Nestor Perlongher and mysticism: towards a critical reappraisal.
The influential Argentine writer and gay-rights activist Juan Jose Sebreli attacked Perlongher's last works:
Con respecto a la obra de Perlongher [...] la parte desdenable es la derivada del surrealismo heterodoxo de Georges Bataille, de Michel Foucault y de Gilles Deleuze. Lamentablemente esta influencia fue la predominante en su ultima epoca, llevandolo del demonismo a la mistica y aun al esoterismo. (1)
Sebreli criticizes Perlongher for his reliance on authors who denied sexual identities, and for focusing on the flow and force of desire in society, as Perlongher insisted at the end of his thesis on male prostitution in Silo Paulo, O negocio do miche [The Business of Male Prostitution]. (2) While Sebreli does not insist on a homosexual identity, his insistence on the body as property of an individual reveals key ideological differences with Perlongher. (3) Sebreli's conception of homosexuality, in particular the focus on the use of the body as personal property, was one of the developments in Argentine post-dictatorship gay rights that Perlongher abhorred. In fact, it is possible to detect in Perlongher's abandonment of homosexuality as a theme for his writing in 1991 a response to the increased insistence on the notion of homosexuality as identity. (4)
Osvaldo Baigorria also exhibits some concern in his essay on Perlongher's mysticism:
Su vinculacion con el Santo Daime inaugura la fase final, mas controvertida o asombrosa, de ese viaje sobre el filo de la identidad personal. Al contrario de lo que puede pensarse, su enfermedad no parece haber tenido influencias sobre esta nueva direccion de sus intereses: Perlongher descubre que es HIV positivo en el 89, en Francia, bastante despues de haber conectado con la iglesia del Santo Daime. Y su 'devenir bruja' habia comenzado aun antes. Por los anos 87/88--al mismo tiempo en que escribia sus principales ensayos sobre el neobarroco-- comienza a tomar ayahuasca o yage [...]. (5) Baigorria is attempting to deny the link between Perlongher's discovery that he was HIV positive and his mysticism. My aim in this paper is to analyse Perlongher's last two collections closely in order to detect the similarities to and differences from earlier collections. This analysis displays three aesthetics in Perlongher's last works: mystical masochism, mystical withdrawal, and mystical purpose. While Perlongher's poetics and techniques do not differ in these two collections, and the first of the three aesthetics is present in his earlier work, the latter two demonstrate a change in Perlongher's writing, a change which I believe to be linked to those caused by AIDS in the possibilities for the use of sex as an oppositional political tool.
A brief overview of Perlongher's earlier poetry will facilitate the analysis that is to follow. Perlongher's first collection, Austria-Hungria (1980), contains many poems that allude, often through slang terms and literary references, to the secretive practices of homosexuals and transvestites in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, as in poems such as 'El polvo' and 'La murga, los polacos'. His second collection, Alambres (1987), included poems, such as 'Ethel' and 'Daisy', that combined the elaborate performance of transvestites with a sordid background drawn from the streets of Buenos Aires. The collection Hule (1989) cultivated elaborate geometric forms that echoed the Golden Age barroco without adopting complete barroco form, as in poems such as 'Prefimbulos barrosos' and 'Formas barrocas'. The collection Parque Lezama included many poems, such as 'Leyland' and 'Vahos', which alluded to the zones of homosexual sex commerce in Silo Paulo. This was also the subject of O negocio do miche (1987), which applied Deleuze and Guattari's theories on nomadology to the underworld of Silo Paulo. Perlongher is also renowned for the essay O que e AIDS (1987), a critique of the clinical and judicial reaction to the emergence of AIDS. (6)
Although Perlongher did not know he was HIV positive when he became involved with esoteric religions, he exhibited an awareness of the radical way that the virus had changed the possibilities for sex as a form of political resistance in the postscript to the essay 'Avatares de los nmchachos de la noche' (Prosa, pp. 45-58), (7) where he described his work on male prostitution as a 'piece of archaeology'.
