Estrella de Diego
“Espacio Uno. Un espacio. Villa Iris”, catálogo Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Fundación Marcelino Botín. Madrid 1998, anexo.
“On the occasion of the stravizzo held on the thirteenth day of September in the year 1699, Lorenzo Bellini gave a cicalata before the Accademia della Crusca — the cicalata being an elegant lecture on an absurd or unusual topic and the stravizzo the solemn dinner which generally served as a framework for it”, wrote the author of Brodo Indiano.
That day, Magalotti, the “nose hero”, as he was known to his sophisticated friends, pontificated on smells and took under his wing the most passionate of the Buccheri, Bellini, who had referred ¡n his book Bucchereide to a friend of Magalotti’s, Giovan Battista d’Ambra, as “a virtuoso of the mouth and the nose”.
Without any doubt, the then recently discovered organs wreaked havoc in the late-1 7th century and gave rise to unusual collections resulting from that passion for the bizarreries — here in the sense of the gallicism— of the Wunderkammer or room of natural wonders so fashionable in Holland during that century. Bizarreries formed part of the ritual of making collections of unusual objects whose value was based precisely on oddity, rarity, incongruity and inaccessibility, and thus, basically, spoke volumes on the power of whoever possessed them: valuable objects, curiosities and charts —an asystematic group in short — sharing a taxonomic space.
The Wunderkammer became a privileged realm ¡n which each thing on display to the observer (the consumer), taken out of context and turned into a fetish, finally took on a new meaning within a powerful combination and was forced to rewrite its original story. Furthermore, the collections of objects in the Wunderkammer often came from far-off lands so that, through a curious process of identification, whoever owned them also owned their makers —and why not?, as certain dissidents of the rational 18th century were subsequently to see.
In Swift’s famous book published in 1729, Gulliver learned that lesson sharply and with much tribulation: everything in life is a question of nuances and there are times when a change of direction can turn us irremissibly into oddities. When, in the land of the giants, Gulliver finds himself in a cage, he probably learns one of the most valuable lessons there is to learn on the hard road to the modern age. The book in not only a critique of collecting animals or a tale of a reversal of roles. Swift pointed out in that intelligent way in which he always discussed problems how in a world built on the ambiguous concept of curiosity —of “anomaly”— anything can become an oddity, for what is important is not what is displayed but where, by whom and for whom.
Contrary to the 17th century, the 18th century felt secure and that is why Swift’s reflection was so lucid: the oddity, otherness, the anomalous, are always outside, always far-off, always part of the exotic and, as everyone knows, from the exotic there is always a way back.
But let us go back for a moment to the bizarreries of the 17th century that were at hand, in one’s own home, part of everyday life, not yet excluded or classified, sharing the same space as normal objects, like the court dwarves standing next to Margarita with her radiant beauty in Velázquez’s Meninas.
It is not surprising that those dandies avant la lettre at the Accademia della Crusca should also start collections of bizarreries commonly found in the 17th century: not only of fragrances but also of smells, all (as often happened at that time) in accordance with the imprecise scientific efforts of asystematic botanists —although, without any doubt, it was much more than that. Tastes, smells… The late-17th century solemnly celebrated (Lord knows whether as a new and fanciful aesthetic acquisition) those organs which hitherto had hardly been noticed and whose reign was to be so short.
For this reason, when that autumn day in 1699 only a few months away from 1700 is recalled, the smell in the air turns strong and one can imagine, like a private experience difficult to classify, that the enlightened 18th century would have thrown it out of its orderly, frigid and scientistic rooms —from which any discordant note, any ambiguity of definition, any particularity, was always expelled.
For smell is, perhaps, the most private of the senses. Olfaction has been said to be our most animal attribute, and therefore the most refined when cultivated. To smell someone, to retain his or her smell, to recall it, implies a closeness of contact which brings us face to face with the body, with the less “public” body, the most intimate and at the same time most tangible body; with a singular — and invisible — body hard to flee from.
You have to come up very close to smell a body… most times anyway. Bodies can taste good or bad. They can taste good or bad to us. When they taste good we savour them. And, having reached that point, we find ourselves obliged to accept, to savour and to sniff much more that the body itself.
