Insects and automata in Hoffmann, Balzac, Carter, and del Toro.
The conflicting impulses intrinsic to the imagination take on a new metaphoric incarnation in Angela Carter's and Guillermo del Toro's recent fantastic narratives. Thus, in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), Carter posits the specifically phallocentric character of the machinelike automatism that Hoffmann and Balzac depict as negating the metamorphic potential of the imagination. And in Cronos (1993) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006), del Toro extends Carter's critique by augmenting mechanistic metaphors with biological figurations for imaginative process. The two films extensively feature images of insects, creatures traditionally emblematic for marvelous alterity but whose behavioral repertoires, from a cultural standpoint influenced by modern biological science, have often been invoked as exemplifying the automatism of instinctual drives. Del Toro thus implies a biological basis both for the inventive automatism of imaginative shapeshifting and for its destructive twin intent on devouring the world. In the essay that follows, then, I will first of all discuss Balzac's and Hoffmann's depictions of contrary manifestations of "automatism" before turning to Carter's and del Toro's more recent reflections upon the ultimate significance of this constitutive contradiction.
The term "automata" commonly refers to a class of intricately contrived machines designed not only to reproduce the outward physical appearance of living beings but to imitate their typical behavior as well. Although such devices have been manufactured since Antiquity, popular interest in automata grew over the course of the eighteenth century coincident with developments in the technology of clockwork mechanisms and in the context of the characteristic philosophic preoccupations of the era. As Gaby Wood has shown, Enlightenment Europe witnessed both theoretical and practical ripostes to the distinction made in Cartesian doctrine between humans and other animals on the grounds that humans "possessed a 'rational soul,' whereas animals were incapable of reasoned thought" and should therefore be regarded as mere biological machines "all of [whose] faculties could be explained by mechanical means" (Wood 7). The materialist philosophe Julien de La Mettrie thus argued in his notorious 1748 treatise, The Man Machine, that consciousness itself is fundamentally a mechanistic process: "To be a machine and to feel, to think and to be able to distinguish right from wrong, like blue from yellow--in a word to be born with intelligence and a sure instinct for morality and to be only an animal--[is] no more contradictory than to be an ape or a parrot and to be able to give oneself pleasure.... I believe thought to be so little incompatible with organized matter that it seems to be one of its properties, like electricity, motive power, impenetrability, extension," and so on (35). Hence this flourish as he sums up his argument: "Let us then conclude boldly that man is a machine and that there is in the whole universe only one diversely modified substance" (39).
In their own sphere, the inventors Pierre and Henry-Louis Jaquet-Droz would playfully reiterate La Mettrie's provocative hypothesis when they constructed in 1774 an automaton schoolboy whose most famous lesson consisted in writing over and over again the Cartesian formula, "I think hence I am."1 Beyond the sheer wonder and astonishment that the schoolboy and similarly celebrated automata evoked in their original audiences, such clockwork marvels provided particularly compelling vehicles with which to reflect upon the implications of Enlightenment materialism for human self-understanding. The full import of humanoid robots was very much of cultural moment, then, when E. T. A. Hoffmann published "The Sandman" in 1816.
The protagonist of "The Sandman" is haunted precisely by the nightmarish prospect that he is himself an automaton. In the hallucinatory memory that he recounts near the beginning of the story, he claims to recall his disassembly by an evil alchemist who "unscrewed my hands and feet, then put them back, now this way, then another" in order to "observe the mechanism" of his limbs (Hoffmann Selected Writings, 142). The alchemist thereby demonstrates that the protagonist is a strictly robotic entity devoid of authentic rationality and freewill, "the horrible plaything of dark powers, which it [is] vain to resist" (151). When he angrily denounces his fiancee as a "damned, lifeless automaton" (154) he merely projects onto her the suspicion concerning his own nature that fills him with anxiety and dread, his implicit recognition that mechanisms beyond or below the threshold of conscious awareness produce the illusion of autonomous selfhood. Thus troubled by the insistent sense that he is not the author of his experience, he seeks repeatedly over the course of the narrative to install himself securely at the center of his own universe. In one notable episode, he purchases a pocket telescope from a peddler of optical instruments in the hope that the ability to observe the world from a distance without himself being observed will place him in a position of cognitive mastery with respect to his surroundings. In fact, as he compulsively spies upon his rejected fiancee's successor as privileged object of desire, the telescope enables him to sustain for a brief time a fantasy-suffused perspective on his new love as an adoring counterpart whose worshipful regard confirms his own importance in the greater scheme of things. "Without anybody noticing," he took out the "spyglass and looked through it" at her (Hoffmann Golden Pot, 106). Though her eyes at first struck him as "strangely fixed and dead," as he "peered ever more intently" through the telescope, he "thought he saw moist moonbeams shining" forth as "though her power of vision were only now being awakened.... Ah! then he perceived that she gazed at him yearningly" (108). But cruel irony quickly intervenes to undo this happy "perception" of adoration. He discovers to his horror that his prospective sweetheart is herself quite literally an automaton, a robot foisted upon an unsuspecting community as a genuine human being by her trickster inventors in what amounts to an elaborate practical joke. His supposed perception of undying love has been therefore only a self-serving projection. And by implication, the purely mechanical, robotic workings of his own psyche now stand unveiled. When he ensouls an inanimate object as his adoring counterpart, he manifests precisely the unconscious automatism that has all along determined his comportment toward the world, his foundational investment in a narcissistic fantasy of perfection and ultimacy.