This change in perspective in Perlongher's work is revealed most strikingly in the essay 'La desaparicidn de la homosexualidad masculina', where he signed off completely from the subject of male homosexuality. In this essay Perlongher does not deny the real repression of those practising homosexuality, but rather suggests the danger of normalization through identity politics, as 'Gay Rights' becomes just another committee within the apparatus of state power (Prosa, pp. 85-90). Perlongher's turn away from sexuality accompanies an apparent disillusionment with the treatment of sexuality, not only by the state but also by the promoters of gay rights themselves. He wrote:
?Que pasa con la homosexualidad [...]? Ella simplemente se va diluyendo en la vida social, sin llamar mas atencion de nadie [...] Al tornarla completamente visible, la ofensiva de normalizacion [...] ha conseguido retirar de la homosexualidad todo misterio, banalizarlo por completo. (Prosa, p. 88)
The phrase 'ofensiva de normalizacion' allows Perlongher to link disparate elements of the sexuality debate: both state power normalizing through medical and disciplinary measures and the protestors trying to present homosexuality as not deviant, but normal. The effect is equal on both sides: homosexuality is accepted, but no longer interesting. And with the introduction of the condom and the Anglo-style gay-gay couple, we have what Perlongher calls, borrowing his terminology from Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault, a replacement of the 'sociedad de disciplina' with a 'sociedad de control' (Prosa, p. 88).
Perlongher's response to the perceived dead end of AIDS and safe sex was worked out with reference to Georges Bataille's Eroticism:
Bataille distingue tres modos de disolver la monada individual y recuperar cierta indistincion originaria de la fusion: la orgia, el amor, lo sagrado. En la orgia se llegaba a la disolucion de los cuerpos, pero estos se restauraban rapidamente e instauraban el colmo del egoismo [...] del puro cuerpo [...]. En el sentimiento del amor, en cambio, la salida de si es mas duradera [...] Pero solo en la disolucion del cuerpo en lo cosmico (o sea, en lo sagrado) es que se da el extasis total, la salida de si definitiva. (Prosa, p. 87)
The use of tense is key here: the devastating effects of AIDS have placed the orgy in the past tense. Love, and the sacred or the mystical, both options carrying less of the fatal risk, are in the present tense. With the loving couple ending up in sedentary individualism (Prosa, p. 56), only Bataille's third option remains as an attack on the 'monada individual'.
Perlongher's fifth and penultimate collection, Aguas aereas (1991), (8) was inspired by the author's experiences attending rituals of the Santo Daime religion, where he took hallucinogenic drugs and participated in songs, dances, and ceremonies. He also undertook a journey to the religion's headquarters, the Ceu de Mapia colony in the Amazon. Perlongher's mysticism in Aguas aereas cultivates a poetics that draws heavily on the sexual elements of his earlier poems, as is the case with the first poem of the series:
RECIO EL EMBARQUE, airado aedo riza u ondula noctilucas iridiscencias enhebrando en el etereo sulfilar: un trazo (deleble persistencia) en el enroque de los magmas en el cuadriculado del mantel -mental, la sala de entrecasa (arte kitsch) compostelaba medianias en el corset del voile, leve y violado. Pero los voladitos De los encajes del mantel urdian Mas que un texto una forma, una figura Boreal o suave, sus caireles no dejaban de iluminar los resbalosos voleos del minue, por las baldosas: una desprendida y procaz, aranando sus pases el inane, traslucido volar. Por espejismos de piel viva en el tir6n de las mucosas los rasgueos de la una elevaban las cfintigas al cielorraso hueco, sublunar. Recio el cantor, brunidas las guedejas, dejo de mambo inflige al modular intensidades en el cieno, plastica porosidad de la materia espesa. En el dejo de un espasmo contorsionaba los ligamenes y transmitia a los encajes la untuosidad del nylon rayandolos en una delicada precipitacion. (Poemas, pp. 247-48)
The experience of the Santo Daime ceremony implies a poetics. Rather than a text, a stable production of writing, the ceremony demands a 'forma'. The latter is a broader concept, and Perlongher's poem, itself a text, demonstrates the Daime ceremony as a collection of artistic manifestations: a dance ('los resbalosos | voleos del minue'); physical sensations ('espasmo', 'contorsionaba'); songs ('cantor', 'cantigas'); and kitsch interiors and fabrics ('arte kitsch'). What is interesting here is that as well as proposing an expansion of the poetic project, from 'texto' to the apparently more inclusive 'forma', Perlongher draws on elements from his overtly sexual poetry. The 'cantigas' were the central element in his un-anthologized poem 'Cantiga' (1981), (9) where the song and dance offered a provocative challenge to clear divides between the sexes. The ceremony in the first poem of Aguas aereas I is filled with unholy dirt, e.g. the 'cieno'--mud or slime--on which the dance takes place. The physicality of the poem is also closely related to that found in Perlongher's earlier and distinctly sexual collection Parque Lezama (1990), which Perlongher wrote while he was researching his thesis on male prostitution. For example, the 'enroque de los magmas', a castling implied by the chequered tablecloth, recalls the poem 'Nostro mundo', where 'magmas' were used as the layers of throats of men admiring adolescents (Poemas, p. 214), while 'enroque' is used to describe the crossing of the legs of a male prostitute in 'Al miche' (Poemas, p. 231). Alongside the kitsch details of tablecloths and 'arte kitsch', Perlongher is also reliant on transvestite vocabulary for his portrayal of the ceremony, in particular the description of
the fabrics as becoming 'nylon', the material, alongside Banlon, closely related to the dressing-up ethos of many poems in Parque Lezama, and the 'corset del voile', another travesti tool. While he may be describing a mystical experience, at this stage the ceremony he evokes is as physical and dirty as in his earlier poems, and there is no radical change from his earlier poetics except for the overt subject matter.
