This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.
You have been warned.
Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.
—Gabrielle Wittkop, The Necrophiliac (1972); translated by Don Bapst.
Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?
I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.
Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.
The Necrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing.
Nowadays, Sade’s legacy is thrust at even the most innocent (see any recent cinema listing for examples), so the attraction to forbidden sexual acts seems as alive—and as mainstream—as ever. If watered down and trite.
Which again The Necrophiliac isn’t.
The narrative structure does appear simple enough: we are presented with the diary of one Lucien, antiquarian, whose life centres around the procurement of recently interred bodies for his own pleasure. He has taste, but does not discriminate based on gender and age (like Death, I note).
Wittkop’s prose is explicit but not vulgar; it is elegant and erudite and makes for an actually plausible exploration of a grotesque and societally condemned sexual behaviour from an insider’s viewpoint. Sure, the concept is shocking, and repeatedly reinforced as you go alone, but once you’ve surmounted the first few paragraphs describing Lucien’s intercourse with a dead little girl (let me repeat: explicit, but not vulgar), you accept Wittkop’s writing as a literary enquiry into Lucien’s psychology and into what his daily life might look like.
This novel was never meant to be relished, or, like this review in The Guardian suggests, to be read on the tube.
And yet, Lucien shows the deceased a remarkable level of respect, speaks of them and to them with genuine affection, and treats them (cleaning, bathing, and preserving them) the way one would an infirm, yet willing lover. Actually, any thriller or historically accurate description of war atrocities is far more gruesome for all the pain suffered by the living. You don’t even have to go that far: just reading about domestic abuse on the BBC is often worse.
But gruesome isn’t the issue here, the taboo is.
If Henri Michaux constructs taboo thoughts out of ordinary situations by inventing imaginary tortures for those who annoyed him in real life, Wittkop takes a taboo and writes about it as if it were an ordinary situation out of real life. Of course, one must not be taken in by mere prose—presented with care, anything can be made to seem acceptable, laudable even—but it’s worth considering the questions such a book naturally raises. In particular, the notion of how much control we, or our families, have and should have over what happens to our bodies after death.
The Quote says: Necrophilia isn’t … approved by questioning youth. I wonder: how much does youth actually question the controversial? I think discussing the following issues would be beneficial as part of each generation’s reevaluation of culture and norm. (Probably best at university age, and in a sufficiently safe and liberal setting where the airing of nonconformist opinions would not give rise to discrimination or hate crimes.)
- Do we have any right to demand something specific be done, or not be done, to our body after death? A “right” based on what?
- What right does a relative or friend have to demand a particular treatment be given to our body once they no longer have any contact with it?
- Does it matter what happens to the body if no one ever knows about it except, say, a necrophiliac?
Pause. Breathe. Think.
These are serious questions, a gut reaction isn’t necessarily the only possible response.
- To push the hypothetical point further: if no one is harmed (physically, psychologically), no public decency is broken, and no one ever finds out, why would you care what your neighbour does in his or her private time with or without a particular collection of decomposing human cells?
One could argue about the ramifications of such actions on other areas of conduct, but this is why my points here are meant for pondering only and not as guidelines for public policy.
Thinking along slightly more practical lines:
- Once the ritual of burial and mourning is completed and the body is removed from immediate contact with anyone who may have known (of) the deceased, does it matter what happens to the body so long as it is treated exclusively as a valuable resource either for saving lives or for the advancement of humanity? I mean organ donations or scientific research.
- If a body has been relinquished to natural decay in a coffin, can you care about what happens to it henceforth, if you never learn about it? (I realise this is a paradoxical question: asking it requires the consideration of its complement. Still.)
- Quote 1 (also from Wittkop) in Unsaid Goodbyes is a good reminder that despite any religious or cultural conventions, and short of inventing immortality, our bodies do ultimately feed into the cycle of regrowth. Why is there a (Western) cultural tendency to deny this, rather than embrace the benefits and solace of the truth?
As this post is part of a series on the literary aspects of the fantastic grotesque, let me circle back to make a point about writing techniques.
Had Lucien’s activities ever only been hinted at, Wittkop’s novel would have read as suspenseful, revolting, possibly terror-inducing.
Had Lucien’s activities been slowly revealed, the novel would have had time to build up some suspense, some expectation of desecration, which would have made his respectful tone towards the dead almost a disappointment. (The monster that you feared for months is a let-down once you get to dissect its paws and find the claws to be kitten-like.)
Given that Lucien’s activities are clear from the beginning, any revulsion or shock is experienced immediately and little can surprise you after that. It’s a compelling study of how to (never quite, but still quite enough) desensitise the reader to an otherwise unpalatable subject.
Kafka applies no such kindly, if painfully abrupt anaesthetic. He makes sure the terror lasts, the horror gets a showing at regular intervals, and revulsion peaks the pie. We’ll see about consuming that pie next week.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: