by Louise Bialik
December 1999

special thanks:
Mark McGurl

I Can't Believe My Eyes! -- Thoughts on Literary Suturism

If an image can represent a thousand words or a single word behave as a bullet in the way that titles summarize a novel, poem, or painting, what can be said of how this ammunition operates in American primitivist literature? For a society preoccupied with looking to other cultures for self definition, being the case that America is a relatively new nation made up of many outside cultures, the impact of its voyeurism and emulation of other cultures becomes a political gazing, reflecting unspeakable value. While sometimes a value can not be uttered but visually represented as metaphor to tattle on a hidden truth, truthfulness sometimes requires going underground, to shuffle around and return as art. Still, society may not be prepared to understand art's true intent which is to educate, not entertain. However, writers are often aware of the impact they have upon their readers, and such awareness presupposes intention, influencing the written word.
Since a writer writes from what he knows, he has a native experience, however, his awareness of being watched transfers to a primitive state when a reader's regard influences a writer's objectivity. Such primitivizing upon literature is two-fold. On one hand, a writer writes because he is compelled for art's sake, yet then his awareness of an audience may cause him to excise, self-censor, camouflage or show rebellion with a tone that may feel aggressive, sanctimonial, or boundary making. Because an author is reminded that what he writes will eventually be read by someone other than himself, the reader then becomes co-author of a shareable vision. This insight is very much in the keeping with the technique of the film suture.

In film theory, the cinematic suture applies itself to three easy steps of telling the truth via messages navigated by visual contact between subject and observer. In every way, the suture is a dialectical existential contract between an author, a reader, and a work of art-- I see you, therefore I am. You see me, therefore you are. We see one another, therefore we seem to exist. In film theory, the suture is made evident when slowing down the frames to observe how dialogue relies on actors looking at something (step 1), then shows another angle to reveal the reaction of the viewed subject/object (step 2), to pullback for a longshot on the relationship judged by the secondary cameraman, the viewer himself (step 3).

Gertrude Stein in "Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" agoraphobically hides behind the screen of her writings as she is hyper-aware of being watched. To protect her official art, Stein employs a false front by suturing her true views via the ventriloquist narrative. It is a brilliant way for an author to protect a soft, emotional core when it is a known fact that there is a person lurking over ones shoulders casting judgement, hindering creativity. However, in most suture reflexive cases, there is not that much awareness of an outsider's voyeurism to put a writer underground as Stein went when hiding behind her lover's persona. Actually, the primitivist-suturist gaze is fairly direct and is best illustrated in the films "King Kong," "Blonde Venus" and "Jazz Singer."

If the primitivist-suturist gaze is conscious of another's gazing, then what is offered by the objectified is no unintentional message. Regarding the assimilation of Eugene O'Neil's "Hairy Ape," Yank, there is an uncanny transportation from text to screen when he is morphed into the apish Kong figure of Mr Wallace's "King Kong." When Kong struggles with the white woman, Mildred Pierce (Ann Darrow), their gaze of politics expresses masculine vision which defines how men desire women to perceive them. In essence, these female figures, however much they may wish to look away, can't because as women they desire to be possessed and dirtied up by savage beastliness. Meanwhile, Yank and Kong chase after their white goddesses as if to beg for ethnic cleansing. Because Beauty can not turn away from the Beast, a fatal attraction is born. Underneath, O'Neil's message surfaces a political editorial affixed to the end of his play, that is not about gender struggles but human need: "And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs." (P.198)

What does O'Neil mean by "perhaps the Hairy Ape at last belongs"? Can a non-white person feel adequately comfortable in America? Yank tells us No when he rips up the streets of Park Avenue. Kong tells us No when triangulating for safer ground upon the tallest building. Why does Kong need to escape? He does not want to be primitivized by the flashes of tabloid cameras. Yank too refuses to be scoffed at by the high-browing New York elite or excluded from the worker's union because of his darkness. All Yank wants in life is to belong somewhere, and Kong would rather go home to his island. However, escape is not possible when the white-American stalks with eyes, evades desire, and recants with eugenic notions that force the black-American psyche into feelings of inadequacy. Therefore the exploit and capture of Kong and Yank is a metaphorical political telling of the long history of many African-Americans enslaved by commerce surviving off its negative imprintation and primitive gaze. W.E.B. DuBois states in "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) that this exploit is a double-consciousness of "always looking at one's self through others, of measuring one's soul by the tips of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

