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the materialization of the body in literary works” by Marina Guiomar
Moravagine is Blaise Cendrars’ second novel, published in 1926, one year after the successful publishing of Gold (Gold is the fictionalized biography of John Sutter, the misfortunate land owner whose estate in the Sacramento Bay area in northern California was piled and destroyed as a consequence of the 1850s’ gold rush). Moravagine, who lends his name to the title of the book, is patient number 1731 at Waldensee Sanatorium, a mental institution near Berne, Switzerland. He had been institutionalized for over sixteen years, after the brutal killing of the woman he was in love with, Rita, when Dr. Raymond La Science, the stereotype of the young, brilliant, newly-graduated psychologist, becomes his analyst, in 1900. A strong relationship is built up from the regular visits of La Science to Moravagine’s cell, and the reader soon realizes that the roles in this patient/doctor relationship are somewhat inverted, for it is Moravagine who exerts a veiled authority over Raymond La Science. After a few months’ treatment, the psychoanalyst, captivated by the patient’s biography and also by the patient’s machine-like drive towards action, movement, and death, arranges for Moravagine’s escape and follows him, leaving thus behind a promising career in psychoanalysis and engaging in a journey of murder and ceaseless revolution across Berlin, St. Petersburg, America, Mars (!),which will last for almost twenty years. The encounter between the patient Moravagine and the doctor takes place in 1900, the year of the publishing of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This is not a fortuitous occurrence in the narrative, but rather a rhetorical device which reasserts the dominion of psychoanalysis in the diegesis, both at the level of the construction of the characters and the plot, and at the deeper level of speech. It is in fact in the plane of discourse that I wish to explore the presence of such important references to psychoanalysis like the one just cited. The relevance of the Freudian theories concerning dreams, memory, and the unconscious is undeniable for many reasons, one of them being the fact that it was one of the first attempts to coalesce the body and the mind, matter and the transient, from a scientific standpoint. This was accomplished by mapping on the brain the location of the elements that compose the psychic apparatus (a
such as neuroses. Vol. budding. But it can easily cast a shadow over a mind inclined to melancholy”. the over. “A note upon the ‘mystic writing-pad’”. burgeoning. in the shape of symptoms. p. 2002. as it were. 2 1 2 . Sigmund Freud. 3 “Notes on the concept of the unconscious in psychoanalysis”. as depicted by Freud. 4 “There’s no reason today why we cannot unravel the complex skeins of a human character on the screen. Psychoanalytic theory makes therefore frequent use of the metaphor of the photographic negative and of the indexical properties of the celluloid. p. from optical devices such as the microscope or the photographic camera1.task to which Freud resists more than often). […] This kind of double vision lasts only a few seconds and you soon regain contact with the reality around you. […] Suddenly […] you are distracted by an image of some kind which rises in your consciousness and imposes itself on you with an intensity. an appearance of reality and a minuteness of detail which are almost painful. the unconscious”. and some of these negatives which have held good in examination are admitted to the ‘positive process’ ending in the picture3. XII. Cendrars.225-232. to writing devices. and in applying them to literature and film. V. SE. London: Peter Owen. Freud compares the rapport conscious/unconscious to the photographic process as follows.35. SE. […] why not capture the life of the mind in action. vol. pp. The first stage of the photograph is the ‘negative’. A night in the forest.or underexposure to an idée-force. Freud. The recurring references to the energetic model of the psychic apparatus in works such as A night in the forest4 or Dan Yack5 account for an understanding of psychoanalysis that goes beyond literality and rather signifies the will to approach the matter from the perspective of someone who construes the “Regression”. and the marvellous surfacing of that developing agent. every photographic picture has to pass through the ‘negative process’. paper or wax). for example. p. The intertwinement of intangibility and materiality. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. vol. Standard Edition. what matters is that its functioning depends on the inscription of a material (light.264. Blaise Cendrars. can also be read in the analogies that Freud brings forth between the mental apparatus and the mechanics of other energetic models existing in the empirical “reality”. One learns from the reading of Moravagine. but also from the reading of both his journals and fictional works of the 1920s. 5 “He was the victim of a psychic phenomenon to which the most cultivated as well as the crudest of creatures […] quite commonly succumbs during the long polar night. and death of plants. XIX. the silver bath of associated images.45. Dan Yack. 1985. that Blaise Cendrars was extremely interested in the mechanics of the mental apparatus. such as the “mystic writing-pad”2. ink. In “Notes on the concept of the unconscious in psychoanalysis”. The interpretation of dreams. assume visibility in the human body. Regardless of the machine chosen in the establishment of the analogy. chalk) onto a surface (celluloid.245. blooming. in the way slow motion shows us the germination. p. Freud. the chemical reactions of the brain. and mostly by endorsing the idea that mental pathologies.