For taste and smell speak above all of particularity — each body has its own smell and flavour. And the modern age, as everyone knows, excludes everything that does not comply with the laws of reason, of the classifiable and governable, those laws which, little by little, deprive us of our bodies or at least restrict the body to the world of the strictly private, to sniffing and savouring in secret.
It is an area completely opposite to the public — “the public” being what can be shown to others, what does not have to be hidden. It is a realm in which bodies lose their smells and flavours and become systematized, their “mistakes” or particularities erased — for is there anything more particular than the smell of a body, the smell which transforms even essences, traps them, makes them its own, turns them into others?
I want my body not to smell. We want our bodies not to smell, we say ¡n modern times. And we camouflage them in essences. We hide them under marketed fragrances, as opposed to the soft mixtures —at times poisonous— with which the fearsome Catherine de Médicis impregnated the gloves of her female enemies. Miyake, Jill Sanders, Chanel, Armani, Loewe, Bulgari, Rochas, Balmain… We hide our bodies under essences as we hide them under clothing, and the smell of the body rebels and attempts to come to the light of day like mistakes in a heavily made-up face, like parts of the body that have been operated on and heal as they like, rebelling against surgery —the work of the hand— and blossom like old stigmas.
Gíovan Battista d’Ambra was an aesthete, Lorenzo Bellini an eccentric anatomist. They lived —inexorably one might say— in the Italy of the late-17th century, submerged in the asystematic bizarreries which the 18th century salons, obsessed as they were with the exact sciences —with reason— were to erase and describe as a tiresome inheritance and exclude differences, particularities, as “mistakes”, as anti-canonic. D’Ambra and Bellini were at the cicalata of 1699 and bade farewell to the century almost without knowing it, saying goodbye to so many other things.
“I just couldn’t describe that smell”, we sometimes say. “It had a bitter aftertaste, I can’t express it in words.” For the secret, the private, cannot be verbalized; all that is particular, ambiguous, without a label, that is not an exact science, that is not exact, is expelled from reason and D’Ambra and Belliní are frozen in a yellowed photogram belonging to a period we do not recognize as our own. Or perhaps we do, perhaps it is ours. Too much ours, painfully so. Part of a society which now, this very moment, is sniffing, like D’Ambra did, below the cosmetics, and is dreaming of recovering smells, any private smell in a society that knows, that has learned, how the universality of the Enlightenment was not, when all is said and done, so good for everyone and much less good forever.
In an article published same years ago on particularism and identity, Laclau discussed how the Enlightenment raised an insurmountable barrier between “the past as a realm of mistakes and folly, and the rational future that would be the result of an act of absolute institution”.
We sniff. We suspect that ¡t was all a false postulate because universality finally becomes embodied in a particularity —the Europe of the 18th century. The universal could, in fact, be a particularity that has become dominant. The marketed fragrance that is not smelled on the skin but on a paper towel: only the appearance of universality which the hand, the touch of the hand, will dissolve like an illusion.
It has suddenly occurred to me that if we wish to smell and savour once again, if we wish to recover the non-universalized world, it is because we are familiar with the trick of the paper towel. If not, we would wish to recover bizarreries as a curious way of being free, of being our own private selves, with each of the different smells that make up our bodies, with our mistakes, with the wonderful defects of each and every divine body of imperfection.
Jan Sauked did this in his Amor, vida, muerte y otras cosas sin importancia series of 1992 by showing two imperfect, dissimilar bodies loving each other. At the beginning we feel relieved —at last bodies which, in spite of their mistakes, their anti-canonic substance, can love in public. But a second look makes us a little sad. Somewhat démodé, the scenography revives too many old dissimilarities from the last century: and the contrast of oddities stresses rather than erases them.
Ah, sweet times of aporias and paradoxes these times of ours. Any attempt to “look nice”, to “look normal”, is useless. The different can circulate as such, on a postcard, like Martha Morris’s “legless wonder” with the nice face, like Carreño de Miranda’s obese little girl, or Patricia Schwarz’s Portraits of Women with Substance: Naked Fat Women (1987). Postcards to send to curious friends, like one I bought some time ago in a New York shop.