Moreover, this poem displays what Leo Bersani refers to as 'self-shattering jouissance'. (10) Bersani identifies this dynamic in S/M, which he also calls the 'impulse of self-dissolution'. (11) Perhaps this is one way of characterizing Perlongher's 'salida de si'. The ecstasy that Perlongher identifies in the rituals of Santo Daime is also that found in the cosmic ecstasy identified by S/M practitioners in Bersani's conception. Both, vitally, make the subject unfindable; as Perlongher wrote in his essay on ecstasy and poetry, '?Adonde se sale cuando no se esta?/?Adonde se esta cuando se sale?' (Prosa, p. 150). (12) The question is unanswerable, for the masochistic jouissance and the 'salir de si' of the mystical ceremony both deny the very self of the 'se'.
This same aesthetic is found in Perlongher's final collection, El chorreo de las iluminaciones. (13) Prior to Perlongher's death, he had broken with the Santo Daime religion as he felt that it could not offer the medical help that the latter stages of AIDS required. Perlongher had been awarded a Guggenheim scholarship for a project uncompleted at the time of his death, an auto sacramental or mystery play, which Sara Torres, in an interview with the sociologists Rapisardi and Modarelli, claims was heavily influenced by the Christian mystics. (14)
The first poem in the collection, 'Tema del cisne (I)', draws on modernista techniques and classical mythology, while continuing the aesthetic of anthropological risk exhibited in many of the poems in Aguas aereas:
Undoso el que avanzara por los rizos del espejo laqueado, su pezcuello docil al mando del cendal declina rayado el rutilar de su plumaje. Quien pot interrogar las inestables corrientes donde anega su pellejo arruga de nerviosas denticiones la quilla que traslflcida corrla por parques de reflejos azulados, impavido el azor, la crista altiva, arriesga el hundimiento en ese anclaje. Porque, por mas que mirese a los hados, no se retarda la fatal carrera si tempestuoso pie pisa la pluma. (Poemas, p. 297)
The swan, the modernista bird par excellence, as in Dario's 'Yo persigo una forma' (1901), where the curved neck represents the unanswerable question for the poet who cannot but question, is an image drawn from the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire and Mallarme. Perlongher here offers an image of the questioning that he has carried out in his poetry and anthropology: the swan, cipher for the poet, is adrift on the dangerous waters. Perlongher reframes his earlier projects within a mystical intent ('mirese a los hados'), and also within a morbid sense of inevitability ('no se retarda la fatal carrera'). Difficulty is seen in terms of darkness and waters, an experiment of going into the powerful unknown. This unknown may well destroy the poet in painful and unexpected ways.