nor a film scenario proper (in the sense of representing a discrete stage in the process of filmmaking)”. angles. He wrote screenplays and dialogues for directors as crucial to the history of the medium as Fernand Léger. by means of what the author himself calls “simultaneous horizontal montage”.101-118. through the actual intertwinement of the literary prose with formal mechanisms known for being specific to the realm of the cinema proper. thus from a strictly human POV. projectors. Cendrars is known for his literary work but one does not always realize how important the cinema was for the author. from dividing the screen up into nine frames. It is a cinema concerned with “algebra”. screens. The movement here implied is not only the movement of the camera. 6 3 . When reading Cendrars. where he served as a lieutenant for the Foreign Legion). in the early 1920s. the scope of a landscape or of a battlefield. is utterly interested in the “quantity of movement” and in the film’s “metrical relations” both within the shot and within the continuum of the film. in October. pp. It is a cinema-machine and. that of a WWI victim (Cendrars had himself lost the right arm in the War. his own feature film. in that sense. entitled The Dark Venus. he was assistant producer for Gance’s La Roue and he tried to direct. and from the technician who carries it. Gance conveys the idea of movement which is inherent to the aesthetic principles of modernism. polyvision. such as montage. in 1915. along with repetition.machinic assemblage of elements that compose the human psyche as a metaphor for writing or for cinema making. namely the frame and the filmstrip. interstices. simultaneity and juxtaposition cf. “neither a ‘rounded’. ergometers and immense percolators appeared as if on a screen. and. through the detailing of film paraphernalia (reels. then. According to Levi. Cendrars worked together with Abel Gance in the making of J’Accuse. for the allusions to film are so many and so various. and triple screen. nº116. with calculating and measuring rhythm. and all the variants that make up a film text. Later on. In 1917. It occupies a space “somewhere between literature and cinema: [it is] a generic hybrid”. and from collating three contiguous frames. p. one is invited to experience an immersion into what can be called “written cinema”7. Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp. self-enclosed literary work. cameras. Apart from these factual approaches to film production. as Gance puts it. the cinema of the French Impressionist school. finally. 7 For a definition of “written cinema” cf. On the white tiles of the wards the bathtubs. sound apparatuses). tonalities of light. a cinema which emulates the machinic model of the human psyche. “written cinema” is “a film scenario never intended to be made into an actual film”. and fragmentation. with the same terrible and savage grandeur that objects have For examples of accelerated montage. a project for the Roman production company Rinascimento which would never see the light of day. in which the writer played a small cameo part. hence from rigidity. in the frame. The cinema of Abel Gance. the cinema is also present in Cendrars’ writings through constantly referring to major directors such as Chaplin and Griffith. but is mainly the movement and simultaneity that derives from superimposing up to sixteen times the same frame. that it becomes almost impossible to discern the written page from a movie screen. By means of cinematic techniques such as superimposition. thus broadening. Napoléon (Abel Gance. simultaneity6. simultaneism. 1927). Spring 2006. in which the French director explores the potentialities of the film apparatus. Pavle Levi’s “Doctor Hypnison and the case of written cinema”. superimposition.101. and for that matter. which Gance released from the tripod.