In 1995 the French writer Michel Onfrey retold the history of philosophy according to taste and smell in his book La raison gourmande. Emblematically, a man (in a painting by the Belgian Magritte) on the front cover eats and drinks with four hands. Two hands are not enough for us; not enough to gobble and guzzle.
The deformed, the “mistake”, a body with four arms (like the body with three legs exhibited at the 19fh-century fairs and belonging to Franck Lantini, “king of the freaks”, “marvel of marvels”, who made his fortune with his deformity, his particularity) eats and eats because the universal is only a case of terrible good manners hiding hunger and covering up differences, and that is how we end up: eating with four hands, running on three legs, exhibited, over-exhibited at fairs, like Bartola and Máximo, the popular “Mexican kids” —of the end of the 19th century. But, as everybody knows, they were just another product of the exotic. They were odd because they came from a far-off place, they dressed differently, their hair was different and who knows if they smelled differently too.
Lantini’s case was different. Lantini’s problem had a solution: he had a leg too many; not all that important. If he had been born today instead of in 1889 he could have been turned into a normal person in an operating theatre. Common enough nowadays, when you think about it. Siamese twins like the ones at the late-19th century side-shows become “normal” nowadays in operating theatres, and sometimes, when news is scarce, are featured on the covers of medical journals. Today science has the means to remove surpluses and make up for deficits: noses and volume. We change the canon. You only need a bit of money.
But when Lantini did have that leg removed, he wasn’t happy with himself. He couldn’t earn himself a decent living, he cried over his leg, like Valle cried over his gangrenous arm. “My arm hurts”. “Not any more, Ramón,” said a friend. We all cry over the loss of what was once a part of our body. One Siamese twin misses the brother who gave his life to give him his life: “I wish we were still joined together”. Every body that loses a part is incomplete.
So Lantini worked in a factory and everyone congratulated him on being like the rest (even though he cried over his leg and his fame), for any way of life —any— is as good as that. And sometimes the “mistake” —the difference— is just another way of life. There will always be worse ways, you can be sure of that.
Eating with four hands and running on three legs. The only problem is insatiable hunger, the contemporary passion for taste. Too much food. Lisette Model knows that and portrays it; she captures it. Bodies like advertisements for antacid potions. But let’s leave that to one side, for the moment at least.
Giovan Battista d’Ambra was an aesthete. Lorenzo Bellini an eccentric anatomist. They met —inexorably one might say— in the Italy of the late-17th century, and theirs was not just an encounter of two men in transit. They were predestined to have a strange mania, their own particular passion —for smelling— which now, right now, we would almost certainly find greatly to our taste.
Theirs was not the only encounter in that fin-de-siécle Europe that was preparing to classify collections and turn them into something “reasonable”. In 1708, Leibniz, a friend of Peter the Great’s, laid down the rules for making collections —what to collect and how to go about doing things. According to the philosopher, the items must be gathered with two ideas in mind: “They must be both instructive and pleasing to the eye”.
Peter, so the chronicles say, was excessive in everything, he gave himself up to excesses, and was huge, always wolfing down his food, for two hands are not enough for us. Everything about him was enormous. He was over six feet tall, he accumulated knowledge, wars, cruelties —and greatness of spirit when he died in 1725 in an act of heroism helping shipwrecked people. Of disproportionate size and therefore unusual himself, he surrounded himself with other unusual people, whom he showed off as he did his possessions: a hermaphrodite who finally ran away despite his high salary (for the time), and the famous Foma, who had two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot and who, when he died, was stuffed and put on display together with the rest of the monstrous marvels.
So excessive was Peter the Great in his passions —even the bloody ones— that an oft-told anecdote is the macabre one regarding the head of his wife’s lover, which, so the story goes, the Tsarina consort accepted without making a fuss and had preserved in formal to swell the Tsar’s unusual collection. We might wonder if her reaction was perhaps no more than that of a survivor, although it may also have reflected the essence of a time which, fascinated by death and the terrible, brought the two concepts together in the most sophisticated of earthly possessions.
