Forbidden Territory

I visited the Dali exhibition at London’s County Hall today; a somewhat tawdry and gimmicky affair (piped music and looped silent videos on the wall spring to mind) and therefore ideally suited to its subject. Certainly, the exhibition had some of Dali’s more odd creations, such as the Mae West lips sofa or the oil painting from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (an odd film I saw recently; Dali’s dream sequence erupts into a quite staid film, quoting the slicing of eye imagery used in Un Chien Andalou). The strength of the exhibition is in sculpture and glasswork, the instantiation of much of Dali’s personal mythology. This is most obvious with works like the Space Elephant, the hollow figure of Newton, a winged snail, the figures with drawers coming out of their bodies (sometimes aflame), or the soft watches in various forms. Glass proves an excellent medium for Dali, emphasising an abstract character in his work, with works like Anti-Flower having an organic quality that Dali shared with Gaudi. Another strong area for Dali proves to be design (since the juxtapositions inherent in Dali’s art are much more forceful in an everyday context), such as a sofa with an arm winding round the back, ashtrays that combine the shape of swans and elephants, candlestick holders in the shape of flames and butterflies and his lobster phone once more. The exhibition’s lithographs and watercolours are not Dali’s best work.

I’ve been reading Goytisolo’s Forbidden Territory, a polyphonic work that counterpoints the writer’s political and poetical imaginations ("a mismatch between life and work" as he puts it). For the latter, "my dislike and even horror of urban areas that are open, clean, symmetrical and despairingly empty" is opposed to a love of "street chaos, the brutal transparency of social relations..the insidious flow of merchandise, precarious lives.. in a struggle for survival." But his early communism clashes with this outsider aesthetic; "merciless competition and barbaric exploitation by the capitalist industry of the time" particularly given his own description of the Soviet Union of "the almost physical density of that hybrid of alienation, lethargy and monotony." I also reread Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, a work which begins to seem somewhat perverse in the contradictions it combines. On the one hand, Genet’s aesthetics of transgression permit him to say "betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the basic subjects of this book," while also flaunting contempt of "queers." On the other hand, it does at least interrogate this self hatred; "my cowardice.. my shame in the presence of good looking boys."

I’ve also read Houellebecq’s Platform. The book combines a number of disparate viewpoints. For example, much of the book is cast in the language of the left, with capitalism viewed as producing alienation; "a part which is safe, attenuated, one which fully complies with the standards of international commerce." The novel views sex as an aspect of commerce (at the same time attacking the opponents of sex tourism as puritans). However, Houellebecq’s description of Cuba is much like Goytisolo’s description of Russia "the revolution had obviously failed to create the new man, driven by more altruistic motives." As such, much of the language becomes Hobbesian (though equally theft is described as being in keeping with social norms); "the notion of equality has no basis in human society…I was in Sao Paulo once, that’s where evolution has been pushed to its limits. It’s not even a city anymore." Crime, described in the language of civil war features more and more prominently. Similarly, racism "is neither economic nor cultural, it is brutal and biological.. Darwinism." The fact that many of the predictions of such internecine violence are spoken by a marginal character introduced for the purpose serves to reinforce the extent to which different discourses struggle for dominance in this novel.

In particular, one of the main themes is the absence of any notion of identity set in the context of the Eastern societies in which it is set and opposed to Western rationalism; "as often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish… the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than a pompous absurdity." Elsewhere, a Buddhist text is quoted as saying "clinging to their egos they take wrong actions. As a result they become attached to a delusive existence." Equally, Westerners "no long feel sex as something natural…we have become cold, rational acute conscious of our individual existence." However, this contrasts again to the descriptions of Islam, and the approval with which its demise at the hands of capitalism is quoted, as opposed to the descriptions in that context of the loss sense of the superiority of Western civilisation, "they believed in the superiority of their civilisation; they had invented dreams, progress, the future."

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