What is love in these theatres of cruelty?

Contemplating cruelty through the works of Maggie Nelson.

Art by Eleanor Curran

I remember sitting in the back of my uncle’s car, my younger brother and cousin sitting on either side of me. I was twelve and it was the first time that I had travelled overseas without my parents. We had just crossed the border into Northern Ireland and the radio was trying to acquaint itself with the UK’s FM waves, a haunting crackle broken by the odd word in an accent that was thicker than what I was used to hearing. I don’t know what it is about the radio, but my brain is like a sieve for that form — I could probably count on one hand the stories that have stuck with me. But for some reason, the tinny voice that came through the car’s speakers on that day is still scorched into my memory with a burning sense of clarity.

A murder trial was about to commence. The victim was an elderly woman, alone on Christmas Day at her home in Newry, too frail to visit her family. The accused was her next door neighbour, a middle-aged mother delivering a gift on Christmas morning. The facts of the case were particularly gruesome. The victim was sexually assaulted and later, bludgeoned to death with the wooden crucifix that she kept by her bedside. Her body was found with internal bruising, bleeding and fifteen broken ribs. An imprint of the crown of thorns was deeply embedded in her chin, the Christ figure detached from the cross, lying beside her.

When in Ireland, I stay in my mother’s childhood home. It is an unavoidably warm place. The fire is always blazing, the living room always filled with relatives and friends. But on that night, I didn’t sleep a wink. I lay in my bed, mistaking my rapid heartbeat for feet clambering upstairs, holding my breath as I watched the cinema of shadows created by the headlights of passing cars. I could feel every kilometre of distance between me and my parents. I worried how long it would take for me to get to them if anything were to happen. But most of all, I was transfixed by the crucifix that was hanging above the door. A staple in the Catholic Irish household, so long a symbol of sacrifice and devotion, now a lingering figure of cruelty. I had almost convinced myself that I could see and hear blood dripping from its outline. It was really nothing but shadows, and Irish rain.

Of course, my adult brain is starkly aware of the fact that most neighbours are perfectly sane people, and that most people are not bludgeoned to death at all, let alone by a crucifix.

***

Upon reading The Argonauts in the summer break after my first year of university, I fell hopelessly in love with Maggie Nelson’s writing. This passion manifested itself in the decision to purchase her entire catalogue of books, which arrived on my doorstep in the middle of the second week of semester. However, as the story of impulsive online shopping inevitably goes, the semester passed, then the next, then the next, and I hadn’t read a single word of any of them.

I was sitting in my criminal law class, pondering the absurdity of how it is considered normal to contemplate the facts of six brutal murders before breakfast. I assumed that it took a certain person to be able to mull over these things in any sort of detail, and gathered that I was obviously not one of them – my only contribution to that class being the observation that the victim in a cannibalism case shared the name of the tiger in The Life of Pi. With this conviction in mind, and my penchant for topical distraction, I took to scaling lists of isolated lines from great texts and thinkers concerning cruelty, in the process of which, I stumbled across a familiar name – Maggie Nelson.  

2011’s The Art of Cruelty is a meditation on the relationship between art and cruelty that consciously assaults the increasingly feeble barriers between representation and reality. Each essay reads like a palimpsest of ideas, with Nelson’s incisive vision inscribed atop the musings of a rich index of philosophers, theorists, writers and artists. This is, at the best of times, an intimidating trope. I for one, nearly threw the book at the wall when the first line of the first essay in the collection was a direct quote from the knotty and bizarre mind of Fredrich Nietzsche. But one of the things that I most persistently admire about Nelson, if not envy, is her ability to make reading feel like walking through an expansive forest of familiar names and ideas, whilst being guided by a compassionate friend that is familiar with the route. Casting aside any semblance of certainty or truth that I had previously grasped, I took Nelson’s hand and trampled into the forest of cruelty – a journey defined by three books, countless minds and endless questions.

***

“With this mania we all have for depreciating everything, as soon as I have said ‘cruelty,’ everybody will at once take it to mean ‘blood,’” wrote Antonin Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double. The Theatre and Its Double. In this preface to his theory of the ‘theatre of cruelty’, Artaud attempts to counter the societal assumption that cruelty is unavoidably physical and visible. The great irony of this stance is that Artaud himself succumbed to the trope that he so passionately wished to sidestep, with much of his theatre representing a very literalist interpretation of cruelty, capitalising on gore.

But despite Artaud’s theory in many ways manifesting as a regrettable lexical error, I can’t help but think that there is some merit to his idea. The world is routinely swallowed by darkness, humanity the largest existential threat to humanity. Perhaps the theatre of cruelty is not a literal theatre, but rather the world around us.

When we are confronted by cruelty, we become drunk on the need for justification. Why would someone do this? How could they think such evil thoughts?  The criminal law is literally hinged on this principle, as the severity of punishment is qualified on the basis of a justificatory logic – connecting mens rea to actus reus. Nelson unwittingly effaces the supposedly impermeable rationality of this system, considering cruelty not just in terms of what can be seen, but as a means of structuring thought. In this task, she is aided by a careful interweaving of the theories of Elaine Scarry and Emmanuel Levinas.