And so, meeting Frederick Ruysch in 1697 while on a journey to Holland, Peter thought he had come face to face with an epiphany. He, the owner of a bizarre collection among collections of bizarreries, from Russian dolls (being, one within another, like an allusion to classical miniaturization as an example of the marvelous) to sophisticated instruments of torture and surgical materials, to curiosities of nature —skeletons, metal and glass eyes and ears, a cockerel with four legs and a sheep with two heads— and a collection of teeth which, it seems, he himself had extracted, each displaying a description of the victim of so strange a hobby — discovered that someone had an even better collection than his own.
In fact, from the contemporary point of view, the catalogue of items in the anatomist’s collection was closer, perhaps, not to the classical natural sciences room, but to the 19th-century chamber of horrors (a century deprived, thanks to its predecessor, of close contact with the different and death). It was a realm ¡n which terror was turned into “horror”, into aesthetic acquisition, and the way we view it stems from the attraction we feel today for decadent objects and documents.
Ruysch’s possessions included: an embalmed child which, ¡t is said, Peter found so moving that he could not help bending down to kiss its face; Siamese twins with deformities of the spine, of the sort subsequently exhibited at the 19th-century side-shows; a variety of organs preserved in secret concoctions; a child’s arm, to which a sleeve lovingly embroidered by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel (a very well-known painter at the Flemish court) was attached; foetuses in jars, foetuses preserved in formol whose wrists, necks and ankles were adorned with strings of pearls. So great was Peter’s excitement that he bought the whole collection —over 2,000 items— for an exorbitant price.
Formol smells, formol smells in that peculiar way we always remember. And such objects truly amaze us —those parts of bodies which suddenly, one fine day, we come across in our museums. Bottled hands by Paloma Novares, little heads in jars by Marina Núñez.
In any event, the true amazement —an almost the horror, at least from our contemporary point of view— inherent in this set of objects (a set systematic in its own way) is not due to the embalming of bodies or parts of bodies nor perhaps even to the custom of adorning them with pearls or lace. For in fact, in many Western countries the dead are embalmed and adorned even today. The essence of the amazement and the sense almost of horror caused by such a macabrely attractive spectacle lies in the fact that people actually exhibited them, showed them off, displayed them publicly —just as some of our artists are doing now.
How could that “chamber of horrors” fit in with Leibniz’s recommendations that collections should be instructive and pleasing to the eye? Without doubt they were instructive and not in vain is Ruysch said to have paved the way for modern anatomy, but how could those macabre objects have pleased the eye?
Let’s try asking the question another way: what would happen if amazement became part of our incapacity to interpret, part of our way of looking at things that fell prey to the conventions of the Enlightenment with its ideas of a clean world, without “mistakes” or, rather, with mistakes hidden from view?
Somehow death —a mistake, a blunder— was just another part of everyday life in the 17th century, just like those madmen and dwarves which the next century was to eliminate from what was “normal” where reason was concerned, banishing “otherness” to a sphere beyond the “normal” —the “real”— in short. But there is more to it than that: by being displayed, those adorned foetuses became human and their particularity became something which, through their scientific essence —bodies preserved in formol— it seemed they had never had, which ¡t seemed they had lost through becoming “objective data”. That child was not just any child, for the pearls turned it into something with an entity of its own, different from the rest. This ¡s a form of reasoning opposite to that advocated by the Enlightenment: what’s good for one is good for all.
But every universalist form of reasoning needs reasoning of its own to be defined and that may be why the 18th century looked to the “exotic” to make up for the vacuum which so many exclusions had gradually made in life. For we cannot live without the terrifying, we cannot exclude “mistakes” because “mistakes”, like smells, are a part of our lives. We cannot live without that passion for something which, although different, is also us. And death, without any doubt, is also us.
Peter cut off a head; his successor, Catherine the Great, buried it. And what if, just for a moment, we thought of Catherine’s act not as Christian but as Enlightened? This friend of Diderot’s could not afford to have heads exhibited like trophies from an anachronistic collection of oddities, for all that belonged to the 17th century. A rational age of travellers, the 18th century preferred to collect other, more socially acceptable, things. After all, one thing is bringing back tiny animals from a journey as Gulliver did and picking up a few subjects when the king’s not looking, but exhibiting heads is quite another.