This returns us to Perlongher's earlier comments on force and form in poetry:
Esa desestructuracion del frenesi dionisiaco arrastraria la identidad individual en la nebulosa afectual de los cuerpos (y, por que no, de las almas) en amalgama. Empero, ese fervor dionisiaco, en la medida en que librado a si mismo es [...] un 'veneno' que conduce a la pura destruccion, precisaria de la armonia del elemento apolineo que le diese una forma, para poder mantener la lucidez en medio del torbellino. (Prosa, p. 165) (15)
The begrudging ('por que no') use of 'alma' demonstrates Perlongher's paradoxical position, in between the physical and the spiritual; 'frenesi' reminds the reader of an earlier poem of the saine naine that contains elements drawn from the Brazilian carnival (Poemas, pp. 105-08), (16) and in which grammar, words, and syntax collapsed in a pure Dionysian frenzy. Now, however, in dealing with the overwhelming forces let loose by death, Perlongher--inspired by Nietzsche's Das Geburt der Tragodie (1872) (17)--has to use a clearer and more organized form. This necessity accounts for the use of the sonnet, clearer syntax, the image of the swan, and a logical method similar to his essays in a poem that reflects on a poetic project that has met its fatal end. It also explains an adherence to form that is not entirely strict, given that the forces in operation are strong enough to annihilate the poetic project. Death is accepted as inevitable and the real physical effects of AIDS--'la fatal carrera', 'tempestuoso pie'--are drawn harshly into focus.
Santa Teresa's ideas on the mystical experience are of help here, particularly with regard to pleasure and pain:
Era tan grande el dolor [of the mystical experience] que me hacia dar aquellos quejidos y tan excesiva la suavidad que me pone este grandisimo dolor [...] No es dolor corporal sino espiritual, aunque no deja de participar el cuerpo algo, y aun harto [...]. Pues tornando este apresurado arrebatar el esplritu es de tal manera que verdaderamente parece salir del cuerpo y pot otra parte claro estfi que no queda esta persona muerta, al menos ella no puede decir si estfi en el cuerpo o si no, pot algunos instantes. (18)
The paradoxes (pain or pleasure, body or soul, in or out of the body) reveal the difficulty in presenting the mystical experience logically without collapsing into nonsense. Santa Teresa explained the physical aspect of the mystical experience in very visual terms:
Porque verse ansi levantar un cuerpo de la tierra, que aunque el espiritu le lleva tras si y es con suavidad grande, si no se resiste [...]. [Dios] le tiene tan grande [amor] a un gusano tan podrido, que no parece se contenta con llevar tan de veras el alma a si, sino que quiere el cuerpo, aun tan mortal y de tierra tan sucia como por tantas ofensas se ha hecho. (19)
The acceptance of the low ('gusano, 'tierra, 'sucia', 'cuerpo') by the high ('espiritu') is reminiscent of many of Perlongher's earlier poems, where sexually obscene themes are mixed with Golden Age and modernista techniques, and also the masochistic relationship between the 'top' and the 'bottom' Bersani describes in the S/M performance.
Comments on the Christian mystics made by Jacques Lacan may allow us to reframe Perlongher's mystical poetry. Discussing the notion of a specifically femininejouissance, Lacan observes, 'being not-whole, she has a supplementary jouissance compared to what the phallic function designates by way of jouissance [...]. There is a jouissance that is hers that belongs to "she" that doesn't exist and doesn't signify anything.' (20) Women, Lacan argues, and 'bright people like Saint John of the Cross [...] can also situate [themselves] on the side of the not-whole [...]. They get the idea or sense that there nmst be a jouissance that is beyond. They are the ones we call mystics. It's like for Santa Teresa--you need to go to Rome and see that statue by Bernini to immediately understand that she's coming.' (21) For Lacan, then, there is a certain sexual contact with God to which the mystic and the woman are privileged: 'it is insofar as her jouissance is radically Other that woman has more of a relationship to God than anything that could have been said in speculation in antiquity following the pathway of that which is manifestly articulated only as the good of man'. (22) This late work by Lacan demonstrates an attempt to link feminine sexuality--the extra, non-phallic jouissance of the woman--to contact with God. What is interesting, above and beyond Lacan's esoteric specul(um)ations, is that Perlongher, although not through direct reference, is reflecting a move in French thought that reappraised the mystics. Santa Teresa's insistence on the inseparability of pleasure and pain in the mystical experience, placed in the mould of French psychoanalysis, offers a formulation close to the masochistic mysticism above, whereby, despite its potentially lethal effects, suffering becomes potentially divine. However, this masochistic mysticism, as we shall see, is fundamentally linked to the imminence of death.
