- An Aesthetics of Injury: the Narrative Wound from Baudelaire to Tarantino by Ian Fleishman
In An Aesthetics of Injury, Ian Fleishman convincingly proposes wounding as a major narrative strategy in modernist aesthetics, one that seeks to compensate for literature's apparent powerlessness by insisting on its duty (in Kafka's words) to "sting" or "stab". Fleishman's argument refreshingly sidesteps the discourse of trauma studies, focusing instead on the aesthetics and complicated enunciative status of narrative injury. His argument emerges from a reading of the erotics of wounded female bodies in Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. Contemporary critics, Baudelaire, and even the prosecutor who charged Les Fleurs du mal with indecency conceived of it as wounded (through censorship) and wounding, able to injure those incautious enough to read it. Beyond the grounding figure of Baudelaire, Fleishman considers a range of authors and filmmakers who participate in the aesthetics of injury, including Kafka, Bataille, Genet, Cixous, Bachmann, Jelinek, Haneke, and Quentin Tarantino. He also repeatedly cites the gesture of German punk author Rainald Goetz, who slashed his own forehead while giving a reading of his manifesto on literature's duty to wound, impassively continuing to read aloud as blood streamed down his face. Fleishman's key insight is to point out that the wounding functions as a double gesture: literary language is made immediate and physical when Goetz slashes his own forehead, yet the literal wound is simultaneously made to signify; Goetz's forehead wound becomes a symbol for what he is saying and is recuperated almost immediately back into discursive practice. As Fleishman writes, "in its effort to eradicate the difference between sign and referent, the metaphor begins to work both ways … mak[ing] the textual wound itself into a figure of difference, of deferral, of ceaseless mediation" (5).
This double gesture marks all of the modernist works that Fleishman [End Page 515] analyzes. His precise, incisive commentary lays bare wounds in the text, showing a mirroring relationship between a wounded author and what he writes that is echoed in the relationship between text and the reader who, in turn, will also be wounded. Fleishman pays close attention to the autobiographical aspects of a literature that takes wounding as its model, as well as to the erotics of the wound. He is most persuasive in the sections on Kafka and Helène Cixous, and their literature of telling gaps and deliberate holes—hidden wounds that become a poetics of omission. His reading of Cixous' punning statement "ce qui est coupé repousse" as a textual strategy, her "particular inheritance of the decadent procedure of fecund structural disintegration that began with Baudelaire's prose poetry" (11), is particularly insightful.
Fleishman considers film adaptations alongside literary works throughout this volume, creating a natural segue from the analysis of literary texts to film. Cinematic wounds and scenes of wounding add yet more layers of mediation to the double gesture already inherent in wounding as a narrative strategy. Interestingly, 'wounding' is almost always sadistic and rarely masochistic in Fleishman's reading; the viewer or reader rarely knows exactly what's in store for him or her, or is a reluctant participant. One of the strongest and most interesting aspects of this book is Fleishman's willingness to critique the fetishization of violence in these works, showing how it can perpetuate the modern numbness that it critiques. He also traces the origin of aesthetic interest in the power of causing pain back to a fear of artwork's futility. His redefinition of decadent literature as works where dismembered fragments of an artwork dominate the whole, and the possibility of wholeness, is also wonderful and clarifying.
Some chapters, notably the sections on Ingeborg Bachmann and Quentin Tarantino, don't match the strength of the others. Fleishman's justification of those who use Bachmann's 1973 death from burn wounds as a retrospective framework for understanding her work, particularly the novel Malina, is more subtle than most, yet still feels like an imposition rather than an illumination. His "Final Cut," the epilogue...