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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Sensitive Frequency

I've been reading William T. Vollman's 'You Bright and Risen Angels' for what seems like forever.(635 pages!) One of the characteristics of this book is its use of anthropomorphism and caricature to evoke human emotions and frustrations. A surrealist American history, it depicts a decades-long battle between insects and humans over 'electricity'; which in this parallel world is blue and globular, possessing weight and depth and style like any other material commodity. I wondered as I was reading why Vollman chose to tell his globe-spanning war epic, which is subtitled "A Cartoon", with insects as his main characters. The insects in You Bright and Risen Angels don't just possess human traits-they have traits which 'real' insects already share with humans; discipline, order, loyalty, hive mentality, and a belief in a higher, transcendant being. (What else is a Queen Bee but a surrogate mother, father, and God in one? "Both the treasure and the leader") Vollman is depicting not just war but the emotional depth of a globally mediated war, which is possesed overwhelmingly of frustration, confusion, instability and estrangement. This is why he uses insects: because the 'primal' and primordial ritual of their lives, depicted hyperrealistically, in a vivid, microscopic, toxicolored prose is the only chance he has of ever depicting an emotional landscape that is so much more complex and vicious than the literal. Reviewers compare the prose to Lovecraft or Burroughs; and the similarities are there, a certain excess, an emphasis on the grotesque unconscious world underlying everyday events. But Vollman is first and foremost a journalist; a travel writer, a war correspondent, and a 'psychonaut'; a journalist of the 'interior world'. He's lived in Afghanistan, he's survived assaults by guerilla fighters in which his friends are killed. So when he describes the insides of a caterpillar's flesh burning with poisons that dissolve it from the inside out, or the beatle that feasts into it, or the soccer mom who eats her son alive for misbehaving, it's not abstraction or weirdness, it's all very very real.

"They helped themselves to ant eggs and larvae without opposition-o caviar!- in exchange for "cleaning up" the sick and dead workers, who tasted quite good as a rule. Other staphylinids pulled parasitic mites from the bodies of ants and ate them. . They wandered through the nest eating the young. When the ants became agitated by this and gathered about them and prepared to bite these intruding giants, the beetles produced an intoxicating secretion so that the crowd crawled up on their backs and licked it from their bristles and grew dizzy and happy and for a time forgot all ant commands and ambled uselessly through the nest causing great disription. The female ant larvae often drank too much of the secretion and developed into useless spinsters instead of reproductive queens and then the beetles ate them for the good of the community."

Mapping the human psyche in Late post-industrial capitalism is difficult, in that the physical continuum in which we develop our pathologies no longer contains metaphors adequate enough to explain those pathologies. You can show every action a human makes, every dark thing he does when no one is looking, you can depict all of his unconscious thoughts. But ultimate frustration, sadism, cruelty, fear, horror and hopelessness are now emotions tied into media and capital, too dense and fractal to ever be displayed with "real life", with the 'literal'. Insects have pupae and cilia, they have an infinity of tiny hairs, each one with the sensitivity of a tongue. They have only the tiniest existential gap, killing and dying existing in seamless continuity. They will devour eachother in slow, gruesome ways just to survive. Even their sex, the most casual of sex, purely reproductive, 'Puritan' insect sex, consists of stabbing, cutting, digging, clawing, raping and scarring. Every sexual act is murder, and semen floods the tracts through the blood before it dries. The most microscopic, infinitesimal acts have the pathos of global tragedy wrapped around them. The briefest moment charged with sensations so granular and high-definition that if we install human faces onto them, they have the grandeur and tragedy of global atrocities.


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