Perlongher's masochistic aesthetic, however, also appears in his earlier poems. An examination of 'Herida pierna', from Austria-Hungria (1980), can help trace connections between the two mystical stages, and also allow us to consider further whether Perlongher's mystical poetry presents as dramatic a change as the commentators above might lead us to suspect:
Coser los bordes de la herida? debo? puedo? es debido? he podido? suturarla doliente ya, doliendome rastreramente husmeando como un perro oh senor a sus pies oh senor con esa pierna atada amputada anestesiada doblada pierna [...] O estoy? ando? metiendo los estiletes en el muslo para que arda para que mane haciendole volcar lechoso polvo en la enramada ampliandola estirandola [...] No me hagas caso, Morenito, no la hagas asi, tan prominente y espantosa la heridalo que hiende la penetracion del verdugo durante el acto del suplicio durante la hora del dolordel calor de la sofocacionde los gemidos impotente como potente bajo esa masa de tejidos arbitrarios como bandidos asaetados por los chirridos Quiero pues? deseo, pues? despues? [...] Debo chupar? mamar? de ese otro seno herido desangrado con la pierna cortada con la daga en la nalga ah caminar asi, rauda cual rafaga montanas de basura magicas y luminosas ser lucida? ahora, hoy? tumbada cual yegua borracha cual chancha echada cual vaca animal animal No me hagas caso, Morenito: ve y dile la verdad a tus padres. (Poemas, p. 47)
The poem creates a relationship of guilt and humiliation between the narrator voice and other subjects, e.g. the 'verdugo', a torturer or executioner, and family members. The narrator voice is placed repeatedly in subordinate positions, as various animals and a naughty child, and is the object of violence, being cut, bled, and suffocated. This relationship is highlighted as one of impotence to potency. The position is also characterized by dirt and sordidness, e.g. the 'polvo' and 'basura'. Alongside this violence and ritualistic humiliation, we read surprisingly esoteric vocabulary, e.g. the 'montanas de basuras magicas y luminosas'. This magical, luminous material stands in keen contrast to the dirty subservience that dominates the poem.
This aesthetic is also found in the work of Jean Genet. In many of his works Genet proposes a form of mystic humiliation, generally related to homosexuality and transvestism. In the novel Out Lady of the Flowers, (23) Genet writes:
Divine [a transvestite] died holy and murdered--by consumption. (p. 51) [Darling] walked down the Rue Dancourt, drunk with the hidden splendour (as of a treasure) of his abjection [...] (p. 70)
His life is an underground heaven thronged with barmen, pimps, queers, ladies of the night, and Queens of Spades, his life is a heaven. (p. 73)
Slowly but surely I want to strip [Divine] of every vestige of happiness so as to make a saint of her. (p. 82)
Genet's technique, like Perlongher's, is to ally the low, dirty, and humiliated with the mystical, so that the underworld becomes an ascent to the divine. In Perlongher's poem the flashes of light within the scenes of abjection and humiliation are a glimpse of an unspecified divine. Both works, however, while remarkable in their courting of the marginal and abused, do not necessarily offer a radical challenge to the structures of domination--be they sexual or economic--that frame such positions. While Perlongher reveals the sordid attraction of humiliation, there is a strong suggestion that this aesthetic may accept the structures whereby such humiliation is imposed rather than sought. In the wider context, while the adoption by members of the gay-rights movement of terms such as 'faggot' and 'dyke' as afliirmative has the powerful effect of rendering harmless a term of abuse, it does not challenge the dominant social order's ability to invent and impose such stigmatizing language. As Bersani suggests, 'resignification cannot destroy'. (24) He offers a critique of the aesthetic of mystical humiliation through S/M found in authors such as Genet:
Masochistic jouissance is hardly a political corrective to the sadistic use of power, although the self-shattering I believe to be inherent in that jouissance, although it is the result of surrender to the master, also makes the subject unfindable as an object of discipline. Psychoanalysis challenges us to image [sic] a nonsuicidal disappearance of the subject--or, in other terms, to dissociate masochism from the death drive. (25)
Problematically, then, Perlongher's mystical masochism does not challenge structures of violence and power, but in fact willingly subscribes to and replicates them for the purposes of sexual pleasure. This movement, while subversive at a surface level, suffers the key problem of being ultimately complicit with death.