While double-consciousness lurks in the American psyche, DuBois elaborates that the two-ness of "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled striving; two warring ideas in one dark body," is a binary of human sufferance affecting humanity as a whole. However, the Denhams of the world would rather scapegoat blame and place responsibility upon their exploited captives to say "Beauty killed the Beast." For example, when Kong is sacrificed, it is a matter of appeasing corporate power for the gawking pleasure of the masses which is really an express telling of social mores supporting lynchings. (Ouch)

If Beauty is "in the eye of the beholder" and Beauty kills the Beast, what can be deduced is that the very act of beholding some object is a hostage via the gaze. Yet looking and gazing, is not necessarily evil, for in the film "Blonde Venus," Cary Grant is solicitously seduced by the white goddess, Marlene Dietrich who strips out of an ape suit to primitivize her sexuality. In this case, the male white-god figure, Mr Grant, can't look away from the beastly babe, a blonde in hiding, because she possesses notions of primitive jungleness in her Hot VooDoo, which is a turn-on to the Saxon movie-going Viking. Harkening to Langston Hughes' "Slave On The Block," the obsession to emulate African-American culture, particularly the Blues, is often the norm of white Harlem interlopers and a most undesired gaze :
    "THEY WERE PEOPLE who went in for Negroes-- Michael and Anne-- the Carraways But not in the social-service, philanthropic way, no. They saw no use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for words. Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt. So they went in for the Art of Negroes-- the dancing that had such jungle life about it, the songs that were so simple and fervent, the poetry that was so direct, so real. They never tried to influence that art, they only bought it and raved over it, and copied it. For they were artists, too." (P.19)

The motivation of a writer reflects social and aesthetic values, complementing truth. The evidence of conceptual triggers, whether authentic (native) or copied (primitive) brings the self into a work of art with ones personal history accumulated over time. What one comes away with may not have been intended or hoped for but rather reflects something higher than ones control. While "King Kong" entertains the masses with a lynching of the sort as when Kong is murdered in the public eye, a negative primitive gaze is present. In contrast, the complimenting primitive gaze such as in "Blonde Venus" suggests that it's okay to copy and emulate "jungle people" because sex sells. Although these two modes of primitivist suturism represent the good and ugly, the message conveyed in the "Jazz Singer" when Al Jolson puts on a blackface and sings a song to his mammy is that he's singing for all the Jews of the world, and is more native than primitive because he is performing from the familiar-- his soul.

While native primitivism passes as kosher, the reputable art depicted in "Jazz Singer" battles against the negative influence of images pandering to the masses. An author like Edgar Rice Burroughs gives the public eye what it wants in his "Moon Men" and "Red Hawk" serials by making a profit off stereotyping Native Americans as savage injuns when calling for eugenics to rescue mankind by the words of an Indian' slave woman (again, a "beauty killed the Beast" trope):
    "Like the coyote, the deer and the mountains we have been here always. We belong to the land-- when the last of our rulers has passed away we shall still be here, as we were in the beginning-- unchanged. The come and mix their blood with ours, but in a few generations the last traces of it have disappeared, swallowed up by the slow, unchanging flood of ours. You will come and go, leaving no trace; but after you are forgotten we shall still be here." (RH, p.164)

Regardless of the ugliness of Burroughs' bigotry, his grossly reproduced series sold out across America like hotcakes. This evidently says something about current opinion. How America can be entertained today by bold prejudice on a large commercial level, sponsored by Disney Incorporated, is bewildering and telling of addictive behavior that can forgive a cultural genocide. While Burroughs' art is self-conscious, solipsistic (I exist, therefore you are you), it is yet aware of the audience so it becomes self-reflexive and shows literary suturism with a negative primitivist bent toward self-satisfaction, especially since Burroughs disregards the negative impact of his slander upon multi-cultural society. Although Burroughs gave his readership exactly what it wanted, he couldn't conceal his inner truth which is the one that says, "I see a new race" and it isn't the "Cro-Magnon race of paleolithic times" but rather a calling to the "sterilization of criminals, defectives and incompetents with birth control and public instruction in eugenics." While Burroughs tried to conceal his intention to bleach humanity with his writing, the truth, as evident in all great art, is inescapable.