Scarry contemplates vulnerability with a sense of child-like optimism, imploring that the natural response to beauty and fragility is the will to protect. This notion is perhaps best conveyed by analogy – when a child finds a ladybird on a petal, they have the compulsion to guard it. They let it scurry across their little hands, watching in awe as it defies gravity and disappears onto the underside.

Nelson problematises this position, borrowing from Levinas’ perception of the schizoid nature of human responses. In this version of events, the child realises that they are more powerful than the beetle, and their admiration turns into a volatile cruelty that sees the poor insect reduced to little more than a pile of guts and fragmented exoskeleton ground into the pavement.

The fantasy of knowing is intoxicating. The belief that every action and every thought can be justified so long as we devote enough attention to it. But still, I picture the elderly woman from Newry, who like the ladybird is gentle and harmless. In my mind, she sits in her armchair with her crucifix, rosary beads and bible – her frail fingers moving across the beads, keeping count of her devotions.

Perhaps what I fear most about cruelty, is that no matter how hard I try, I don’t know where it comes from. But then again, I don’t think Scarry, or Levinas, or even Nelson, know either.

***

In my mind, all great writing allows the reader to glance into the inner-mind of the writer. This voyeuristic position rides on the assumption that the most interesting part of reading is seeing the author in conversation with themselves on the page. This can be seen quite literally in many works of philosophy, where the writer will disagree with and respond to their own arguments in pages bound by a single cover, as though they are their own most virulent interlocutor. However, in Nelson’s work, this interaction is much more subtle, as Nelson the writer blends with Nelson the character, attempting to piece together disparate memories and theories into a perfect tapestry of edification. However, whilst Nelson is unavoidably at the heart of most of her books, her 2005 poetry collection, Jane: A Murder, speaks with a different voice, as she composes works of poetry from a combination of her own cogitations and the diary entries of her Aunt, Jane, who was murdered at the age of 21 in 1969.

It is easy to fetishize victims of cruelty – to position them as martyrs, eternally wrapped in the story of their demise rather than the stories of their lives. Nelson is supremely conscious of this, articulating that Jane is about “identification not fusion”. In view of this, she allows her Aunt to speak for herself through diary entries – giving vitality to the life that came before the murder, not just the murder itself.

In The Phaedrus, Plato asserts that writing is an act of mimesis – that language itself is to blame for the distance from reality often reflected in literature. Whilst Jane, a collection that is predominantly fashioned from the private musings of a dead woman, appears to be mimesis in the purest form, I contend that Nelson manages to breathe life into a topic that has been waterlogged by taboo and sensationalism. The prose is bare, the number of words on a page sparse, the gaps left to be filled, immense.

But Nelson’s unique, personal voice slaps the reader into a state of attention in 2007’s The Red Parts, which focussed on the re-opening of the trial of the 1969 murder of Jane, depicts an emotional navigation of how human beings come to terms with cruelty when the concept itself is naturally unintelligible. Blending true-crime drama with memoir, Nelson commits to contemplating the question of proximity to cruelty – forced to struggle with the reality that she never knew her aunt Jane, whilst also being acutely aware that the victim of the brutality that was being detailed in the courtroom was someone that shared her DNA. As a reader, this reality made the image of a young woman with a stocking embedded in the skin of her neck, and a blood turning her auburn hair an even darker read, all the more resonant.

Re-reading The Red Parts in 2021, a year that in many ways, exists under the shadow of cruelty, is almost sickening. I scroll through my Twitter feed and see an update from @DeadWomenAus that 11 women in Australia have lost their lives to violence so far this year. I think about the names that, unlike Jane’s, are erased from public consciousness, and I think of the project of wilful ignorance that bears its ugly head in the form of political rhetoric day after day. “Anger is a terrible thing, it causes hate.” says Jane. “I wish I could talk this over with someone”. The greatest cruelty of all is the silence.

Whilst a consistent theme in all of Nelson’s work, vital to The Argonauts is a contemplation of the role of language. This is perhaps most poetically expressed in Nelson’s invocation of Roland Barthes, that just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time, but the boat is still called the Argo, when the lover utters the phrase “I love you”, its meaning must be renewed by each use. Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts, whilst one a book of poetry and the other a quasi-memoir, are bound by a similar consideration of the value, and even more importantly, the limitations of language. The discourse of cruelty, like the lover saying “I love you” is volatile. With every utterance, the emotional tone, the justification, the act, transforms to create a concept anew. Nelson references Joan Didion’s essay The White Album to contemplate this idea further. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” says Didion at the start of the essay, only to end with the line “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means”. I came to Nelson with the hope that my understanding of cruelty would be clarified. Nonetheless, I still don’t know what cruelty means. And for that, I am indebted to her.

***

Williams Carlos Williams in ‘The Ivy Crown’ wrote;

“The business of love is

Cruelty which,

By our wills,

We transform to live together.”

But in these theatres of cruelty, I am left empty, searching for love I cannot find.

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