver.
‘Thanks, its good is it not?’ the driver asked, then added, ‘What are all these people doing here?’
‘Yeah, it was excellent, thank you,’ Max answered. He had presumed the remarks about the people were a rhetorical question until he noticed the dubious-looking mob gathering outside as they passed. What indeed, were they doing on such an unprepossessing street corner in this rather unfashionable and frankly, quite desolate part of London? After what seemed a day and age, the taxi pulled up into the rank at Euston Station.
‘Here we are now. It’s eighteen pounds ninety, but we can call it fifteen pounds flat because of that hold-up.’
‘Oh, that’s very generous of you, but really not necessary. After all, you did help the time pass smoothly,’ Margot answered as she disengaged her hand from Max’s and pulled out three ten pound notes from her purse. She handed them over through the panel.
‘Really this is too much,’ he protested.
‘Not at all, your customer service skills are second to none. I can honestly say that this was the best taxi journey of my life.’
‘Thank you very much. I knew you were nice people as soon as I saw you on the street. Enjoy your trip to Birmingham,’ he said, as they tumbled out of the taxi in rather a heap.
Max felt quite dizzy. Margot took his hand and guided him through the entrance to the station.
‘Just concentrate on me, Max. Pay no attention to anyone but me, otherwise you’ll be getting the fear. God knows anyone could get the fear in this hideous hole at the best of times, but I have you covered. Do you trust me, Max?’ she asked him, her voice gentle, her mouth sweetly smiling. Her face, he suddenly realised, was simply angelic. It was like he was seeing her for the first time over again. No. Not true. He had never really seen her before this moment. All the other times were fleeting glimpses from a distance.
He trusted her totally.
But why? Was this trust misplaced? Did he actually know her any better now than he did this morning? This feeling of complete identification and of an absolute, telepathic communication —wasn’t it just an effect of the drugs? But even if it was, as he looked around at the surging crowds with their briefcases and handbags, these forever unreadable and unknowable strangers, he realised that this tenuous connection was all he had. He didn’t hesitate for a second longer.
‘Absolutely, I trust you, Margot. You’re still a complete mystery, of course, but I…feel like this is destined to be.’
‘That’s the spirit; you are your father’s son, after all. Come let’s get something to drink. After that we can sort out tickets and the such-like.. Everything is going to be peachy creamy, isn’t it Max? My brave little soldier.’
In 1953 the German writer and artist Unica Zurn met a fellow German artist who was intimately connected with the Surrealists, Hans Bellmer. Ominously Bellmer reportedly remarked on first seeing Zurn, “Here is the doll,” a reference to the extremely disturbing series of photographs Bellmer had taken during the thirties and forties of an articulated mannequin of his own creation. The image of the Doll appear to be more of a crime scene reconstruction of some imaginary act of horrific violation than traditional works of art.
Zurn who had been barely been able to make ends meet in Berlin as a short story writer re-located to Paris to be with Bellmer. Here she socialised with the Surrealists and other artists who along with Bellmer encouraged and nurtured her writings and drawings, most notably in the anagrammatic poems and automatic drawings of Hexentexte (Witches Writing) from 1954.She also collaborated with Bellmer on a series of explicit sado-masochistic images that featured her tightly bound with rope.
During the sixties Zurn experienced a number of mental breakdowns that led her to be institutionalised. In 1967 her short semi-autobiographical coming of age novel Dark Spring was published. Dark Spring is an unbearably intense novel, astounding in its misogyny and masochism. It also foreshadows her own suicide by jumping out of a window three years later in 1970.
Bellmer died in 1975 and at his request was buried next to Zurn in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in a tomb marked Bellmer-Zurn. Posthumous writings of Zurn include the truly remarkable The Man of Jasmine which is a highly stylised account of her friendship with the writer Henri Michaux (author of the Miserable Miracle).
Below are some examples of her anagrammatic poetry and automatic drawings that Zurn produced throughout her career.
AND IF THEY HAVE NOT DIED
I am yours, otherwise it escapes and
wipes us into death. Sing, burn
Sun, don’t die, sing, turn and
born, to turn and into Nothing is
never. The gone creates sense – or
not died have they and when
and when dead – they are not.
for H.B.Berlin 1956
YOU’LL FIND THE SECRET IN A YOUNG CITY
Youth sings: now the sea is your harbor. Is
dream and hunt, the spirit’s inner feast, that send
him into dark, stony days, yes, you! – and he’s
immune from hand and serious sense – yes, You! Victories are
found forebodings. You travel to the city of Jim-Sing.
Go into the youngest street and find Amin, the Ti.
He says: yes, no, once, never, enemy, courage, it, are, you, D,H,G.
Secret signature? Jade stone? You’ll find the meaning.
Ile de Ré 1964
WILL I MEET YOU SOMETIME?
After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.
In late 1929-early 1930 the poet, photographer, theoretician and co-founder of the Belgian Surrealist Group Paul Nougé created a series of 19 photographs that were collected and published as Subversion des Images in 1968. The series lives up to the title, subverting and questioning perception in the manner of his friend and fellow co-founder Rene Magritte, who is featured in several of the images.
A detail of Moreau’s stupendous and highly personal interpretation of the classical myth of Jupiter and Semele was used as the cover of Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece 2666, surely the greatest novel of the 21st century to date.
Showing the moment when Jupiter reveals himself in all his cosmic splendour to the mortal woman Semele, thus causing her death as she is penetrated by the divine effluence, Jupiter et Semele is, as critics have noted, ‘The most sumptuous expression imaginable of an orgasm.’ The crowded canvas with its startling contrasts of lush colour and deep shadow is populated by many mythological figures all seemingly unaware of what is happening in other parts of the painting. Although there is a frenzy of action Moreau has managed to create a frieze-like atmosphere; the awful stillness that happens before and after a cataclysmic event.
Moreau’s paintings are dense and hermetic dreamscapes. As Bolano notes only Moreau could convey, ‘A sense of terror, bedecked with jewels.’
Whatever the question
I’ve probably got the answer
For I have my tricks
And techniques I know
How to entrance and enthrall
To hypnotize and bewitch
To persuade and seduce
Just come over here
And look into my eyes
Bend down and I will
Whisper softly into your ear
Everything I know
Everything I ever learnt
About want and need
And the desire born
In the darkness
Of a heart filled
With a hate more
Vast and compelling
Than the night before
The last Judgement
And the ravening appetite
That can never be sated
Though I long to return
To the primal source
And its pristine innocence
Drink me and I will eat you,
Consume you and you gorge
On me and my love
For love is rapture
A rupture between
Heaven and Earth
Love is ecstasy
A nerve flaying glimpse
Of dizzying possibilities
Love is an acid
Corroding the identity
Dissolving the ego
Acid is the answer