What is an artist's intention? It is a question of reading when an author's intent pays tribute, exploits, distorts or enhances readers toward personal truths. Therefore looking, eyeing, and gazing is synonymous with reading, or rather, seeing to believe, glimpsing for insight. Comparatively, reading in the realm of the cinematic suture delivers to the foreground the primary relationship between author and reader when recognizing a reader's integral function as secondary auteur in the storyboarding of of the literary narrative.

While most film sutures consciously manipulate an audience for psychoramic reactions, the literary suture subtly burrows into the consciousness of a reader, vanishing its absorbed message which is only observable after a reader returns to a passage or word to highlight content in the way that a film editor may splice together several frames of celluloid for isolating a concept. When eyes command the mind to single out meaning, the modi operandi of writers such as O'Neil, Stein, Hughes and Nella Larsen, become exposed. When eyes glimpse back over text to reread Cather, Eliot, Burroughs or Saroyan, the armature of intent is made known. Each author here is revered for his prominent role in society as some kind of misfit for each has individually shaped society with personal truth, but in what manner and purpose is the question.

Burrowing into a reader's psyche is the master of allusive concealment, Willa Cather, for in her novel, "The Professor's House," a reader is boldly propelled into a distorting extreme close up of a time long gone and made witness to obscure metaphors which ornament and layer compounded views via still life objects such as "forms" (p. 9) and "patterns" (p. 13). These images serve to represent the future-past of Godfrey St. Peter's true exterior self and make him into something of a Prufrockian figure. Here, St Peter is a withered intellectual desexualized like a "headless, armless female torso" (Professor, p. 9) or "a patient etherized upon a table" (Prufrock, line 3), maintaining house for a group of women concerned with appearance and ever looking to foreign opinions for self development. Such a case is telling of the primitive gaze when St Peter looks to Tom Outland for self definition while the women of the St Peter household look to Paris for an encounter with the exotique. Such ladies could no doubt carry on a conversation "talking of Michelangelo" (Prufrock, ln 14). Yet all these social and environmental trinkets are but literary tropes, props designed to distract the reader from experiencing the exposed nerve of Cather's message which is a felt presence but a distant presence as many of these objects and events get in the way of beholding the nerve of humility and its insufferable loneliness.

To clearly witness humility is to strip away the literary trope of telling a story created around descriptive ornamentation. However, what if society is not interested in learning but would rather regard a pretty picture, maybe take a break and do some travelling with a good book? Perhaps the way to deliver a message then is to conceal, entice, earn trust and reveal truth, very, very slowly. For Cather, the suture-to-tell-truth technique is evident for she splices her novel into three parts: Book 1, The Family; Book 2, Tom Outland's Story; and Book 3, The Professor, to create isolated close ups where each section is reflexive of the other and achieves a political testimony that might otherwise not be so well delivered to the masses if the masses were conscious of the author's intent. To tell the truth then is to conceal it with colorful narrative because sometimes the truth is painful and requires the sugaring of time for clear observations to be encountered. What Cather implies is that in order to see this moment, one must be comfortable and look extremely close at the past as if viewing a germ on a slide through a microscope. In every way, Book 1 of Cather's "The Professor" is a germ on a slide which becomes a Hollywood cinematic pullback (like the opening scene of Robert Altman's "The Player"). Many readers may feel put off because no time reference can instantly be located for anchoring, yet Cather might argue that there is no time like the present for the present is created by past actions. Thus when Cather's hero, Tom Outland, has a nativist experience while spiritually adopting the remains of an extinct Native American civilization, the moment is like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water':
    "I remember these things... This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you begin to see where they are leading. Something happened to me that made it possible for me to co-ordinate and simplify... For me the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion. I have read of filial poetry in the Latin poets, and I knew I was made for this place." Tom Outland, (p. 226)

And for Cather, what time is this? A time for filial benediction which is really about honoring Native American ancestors as the true progenitors of American cultural heritage, for it is not history alone that makes America great but the land which stimulates art and is a harking back to the Transcendentalist value which regarded Nature as the muse of artists.

Although Tom Outland appreciated Beauty, his proposal to preserve the Blue Mesa's artifacts was rejected by the Smithsonian Institute which returned him homeward with the discovery that his research and efforts could not withstand the greed of American commerce. Tom Outland's effort could not outlast the "outlandish" harsh reality of vampyric imperialism, but Cather did her best to post the message of "hell no, we won't go" when sending her mummified Mother Eve artifact over the cliff to avoid capture and primitivization (p. 221).

