In a remarkable passage in Fallen Leaves, Rozanov describes the God’s relationship to the world in these terms:
Expansible matter embraces an unexpansible object, no mater how much larger it seems. It – is always “larger”. A boa constrictor as thick as an arm, at most as big as a leg at the knee, devours a small goat. This is the cause of many strange phenomena and of the appetite of the boa and the goat. Yes, it hurts a little, is tight, but – it worked… It is remarkable to put on a kid glove, how it lies there so narrow and ‘innocent’ in the store box. But when it’s put on, it forms a firm grip. The world gravitates metaphysically towards a “firm grip”. In a “firm grip”, God holds the world.”
As Olga Matich, who quotes this passage in Erotic Utopia, says, “the passage first depicts the expansion of a vagina, erection of a penis (even though it is called an ‘expandable object’).” Matich is being delicate – I can think of cruder terms for this metaphor.
Rozanov was a Russian decadent – and a fierce critic of the Russian decadents. He proclaimed himelf a philo-Semite, but this just meant that the took the anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews – including, especially and notoriously, the notion of blood offerings extracted from little Christian babies – and used them to effect an inversion of values. Matich quotes Bely’s portrait of Rozano: ‘his devious little eyes seemed to be brown morsels…[Rozanov cooked his ideas] which he would bake somewhere (in a sacred place), where he would produce the shameless bodily function of his shameless thought.” Bely did not like Rozanov, but as Matich points out, his portrait is accurate, down to the equivalency between excretion and thought – Rozanov himself emphasized that his writing was full of his sperm.
It is hard to know what attitude to take to a writer who strips himself with such gusto. Who is shameless.
Which brings me to the contemporary film director, Alexie Balabanov. My friend Masha thinks Balabanov is an extremely clever and extremely nasty film-maker. I had only seen Brother 1, which didn’t strike me as anything clever, although the nastiness – particularly the anti-semitism – was there. So I went and rented Of Freaks and Men. And I saw what Masha was talking about.
Of freaks and men is filmed in a golden sepia – as though the shots had been drenched in Catherine the Great’s amber room. But it is typical of Balabanov that this beauty is twisted – the collector’s fetish for sepia is mocked in this sepia, which never was nor will be. Collecting is what the film is about – briefly, a man in a turn of the century city (St. Petersburg, although the name is never mentioned in the film) runs a pornography operation that involves photographing the bare bottoms of women getting whipped or spanked. He has a sinister assistant, who delivers the postcards to two customers – one, the maid of a doctor who has married a blind woman and adopted a pair of Siamese twins, and the other to Liza, the daughter of a prosperous engineer. As it happens, the maid in the engineer’s house is both the lover of the engineer and the sister of the pornographer. The assistant is attracted by the freaks and the blind woman in the doctor’s house – he uses the latter as a model bottom, and kidnaps the children and photographs them nude in his basement studio. One of the twins he debauches with alcohol. Meanwhile, the maid shows the engineer, who has a heart problem, the photographs his supposedly innocent daughter has bought. This brings on a heart attack and death. The pornographer then moves into the engineer’s apartment and makes Leeza one of his models. For good measure, he throws in the freaks.
From one end to the other, this is a repulsive world, shot in beautiful sepia. If, indeed, some deity is putting its penis into the tight grip of this world’s cunt, you can be sure it is not the god of love. It is a gangster god, a thief god, a god who can conceive of love only in terms of terror and compulsion. And, indeed, the movie ends with Leeza making a brief fugue from her apartment, only to end up being spanked, once again, in a brothel.
We all know that shock is at the center of the modernist aesthetic. But repulsion is a modernist reaction, too. Not just in horror films. It’s ideological meaning is harder to penetrate. Masha, with good reason, sees Balabanov’s films as an extension of his ultra-right politics. It is the politics of Limonov, the writer turned nationalist. According to this reading, it is enough to show the decadence of the pre-revolutionary intellectuals to condemn them. But repulsion is an overdetermined reaction. Just as the assistant (a repulsively pale, completely bald man with spaces between his teeth, a sort of cleaned up Nosferatu, played by Viktor Sukhorukov) is fascinated by the freaks beyond any economic need or even apparent erotic function, so, too, Balabanov is much too fascinated with this world he has conjured up to condemn it crudely. Like Rozanov, he plays with his own disgust – and makes the viewer complicit. In fact, infects the viewer, which is of course the primal and fearful trait projected on pornography – that to watch is to be infected, to be possessed. This film has been compared especially with David Lynch. But Lynch is working in a culture in which camp has been a long established feature. Imagine a Lynch working in a culture in which camp had never existed, and you get close to the sensibility here.
MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Roger Gathman was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover
ice. Or rather, to discover the profit making potential of selling bags of ice to picnicking Atlantans, the most glorious of the old man's Get Rich schemes, the one that devoured the most energy, the one that seemed so rational for a time, the one that, like all the others - the farm, the housebuilding business, the plastic sign business, chimney cleaning, well drilling, candy machine renting - was drawn by an inexorable black hole that opened up between skill and lack of business sense, imagination and macro-economics, to blow a huge hole in the family savings account. But before discovering the ice machine at 12, Roger had discovered many other things - for instance, he had a distinct memory of learning how to tie his shoes. It was in the big colonial, a house in the Syracuse metro area that had been built to sell and that stubbornly wouldn't - hence, the family had moved into it. He remembered bending over the shoes, he remembered that clumsy feeling in his hands - clumsiness, for the first time, had a habitation, it was made up of this obscure machine, the shoe, and it presaged a lifetime of struggle with machine after machine.