As an institution, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—“fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
Take an apartment. Trash it thoroughly. Strip. Smear yourself with blood, bind your wrists, and bend over a table. Wait for your friends to discover your “corpse.”
Take a city sidewalk. Take a bucket of “blood.” Splatter. Hide. Look at people looking at the “blood.”
How much is too much?
This is the horror art of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American performance artist; the scenarios are taken from 1973’s Rape Scene and People Looking at Blood, Moffitt. Mendieta is one of the battalion of painters, filmmakers, and novelists analyzed in The Art of Cruelty, an earnest but scattershot book by poet and critic Maggie Nelson. Nelson writes about artists for whom cruelty is the medium and the message, the subject and the method: Think Francis Bacon’s slabs of meat and hacked-open faces, the parlor inquisitions of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, the antebellum nightmares of Kara Walker, the variously bludgeoned, humiliated, and carved-up “heroines” of Lars von Trier’s films. Mendieta is, Nelson writes, “drawing attention, via horror, to a horror that had been inadequately attended to. But her compulsion to re-enact [the rape piece] (not once but twice!) and to terrorize an unwitting audience (not once but twice!) complicates any simple look-at-how-bad-rape-and-murder-is feminist gesture.” It’s this complication, this ritualism, the oblique motivations and skirting of sadism, that fascinate Nelson and make Mendieta’s work “so formidable.”
This is a book born of a particular time. The photographs from Abu Ghraib are very much on Nelson’s mind. In a world where cruelty is so commonplace, Nelson asks, why do we go to art for facsimiles? Can seeing sadism playacted teach us anything about cruelty? (Nelson’s response: Maybe.) Won’t prolonged exposure to brutality make us more brutal? (Quite possibly.) Most important, can we come to a definition of what kinds of depictions of cruelty are “worthwhile” and what are gratuitous or downright dangerous? (Absolutely.)
So we enter violent imaginations, into art that is endured rather than enjoyed, whose mere descriptions can terrify (e.g., Jenny Holzer’s series on rape as a weapon of war, “Lustmord”). Nelson makes a stab at organizing her investigations under broad, evocative categories: A section called “Inflicted,” for example, studies why some artists render meaning dramatically, with, in the words of Ionesco, a “bludgeon blow.” On each writer or painting, she is coherent, but the overarching argument is haphazard. “Inflicted” hopscotches from sword imagery in the New Testament and Buddhism through Kafka, Brian Evenson, and Wittgenstein, then moves on to vagina imagery, an analysis of Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, and the contention that the prose of some contemporary female writers is “fiercer in form and effect than that of their male counterparts.” It’s like reading a Tumblr full of tenuously connected posts—a tangle of other people’s thoughts and observations.