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What Does Literature Feel Like?

From Sensationalism to Sensation: Brian Evenson’s Affecting Texts

Nawelle Lechevalier-Bekadar

Résumés

L’œuvre de Brian Evenson résiste sciemment à toute tentative de catégorisation littéraire mélangeant et déconstruisant dans le même mouvement des genres aussi divers que le gothique, le western, la fiction postapocalyptique ou encore le réalisme magique. Pourtant de nombreuses nouvelles pointent vers un fantasme commun : produire de la sensation. Cet article se propose d’analyser la façon dont la prose evensonienne s’efforce de remettre en question les limites de la littérature en réaffirmant sa capacité à se saisir du corps du lecteur, dessinant la possibilité d’une réception physique de l’œuvre textuelle.

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  • 1 The novels epigraph ominously reads: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it f (...)

1Brian Evenson’s early education as a Mormon evidently played an influential role in his apprehension of language. Mormonism is a literalist religious movement whose texts, relation to sacredness and violence have irrigated the author’s works, from Father of Lies (1998), a very direct indictment against The Church of Latter-day Saints, to Immobility (2012) depicting post-human Mormon priests dwelling in the ruins of destroyed Utah. His second novel, Last Days (2009), describes a Mormon-inspired cult taking Matthew’s scriptures slightly too seriously as its members meticulously chop off their limbs to reach a state of sanctity.1 Overall, many of Evenson’s works articulate language, religion and violence to explore the gruesome potentialities of words.

2At first sight, reading Evenson’s texts means exposing ourselves to all our objects of disgust, our “abjects,” which cover a full range of bodily and psychological horrors. From incest and necrophilia to very literal apprehensions of body art, Evenson’s hyperbolically violent work achieved recognition partly for its highly graphic dimension. By stepping away from this sensational approach to the body, this article intends to demonstrate that Evenson’s works derive their power from an affective strength responding partly to a “logic of sensation” such as Gilles Deleuze theorized it. In numerous short stories, the author experiments with a transgression of the mimetic frame to conceive the possibilities of exposing the reader to a violence that is directed at her body, thus responding to a presentative, rather than representative logic. As Evenson comments in the afterword to Altmann’s Tongue, the texts are meant to “draw [us] into a situation in which sensation outweighs mimesis” (272), in other words, to drag the reader outside of the safe confines of representation so as to try and create a physical impact in which reading becomes a locus of potential endangering. As such, the collections of short stories Altmann’s Tongue (1994), Contagion (2000), The Wavering Knife (2004) and the novella Dark Property (2002), although stylistically diverse, not only reflect an obsession with bodily horror but also endeavor to create a language fantasized as a source of violence for the characters as well as the readers. If one cannot deny the importance of abjection as a viral form in Evenson’s work, what actually delineates its specificity is rather an experiential approach to language, conceived as an unmediated form, intending to seize the body of the reader. By drawing parallels with Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon’s paintings, this article investigates the precise modalities of sensation in Evenson’s work, considering its figural (as opposed to figurative) dimension through the rejection of Platonic representativity, but also by stressing how language understood as an event redefines the affective powers of literature.

The virality of abjection

  • 2 The conception of language as a virus stands as a persistent concern and/or fantasy among contempor (...)

3Altmann’s Tongue features 29 short stories, the creation of which spanned over ten years. Although they were not immediately inscribed within a common literary project, each of them operates as a small “theatre of cruelty” in which resonates the voice of Klaus Altmann, otherwise known as “The Butcher of Lyon.” The texts stage gestures of pure violence integrally estranged from any moral, social, or psychological context that would allow comprehension or the comfort of catharsis. In the “afterword” to Altmann’s Tongue, Brian Evenson evokes the ambition of the collection through a very striking viral metaphor: the stories, “meant to challenge the reader,” are conceived “as a sort of virus, as it were” (272).2 Materializing reception as a process of contamination immediately points to and questions the possibility for reading to become an act exceeding the confines of intellectual apprehension. Stepping aside from the expected sociological or philosophical approaches to violence, Evenson conceives his short stories as vectorizing affect: “I was less interested in depicting violence than I was in wanting readers to apprehend a sensation” (271). Literature is here fantasized as a physical form that would free itself from the initial constraints of mediation to proliferate within the body rather than the mind of its reader. Various short stories reflect the idea of a language that could densify to become a tangible force acting over the world. As such, the short story “Contagion,” from the eponymous collection, stages Haish and Grenniger, two erratic cowboys following and chronicling (through telegraph messages) the state of a barbed wire fence somehow meant to protect the world from an unspecified lethal contagion. Their sanity progressively dissolves as the barbed wire becomes an obscure object of cult which materializes contagion itself:

[...] concertina, wrap and wraparound, barb and lap, strip and tack, disc, perfect and needle point, ribbed, spearpoint, clear, rowel, screw, center-core, spring, cactus-point, outside coil, conductor, rotating coil, hook and point lock, gull wing, ladder, crossover, dropped loop, body grip, pigtail, snake tongue, knee grip, offset, seated, webbed, caged, trapped. (85)

  • 3 For a fuller analysis of the motif, see Lechevalier-Bekadar, “‘Contagion’ ou l’allégorie fracturée” (...)

