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Maryna Romanets (University of Northern British Columbia)

Transgressive Violence, Mad Intertextuality, and Aesthetics of Convulsion


My paper inquires into “mad intertextuality” in John Banville’s The Book of Evidence (1989), Yuri Izdryk’s Wozzeck (1997), and one of their precursor texts – Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (1836, published 1879). The transpositions of the nineteenth-century drama of acute social deprivation into Kunstlerroman by both Irish and Ukrainian writers are not confined to its surface structure; they reach deeper levels by grasping what is essential in Büchner. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggest, Büchner never tries to seek a foundation in accordance with a conception that is methodical, pedagogical, initiatory, and symbolic; he has his own way of travelling and moving: “proceeding from the middle, through the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing” (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 25). Likewise, Izdryk and Banville subject their novels to various erosions and conflicting trajectories, flows, and motions. 

Both contemporary works reveal a disturbing link between culture, perception, and violence; both are focussed on an artist figure; both represent fictions about fiction; both explore the anxieties and pathologies of male psyche.  While Büchner’s representation of schizophrenic consciousness operates within the area of the nineteenth-century clinical psychology, Banville and Izdryk’s schizoanalyses vacillate within the field of contemporary theories of narratology and intertextuality. The narrative takes the form of a prison-memoir that relates Freddie Montgomery’s crime in The Book of Evidence, and a mental hospital patient’s recollections of the fifty-two-days-fifty-one-nights-long love rites that drive him to insanity in Wozzeck. Reasonable prisoners of their own madness, framed, as well as their nineteenth-century antecedent, by a claustrophobic, institutional space of societal confinement and surveillance, they are incessantly inventing, reinventing, revisiting, and fantasizing about multiple pasts that are twisted into a Moebian strip, a single-sided figure with no inside or outside to its endless surface. Their insomniac realms are structured and manipulated by imagination and oblique possessions in which violence becomes simultaneously an instrument, object, and all-inclusive subject of desire. Both Freddie and Wozzeck’s solipsistic narrative manoeuvres reveal their fragmented selves with schizophrenic versatility and eloquence; both represent what might be termed as counter-narratives to master psychiatric discourses. In this aspect they converge with Büchner’s protagonist, for whom the distinction between self and non-self, man and nature, inside and outside is completely eroded; the delusional “reader” of the bizarre patterns formed by toadstools, he sets out on his voyage of intensity, with an ultimate destination – murder.

The Book of Evidence externalizes Freddie’s violence – he abducts a woman, who incidentally gets into his way while he is stealing the Dutch portrait that has become an object of his obsessive desire, and eventually beats her to death with a hammer. Freddie registers his actions with the minute details of a detached observer. However, his perceptions occur as if through a veil; it is hard to say what is seen, imagined, or hallucinated. The slaughter of Josie Bell acts as the aesthetic technique of convulsion, revealing the monstrous double though whom the protagonist attempts to isolate evil from what he considers to be his real self and, thus, narcissistically aesthetisizes the origin of his violence. Here violence becomes a device for liberation and for throwing a wild joker into the game.

As opposed to Freddie’s spectacular fit of brutality, Wozzeck’s violence is latent and ambiguously released into the open. Wozzeck locks his wife and child in the basement of the house to protect them from what he sees as the cruelties and insanities of the world. The transgressively sensual violence of Wozzeck’s “reality,” with its macabre and bizarre visions of spectralized bodies – now dissected, now impaled on his penis, now spasmodically bended in orgasm – is moulded by the hidden mechanisms of psychic life, by what is both concealed and revealed in the fragments of Wozzeck’s nocturnal consciousness. He tries to give form to the formless and invisible – to dreams, reveries, desires, and fears – to speak the unspeakable and ungraspable in his encounters with multifaceted transmogrifiers in his world of ceaseless metamorphoses.

Similarly to the violence in Büchner’s drama, violence in both novels is linked to pain, in which endless waves paralyse the feelings and reduce everything to numbness. Freddie, as well as Wozzeck, recurrently endures nauseating pain both as an immediate physical experience and as one that is mediated through a transforming consciousness. Pain, which seems to flow through subsurface spaces, negotiates the expressed and the ineffable, the othered and the selved, the imagined and the corporeal, the felt and the numb, the dispersed and the centred. Like Wozzeck, who painfully struggles to give substance to phantoms in his hopelessly atomized world, deprived of dichotomies and boundaries, Freddie attempts to come to terms with reality and fails. In an intellectual and emotional clash with a violent and senseless world, they both lose, as if the mysterious, pervasively transmigrating design of hallucinogenic toadstools envisioned by Büchner’s deranged Woyzeck has a petrifying grip on them.

Both The Book of Evidence and Wozzeck offer various points of entrance and exit into the heterogeneous, vast intertextual space. The Book of Evidence is structured by an elaborate system of allusions to, and quotations from, literature and visual art. Wozzeck too is synthesized by postmodern sensibility, with its aesthetics of citation, nostalgia, and undifferentiatedness. Both contemporary writers display a tendency towards self-consciousness and self-reflexivity while transfiguring their protagonists’ respective experiences into multilayered texts-palimpsests. The novels’ post-modern stances make them marginal, infringed, final, and at the same time open. This openness is also literal – both works form sequences: The Book of Evidence with Ghosts and Athena, and Wozzeck with Double Leon and Island KRK, thus engaging in self-referential intertextual dialogue.