In its enthusiasm for bringing order to the world, the 18th century also locked up madmen, just as we put things away on shelves, labelling them, cataloguing them according to indisputable, universal categories: out with this, in with that. 18th-century man viewed Science as a territory with its own limits — or at least that was what he told himself to justify his particular excesses through investigation and knowledge. He detected “mistakes —and excluded them— and we, victims of the modern age syndrome, cry over them, miss them as examples of a world which, though full of fears, was, at least, complete.
We sniff. I keep sniffing. Before I begin the third tale, I am determined to sniff everything till I collapse with exhaustion.
THIRD GOTHIC TALE
A passion for the monstrous —for different beings— was not, in any event, exclusive to the 17th-century Russian court. The presence of those prodigies of differentness —physical or mental “anomalies”— was also common at other European courts. A well-known case in Spain was that of Bonamí, a gift from Isabella Clara Eugenia to the newborn Philip IV. According to Bouza, Bonamí’s tininess was so prodigious that in an epitaph Lope de Vega dedicated to him on his death in 1614, he called him, “Bonamí, the atom; one never knows when he is lying down”.
The perfidious Catherine de Médicis also seems to have been very fond of surrounding herself with prodigies, like the dwarves who kept Isabella I and María Teresa of Austria company. Many of them were of Polish origin, which prompts one to wonder if they, being prodigies ¡n themselves, were perhaps created through some other prodigy, such as the unguent spoken of by the Polish physician Jacob Wenceslaus Dobrzensky which, when anointed on the limbs and spines of newborn babies, curbed their normal development.
The presence of these different beings at the 17th century courts —and above all the power they wielded— is quite a striking fact and may have had implications over and above those of simple fashion. In fact, it would seem that relationships between the “dominant” group— through which “normal” characteristics were established —and those different beings reflected a number of factors which remained constant over the centuries.
Relationships with “others” are in fact always complex, and roles are exchanged unceasingly. In the first place, the “other” is he whom we wish to and can dominate, but at the same time he is also he whom we wish to and can succumb to. He can be dominated because, belonging to a minority, he is easy to dominate but, at the same time, we wish to dominate him due to the very essence of the minority he belongs to, for he represents a topsy-turvy world with all its inherent threats. At the same time, we can succumb to him because he represents only a hypothetical danger: no-one was allowed to do the things which madmen or buffoons —who at the 17th century Spanish courts acted like madmen— did.
In addition to the court dwarves, the palaces were frequented by other prodigies who tended to stay for short periods like roving fairground attractions. Bearded women, hermaphrodites, monstrously fat or extremely short or tall men and women made up the catalogue of differences which satisfied that passion for the unusual. One of the best-known illustrations from this period ¡s a curious print on the title page of Fortunio Liceti’s book De monstris (Madrid National Library) of the bust of a woman covered with breasts It would certainly have delighted the Surrealists —very partial as they were to the different, as is proved by a sculpture by Hans Bellmer of 1938. What were all “those things” doing there? Was there really room for them all?
Here a scene from Freaks comes to mind. They drag themselves along. They drag themselves along and play their games, these deformed characters whom Todd Browing brought to the big screen in a masterpiece sharply criticized at the time for showing deformities as they really were instead of covering them up. Made in 1932, Freaks tells the story of a deception, of someone who believed that because others were smaller they were inferior. But perhaps that ¡s only the way things seem. The characters are at a fair. They live at a fair. And they have their rules. One and all are betrayed. In the end the tall, the strong, the handsome, the clever, the “canonic” in short, become creatures which, mortally wounded, creep and crawl when they attempt to flee.
The story begins with an invisible prodigy —the beautiful woman who once enamoured sultans and is now no more than an oddity on display— and also ends with a prodigy. “Roll up, come and see her”. Today she’s a monster. The monsters take their revenge by turning her into one of their own, worse than they are, for things can always be more tragic: the woman cannot speak, she has been struck dumb. Basically, this is a dark morality tale rather than a Gothic tale.
For the canon changes only relatively. The “different” have always been just that, and always will be. And madmen. The notion of normality moves more slowly than it would seem. The mad are always mad, the fat fat, and Mexicans Mexican. Oddities, oddities to display at fairs.