4The text uncoils different types of existing barbed wires that put together point both to telegraphic writing and hypnotic litanies. This unsettling accumulation sets the premises for the transformation of the wire into a new scriptural form cruelly taking the body as its support:3

When the pain was at ebb, he began to sense the structure of the contagion itself, the hidden system of post and wire. He pursed his mouth as if listening. Two strand wire, it seemed to be. He needed his notebook and pencil to record it. Just knowing he needed them made him feel almost as if he had them. That was it:

Post: flesh and bone. (65)

5Haish’s body is now described as wire, conversely the message created (“Post: flesh and bone”) literally points back to his body. The end signs the protagonist’s descent into mystical madness; Haish stops describing the fence and progressively gets wrapped into barbed wire. Soon, he embraces the barbed wire that proliferates into his body the way words proliferate on the page. That initial fantasy of a language that would break and destroy its own frame to become a viral force stands as a recurring motif in numerous Evensonian texts which not only shape the aforementioned vision, but strive to enact it by challenging literature into constituting itself as a viral force, notably through the treatment of abjection, which necessarily conditions a particularly affective reception.

6The word abject readily characterizes certain images of torture and/or certain states of disfigured bodies in Evenson’s texts, recalling Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, which is mentioned in the epigraph to Altmann’s Tongue. As Kristeva analyses, the aggressive power of abjection stems from the fact that the abject is no object. It is not thrown in front of us (ob-jectum) but constitutes the formless that by which the subject collapses. Abjection attacks us, threatens our status as subjects. “A Slow Death” from Altmann’s Tongue exposes scenes of an absurd war whose hyperbolic violence culminates in visions of insufferable devouring redolent of cannibalism: “They cracked the long skulls against the walls, pried apart the bones to suck away the brains, stripped the hair back with fingernails to gnaw out the marrow pockets of hidden flesh. Flecked lips, cheeks, tongue” (53). Skull, bones, hair, fingernails, lips, cheeks, tongue: the fragmentation of the bodies into their various limbs and organs creates zones of indiscernibility, which makes it hard, without additional context, to understand that the warrior characters are actually feeding on dead horses rather than on dead humans.

  • 4 In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Georges Bataille associates the putrefying corpse with unique and (...)

7Before taking a closer look at the treatment of abjection within the texts, however, we should come back on the reasons why its apprehension whether direct or indirect—mediated through art—constitutes a vector of sensation that exerts intense power over the affectivity of the reader. Evenson’s texts leave no form of abjection aside as they extensively foreground images of incest, cannibalism or bodily torture. For the sake of brevity, we shall here only focus on the most exemplary form of abjection displayed in Altman’s Tongue, that of the decaying corpse that persistently reappears in numerous texts. In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Bataille (quoted in the afterword of the collection as a major source of inspiration) grants the corpse a form of virality that is itself extraordinarily disruptive.4 Accordingly, Altmann’s Tongue features a detective story called “The Sanza Affair” which opens on the discovery of a decaying body that becomes the object of narration as well as what initiates an entropic movement within the text itself. The putrescent corpse (“found two days later in a suburban alley, his jaw clenched tightly, his skin going gray, the base of his skull crushed to paste” 173) generates a cacophony of conflicting narrative voices: “He was lying” (Sanza’s wife), perhaps lying (Lund) perhaps telling the truth (Graca)” (176). Analyzing the power of disturbance of the corpse, Kristeva suggests that it stands as a paroxysmal form of abjection:

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. (Kristeva 3)

8The corpse threatens our integrity as living bodies by projecting us into a future state we must ignore in order to live on. Confronted with the insufferable spectacle of abjection, the body convulses into symptoms that manifest a visceral form of rejection: “The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck” (Kristeva 2). The question that remains is that of the power of representative abjection. If a decaying corpse in real life is likely to induce intense physical reactions, we may wonder if artistic mediation might act as a sheltering barrier to abjection. In Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant suggests that there is no representative quality to abjection; the painting of an abject object is abjection itself. It is always an immediate experience in the sense of an unmediated experience. In other words, the artistic representation of abjection does not allow to put it at a distance as it does not prevent the body from being attacked and seized by the object of its repulsion:

[O]nly one kind of ugliness cannot be represented in a way adequate to nature without destroying all aesthetic satisfaction, hence beauty in art, namely, that which arouses loathing. For since in this strange sensation, resting on sheer imagination, the object is represented as if it were imposing the enjoyment which we are nevertheless forcibly resisting, the artistic representation of the object is no longer distinguished in our sensation itself from the nature of the object itself, and it then becomes impossible for the former to be taken as beautiful. (Kant 190)

  • 5 That letter is often referred to by critics and by Evenson himself as one of the catalysts for his (...)

9According to Kant the artistic representation of an object does not generate a different sensation compared to the object itself. When abjection is represented, it seems to abolish its own mediation and attack the body of the reader. In other words, artistic mediation does not allow us to distance our objects of repulsion as it does not act as a prophylactic barrier; it doesn’t prevent the body from feeling assailed by the object of its disgust. As such the anonymous letter written by a student at Brigham Young University after reading Altmann’s Tongue perfectly exemplifies the power of abjection:5

“This man has an obsession with murder,” she wrote. “There are descriptions of cannibalism, incest and serial murder. [Reading the book] I feel like someone who has eaten something poisonous and is desperate to get rid of it.” (Lechevalier-Bekadar 2017, 271)

10As she compared the book with poison, the student was probably referring to moral rather than physical abasement, but calling upon a bodily metaphor suggests the clear and inescapably somatic dimension of abjection which actualizes itself through physical responses.

  • 6 See Linda Williams, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess, Film Genre Reader III, p. 141-159.

