I have been thinking of debasement. I have been thinking about the durational horror of pervertedness, of watching something defiled, hoping distance stops contagion.
Things are always invading me, and I am always wanting to be clean as bone, to get it out.
There are dust mites, soil, sunlight to worry about.
I watch the soles of feet, a dog shitting on cracked concrete. I close my eyes.
How to locate myself in a filthy world?
A friend I know sets dirt on fire. She separates wetness from dryness like sorting laundry, and once she has cleaned, she will incinerate.
The journey of the alien in film is one from wet to dry. Slick from birth, like a calf stumbling out from her mother, she must be burnt if the human is to survive. Perhaps then––an alien as misplaced matter, like dirt on white sheet, a centipede curled on my bed.
Part of horror is wondering where it comes from. I search my house for an open window, but everyone says, centipedes just emerge when there is rain. I use sight then, to locate origin: filth, friend, foe.
When I ask the artist about this, he says something like, our relationship with realness is different when we can’t see it.
This is why they say sound drives you mad. Sound wafts, spreads, elongates into rope.
While a glass of water remains a glass, a jackhammer reaches into white noise. What sounds like arguing in Cantonese is a normal conversation. They’re actually saying I love you.
Sound bleeds, dries, liquifies, and the wind turns.
On certain days, the vial of Saint Gennaro is paraded down the streets of Naples. If it liquifies, it is a good year. It has predicted an earthquake and a virus before.
With sound, we are always on the edge of catastrophe. Yet we are so close to paradise.
There exists a word that someone could say to me that could unlock the life I know. No one knows what it is, but we spend our lives trying to hear it. Ascetics whittle themselves down so far that they become porous, receptive to anything resembling the word. Others live believing the word can find them.
Instead, we chew gum without stopping, knees jiggle up and down. Organs never fall silent, the jackhammer begins again. The only successful marriage in Revolutionary Road is between a husband and his hearing aids, which he turns off when his wife begins to speak. What my friend does with laundry, I do with human noise. I separate silence from pollution, but something always corrupts.
I try to fill my ears with holy sound, but the living is so loud.
Joan of Arc could not describe the voices she heard, could not do violence to it, but she said, the light comes in the name of the voice. This was ludicrous to the inquisitor but Anne Carson called it a sentence that stops itself.
True silence is a sentence that stops itself. It is dying, but it pushes up against everything we know it to mean.
Light comes, and the alien arrives. It clicks and squeals, or sometimes it falls silent. The only noise humans could sample were ones from reptiles, or things that stuttered in the supermarket. Packaged liver, popcorn, jelly.
In The Thing, the alien could mimic vision but never sound. It could adopt form while remaining formless, but the sound that escaped before it burned was always the same.
Sight patches and collages, sound scrambles. My friend’s father woke up with a cicada in his ear. He said, I think there is something in here, but no one believed him.
Sound scrambles and I think there is something here, pulsing in this room. Something guttural and knotted, lying outside myself, but the closest I’ve felt to truth.
Jackson Pollock dripped cigarette ash and debris into his paintings, Andres Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix into a tank of his urine. Of Piss Christ, Serrano said, the blood came out of him but so did the piss and the shit.
When it showed in the National Gallery of Victoria, despite attempts to ban it from the then Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Pell, two teenagers ran at it with a hammer. Just a few days earlier, another man had tried to remove it from its hook. Serrano said, I wanted to depict the crucifixion of a man.
That the piss and the shit provoked such horror, that in the relentless pursuit of negativity [I] will somehow arrive at an experience of affirmation. The noise startles, the organs glisten. What I am left with is my own beating heart. The artist told me he used liquid detergent, something that oozed, formed little beads of distress. He said, I think about the alien in Alien, how it is closer to the body than anything else.
Bataille wholly believed in the task of collapse. To bring things down in the world to the level of the spider or the earthworm. Dig deep enough to strike organs, then dirt. That in the lowering of myself, I could glimpse a kernel, the metallic flash of truth. Never have I felt more liberated than in grief, as if to proclaim, there is nowhere else to go.
But there is a difference, my father says, between the dissolving self and perversion. The self stripped down and broken encounters grace, but at what point does debasement become transformative, at what point ruin? One sheds form with what is left, one invites to inflict. Then formlessness becomes just another disguise.
Philip Roth believed getting people right is not what living is all about anyway, it’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong.
When I asked the artist what he wanted, he said, presence, in moments of wrongness. What repulses reveals, not what you consume, but what you reject.
Perhaps wrongness is as much a mistake as a state of grace. To get people wrong in order to one day get them right, to be repulsed but paying attention.
In all this wreckage, let me lie in my wrong and wrong and wrong, let me feel grace not quite like this.
Wen-Juenn Lee writes poetry on unceded Wurundjeri land. In her writing, she is interested in gaps, leaks and spillage, which often take the form of place, memory and divinity. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, among others. She was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow for 2022, and previously served as a poetry editor at Voiceworks. She was awarded the Tina Kane Emergent Writer Award for this year.
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