At the court of the Austrias aesthetic norms were as strict as they are now. By the middle of the 16th century Fadrique Furió Ceriol had “normed” the limits of the “normal” —the socially acceptable— with respect to the physical aspect, even going so far as to deduce people’s characters from their physical features — something which the 19th century would continue to do through the many editions of Lavater’s famous treatises. Among the most dreaded physical defects was corpulence, feared not only by the ladies of the court but also by the gentlemen, who did not think twice about corseting themselves.
The canons change but always within limits. It is another matter that differences to a greater or lesser extent become part of the catalogue of passions, depending on the times, but we are always aware that they are “something else”, something outside the “normal”. Thus, the different —recognized as such throughout all of Western history— acts as a vehicle for the exorcism of fears, all those miscellaneous fears which only put off the ultimate fear, the fear of disruption, of the subversión of the status quo — which, when all is said and done, is no more than fear of death.
FOURTH GOTHIC TALE
There came a time when a particularity self-styled as universal hid the different from view, expelling it from tangible reality and carrying it off to the world of the irrational, where it could live without bothering people too much. Whatever went beyond the norm, beyond the universally accepted, was banished from that future world. Not in vain was this the time when madmen were “locked away” formally, when institutions were created to keep them “isolated” from others de facto and not unofficially, as at the court of the Austrias. Methods of exclusion changed and differences were denied, as when the insane member of the family is hidden from the view of the visitor.
I ask that that madman be sat at the table, because the notion of “normal” is fictitious. Normal is only what the norm dictates, but who builds that norm, and above all where is it built from?
A fairer way might be to speak of the “similar”. In a beautiful story, a Latin-American author wrote of a very rich man, the father of a deformed child, who sought similar children as friends for his son. But when he, normal and rich, came along to see them, he found himself just as strange and different, just as “other” as the trapeze artiste and the strong man sitting at the table with the freaks, who accepted them yet were conscious of their difference.
If we sat the madmen at the table, at our table… But who are we? “The madmen are outside,” someone says. If they sat down, they would eat with four hands, and not only guzzling and gobbling when two hands are not enough for us.
But someone would look at them and say that these madmen are bulimic and would speak of nutritional disorders, anorexia and bulimia (our private, intimate forms of madness), diseases which madmen hide from those with two hands so that they will not be locked away or made to guzzle and gobble. And they will later be made normal, like Lantini; their solitary insanity will be cured, and, viewed with approval, they will not bother anybody. And they will go on television as an example to convince others. Never in the history of psychiatry —or almost never— has a pathology existed which so clearly purges the sins of the very body, which aspires to dispense with the body, which, by so much looking, ends up ignoring it. This is the opposite of the hysteria which uses the body as a place of performance. For bulimia and anorexia are invisible, almost asymptomatic, forms of madness with divergent symptoms. Just another morality tale rather than a Gothic tale, people will say.
The father in the latin-American writer’s story watches his son with the other little monsters. Basically, he has bought him normality, for the “normal” is what is established by the norm — the social. In the land of giants Gulliver was very small, just as he was huge in the land of dwarves.
What is normal? Madmen might be no more than people whose reasoning is built around the symptomatology of the difference —outside the norm— and that same norm locks them away so that they will not bother anybody. The 18th century banished them from court in order to erase the mistakes of the past, to bring back to the world the appearance of normality, just as the rich father in the story made up a different notion of normality for a monstrous son. This is a case of building a new compact, uni-focal world, a perfect world governed by a single form of reasoning. But in the end things are not that simple.
With its nose torn off, the enlightened 18th century stopped sniffing and tried to homogenize things and, because in the end things are never sufficiently well-ordered, solutions were sought century after century to recover differences, to try to integrate them and show them, even when they ached like that amputated leg that goes on calling to us after it has abandoned our body. The 19th century exhibited them at fairs which it often called museums, mixing the redoubts of the 18th century —people with physical disorders, Baroque pearls, things from far-off lands, the “exotic”— and one fine day, any fine day, the “Mexican kids” met Lantini at a freak show. Was the “leopard girl” Brady photographed science or freakery? Were the testimonies of the French physicians science or freakery? And who knows if the attraction we feel in the 20th century for decadent objects and documents as “aesthetic acquisitions” —perhaps because we cannot live without the terrifying— contains the 19th-century passion for vampires, for Poe’s dark streets, for serial killers. Other kinds of pathology.