Joining Cather in the creative technique of allusion and metaphor is T S Eliot and his "Waste Land," which should not be confused with the Blue Mesa but be received in high contrast. While Cather sections off her novel into three variant degrees of magnification, beginning rather fuzzy-myopic and ending brilliantly panoramic, "Waste Land" is divided into five sections with four visual perspectives as the narrator disassociates and is channeled into personas that dissociate elsewhere, dissolving into greater fuzziness until a complete obscured blur is achieved. Such movement causes confusion and is confounded by the difficultly of foreign languages palimpsested upon allusive metaphor disguised as mythic cleverness. One must wonder why, ever why, Eliot conceals the raw nerve of his poem? Perhaps it is just a matter of regarding who's looking at him while he writes "Waste Land." In this case, the gazing culprit is Eliot's imagist colleague, Ezra Pound, master of the "condensare" which is means "big cut" to excise personal signs of one's vulnerability. In actuality, the condensare is a form of self-censorship (but don't tell this to the master lecturers of the English department). Therefore the end result of Eliot's work is an example of poetic chiseling and manipulation distancing the reader from dealing with Eliot one-on-one. Conversely, at the extreme end of the to tell the truth's spectrum is William Saroyan whose most honest writing makes him least vulnerable for his words are but heart propaganda and free agents of liberated art. While Eliot has his moments to use words like bullets when cancelling out the negative images with "Shanti, shanti, shanti." Saroyan's entire journalistic monologue speaks face-to-face with the reader and gives the appearance of being a fresh work just pulled from the typewriter i.e. "This morning I got it back. It is before me now and I am tapping at it, and this is what I have written." (p. 66) It is the same kind of moment when Langston Hughes says, "Looky, look at me... I am Harlem!" in his poem "Air Raid Over Harlem" (ln. 130)

While looking at the Harlem Renaissance experience of Hughes' "Slave On The Block" and Larsen's "Quicksand," there is less hiding out in 'metaphorland' and more focus on documenting the real for what it's worth. While Larsen's voice as a narrator is swallowed up by a feeling of depersonalization because she most likely wrote something of an autobiography, and having to be aware of the imposition of a reader's gaze, no doubt went underground to share her private, painful story. Hughes on the other hand probably had special cushioning of being male and a being older. However, what is agreeably shared by the pair is that as African-Americans of the 1920s, they felt like outsiders, being neither black nor white in the mulatto-negro's society. Yet, these writers created a new color-rich humanity neither neutral nor neutered but individualistic. As nativist documentarians, Larsen and Hughes played up to the primitive eye, exposed the in-vogue appreciation of Harlem blues couture for what it meant to the genuine authentic contrasted against the emulating poser. As Gertrude Stein would offer, such new self invention was a question of protecting the integrity of "authentic art" versus "official art." Bringing the work of Pablo Picasso's "Les Des Madamoiselles D'Avignon," to measure true art from false art, or true intent from false intent, that 1907 cubist portrait of African culture merged with French society by the hand of a Spaniard is but a monumental achievement of true and authentic art reflecting modern times appreciating Beauté gorgeaux. Whereas for Larsen's heroine, Helga Crane, when she is artistically rendered by Herr Olsen into a savage waif, annexed aside the exploits of an ebony hued Luther from "Slave on The Block", the message is shared-- such primitive depictions captured by elite blackfacing artisans is a robbery of the human soul.

In summation, viewing and telling reflects intent, fear, and desire for some kind of truth. How an author tells the truth depends on the relationship he has with his public eye. Cather gives herself great distance by focusing on minute details which temporarily distort a reader's understanding of the political undertones while Larsen projects a disembodied voice to document the sad tragedies of her life, and Stein hides behind ventriloquism to raise her self esteem by hundreds of compliments. Meanwhile Eliot barricades behind allusion to conceal the raw core of his message which is run, turn from me for I am but a lonely guy.' And then there is the reverse, the confident truth-telling shamans, O'Neil, Saroyan and Hughes who succeed untainted by public scorning because they do not give much credence to what the neighbors might think. And too is the liar, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who gets away with fibbing because America appreciates a good lie. And the greatest lie ever told?

"Beauty killed the beast."

Copyright 1999

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