On the Erotics of Evil
— By Michael Krimper | April 12, 2012
Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,
The Devil, rocks our souls, that can’t resist;
And the rich metal of our own volition
Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.
Charles Baudelaire — Les Fleurs du mal
There’s a scene in Andrzej Zulawski‘s Possession (1981) that is nearly unbearable to watch. When I broke my Zulawski virginity last month, publicly and without shame, in a surprisingly packed theater in Brooklyn, some chuckles broke loose when Anna (played brilliantly by Isabelle Adjani) was struck by a fit of hysterical self-abandonment in the underground tunnel of a Berlin train station. She thrashes, she screams, she slams milk and eggs onto the wall. Viscous liquids pour from her body, out of her eyes and ears and nostrils. The fit lasts for nearly five minutes. It feels much longer. And it looks absolutely, and unbelievably, believable. Yet, it’s in moments like these that we cannot believe. So we are thrown helplessly into the contradiction of believing and not believing; there’s your prompt to laugh, or to turn away.
These laughs are common enough entities. They are of the kind of helpless nervousness that overtakes us when the ordinary veil of meaning breaks apart into a torrential washing of the unknown. What else is the audience supposed to do in such an overwhelming encounter with a woman possessed irrevocably by madness? And it is funny! What could be funnier?
Zulawski, Poland’s enfant terrible film director, is quite aware that the laugh is also a form of uncontrollable possession. We do not choose to laugh but are seized by it, as if the ghost has inhabited our throats and demands escape only through the convulsion of our rumbling flesh. Possession articulates Zulawski’s keen eye for such strokes of violent excess and how they collapse unexpectedly into something a bit more demonic. At first, all too ordinary human beings find themselves drawn to typical ruptures of the prosaic: laughing, crying, cheating, transgressing this or that little taboo. Soon enough, however, they are unwittingly seduced to the limits of self-annihilation, where desire eviscerates without reserve all that was left of meaning. For Anna, her seduction calls from a dark force all too familiar in film, but rarely rendered so horrific. I’m writing here of evil.
What begins as a simple episode of adultery spirals into the demonic belly of erotics, a wasted core of sexualized loss. Anna equivocates at first between returning to her husband (Sam Neill) and child, or leaving her stifling domestic life for an adventurous love affair with a beautifully sun-tanned man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who is agilely equipped with a new age philosophy revolving around the intensified delights of sexual desire. Anna, instead, leaves them both to hide away in a deteriorating apartment just west of the Berlin wall. There, she establishes her hearth and conjures a beast from hell outside the lighted gaze of the camera.
What we do see is Anna having intercourse with the animal in a darkened back room of the apartment. At one point she tells an intruder that it’s tired because they made love all night long. One would expect that she would have fucked the demon, but these are her words, she said “made love,” and I’m still unsettled by it: There could be nothing more disquieting in this phrase so gracefully uttered without a hint of irony or crass.
However fatigued, that doesn’t stop the grotesque creature from feasting on unwanted guests. I’m at a loss to describe it. All I can say is that its twisted body resembles the octopus-like beasts portrayed elsewhere only in the fetid imagination behind Hentai, the popular brand of Japanese animated pornography occupying a corrosive interstice on the hinterlands of taboo. Beyond such tangible references, the festering sea creature calls out to the great depths of the ocean where unknown monsters reside still outside the grasp of even the most speculative scientific research. But the demon’s twisted corporeality suggests another dimension of the incomprehensible, an entangled nature. Each limb poses as a surrogate phallus whose mysterious powers can be invoked only through perverse rites of divination undertaken by Anna.
Thus we move from the transgression of daily enforced interdictions to the sundering of a human being. Anna wastes away into an anxious ridden gulf of nothingness. Recall the fit in the train station. I’ll try to summarize. Anna’s sexual relationship with this demon arises from the great abyss brought about by the loss of love, whose ciphering downfall wrecks language, minds, and bodies in one fell swoop of nightmarish hysteria. Such are the heights of pleasures in West Berlin, where the invocation of demons haunts our sordid utopias wherever we might imagine them. What is stunning and funny and horrible all at the same time is that Anna maintains herself in this abyss. She makes love to the beast. She doesn’t turn away. Her relations with evil are so erotically intensified that she orgasms continuously throughout the night.
That night, as I walked home from the theater, frightened and somewhat ill at ease, I felt as if ghosts lurked within every sewer drain, each rumble of the train, within the smokey glare of the street lights reflected in the rain soaked pavement. Instead of sleeping, I picked up another gifted conjurer of the unknown: Georges Bataille, whose collection of essays, “Literature and Evil,” attests to the idea that the essence of literature hinges on facing up to the blank stare of evil. Bataille writes in the introduction: “Literature isn’t innocent, and it should admit itself as guilty.” By intensifying our relation with the desire for evil, we discover its sovereign value. While this may throw into suspension the distinction between good and evil, whose disruptive movement, in turn, arrests labor, unworks action, and interrupts discourse, Bataille writes, we approach another ethical domain through this loss: a “hypermoral.”
I couldn’t write on evil until a few weeks after seeing the film, once the images started to dissipate into the unseen shadows from where they first unwittingly emerged. I haven’t said much about it, either, but that’s the problem that evil poses for any writing, showing, thinking. Possession, though, will always be at hand whenever I am struck by the desire to risk myself in its dangers. I admit that I haven’t figured out who gets the last laugh.Tweet