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[Readings]

A Mutable Feast

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From “Pig Person,” an essay in the collection In the Land of the Cyclops, which will be published this month by Archipelago Books. Translated from the Norwegian.

Preconceptions are a way of seeing in which the nature of what is seen is already determined. The opposite would be seeing with an open eye that accorded everything the same value, be it blood, vomit, excrement, dawns, lawns, lynx, maggots, roe, owls, hearts, crowds, monkeys, chairs, tables. This impartial eye would be unable to see any connection between different entities and phenomena, since perhaps our most important preconception has to do with what belongs together and what doesn’t. It is how we organize the world, and what makes it possible for us to live in it. This, referred to by Foucault as the order of things, is something we take for granted and which eludes capture. It is the way the world is—unless we step outside that order and into another. Only then will it become visible as what it is: an arbitrary system.

In the seventeenth century, other parameters steered the eye, creating a different order and different systems; in the tenth century, still others. The order of things is evident at an elementary level in Linnaeus’s classification of plants, or in our ideas of what constitutes acceptable behavior in public and in private, and it is evident too in more obviously constructed concepts such as the nation-state. What these things have in common is not only that they connect and hold together the elements within them, but that they are exclusive. The idea of the holy excludes all that is not holy, the idea of the rational excludes all that is not rational, Michel Serres wrote somewhere. The first logic tells us we cannot implant a pig’s heart into a human chest, it would be unethical, an impossible transgression, whereas the second logic, which sees the heart in functional terms, would consider it unproblematic, a heart is a heart as long as it does the job, no transgression.

Transgression scares the life out of me. Anything that departs from what I experience as normal, the accepted state of things, the world the way it’s supposed to be, which of course is a moral imperative, makes me react strongly, often with disgust. I can’t get used to it. Except in art and literature, where it’s what I look for. Why? Because I want to see the world the way it is, which is something that is forever in the making, chaotic and incomprehensible, steered by laws we know absolutely nothing about, which also steer us. My search is existential, in contrast to the practical realities of day-to-day life, and takes place in the social world, where other laws apply. It is the desire for and the fear of transgression I recognize, and the pull of the thought that what we call human—and what makes us so forcefully deny what we call the nonhuman—is also arbitrary.

In the art of ancient Greece, there was a different order, steered by different systems. Consider the tenth book in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus’ men arrive at the house of the sorceress Circe. There they find lions and wolves behaving against their nature, as civilized creatures: “These beasts did not attack my men, but stood on their hind legs and wagged their long tails.” The men are enticed into the house by Circe’s singing and turned into swine. “Grunting, their bodies covered with bristles, they looked just like pigs,” we are told, “but their minds were intact.”

The Odyssey is a book of transformations, and the impression it leaves is of an unfinished world, a world in the making, fluid and open, interacting with the animal kingdom but also the kingdom of death and the kingdom of the gods, and the humans in that world seem unfinished, too, as when Odysseus speaks to his heart and asks it to beat more slowly, as if the heart were not an intimate part of him but something inhabiting his body, with its own separate will and life.

The great contrast to the Odyssey, its antithesis, has to be the Book of Leviticus, a text just as archaic, which is concerned solely with laying down boundaries, establishing categories, defining and identifying the relationship of culture to nature, telling us what things belong together and what things absolutely do not. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind, says the Lord, and thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed, neither shall a garment mingled of linen and wool come upon thee. It’s all about what may be put into the body, and what comes out of the body—the semen of the man, the menstrual blood of the woman: these things are unclean and are to be dealt with by measures accounted for in detail. It’s about whom we can have sex with and whom we can’t. If the first two books of the Pentateuch, Genesis and Exodus, tell us how the material world was created, Leviticus tells us how the social world was created, a world in which transgression of the categories is no longer possible, or at least is undesirable. The boundaries of man interact on the one hand with the holy and the spiritual, on the other with nature, which man may access only by way of certain relatively simple systems, everything that falls outside those systems being a threat. Any transformation, any transgression, is not only undesirable, not only a source of horror, but of evil; hence the devil figure of folk mythology with the bestial attributes of horns and hooves, hence the witches who turned into cats, the men who turned into wolves, the men who drank blood like animals and did not die.

Popular culture still revels in these archaic transgressions, which in our totally rational universe, where everything down to the smallest atom has been mapped and thereby conquered, no longer present any serious threat and yet remain associated with primeval horror, in that we make use of them for our entertainment—entertainment being nothing but a space in which we can allow ourselves to feel the strongest emotions without obligation. Love, excitement, fright—pretend emotions in a pretend world. As true of fairy tales as of films and computer games. Art belongs in the same realm, it too sets up a pretend world—a painting is not the real world, a photograph is not the real world, a poem is not the real world, all are only representations—its transgressions are not real either, but mere representations of transgression. Nevertheless, art imposes its own obligations, at least if it’s worthy of the name, because what art can do is enter into the space where the world, our world of categories, is established, the very space where its creation occurs, again and again, for every one of us creates our own world and our own identity, however obscurely, this being the task given to us at birth. From the moment we leave the biological darkness and enter the light of the social world, we take it upon ourselves and pursue it, applying ourselves throughout our lives, and then in death we depart, and only the body remains, until it too, devoured by worms and insects, pervaded by bacteria and gases, decomposes and is transformed into soil.


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January 2021