What initially prompts his recourse to the telescope as a means of mastering the world, however, is his disorienting confrontation, just moments previous, with the seemingly limitless proliferation of eyeglasses produced by the peddler from his voluminous overcoat. As the peddler brought out "more and more spectacles from his pockets" and piled them on the table in the protagonist's room, "the table began to gleam and flash all over. Thousands of eyes were looking and blinking convulsively and staring up" at him (Hoffmann Best Tales, 202). The protagonist thus feels persecuted by a collective gaze that quickly renders him "frantic with terror" (203). But the thousandfold reflection of his own eyes in the peddler's myriad spectacles that provokes in him such consternation may also be interpreted in a less threatening manner as a figuration of the indeterminately many perspectives on the world that any individual might entertain in the course of everyday life.
One might say that the fear of psychic heterogeneity so extravagantly on display in the protagonist of "The Sandman" represents the paranoiac misunderstanding on the part of a synthesizing, unitary Imaginary of the practically infinite productivity of a serial, multiplicitous imagination. In other words, the capacity for entertaining manifold points of view whose revelation so terrifies him entails the possibility of a circumstantial engagement with phenomenal reality without anxiously seeking closure or permanent equilibrium. In psychoanalytic parlance, the turbulent drive energy and chaotic libidinal intensities of what Freud called the "primary process" constitute an alternative approach to the world, one that positively values the metamorphosis of thought, feeling, and sensation. Certainly, the protagonist's own youthful imagination is first set ablaze at the beginning of "The Sandman" when he listens to a fairytale concerning the ferocious Id-monster after whom the story is named and whose real-life avatar, he will later maintain, is precisely the evil alchemist who demonstrated to him that he was in fact an automaton. The fairytale so "aroused my interest in the marvelous and the extraordinary" that he begins to read all manner of "horrific stories about goblins, witches," and the like, stories that inspire his own attempts at artistic creation as he draws images of his favorite monster "in the strangest and most loathsome forms, with chalk or charcoal on table, cupboards, and walls" (Golden Pot, 87). From the outset, then, he is alternately enlivened and repelled by the unforeseeable fecundity of the Id. "The Sandman" may therefore be read as a tale of two automatisms, two unconscious desiring economies, the one dedicated to the achievement of a lasting condition of imperturbable self-possession, the other in effect serving as the basis for a libidinally mobile, situationally various subject-in-process.
On the one hand, Hoffmann's protagonist would quell the disruptive turbulence of desire by investing once and for all in a putatively definitive state of affairs. On the other, his psychic evolution over the course of the tale comprises a theoretically limitless sequence of displacements of desiring attention from one object to another, none of which affords more than a passing moment of pleasurable fulfillment. Thus, near the beginning of the tale, he fondly remembers the nurturing presence of his mother who reassuringly tells her children that her announcement of the imminent arrival of the Sandman is a mere figure of speech for the fact that "you are sleepy, and can't keep your eyes open, as though someone had thrown sand in them" (Golden Pot, 86). But when he queries the family nursemaid concerning the Sandman, this maternal surrogate recounts a terrifying version of the Sandman legend that brings his happy musings about a mother's unconditional devotion to a sudden halt. The Sandman, she says, "throws handfuls of sand" into the eyes of "naughty children" in order to make them "fill up with blood and jump out of their heads" (87).