11At first glance, Evenson’s generous use of bodily cruelty might first lead to understand his work as pertaining to sensationalist fiction, which Pierre-Louis Patoine, in Corps-Texte, foregrounds as the privileged locus of embodied reading. Patoine analyzes the effectiveness of what could be called a literary exploitation of body genres defined by Linda Williams as relying on an imitative, empathetic response to the foregrounding of bodies seized by sensation.6 Body genres thus find their fittest expression in the sensationalist categories of horror, pornography or melodrama; if sexuality and romantic emotions are rarely of interest in Evenson’s work, his pervasive use of bodily torture and abjection may initially echo the obsession of sensationalist horror fiction.

  • 7 In that respect, these works avoid the association with the cinematic version of so-called “torture (...)
  • 8 In the same way, in the second chapter of Corps/Texte: Pour une théorie de la lecture empathique, P (...)
  • 9 In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari set out their definition of Art and define “blocs of s (...)
  • 10 The expression directly echoes what Jane Thrailkill theorizes as “affecting fictions” when she deta (...)

12Yet Evenson’s texts themselves reflect the affectless and discarnate points of views of the murderers and executioners, thus precluding any access to the sensation qua suffering to be usually associated with the tortured bodies.7 Here, the bodies are mute, voiceless, anonymous, they reclaim their primal non-significance as flesh. The bodies depicted appear as explorations of the body’s virtualities ­(the shapes and conditions it could assume), testing the limits of its viability rather than exploring the emotional responses attached to physical disfiguration, thus opening to other leads in order to circumscribe the particular bodily effects of Evensonian prose.8 Beyond the capacity of such prose to elicit shock or disgust, what strikes Evenson’s readers is rather its capacity to form affects, in the Deleuzian sense, that is, not the instanciation of a particular emotion but the creation of an intensive force that places the text in the realm of sensation as opposed to sensationalism.9 If words a priori constitute an intrinsically irrevocable form of mediation, the texts under scrutiny explore the possibilities of a form of writing intent on abolishing conventional mediation by creating “affecting texts.”10

Affectless voices

13In the afterword to Altmann’s Tongue, Evenson evokes his wish to transform reading into a potentially dangerous experience by challenging the confines of mimetic representation:

Traditional mimetic representation has a certain safety to it—one has a sense of frame, as if standing at a distance from an object. I was interested in offering up an artistic object that used sound, rhythm, and other subcomponents of language as means of rupturing that frame. (272)

  • 11 Evenson mentions an episode of his life when he picked up a hitchhiker who threatened him with a fi (...)

14As the author extensively develops, the aim here is to “draw the reader into […] sensation” by creating settings that would somehow allow to bypass the mimetic framing.11 What strikes the reader of Evenson’s short stories is not so much the hyperbolic violence described as the very fabric of the narrative setting which confronts us with properly affectless, inhuman voices. The reader is constantly disturbed by a feeling of deep malaise towards a language which presents nightmarish bodily cruelty while remaining perfectly indifferent to the objects of its description, as one can see through a quick review of Altman’s Tongue’s incipits:

“They wanted to kill their cats, but the problem was the problem of transportation.” (“Killing Cats” 9)

“His stepfather’s body was genuflected as if disposed at prayer, a bee wriggling on it, its stinger inserted into the naked back.” (“Stung” 69)

“That was the year my father was shot for giving bad directions.” (“Hey Luciano” 91)

“Having sewn Jarry’s eyelids shut, Hébé found himself at a loss as how to proceed.” (“Hébé Kills Jarry” 109)

“He drove across the border, crossed into the barren northern stretches of Utah. Three miles into the state he killed his first, bashing her eyes in with his tire iron.” (“Her Other Bodies: A Travelogue” 145)

  • 12 “All of these sentences assault the reader as a mixture of rhetorical flatness, narrative indiffere (...)

15Marco Abel describes those incipits as invested with a power of fascination such as that described by Blanchot in The Space of Literature, endowing vision with quasi tactile properties.12 In other words, Abel grants a paradoxically haptic dimension to Evenson’s prose felt as a place of contact where the reader is somehow seized by the text. Perfectly “amodal” and “indicative,” language here relies on a syntax cleared of any stylistic element that would allow to render mimetically the horror at stake. The descriptions follow a purely chronological order, thus emptying violence from its narrative disruption properties; it exposes the reader to figurative violence while precluding access to emotional release in the same movement.

16The first short story of the collection entitled “The Father, Unblinking” stages a character discovering the bloated, rotting body of his daughter in the yard without so much as a blink of emotion:

He picked her up, folded her best he could, and carried her across the yard. He ducked under the window, hurried past the worn back stoop with the door at the top of it. He kicked hens and chicks out of the way, booting loose turbid clouds of pinfeathers. Hooking the barn door with his boot, he hop-skipped and back until it was wide enough to let his foot free and for him to shoulder himself and his girl in. (3)

  • 13 In an article about Cormac McCarthy (“Embodying Violence: The Case of Cormac McCarthy”), Evenson de (...)

17Particularly noticeable here is the hammering repetition of the anonymous pronoun “he” performing a succession of unexplained moves: no psychological comment helps enlighten the scene, forever estranging the reader from the motives of the character.13 Similarly the narration stands purely unaffected by the horror of the sequence that fails to contaminate the mineral indifference of the narrative voice. Jean-Yves Pellegrin analyses the precise modalities of such voice refusing to indulge in the expected syntactic overflow of the description of violence, which he identifies as a “language of exposure.” Pellegrin uses a photographic metaphor to approach a mode of writing that fashions itself into a diaphanous surface of impression, granting the possibility for the objects of narration to appear:

If words appear on the page, it is only to disappear behind the images they conjure up. Language, here, is the light in which, and the transparent medium through which, figures become visible; it is also the neutral support structure of the figures, an analogon to the blank page that allows the objects of representation to stand forth. (Pellegrin)

  • 14 In an interview, Brian Evenson suggests he modelled his use of narrative blankness after Camus, see(...)