The Surrealists considered a possible recovery of differentness —death, madness, abject art, non-Western art— not as an alternative way of expression but as the only way of expression; and the famous Papin sisters —serial killers— were acclaimed as heroines. The hysteria which held such a deep fascination for Breton and Aragon —in their words, “the greatest poetic discovery of the 19th century”— was celebrated on its fiftieth anniversary by unearthing various examples from Charcot’s archives —another kind of natural sciences room in which pearl-adorned foetuses were substituted by girls in theatrical poses: madwomen. But this pathology, a poetic invention rather than a reality, once again makes us wonder if we do not have before us a contrived, fictional pathology; “if it does not reflect the collector’s own pathology.”
Breton knew a great deal about that, for through the main character in Nadja he spoke to a certain extent of madness, of the “other”. Through a telepath (someone therefore not normal) he learned how the exotic, the different, could exist in París. Leiris’s Africa is in the Paris of Nadja, through her eyes, because everything is everywhere, as he discovers when he thinks of Nadja years later —after she has been locked up in a madhouse. Knowing she is in a mental hospital, he says that for her it makes no difference whether she is inside or out and seems to acknowledge her as someone from whom he could have learned so many things, someone whom he could have taught so little; and he recognizes that she is different.
In one of his best novels, “Take Me Away to the End of the World”, Blaise Cendrars describes the President, a woman who is only a torso but of great beauty. Rescued from the fairs by a powerful man, she had found some way of making him lose his head over her. Now extremely rich she lives apart from the world in the core of the negro Sam, who gives her peyote to calm her down, and she receives visits from an old actress who is addicted to cocaine. One extremely beautiful scene includes the old actress, who ¡s always in search of adventure, the black servant and the torso woman. Only in the 1930s is it possible to find such odd company. But once again the characters find themselves alone, forming part of a reality in which a madwoman, a negro and a monster can coexist.
The different is also portrayed today —I might say today more than ever— perhaps in a return to pre-Enlightenmenf aesthetics. Death is exhibited as if it were Ruysch’s collection. Serrano exhibits it. Contradictions in the canon are revealed, with the selfsame canon being reduced to the absurd. Orlan does this. Hitherto hidden domains are exposed, private bodies become public, like the sado-masochist rituals in reality shows (watered-down versions of the 19th-century freak show) on television. The different are portrayed or else specially built so that they can then be photographed: Sherman, Garin Evans, Dureau, Francés, the Brazilian Nazareth Pacheco and her necklaces of stilettos and blades… (I put the necklace on to cut those who embraced me).
As in Velázquez’s case, our catalogue of differences is exhibited in museums as part of the routine aesthetics of the “bizarre” and we have learned to turn our fear and our fascination for the “other” into a political speech, having understood how the suppositions of the Enlightenment were not good for everyone and much less good forever.
But there must be more to it than that. The political does not relieve my grief nor does it fill me with fear. And I need to feel fear, to dissolve into fear. Which is why I am so reassured by those madwomen of Marina Núñez’s, because she shows them, getting straight to the point, ¡n the well, that well described in the film The Big Snake when the old electroshock treatment is compared to Freudian therapy. A madwoman saved by words, by naming the trauma.
They reassure me because they are no longer a poetic invention like Breton’s madwomen, a momentary symptom for taking a photo, as Didi-Huberman says in his book The Invention of Hysteria. Desperate, multi-symptomatic, Marina’s madwomen are trapped in their psychotic world, not knowing they are observed. They are free and were never built by the look of an outsider as Breton’s madwomen were. They are majestic in this room; they have come to seek us out on an afternoon like this to say that finally they are “us”, that “us” we hide in public and show in private. And they do not live apart. They join us on our tour of the room because Marina has surpassed Breton, her madwomen have surpassed the pose and follow us with their eyes. Or perhaps not. Not even that. They no longer look at us. We are of no interest to them even as examples of the different. Marina’s madwomen have lost their fear of not being accepted and they sniff. They smell me, they smell you. They savour what distinguishes their bodies from my body, from yours.
The Uruguayan poet Hugo Achugar wrote: “The room is huge and it is small./ It all depends on who tells the story.”
It always depends on who tells the story.