In like manner, following close upon his nostalgic reminiscence of the many evenings during his childhood when his loving father told "wondrous tales" (86) to his siblings and himself, he recalls as well the horrifying occasion when an "agonizing convulsion ... contorted his [father's] gentle, honest face into the hideous, repulsive face of a fiend" (90), the very image of the Sandman himself. Again, the "warm-hearted, sensible, child-like girl" (100) he condescendingly idealizes as his future bride becomes hateful in his eyes as soon as she contradicts his mad rantings by venturing, in an astute psychological insight, that his obsessive talk about a demonic persecutor issues from a "dark psychic power" within: "It is the phantom of our own self" that "casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven" (95).
He fares no better, of course, with his fiancee's successor once he realizes that she is in fact an inanimate object incapable of amorous response to his own yearnings. Nor are his troubles over when, disabused of his infatuation with the robot, he returns to his first love at the end of the story only to encounter for a final time the "fearsome spectre" (87) of the evil alchemist whose traumatic reappearance signifies the advent of interminably further libidinal vicissitudes. Neither the prospect of a devoted mother, nor a benevolent father, nor an adoring counterpart is sufficient to establish in the protagonist an enduring condition of psychic equilibrium. Instead, an endless dynamic of attraction and repulsion insures that he will forever remain caught up in a swirling vortex of libidinal energy--"Spin, wooden dolly! Spin, wooden dolly!" (117)--irresistibly propelled toward yet further objects of desire. If "The Sandman" may be understood along the lines of Freud's classic account as a tale thematizing the uncanny return of the repressed, then the repressed that returns is two-fold, both the desire not to be desiring and the relentlessly decentering agency of the primary process. As Julia Kristeva has argued, the subject's seemingly incurable propensity for "narcissistic, specular, imaginary investment" will never dispel "the insistent presence of drive heterogeneity," precisely, the endless parade of monstrous marvels emanating from the Id (103).
Like "The Sandman," The Golden Pot (1814) features a protagonist who evinces a conflicted commitment to mutually exclusive modalities of desire. Hoffmann speculates at some length in this tale concerning the nature of a libidinal economy that would transpire not as a quest for union with an object putatively offering ultimate fulfillment but rather as the contingent investment in multifarious experiences. The Golden Pot chronicles the adventures and misadventures of an ephebe-poet whose modus operandi is nicely summed up in the observation that he seems "to dream while wide awake" (10). As he puts it himself, "all the strange figures from a distant world of wonders, which before I saw only in rare and remarkable dreams, have now entered my waking life" (25). He thus seeks entrance to a visionary realm of marvels characterized precisely by its non-totalizable flux and multiplicity. The marvelous first manifests itself in the story when the ephebe-poet catches sight of a trio of magical serpents, "gleaming in green and gold, coiled round the branches" of an elder-tree and "stretching their heads toward the evening sun" (5). A feeling akin to an "electric shock" (5) surged through his body as the snakes, emissaries from the "wondrous land" of Atlantis (57), "slithered caressingly up and down through the leaves and branches" of the elder-tree, their "rapid movements.scattering a thousand sparkling emeralds" that "descended and enfolded him, flickering around him in innumerable tiny flames and shimmering gold threads" (5).
Similarly, in an allegorical vignette further on, a mythical incarnation of libidinal energy--appropriately named "Phosphorus"--offers consolation for the dispiriting recognition of the material world as untranscendable horizon by imaginatively enchanting quotidian life. This avatar of imaginative agency dons a suit of "gleaming armour that shed innumerable dazzling rays" (16) and enters into combat with an equally mythical opponent--a chthonic being identified as a "dragon"--who represents the spiritual confinement and limitation of possibility often attributed to the materialist positing of a universe composed solely of atoms and void. When the dragon strikes Phosphorus's suit of armor, causing it to "ring loudly," the armor's "mighty clang" revives a profusion of flowers otherwise destined to "wither and die" that flutter about the dragon like a flock of "brightly coloured birds" (16) until its strength ebbs away.