18The narrative blankness14 that very directly echoes that of The Stranger by Camus highlights a mode of writing that seeks its own erasure to presentify its contents. As such, the text creates an illusion of clarity through the use of words no longer understood as the necessarily opaque (because polysemic, culturally charged etc.) vectors of images but as their very condition of visibility. The textual surface onto which images get imprinted stands as monstrous because its very neutrality refuses the expected emphasis associated with discovering the corpse of one’s dead child, and in doing so, it reconfigures our understanding of the dialectics of representation.

19The radically singular kind of brutality specific to Altmann’s Tongue led philosopher Alphonso Lingis in his introduction to the collection to raise the following questions: “Is language itself murderous? Does not language itself produce brutality, cruelty, killing? Is the killing in the very words of this book—instead of being outside of them, merely reported on in them?” (xvii). To extend this reflection, I would like to argue that Evenson’s prose confronts its readers with a language that assaults us not so much because it strains to become diaphanous to let us see violent objects, but because it is the source of violence itself.

The Figural

  • 15 In Discourse, Figure (1971), Lyotard asserted the irreducibility of texts to their purely dialogica (...)

20In the wake of the affective turn, Marco Abel redefined the contours of the violent image by substituting a presentative approach (which he calls “masocritic”) to a representative one.15 In other words, instead of judging the validity of a violent image through its capacity to represent reality, thus following a purely Platonic analytical tradition, he wishes to consider them on the immanent plane of their own reality:

[It] simply assumes that violent images, just like any other image, represent. Operating on the representationalist assumption that (violent) images are representations—reflections of something prior to their emergence, that is, immaterial traces of absent presences—these studies sooner than later turn their attention away from their alleged focus (the violence of image) in favor of analyses of what they “represent” or “mean.” (Abel 10)

21Violent images are no longer violent because of what they convey but because of what they achieve. It is very significant that among the writers chosen, Abel selected Evenson to clarify his claims. By stepping out of the conventional paths of literary mediation of violence, Evenson allows us to consider language itself as a source of potential violence.

22In an interview granted to Eric Bonnargent, Evenson reflects upon his fascination for Bacon’s paintings that clearly informed his approach to writing:

  • 16 The interview was initially published in French, I have translated the passage into English.

When I observe a painting by Bacon, I always feel that I react as a body. That visual experience is almost experimental, phenomenological. I think that my writing is interested in the body and trauma for the same reasons, because I try to create an impact that is almost physical for the reader, even if the means to achieve that effect are very different in fiction.16 (Bonnargent and Evenson)

  • 17 According to Deleuze: “The violence of sensation is opposed to the violence of the represented (the (...)

23Evenson’s statement is crucial to understand the intellectual framework of his texts that are evidently inspired by Deleuze and his analysis of Francis Bacon’s artworks in Logic of Sensation. Deleuze clearly opposes the sensational understood as “the primary figuration of that which provokes a violent sensation” (34) to sensation, so as to specify that what makes the viewer access sensation has nothing to do with the figuration of abjection (syringes, blood, vomit, etc.). Focusing on the sensational rather diverts from the approach of sensation as an intensive force that transcends figurativeness and narration.17

  • 18 Even though we focus on the figural dimension of Bacon’s paintings, it is also worth mentioning tha (...)

24As mentioned earlier, Evenson’s aesthetic frame clearly presents itself as an experimental dialogue with Bacon’s paintings, questioning the possibility for literature to achieve physical reception. The short stories in Altmann’s Tongue investigate the possibility to translate the Deleuzian notion of “Figure” applied to Bacon in the field of painting into a literary one and thus create a “logic of sensation” specific to literature. Obviously, the main objection that logically arises from such an assimilation emerges from the fact that the mode of the short story is intrinsically narrative, and thus verges more towards figurativeness and representation, when the figure as developed by Deleuze about Bacon's paintings is pure affect, a completely decontextualized mode of being: “painting has to extract the Figure from the figurative” (Deleuze 8) (in other words from the narrative or illustrative).18 Deleuze himself insisted on several occasions on the separate and precise powers of the various arts, the functioning of which can obviously not be interchangeable. Yet, in What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari allow literature its own particular power to create sensation: “The writer’s specific materials are words and syntax, the syntax that ascends irresistibly into his work and passes into sensation” (Deleuze and Guattari 167). If the short stories cannot be fully understood as Figures, there remains a figural aspect to them that mostly stems from the processes of isolation common to both Bacon’s bodies and Evenson’s writings.