And even some sort of musical instrument unfolded slowly out of nowhere. Moravagine. One could claim that the existing breach between the external world and the textual resides in the process of writing. does Cendrars seem so concerned with inscribing the cinema in the pages he writes? In so doing. Or to discern the written page from a movie theater.26. Idem. at the same time. as we all know. In his literary works. But I believe there might be yet another motivation for doing this. according to a pre-established and deliberate rhythm. Blaise Cendrars seems to be constantly aiming at doing without the mediation that emerges as soon as bodies are verbalized.in films: a grandeur of intensity. 2004. then. then we succeed in understanding to what extent the two machinic practices contribute for the materialization of the bodily phenomena on the written page. Cendrars wishes to lessen the crevice between the empirical world and speech. […] The door of the poison cupboard received its key. A rocking. he is following the modernist aesthetics of the period. leaving nothing whatever to chance9. by means of an attempt at crystallizing the materiality of the body on the white page. with an urgency in bringing together under the same text both the body and the intellect. pp.chair. New York: New York Review Books. expressions of latent activity – the egg! – the frightening sum of permanent energy contained in every inanimate object8. a word is a 8 9 Cendrars. I understand. The reason for registering upon the screen-like white page numerous cinematic references and cinematic techniques might have to do. Cendrars is clearly paying homage to the medium that so much fascinated him while. which championed. which is also the scale on which we measure Indian masks and primitive fetishes. especially Moravagine. a strict and ruthless discipline. that is. utterance as it were. Everything happened silently. Quite the contrary. The employees of the place were styled to match. a Prussian exactitude which ruled everything down to the most minute details. through an indexical process. synthesis. movement. thermometers were shaken. But why. the urinalysis proceeded like a ritual. A chair appeared. In other words. technical precision. 4 . in his gutta-percha cabin the electrician started up his motor. p. velocity. One way this is made possible is by bringing the analogy between the cinema and the mental apparatus to the fore. The chemist pulled on his gloves with reverence.25 and 26. Simultaneously throughout the establishment the day shift moved in to replace the night shift. the mercury dropped to zero. If we take into consideration the fact that both filmmaking and the energetic model of the mind work the same way. and rhythm. But the interval between thing and discourse is not accentuated by the interference of the word itself.
the knee afflicted with anchylosis. his grandeur confined to the four walls of his cell. But they also become hieroglyphs and need thus decoding. He stands planted there. The circles beneath his eyes almost touch the creases about his mouth. When they are engraved onto a text. I consider statues to be paradigmatic of the paradox which traverses literary creation. of something transitory. by means of which the life of a language develops”. skinny. bodies as it were. and he must indeed look like a statue to the eyes of the narrator. Moravagine. p. therefore. ibidem. Moravagine is described as follows. Let us now see how Blaise Cendrars proposes to capture onto his pages the transience that typifies the word after meaning-attribution. Dr. at the same time. He is a dark little man. a constant process of concept formation is going on. Statues hint. at the impossibility of apprehending both touch and the transient. his legs apart. The narrator. they are mapped out. 12 Cendrars.27. Truth and method. Statues are. However certainly speaking implies using pre-established words with general meanings. as fleeting as the Mem. for. but they also are.427.graphic sign and this specificity translates in the fact that it is matter as any given object or body. Raymond La Science compares Moravagine to an effigy. His hands dangle at the ends of arms as long as a monkey’s12. “at once felt an irresistible liking for this tragic and singular little effigy who dragged himself along within his iridescent voice like a caterpillar in its own skin”13. that words lose their materiality to become fleeting. It is rather in the decoding of the hieroglyph. His right leg. on the other hand. knotted and desiccated as a vine-stock. a specific geography. The transience I am referring to is obviously related to principles of arbitrariness and commutation that preside in the process of meaning-attribution11. so that what emerges is a new. This seems to be the case in literature. the representation of something that no longer exists. London: Continuum. the traces they leave on the sheet of paper assume a material localization. In the first pages of the novel. seemingly burned by the flame that flickers in the depths of his great eyes. 10 11 Freud. in the constant process of meaning-attribution. for he is immobile. Hans-Georg Gadamer. His forehead is low. p.-system. La Science. 2006. “The general concept meant by the word is enriched by any given perception of a thing. words demand for space in it. “which has no capacity to retain changes”10. “sitting in a corner”. 428. on the one hand. they become road signs.352. 13 Idem. pp. after signification and meaning-attribution hardly can the page and the written word hold the corporality of the empirical reality within its boundaries. The interpretation of dreams. 5 . forms a right angle. and he limps terribly.-elements retained in the Per. more specific word formation which does more justice to the particularity of that act of perception. swaying a little back and forth as if he were slightly dizzy. His eye-sockets deep. empirically tangible objects.