A paradisal vision, then, of ubiquitous shapeshifting: the Atlantean "faery realm of glorious wonders" (20)--defined later by the narrator as a metaphor for "life in poetry" (83)--unfolds as a condition of ceaseless desiring metamorphosis. Hoffmann thus elaborates what may be regarded as a precursory figuration of the Surrealist concept of "psychic automatism," famously defined by Andre Breton in the first "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924) as a deliberate suspension of rational thought and logic facilitating a desiring fantasia of tropological freeplay and nonsensical whimsy, of inexplicable happenings and spectacular appearance. (2)
But the prospect of perpetual change provokes a contradictory response in the protagonist, who oscillates between "supreme bliss and extreme horror" (20), bliss at the prospect of marvelous multiplicity, horror at the interminability of desire. The polymorphic impulses of the imagination remain shadowed by the Imaginary's futile aspiration for finality. The protagonist's yearning for a perfect world consequently ensues in his withdrawal to an idealized fantasy realm whose seeming variability is belied by its foreclosure of the unpredictable mutations of the Real. He thus fails to heed the lesson of a second allegorical vignette in which an alchemical "salamander"--traditionally said to dwell amidst the flames of "burning desire" (54)--is banished from Atlantis so long as it refuses to recognize that the thriving spontaneity of material existence is the condition of possibility for imaginative abundance.
Consider in this connection Honore de Balzac's Hoffmannesque The Wild Ass's Skin (1831), whose principal character likewise wavers between contrary libidinal standpoints. In a memorable passage near the beginning of the narrative, Balzac follows Hoffmann's lead in anticipating the Surrealist understanding of "psychic automatism" as a form of imaginative shapeshifting. And as in Hoffmann, an imaginative transfiguration of mundane matter once more seems to promise the redemption of the world. Balzac's protagonist thus experiences a paradisal interlude of desiring multiplicity that impressively instantiates the imagination as a force for metamorphosis. The protagonist feels himself "imperceptibly invaded by the phenomena of fluidity" (Balzac 32) when he enters an old curiosity shop and discovers there an astonishing array of objects of desire, a "chaotic medley of human and divine works," the "relics of civilizations and religions, deities, royalties, masterpieces of art, the products of debauchery, reason and unreason," a "philosophical midden" representing a sampling of the cultural production of "all the countries on earth" (35). The curiosity shop's showrooms are so crammed with an "ocean of furnishings, inventions, fashions" and sundry other artifacts that no observer can hope to encompass or comprehend from a single point of view their burgeoning profusion.
As these "monstrous tableaux.subjected to a thousand accidents of lighting by the whimsical effects of a multitude of reflected gleams" assume a shimmering, scintillating brilliance, he "ascend[s] by degrees to.the enchanted palaces of Ecstasy where the universe appear[s] to him in transitory gleams and tongues of fire; just as, long ago, the future had passed in flaming visions before the gaze of Saint John of Patmos" (36). Pursued "by the strangest of forms, by fabulous creations" (39), he now "dispers[es] his life and feelings over the images of that empty, plastic nature" (38) and enter[s] a dream-like liminal state where "his own existence" as a separate being, in other words, his very identity becomes metamorphically indeterminate when he discovers himself "at one with these curious objects" (39). His happy interlude in the old curiosity shop entails an affirmative response to heterogeneous variety, to the wondrous or marvelous character of the "constantly changing spectacle" (267) of the "pure products of chance" (268) that produces in him "a sensation bordering on the voluptuous" (269).
But again, recalling the ephebe-poet of The Golden Pot, Balzac's protagonist turns away from the prospect of libidinal metamorphosis when it threatens his investment in a cohesive, unitary identity. Throughout the greater part of the novel, his stance toward the world is determined in fact by an underlying fantasy of all-surpassing preeminence. At the moment he acquires the magical talisman that will prove his eventual undoing, he announces his intention in the following words: "I command this sinister power to melt all joys into a single joy for me. Yes, my need is to enfold all the pleasures of heaven and earth in one last embrace and to die of it" (54). This mad desire to achieve a condition of culminating bliss is subsequently reformulated as a fantasy, first, of omnipotence when he proclaims himself ruler of the universe--"I am Nero! I am Nebuchadnezzar! ... The universe is mine!" (185, 186)--and later, of totalization when his heart is "invaded by a surging wave of egoism" that overflows all of reality: "For him, the universe no longer existed, he had absorbed it wholly into himself" (271).
Even when he comes to regret the suicidal nature of his quest after an absolute synthesis of every experience, his continuing obsession with ultimacy may be inferred from the ambivalence evident in his newfound resolve to focus his desiring engagement with the Real contingently upon the situation at hand. For Balzac's protagonist, however much he may try to convince himself that he is "glad almost to become a sort of automaton" who will henceforth lead a life "as mechanical.as a steam-engine" by investing in the circumstance of the moment, foregoing his oft-voiced dream of apocalypse is equivalent, finally, to "castrating his imagination" (201, emphasis added).