25What Deleuze sees in Bacon’s artwork is the creation of a Figure (“the sensible form related to a sensation [which] acts immediately on the nervous system” [Deleuze 31]). The Figure in Bacon’s paintings is not the body of an individual inserted within a narrative setting, it is rather the body itself, thrown on a canvas in its fundamental fleshiness. As such, it is a purely affective form, not an intellectual one. The Figure is defined as both the humanoid form detaching itself from the canvas and what encompasses the concentration of forces, or intensities, that define a systolic and diastolic movement, from the fields to the figure, and from the figure to the fields (Deleuze 13). In other words, setting up a correspondence between Bacon’s paintings and Evenson’s work implies understanding that the figures in the short stories cannot be reduced to the characters, but have to be interpreted as an interplay or movement between the characters and the frame or setting itself. According to Deleuze, one of the characteristic elements of the Figure is its isolation. The figures (in their first sense) are most of the time imprisoned within cages, circles or various delineated spaces that completely isolate them. Somewhat similar processes may be found within Altmann’s Tongue through literary ways. First the very nature of the short story itself as a brief form—and especially here since it pertains to the minimalist movement—is ruled by a regime of economy that contributes to its insularity and physical efficiency. But more importantly here, Altmann’s Tongue’s short stories are characterized by a radical unfamiliarity as they create worlds that playfully disturb our referential bearings, and give them an insular form to which the reader has only a very confused and partial access. Most short stories display an extremely minimal and opaque contextualization, as well as distant characters that seem imprisoned in rooms without exits. “A Conversation with Brenner,” for instance, stages two characters, one half dead, and the other one monologizing as he clips away the extremities of his victim. The incipit and the end let the merely sketched world of the short story emerge before our eyes, before it sinks back into darkness:

The edge of the counter took shape, then the end posts of the bed, little bits of order retched from the dark. He could see a lightening in the darkness. He watched the flesh build around it. (75)

He smoked another. Then another—until it was dark. (77)

  • 19 One could object that this is precisely the forms of delineation Deleuze thought Bacon’s painting h (...)

26Some of Evenson’s scenes emerge under the mode of isolation (Deleuze 3) in ways redolent of Bacon’s figures.19 The time and space-frames of the short stories are mostly sketched rather than described, composed of fragments and details. They only rarely offer a clear mimetic frame that would allow the reader to recreate their own bearings. Yet, the descriptions are still extremely precise and clinical. The setting created is not meant for the reader to fill in the gaps with their own projections. Minimal as it is, it stands as utterly saturated. That is all there is. Hence the Beckettian quality of the collection that finds its most obvious expressions in “Hébé Kills Jarry,” one of the short stories that clearly rewrites Beckett’s Endgame. The text focuses on the interaction between the two sole characters, Hébé and Jarry, who reenact the executioner/victim duet while addressing one another in a most affable fashion:

“What is it Hébé?” said Jarry, trying to blink. The thread on the insides of his eyelids scratched against his eyes, damaging them. “I can’t seem to recall the sequence,” Hébé said. “No written instructions?” said Jarry.
“Yes” said Hébé. “But the note is ruined.” (109)

27The metatheatrical dimension of the passage is made clear through the reference to a script that should guide the interaction between the characters, but what really strikes the reader here is the absolutely unfamiliar and absurd relation of amiable friendship that bonds Jarry and Hébé whose feelings in no way interfere with what has to be performed, as if their roles on the one hand, and their relation on the other, stood on different levels of existence. Hence, devoid of any kind of explanation or rationalization, the gesture of cruelty stands as proper matter of fact; it happens as an event that remains isolated from any context whatsoever.

28Whether effectively or not, Evenson’s short stories experiment with the translation of a pictorial format into a literary one in order to test the boundaries of literature in its ability to be perceived as seen as much as read, if only by reactivating structural organizations belonging to the art of painting. If one can clearly see the limits of a systematic attempt at analyzing Evenson’s work in the sole light of Bacon’s paintings, the texts still respond to a form of logic of sensation, striving to shape a language that forcefully materializes as event.

The word become flesh

29Many short stories point to language as a material form, both concrete and nefarious, that structures the characters’ relation to the world. That insistence upon the power of language is particularly striking in the novella Dark Property: An Affliction (2002). During an interview Evenson suggested that the text belonged to the genre of affliction:

I was thinking about it in terms of how sometimes people write, such and such: “A Story, such and such,” “A Novel, such and such,” “A Novella.” I liked the idea of having a genre that was an Affliction. That was kind of a genre thing that was going on. Then I also liked thinking about it in regard to a reader […] What happens to you when you read the book, that it is a kind of affliction, that it’s this kind of interaction that afflicts one. (Lechevalier-Bekadar 2017, 82)

  • 20 In iconology the word is also used to characterize a feminine figure displaying all the signs of ab (...)
  • 21 “Affliction” in online dictionary, Littré, https://www.littre.org. Accessed 7 November 2023.

30Beyond religious iconography, the word “affliction” is to be understood as a literary space the reader penetrates at her own risk.20 The text immediately signals its desire to harm: the Latin root of affliction “fligere” means “to strike” or “to hurt” and points to the relentless infliction of pain.21 The text leaves the spatial metaphor behind and suggests, rather, an entry into a state of pain. If affliction can be understood as a genre, then readers have to prepare for being afflicted by words that carry the curse of all words: what is read cannot be unread. The sense of fascination the novella elicits emanates partly from the creation of a language both old and new that is registered by the reader under the mode of intuition rather than that of intellection. Dark Property confronts us with a neo-biblical language fashioned by the violence of the Old Testament and upcoming Apocalypse. The text evokes the journey of a woman carrying her dead baby in a bag and her efforts to reach a citadel of resurrectionists who might breathe life back into the inert body of her son. Along the way she meets with hordes of cannibals, one of whom is dressed in the outfit of priesthood and extends a very dangerous helping hand. As the woman refuses to reveal her name, telling him she has none, Honeybone, the clerical leader of the group, offers to give her one: “Honeybone smiled, spread his palms. ‘I will christen you,’ he said” (12). The predatory setting of the passage quickly leads us to understand that, in that context, “christening”—admittance within a community of faith—is barely veiled code for devouring, a literal way of integrating the body of the church incarnated by Honeybone.