set for killing alone. By objects I don’t mean all those useful articles. Things and bodies are thus emptied of any signification in the novel. This is how he describes his newly-found interest to his psychoanalyst. and his petrified psyche. a few months before making his first victim. In presenting us Moravagine as a bigger-than-life creature (another reading of ‘statuesque’). Blaise Cendrars suggests that the body needs to be quiescent. if it is to be materialized at a textual level. the rich furnishings and objets-d’art with which the palace was crammed and which. if you like. existence itself is also seen as 14 For a thorough account of the numerous reflections that have been taking place both in the American and in the European academia. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s The production of presence: what meaning cannot convey. date them. with all the things that situate them. les objets-d’art) are rejected by Moravagine who prefers the rawness. the body-mind-text synthesis and its annulment might be the solution for this query. represents the synthesis between body. I spent my days turning them this way and that. and very often with raw matter. At the age of eighteen. an age long past. cf. touching them. rather. primary matter itself. and as stationary as the character’s grandiose figure.41. Meaning and signification are so important in our culture that its end is not believed to be within reach. Moravagine develops “a violent passion for objects. even though the question has been frequently posed by many influent thinkers of the last decades14. I rearranged them a thousand times a day15. Moravagine. a lead ingot. To a greater extent. 15 Cendrars. Stanford: Stanford University Press. They become as hollow as the female bodies killed by Moravagine. the case is not that meaning is absent from the text. an ostrich-egg. still. Materialization demands a loss of meaning. 6 . signification has been withdrawn from the bodies themselves. and from the words that compose it. charming and intriguing one with their shapes. A biscuit-tin. The objects which enclose any trace of meaning (the rich furnishings. the irregularity of primary matter. I fell in love with ugly objects almost without workmanship. patient 1731. or the statue. for inanimate things”.The presence of the effigy. I surrounded myself with the most heteroclite articles. p. the grain. In Moravagine. in Moravagine allows for a reflection upon the possibility of lessening the creases between the transitory and the concrete. and mind. Rita. As we all know. as said before. giving them their names and revealing in a curious way the signature of the fashion that imagined them. a faded family or historic scene. Signification deters. 2004. suggest or recall an ancient civilization. a stovepipe. as if a statue or a photographed image imprinted on the negative. this is an impossible task. with his petrified knee. though. no. a process prior to speech. by some erethism of mind or sentiment. their baroque lines. their anachronistic refinement. smelling them. a sewing machine. text. a piece of quartz. Moravagine. evoke.
69. after all.being “idiotic.17. 7 . ridiculous and static. And life is futile”16. The inversion occurs at the level of speech (in the annulment of meaning in the realm of experience itself). And it may be that health is death itself17. I mean the reversal of roles in the relationship doctor/patient and the suspicion that health is. p. love become emptied categories). Idem. a physiological cliché. p. and at a moral level (in which existence. death. a dead thing. as a depiction of a world upside down. […] A commonplace. but a first inversion suggested itself earlier in the narrative. imbecile and vain. without ultimate purpose. 16 17 Idem. ultimately. The novel can be perceived. […] only the sad mimic of some illness which has grown unfashionable.
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