With an eye to just such instances as the above, in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) Angela Carter foregrounds the typically phallocentric character of the orientation toward experience that perennially subverts the possibility of a genuinely imaginative engagement with the world. Over the course of the novel, she thus reflects critically upon a tradition of speculation concerning the redemptive agency of the imagination that extends from E. T. A. Hoffmann to the Surrealists. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman recounts a conflict dubbed the "Reality War" (27) between Doctor Hoffman, would-be "Emperor of the Marvelous" (26) who intends a Rimbaudian "immense and deliberate derangement of the senses" (38), and a government "Minister of Determination" (12) who seeks to "freeze the entire freak show" his city had become "back into attitudes of perfect propriety" and thereby bring to an end Hoffman's "massive campaign against human reason itself" (11). (3) Where the Minister of Determination holds that the world "contained a finite set of objects and a finite set of their combinations and therefore a list could be made of all possible distinct forms which were logically viable" (24), Doctor Hoffman believes that the "universe has no fixed substratum of fixed substances," that its "only reality lies in its phenomena," and that "only change is invariable" (96). And where the Minister announces "a programme he called the Rectification of Names" (193) that entails "fixing all the phenomena compiled by his computers in the solid concrete of a set of names that absolutely agreed with them" (194), Hoffman bombards civilization with his "ferocious artillery of unreason" (12)--precisely, the "infernal desire machines" of the book's title. His "desire generators" (213) and "reality modifying machines" (209) are designed, that is, to explore the "infinite potentiality of phenomena" (34) by producing an endless succession of "marvelous shapes formed at random in the kaleidoscope of desire" (13). As hallucinations flow "with magical speed in every brain" and the "bluff complaisant avenues and piazzas" of the streets of the city become "as fertile in metamorphoses as a magic forest" (17), the Minister laments that Hoffman has in effect "invented a virus which causes a cancer of the mind so that the cells of the imagination run wild" (22).
In their operation, Doctor Hoffman's desire machines are thus reminiscent of the serial, multiplicitous automatism on display in E. T. A. Hoffmann's vision of Atlantis and Balzac's fantasia of cultural history. But the "flux of mirages" (11) ceaselessly emitted by the "unleashed unconscious" (211) does not ensue in the establishment of a peaceable kingdom. To the contrary, Hoffman intends to compile an inventory of "the symbolic constituents of representations of the basic constituents of the universe" such that "all the possible situations in the world and every possible mutation of those situations can be represented" (95-96). These symbols will "serve as patterns or templates from which physical objects and real events may be evolved" (96). By reducing "everything to a series of ultimate simples," the "non-created bases from which the world is built," he will be able to "take the world apart and make a new world" in his own image (203). Notwithstanding his pretensions to dissidence and cultural revolution, Doctor Hoffman's blueprint for a new world order may therefore be characterized as "totalitarian" (207). In other words, while the normative civic ethos the Minister tries to shore up may be "thickly, obtusely masculine" (15), Hoffman's own ambitions are premised upon an equally suspect eroticization of power.
For Carter, then, if the polymorphic imagination and the phallocentrically-inflected Imaginary can be understood as mutually exclusive desiring economies, these respectively circumstantial and totalizing libidinal automatisms are nonetheless inseparably co-present. She thus offers an explanation for the inability of Hoffmann's and Balzac's respective protagonists to overcome their susceptibility to fantasies of libidinal ultimacy. The imagination will never constitute a paradise regained because the most destructive modalities of desire are integral to its own functioning. As one character remarks "with a faint undertone of menace," the unconscious is "capable of virtually anything" (Carter 116). In a revisionary pastiche of a passage from Hoffmann's The Golden Pot, Carter makes just this point. Here, first of all, is Hoffmann's description of the vision of Atlantis to which his ephebe-poet is privy when the novice seer enters the home of the tutelary figure who will encourage him to take dictation from his Id:
Once more ... astonished by the magnificence of the [scene before him] he could now perceive that many of the strange flowers hanging in the dark bushes were in fact insects resplendent in gleaming colours, flapping their little wings and dancing and flitting in a swarm as though caressing one another with their probosces. As for the rose-pink and sky-blue birds, they had turned into fragrant flowers, and the scent they emitted rose from their cupped petals in soft, lovely tones, which mingled with the whisper of distant fountains and the murmuring of the lofty trees and shrubs to form mysterious chords that uttered a deep, inexpressible yearning. (Hoffmann Selected Writings 105)
Now compare Carter's version of the foregoing passage in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Near the beginning of his quest for the secret headquarters of Doctor Hoffman, the Minister of Determination's "special agent" charged with assassinating Hoffman "as inconspicuously as possible" (40) visits a "peepshow cum cinematograph" (27) at a deserted seaside carnival whose proprietor, an old man "rearing like a seal" (43), would seem to be, like Proteus himself, a personification of the imagination's metamorphic power. As he approaches the viewing apparatus containing the first of "seven wonders of the world in three lifelike dimensions" (42) and peers through "a pair of glass-eyepieces" that "jutted out on long, hollow stalks," the agent glimpses the following "moist, luxuriant landscape" within a woman's womb (44):
Here endlessly receded before one's eyes a miniature but irresistible vista of semi-tropical forest where amazing fruits hung on the trees, whilst from the dappled and variegated chalices of enormous flowers the size of millstones, perfumes of such extraordinary potency that they had become visible to the eye exuded as soft, purple dew. Small, brilliant birds trilled silently on the branches; animals of exquisite shapes and colours, among them unicorns, giraffes and herbivorous lions, cropped up buttercups and daisies from the impossibly green grass; butterflies, dragonflies and innumerable jewelled insects fluttered, darted or scurried among the verdure so all was in constant movement and besides the very vegetation was continually transforming itself.... A fish sprang out of the water, became a white rabbit and bounded away.... [But as the eye of the delighted viewer follows the course of the river upstream eventually it sees:] the misty battlements of a castle. The longer one looked at the dim outlines of this castle, the more sinister it grew, as though its granite viscera housed as many torture chambers as the Chateau of Silling. (44-45)
Even as she follows the ephebe-poet's visionary itinerary relatively closely, Carter frames his vision of Atlantis so as to suggest, at the beginning, that Hoffmann's figuration of paradisal shapeshifting is predicated upon a regressive fantasy of return to a pre-natal enclosure safely sheltered from the vicissitudes of material existence, and at the end, that the enticing prospect of polymorphic plenty in fact transpires in disturbingly close proximity to an all too literal manifestation of the desire for non-desiring stillness Freud termed the "Death Drive." Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit frolics on the grounds of the Marquis de Sade's Chateau de Silling. One might therefore conclude that the imagination and the Imaginary are so inextricably interrelated as to comprise a complex unity. In effect, the imagination is the Imaginary: even the most circumstantial libidinal fulfillment looks forward to desire's definitive extinction.
Interestingly, both Hoffmann, in his description of an Atlantean Wonderland, and Carter, in her satiric imitation of Hoffmann's characteristic imagery, prominently feature the teeming vitality of insect life in the course of their respective figurations of imaginative process. Thus, in Hoffmann's libidinallysuffused representation of an ideal condition of happy concord between the multifarious mutations of the desiring imagination and the bewildering flux of sensational experience that William James famously compared to the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of a summertime garden thronged with flowers and insects (James 488), "rose-pink and sky-blue birds" become "fragrant flowers" which become in turn "insects resplendent in gleaming colours, flapping their little wings and dancing and flitting in a swarm" (Hoffmann, Selected Writings 105). Carter posits a comparable correspondence between inner vision and phenomenal reality in her reprise of Hoffmann's description. Once again, as "butterflies, dragonflies and innumerable jeweled insects fluttered, darted or scurried among the verdure so all was in constant movement and besides the very vegetation was continually transforming itself" (Carter 44-45), a hallucinatory spectacle of insect frenzy betokens the advent of the marvelous. But if the several representations of automata and automatism discussed thus far entail contrary implications of life and death, the invocation of six-legged invertebrates as metaphoric for the shapeshifting dynamism of the unconscious is no less overdetermined.