  • 22 This very brief collection of short stories offers four texts satirizing Mormon culture and lore, i (...)
  • 23 The Wavering Knife, Evenson’s fifth collection of short stories, gives prominence to scientific mad (...)

31Far away from the apocalyptic shores of Dark Property, Brian Evenson’s short story entitled “Prophets and Brothers” (1997)—extracted from the eponymous collection—also stages christening as a murderous act: the blessing of the dog amounts to the execution of the animal.22 At the beginning of the short story, Karl, worrying about the disappearance of his dog calls him: “[He] called the dog by its name” (18). After being bitten, the character fetches his rifle: “He ducked his head, entered the barn. He cocked back the triggers, called the dog by name” (22). The ablation of the possessive form “its” in the second quote suggests a shift into the religious regime where calling a name means blessing, and blessing ultimately means killing. Both the novella and the short story force us to apprehend the monstrous dimension of language through the violence of its performative powers. That clear insistence upon the harmful powers of language as a potentially murderous form cannot but inflect our reading and condition a particularly sensitive reception of the text. It allows for the very literal outcome of those religious blessings in which metaphors translate into murder in a world that appears as a nightmarish extension of the Old Testament. Accordingly, the omnipresent figure of God fashions all the coordinates of Dark Property’s world: it is God’s sun that dazzles the protagonist (“Turning her face skyward, she squinted against God’s sun” 17); the sentence indicates that the physical world is here directly fashioned by the divine. The language itself darkly appropriates biblical language through uncanny processes of linguistic estrangement that are made even clearer in the short story “Garker’s Aestheticals” from The Wavering Knife.23

32Indeed, “Garker’s Aestheticals” participates in the same apprehension of language as it seems to condense its logic of materialization; as such it almost stands as an offshoot of the language in Dark Property, presenting a language endowed with obscure religious powers. The short story, composed of three short textual fragments, presents the ramblings of a narrative voice, creating a language that only distantly sounds like English and vaguely recollects the very beginning of Genesis. The parallel linguistic at work in the text violates grammar and challenges all forms of diachronic linguistics:

It were a name. It name were God.
It gangled my tongue. It were crawed up my throat. Word God were given me the choke.
Spatted it all out. All about the crackwood floor. Luppen and lappen it up all from the crackwood floor. Gangled it trussed with my mean silvered tongue. (209)

33The language presents itself as defective: no possessive marker (“it xx name”), deletion of the subject (“xx spatted,” “xx gangled”), distorted lexicon (“lappen,” “luppen” and “gangled”), flawed verbalization (“Spatted” evokes the verb “spit,” but its past participle is “spat”). The text enables an intense interaction between body and language as the words point to obscure movements of absorption: the word “crawed” could mean “swallow,” although the verb “craw” characterizes birds; the word “Lappen” evokes the French “laper,” meaning “to drink” for an animal; all these linguistic deviations create an impression of opacity reinforced by the asyndetic and minimal structure of the passage. The next section of Evenson’s short story allows readers to understand that the narrator is eating language, more precisely the word “God” that he crushes between his teeth: “pulped it pasty atween my molar teeth” (209). Language here is not an abstract form made of words but rather a poisonous material the corporality of which resonates within each sentence: “Gangled it trussed with my mean silvered tongue” (209). The proximity between labials and gutturals strives to reproduce the efforts of mastication at work. The whole passage not only mimics dysphagia through a succession of throaty sounds, it enacts it syntactically and visually through grammatical and terminological syncopes as well as distortions that give the impression that the text itself is choking. The torsions of that language convulsing before our eyes open a figural space as defined by Laurent Jenny:

With the figural, language is not only “implemented,” “realized,” but also brought back to its origins, restored in a primary power of a-representation, reshaped into new signs. The figural actualization is thus phenomenologically endowed with a singular quality, that of an event within the event. (Jenny 26, my translation)

34The notion of the text as event speaks to a form of original cratylism in which signified and signifier would no longer be associated through arbitrary choices: “[…] Only the figural enables a return to the ‘mimetic’ world: by bringing language back to an original decision about its form, it restores a descriptive power to speech it was initially devoid of” (Jenny 26, my translation). As the text grants language an organic quality it allows the signifier and the signified to relate in an intimate and necessary way, thus commanding an apprehension that stands as sensitive rather than as purely intellectual. Anne-Laure Tissut’s reading of Everett’s The Water Cure offers a compelling model for theorizing the forces at work in Evenson’s writings:

The reader’s imagination is stimulated to elaborate a three-dimensional rendering of speech that branches out in all directions, is endowed with volume and body, as opposed to the flatness of everyday language, devoid of any contrast—a language that has all but closed itself to any form of questioning by dint of being used and abused, an overused language as distinct from overexposed language, its exact opposite. Even the most common expressions and phrases are being considered anew and revivified, losing the meaning that we took for granted. Language is no longer seen as a secondary description of a pre-existing world, “adequate or inadequate to the world or to the self” (Rorty 10), but as a creative process, while words are viewed as material objects. (Tissut)

  • 24 “Traditional mimetic representation has a certain safety to it, one has a sense of frame, as if sta (...)

35As such Evenson’s texts seem to confront us with what Tissut theorizes as an “overexposed language,” a language extracted from its dailyness that no longer stands as a Platonic tool in the service of a world exceeding it, but rather a language regenerating itself to become a purely creative force. Evenson experiments with the possibility for the reader to escape traditionally mediated paths of reception by confronting her with referentless objects, thus striving to bypass mimetic distanciation, understood as a way to protect the reader from experiencing the text.24 As Abel suggests, the text’s violence does not here respond to an attempt at reproducing a violent image (Abel 10), as it eschews representational attempts at relaying exterior violence. Rather, the text endeavors to generate sensation through the creation of a language that is immanently violent, calling upon an affective response from the reader. Rupturing the frame thus potentially means unleashing the text’s powers and programming a physical response from a reader summoned into an experiential reading.

The sentences you read leave you agape: what next? You […] are left dazed and groping. You cannot just sway hypertonic in vicarious thrills, nor decompress in catharsis. You are not able to weave over the breach other kinds of language—literary references, psychological exegeses, mythic generalization. (Lingis xii)

36The malaise evoked by Lingis reading Evenson’s stories cannot constitute a universal, essentialized model of reception to Evensonian prose, but it exemplifies the possibility for such embodied reading to exist as the extension of a carefully devised sensation-oriented narrative setting. Evenson’s short stories and novellas reflect a writing fantasy that explores several paths to reconfigure literature’s powers. The sensational dimension of the texts under scrutiny which heavily rely on the use of bodily horror does not account for the specific reading experience supplied by Evenson’s prose. The texts here experiment with the translation of Bacon’s painting techniques into a literary field to try and open up the text to a plastic, haptic apprehension. The texts’ figural dimension is here to be understood as a means to break away from the necessarily mediated confines of literature to confront the reader with the violence of language, under the mode of exposure. In that respect Evenson’s texts strive to affect the reader by opening them to the violence of renewed reading practices, dangerously extending the power of literature.

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Bibliographie

ABEL, Marco. Literature, Cinema and Critique after Representation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Anonymous and Brian EVENSON. Madeupmovement, madeupmovement.com/archive/prose/interview.htm. Accessed 10 September 2023.

BATAILLE, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. 1957. Translated from the French by Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.

BONNARGENT, Eric, and Brian EVENSON. “Entretien avec Brian Evenson.” Réalisé en 2009 pour le Magazine des livres. anagnoste.blogspot.com/search?q=evenson. 2012. Accessed 3 October 2023.

BURROUGHS, William S. The Ticket That Exploded. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

DELEUZE, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 1981. Translated from the French by Daniel W. Smith. London: Continuum, 2003.

DELEUZE, Gilles, and Félix GUATTARI. What is Philosophy?. 1991. Translated from the French by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

EVENSON, Brian. Prophets and Brothers. Chicago: Rodent Press, 1997.

EVENSON, Brian. Contagion and Other Stories. La Grande: Wordcraft of Oregon, 2000.

EVENSON, Brian. Altmann’s Tongue. 1994. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

EVENSON, Brian. Dark Property: An Affliction. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.

EVENSON, Brian. “Embodying Violence: The Case of Cormac McCarthy.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, no. 14, 2016, p. 135-148.

JENNY, Laurent. La Parole singulière. Paris: Belin, 1990.

KANT, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. 1781. Translated from the German by Paul Guyer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

KRISTEVA, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. 1980. Translated from the French by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

LECHEVALIER-BEKADAR, Nawelle. “Thresholds: Interviewing Brian Evenson.” “‘Something was wrong’: l’Esthétique du malaise dans l’œuvre de Brian Evenson.’’ Ph.D. dissertation, Rennes 2 University, 2017, p. 71-84.

LECHEVALIER-BEKADAR, Nawelle. “Contagion ou l’allégorie fracturée.” Brian Evenson : l’Empire de la cruauté. Eds. Sylvie Bauer, Nawelle Lechevalier-Bekadar, and Florian Tréguer. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2022, p. 47-55.

LINGIS, Alphonso. “‘The Eye of the Killer’ in Brian Evenson. Altmann’s Tongue. Brian Evenson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. xi-xix.

MCCARTHY, Cormac. “The Kekulé Problem.” Nautilus, April 2017, nautil.us/the-kekul-problem-236574. Accessed 3 October 2023.

PATOINE, Pierre-Louis. Corps/Texte. Pour une théorie de la lecture empathique. Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2015.

PELLEGRIN, Jean-Yves. “An Eye for an Eye: Brian Evenson’s Merciless Art of Exposure.” Sillages critiques, no. 17, 2014, journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/3484. Accessed 3 October 2023.

TISSUT, Anne-Laure. Percival Everett’s The Water Cure: A Blind Read. Sillages critiques, no. 17, 2014, journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/3496. Accessed 3 October 2023.

THRAILKILL, Jane. Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

WILLIAMS, Linda. Film bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, p. 141-159.

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Notes

1 The novels epigraph ominously reads: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee… And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee… Matthew 5:29-30.”

2 The conception of language as a virus stands as a persistent concern and/or fantasy among contemporary American writers. In a talk entitled “The Kekulé Problem” given at the Santa Fe Institute in 2017, Cormac McCarthy reflected upon the origins of language which, he assumed, initially spread as a “parasitic invasion.” In its fictional explorations, the idea that language should spread as a viral form has mostly been considered through a horrific lens: in The Ticket that Exploded (1962), Burroughs conceives of the word as “a parasiting organism that invades and damages the central nervous system” (Burroughs 49), while Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (2012) stages adults getting terminally ill because of their children’s speech working as a toxic allergen.

3 For a fuller analysis of the motif, see Lechevalier-Bekadar, “‘Contagion’ ou l’allégorie fracturée” in Brian Evenson. L’empire de la cruauté.

4 In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Georges Bataille associates the putrefying corpse with unique and threatening disruptive powers: “Often the idea of contagion is connected with the body’s decomposition where formidable aggressive forces are seen at work. The corpse will rot; this biological disorder, like the newly dead body a symbol of destiny, is threatening in itself. We no longer believe in contagious magic, but which of us could be sure of not quailing at the sight of a dead body crawling with maggots” (Bataille 46).

5 That letter is often referred to by critics and by Evenson himself as one of the catalysts for his resignation from Brigham Young University and later excommunication from the Church of Latter-day Saints.

6 See Linda Williams, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess, Film Genre Reader III, p. 141-159.

7 In that respect, these works avoid the association with the cinematic version of so-called “torture porn,” which names a genre centered on the sadistic and obscene treatment of the body on screen.

8 In the same way, in the second chapter of Corps/Texte: Pour une théorie de la lecture empathique, Pierre-Louis Patoine analyses Guide (1997) by Dennis Cooper as exposing bodily horror while estranging us from the experience of the tortured bodies. The analytical stance of the narration distances the reader from the experiencing bodies, thus preventing the activation of an empathetic response.

9 In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari set out their definition of Art and define “blocs of sensations” and “affects” as follows: “What is preserved—the thing or the work of art—is a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects. Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself” (Deleuze and Guattari 164).

10 The expression directly echoes what Jane Thrailkill theorizes as “affecting fictions” when she details the creation and reception of American Realist literary works as engaging body and mind and refusing to oppose feeling and interpretation here presented as coalescent.

11 Evenson mentions an episode of his life when he picked up a hitchhiker who threatened him with a firearm and evokes his wish to have readers experience “the gun snouting against his or her fragile temple” (272). His remarks point to the possibility for a text to supply the reader with a quasi sado-masochistic form of sensual pleasure.

12 “All of these sentences assault the reader as a mixture of rhetorical flatness, narrative indifference, and syntactical precision. Setting the tone for stories of extreme violence and depravity, they introduce the violence to be explicitly described or, rarely, merely evoked. They do this in ways that primarily effect a sense of violation in the reader, not merely because some of the violence is nausea-inducing but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it solicits from me an odd, inexplicable sense of what Maurice Blanchot calls in The Space of Literature ‘fascination’” (Abel 157).

13 In an article about Cormac McCarthy (“Embodying Violence: The Case of Cormac McCarthy”), Evenson describes the characters in terms that could easily apply to his own writings and approach to characterization: “Since there’s generally such a paucity of interior thought [...], he manages to accomplish a great deal by implication. Sentence speed and rhythm can help us tentatively make assumptions about the characters, their situation, and what they might be thinking” (Evenson 2016, 139).

14 In an interview, Brian Evenson suggests he modelled his use of narrative blankness after Camus, see Anonymous and Evenson, Madeupmovement.

15 In Discourse, Figure (1971), Lyotard asserted the irreducibility of texts to their purely dialogical nature and offered, among others, the basis for the emergence of the affective turn as a way of recentering the body in the process of literary reception. The expression itself was fashioned after “the linguistic turn” and points to an epistemological movement which places the question of affect at the heart of reading operations, seen as an embodied process, thus moving away from a reduction to purely cognitive approaches.

16 The interview was initially published in French, I have translated the passage into English.

17 According to Deleuze: “The violence of sensation is opposed to the violence of the represented (the sensational, the cliché). The former is inseparable from its direct action on the nervous system, the levels through which it passes, the domains it traverses: being itself a Figure, it must have nothing of the nature of a represented object(Deleuze 35).

18 Even though we focus on the figural dimension of Bacon’s paintings, it is also worth mentioning that they do not elude figurativeness as they do represent and can’t escape narrativization, an objection Deleuze underlined: “[...] we never cease to trip over the objection of fact: the Figure is still figurative; it still represents someone (a screaming man, a smiling man, a seated man), it still narrates something” (Deleuze 79).

19 One could object that this is precisely the forms of delineation Deleuze thought Bacon’s painting had freed itself from, as the following quote suggests: “What fills the rest of the painting will be neither a landscape as the correlate of the figure, nor a ground from which the form will emerge, nor a formless chiaroscuro” (Deleuze 23).

20 In iconology the word is also used to characterize a feminine figure displaying all the signs of abatement and sorrow (head bent down, sad facial expression, dejected eyes etc.), a definition that directly echoes the anonymous female protagonist in Dark Property.

21 “Affliction” in online dictionary, Littré, https://www.littre.org. Accessed 7 November 2023.

22 This very brief collection of short stories offers four texts satirizing Mormon culture and lore, including Latter-day Saints mythological or historical figures such as the Three Nephites or late prophet Ezra Pound.

23 The Wavering Knife, Evenson’s fifth collection of short stories, gives prominence to scientific madness by deconstructing discourses of authority through the foregrounding of insane and murderous narrators.

24 “Traditional mimetic representation has a certain safety to it, one has a sense of frame, as if standing at a distance from an object” (Altmann’s Tongue 272).

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Nawelle Lechevalier-Bekadar, « From Sensationalism to Sensation: Brian Evenson’s Affecting Texts »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21546 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21546

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Nawelle Lechevalier-Bekadar

Université Bretagne Sud

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