I wish I knew why it was that some people are so squeamish, myself being one of those people in question. It’s a real nuisance, reducing dramatically the number of films I can watch, and causing me real dread at the thought of what my son might do to himself in a careless moment. It’s interesting that my husband is able to watch far more violence that I can, but is worse in a real life situation. A couple of years ago now he cut himself badly whilst cleaning out a drain. Given the context of the accident he decided to clean the wound thoroughly. The first I knew about this was the sound of a large crash and various objects falling whilst I was in the middle of a phone call to my mother. With unconscious callousness I said something like ‘Oh I’d better go and see what he’s knocked over this time’. When I reached the kitchen he had managed to get back on his feet again but he turned to me with a face that was uniformly the colour of tallow candles. Before I could say something pointless and wifely (‘Whatever’s the matter?’) he fainted on me, and he’s six foot four and hard to catch. Well, this was never going to be our finest hour. I got him into a chair and managed to bind the wound, but I was shaking all the time. We have laughed about it since but what if it had been any worse? We could have ended up both of us out cold, leaving our son to stumble upon the scene of a massacre.
I spend a lot of my time pondering the various foibles of human nature, but I’ve never got to the bottom of this one. There is, however, a particular concept used in psychoanalysis and in literary criticism that ought to be very helpful. This is the concept of the abject, a term used to describe the substances that can transgress the limits of the body, appearing both inside and outside, like blood, sweat, tears, waste matter, vomit, and so on. Now the general psychoanalytic idea is that we need to think of ourselves as unified and contained beings, not subject to uncontrolled leakage or loss, and the thought of expelling what is on the inside is inevitably fraught with psychic difficulty. Now, of course, some of these functions are necessary and unavoidable, but what are mothers for, if not to teach children from birth what is clean and what is dirty, and thus to place regulated controls over such functions? The concept of the abject is very bound up with not just individual control, but cultural control. The abject provides guidelines for the distinction between what is public and what is private, what can be shared communally, and what is better done alone. Whether inside our heads or outside in the world, the abject is always policed. It determines what is pure and impure, what is clean and unclean, although with significant differences between societies and over different periods in the development of civilisation. In fact one of the components of being civilised is to be able to distinguish between the pure and the impure and to act accordingly.
Naturally it’s up to art to challenge these borderlines, and the abject is becoming an increasingly notable part of modern art, cinema and literature. This move has been termed the obscenification of the everyday, or the way that increasingly there are fewer restraints on what can be shown in the public arena. Some artists are becoming ever more extreme in their search for new taboos to break. The French performance artist, Orlan, is the most extraordinary example I’ve come across. She is undergoing a series of cosmetic surgery operations that will alter every feature of her face. The idea is that she will end up with the chin of a Botticelli beauty, the forehead of the Mona Lisa, the cheekbones of some other classic work of art, and the horrific hotch-potch that will result, will provide a comment on the Western ideal of beauty over the past few centuries. These operations are filmed, with the operating theatre dramatically lit and the surgeon and his nurses wearing special costumes. Orlan herself remains conscious for as much of the operation as possible, reading from time to time from texts that have been written for the occasion. The videos are distributed and broadcast. I reviewed an academic book studying her work – the book was very good, but I had to cover up the illustrations as I went along. I don’t know, for me the whole process is almost unthinkable. Who would want to do such a thing, and who could possible want to watch it? And what will people think of to do next?