The contemporary director Guillermo del Toro has frequently employed insect imagery in his films to figure the workings of the unconscious. Early on in Pan's Labyrinth (2006), for instance, the child who quickly emerges as the story's protagonist discovers in the middle of a forest an ancient monolith sculpted to represent a pagan nature deity. As she contemplates the face of the god, an emerald-hued insect resembling a praying mantis crawls out of its mouth. This insect--whose name may be traced to an ancient Greek word meaning "prophet" or "diviner"--will return at intervals over the course of the film, each time as an emissary from the Id, a psychopomp that will accompany the protagonist as she begins a series of forays into a world at once perilous and marvelous, the mysterious "Underground Realm" of her own psyche. The protagonist's chittering spirit-guide thus appears to her in the middle of the night and leads her back into the woods where she enters the labyrinth mentioned in the film's title. At the center of this ancient symbol for self-discovery, she encounters a strange, horned creature who identifies himself as a faun, personification of Nature and guardian of the labyrinth that was constructed, he says, as a portal to the Underground Realm, her original home and rightful destination. In order to return there, she must successfully complete a series of tasks in connection with which he produces a "Book of Crossroads" that will reveal to her "what must be done" in each case. The protagonist soon discovers, however, that the pages of the Book of Crossroads are blank. Only when she stares intently at its empty pages and unleashes her own powers of visionary projection will they fill with words and images pertaining to the task at hand.
As she commences her first test, the protagonist returns to the forest where she reads the following in the Book of Crossroads: "Once upon a time when the woods were young they were home to creatures who were full of magic and wonder. They protected one another and slept in the shade of a colossal fig tree.... But now the tree is dying. Its branches are dry, its trunk old and twisted. A monstrous toad has settled in the tree's roots and won't let the tree thrive." Upon her arrival at the ailing tree, the shape of whose twin boughs resembles the horns of the faun, the protagonist enters the cavernous space of its subterranean interior and crawls upon all fours across a mud-covered floor seething with what look like giant woodlice or some related form of terrestrial crustacean. There she confronts the toad which greets her by emitting a belch-like roar. When the protagonist tricks the toad into eating several apparently poisonous magic stones, it regurgitates its own insides and then collapses upon itself like a deflated balloon. Among numerous likely conjectures concerning the allegorical significance of this unsettling scene, one might speculate that in thus slaying the monstrous toad which would otherwise consume the tree of life, the protagonist can be said to have overcome a primordial urge to devour the world very much akin to the mad fantasy of totalization evinced by the principal character of Balzac's Wild Ass's Skin.
Certainly, the corollary aspiration for omnipotence that distinguishes the Balzacian character can be said to constitute the protagonist's third and final challenge when she refuses at the cost of her own life to acquiesce before a patriarchal and quite literally fascistic psychosocial order whose aggression against the world is propelled by a rage-filled unwillingness to forego precisely the fantasy of absolute satiation the protagonist defeated at the beginning of her trial by ordeal. But perhaps the decisive development in the protagonist's adventures on the other side of everyday life occurs in the stage intervening between her respective confrontations with representative avatars of the Death Drive. Consider these instructions concerning the second task put to her: "You will see a sumptuous feast, but don't eat or drink anything. Absolutely nothing." When the protagonist disobeys this injunction to stifle her own desire, she has in fact made a correct inference: the repudiation of the desire for apocalyptic ultimacy need not entail a repudiation of desire itself. She thus defies the strange eyeless monster seated at the head of a long dining table crowded with all manner of dishes, who neither samples the banquet he cannot see laid out before him nor permits anyone else to partake of life's bounty. The monster seeks to foreclose the very possibility of desire by threatening to tear the protagonist limb from limb should she dare to taste any of the dishes on offer at the feast. But the protagonist is not deterred by the monster's attempt to terrorize her by equating the circumstantially mutating identity of a subject-in-process with the anguishing incoherence of Lacan's famous "bodyin-pieces." Instead, as she relishes the succulent flavor of first one, then another ripe grape, she demonstrates her refusal to deny herself the pleasure of the moment, the opportunity for fulfillment afforded by the situation at hand. Notwithstanding her own tragic demise, by the end of her rite of passage del Toro's protagonist can therefore be understood to have succeeded--thanks to the initiatory intervention of her insect psychopomp--in developing a libidinal orientation providing a viable basis for imaginative engagement with experience.
But elsewhere in his growing oeuvre, del Toro complicates the positive valorization of insect life evident in Pan's Labyrinth. In Cronos (1993), his first major film, an insect dwelling in the interior of a fabulous mechanism infects its possessor with an unappeasable desire that, at its limit, would ensue in the consumption of every other living being. As the main storyline commences, the camera invites the audience to contemplate an angelic statue that the film's protagonist has recently acquired. The viewer's appreciation of the statue's beautiful countenance comes to an abrupt end, however, when a swarm of giant cockroaches begin to tumble out of one of the angel's eyes in a seemingly inexhaustible stream. Del Toro thus references insect life to suggest that disquieting alterity lurks beneath the reassuringly familiar face of conventionally recognizable human identity. The protagonist subsequently examines the hollow statue, discovering in its base a hidden compartment. He finds secreted in the compartment a mysterious scarab-shaped artifact, elaborately decorated and seemingly made out of gold. Later, as he places this "Cronos device" in the palm of his hand and winds a knob on top, he sets in motion a ticking gear mechanism. Soon, six insect leg-like appendages emerge and clamp onto his hand. What appears to be a very large sting at the back of the device then plunges into the base of his palm, while in the interior, gears whir rapidly and a visually repulsive bug reddens with blood. Settling back in relief, as if experiencing the rush of a powerful drug, the protagonist addresses the life-form that he intuits must dwell in the mechanism's interior: "Who are you little one, a god? You're so good to me." He does not realize that he addresses not a god but an insect endowed with the power to magically transmute his blood so as to confer immortality upon him. Nor is he aware of the terrible price entailed in thus vanquishing the ravages of time. Henceforth, only one food will even temporarily assuage the protagonist's hunger: the blood of the living. At the end of the film, he discovers the truth when the device resurrects him after his death. As he rises up and begins to peel off his old skin, the protagonist is reborn as a horrifying insect-human hybrid, a creature driven by the implacable resolve of pure instinct whose eyes, to borrow a phrase from one of Angela Carter's short stories, "see only appetite" (Bloody Chamber 120).
Guillermo del Toro's and Angela Carter's respective contributions to the tradition of the fantastic thus offer complementary clarifications of the nature of the fundamental contradiction first depicted at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the conflicted orientations toward experience of Hoffmann's and Balzac's troubled protagonists in "The Sandman," The Golden Pot, and The Wild Ass's Skin. On the one hand, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and, indeed, Carter's literary oeuvre as a whole implement a marvelous transfiguration of profane reality. Her collected works in fact comprise a distinctive contemporary renewal of a tradition going back at least as far as the Romantics. On the other, she suggests that the threat of a phallocentric negation of the imagination's promise and possibility may well prove ineluctable. The extensive employment of insect imagery in Cronos and Pan's Labyrinth reflects a concurring assessment. In these films, del Toro refashions the mechanistic metaphors of Enlightenment materialism to reflect a more recent understanding of human beings, a century and a half after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), as biological organisms whose behavioral propensities in the realm of culture are defined ultimately by humanity's animal nature. His depiction of the simultaneously monstrous and marvelous prospect of insect life powerfully suggests a biological substrate underlying both the automatism that transpires as a swarm of desiring impulses multifariously engaging the phenomenal flow and its disturbing other, a stance toward the world in effect determined to swallow up the totality of existence. Considered in conjunction with one another, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Pan's Labyrinth, and Cronos may be said to articulate a complex reassessment, at once affirmative and cautionary, of the prospects for an imaginative redemption of the world to which the tradition of the fantastic has so often aspired.
Balzac, Honore de. The Wild Ass's Skin. Trans. Herbert J. Hunt. London: Penguin, 1977.
Breton, Andre. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. New York: Penguin, 1987.
--. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. London: Penguin, 1982. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking, 1977.
Del Toro, Guillermo, dir. Cronos / La Invencion de Cronos. Fondo de Fomento Cinematografico, Vetana Films, 1993.
--. Pan's Labyrinth / El Laberinto del fauno. Picturehouse, 2006.
Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-1974. XVII: 217-252.
Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Best Tales of Hoffmann. Ed. E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1967.
--. The Golden Pot and Other Tales. Trans. Ritchie Robertson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
--. Selected Writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Volume One: The Tales. Ed. and trans. Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Volume One. New York: Cosimo, 2007.
Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP 1986.
La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. Machine Man and Other Writings. Trans. and ed. Ann Thomson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Wood, Gaby. Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. New York: Knopf, 2002.
(1) According to Wood, the automaton schoolboy has survived the vicissitudes of the past several centuries in good working order and continues to practice his penmanship at the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Neuchatel, Switzerland; see Edison's Eve xiii--xiv.
(2) Or in Breton's own words: "surrealism, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state. By which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. encyclopedia. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life" (26).
(3) The name "Doctor Hoffman" alludes, of course, to E. T. A. Hoffmann. Less obviously, Carter may intend her readers to recall the Swiss scientist Dr. Albert Hofmann who synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938. So far as I know, the similarity in phrasing between Doctor Hoffman's "desire machines" and the "desiring-machines" of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus (published, like Carter's novel, in 1972) is purely coincidental.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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