On the evidence of these intertextual references I would argue that Perlongher's 'mystical turn' is by no means as sudden as many commentators attempt to suggest, and that the physical intensity of Perlongher's earlier work, although abounding in references to the sordid and painful, still contains an aesthetic whereby humiliation and suffering are, perhaps problematically, perceived as having divine qualities.
In Aguas aereas there is another aesthetic that does differ from Perlongher's earlier work. After Poem XIX, where the ceremonies and visions reach their ascetic and ascendant conclusion with the vision of a god (Poemas, p. 273), Poem XX marks a change by creating an Amazonian environment where a journey is undertaken inland into the rainforest:
Zambullen la ondulacion chispas de espumas suave, verde claro, en reflejos de magma vegetal que a la madera de la proa astillan, al hacer restallar en el derretimiento de la luz. Ruido de espumas y olor de aguas mareosas en el deslizamiento (todo se vuelve lento) por el Purus y las madejas en remolinos entroncadas que hacen de galerla a la hirsuta piragua [...] (Poemas, p. 274)
The poem describes a journey through the Amazon rainforest, 'por el Purus', one of its rivers. Despite the absence of drug-related details--cups or purges, for example--there still operates in this poem the same process of breaking up monads that occurs in the ceremony poems. Lights and watery reflections dominate the poem, while non-reflecting surfaces begin to reflect ('incrustacion del palo') through the play of light on water, and light takes on the quality of water ('derretimiento de la luz'). The poem therefore reveals a new sensitivity of the ayahuasca user to synaesthesia.
The poem's Amazon journey also proposes a change in aesthetic compared with earlier poems, as in Parque Lezama, or Perlongher's urban anthropology in his thesis O negocio do miche. Whereas the work carried out in O negocio do miche might be described as a drift--around the streets--and a movement down--in terms of income, class, legal position, and physically onto the street, down into nightclub basements or public toilets--into the city, Perlongher's movement here is also a drift, in the kayak on the river's current, but one that is characterized as up, towards the light and the divine, back to origins, away from the city, and towards a periphery, less in terms of class or social position than of the physical isolation of the religion's headquarters, away from the coast and the southern cities that dominate Brazil politically and economically.
Poem XXI continues this Amazonian journey:
EL JUEGO DEL CLAROSCURO en la echada hojarasca, como un calco, estampaba de ramilletes puntillistas la oscilacion de los andariveles. Habia el peligro de la gran serpiente fluvial, la amenaza sombria de la raya, la sonrisa desconfiada de los yacares y la raida sombra de una tortuga al sumergirse entre las estelas alborotadas. Todo tan leve y al mismo tiempo tan caliente, tan exhausto. Nos doblega con su inmensidad el cielo como un tapado celeste inspirado en Femirama. Una sutil femineidad cincela con delicadeza los cuerpos trabajados (a tachas) de los que reman y sus gestos agiles como panteras en el marihuanal. No es facil abstraerse en lo celeste cuando estas superficies bronceadas nos deslumbran con su acento de canto. Sin embargo, se tiende a lo sublime, sublime resplandor. (Poemas, p. 275)
Despite the sexual abstinence of members of Santo Daime, the poem describes strong sexual attraction towards co-religionaries, described as 'superficies bronceadas'. The same connections of desire between parts of bodies exist as in earlier poems. What is more important is that the bodies of these rowers are engaged in becoming-woman--'una sutil femineidad cincela con delicadeza los cuerpos'. There is a play between the hardness of the bodies and the subtlety, as attention to the blurring of differences, of femininity. As Guattari observed, 'If a man breaks away from the phallic rat race inherent in all power formations, he will become involved in various possible ways in this sort of feminine becoming. Only then can he go on to become animal, cosmos, words, colour, nmsic.' (26) For Perlongher Guattari's suggestion that the becoming-woman is the first step in escaping phallocentrism, and with it the stratifications of normative capitalism and heterosexuality, provides a guiding trope for his assessment of the revolutionary possibilities that he detects in the religion.
I would suggest that in this poem Perlongher approaches the type of nonsexual sexual relation that Bersani detects in the work of Andre Gide. Bersani talks of 'nonrelational pederasty', whereby the necessity of a relation is eliminated from sex. (27) Unlike the shattering of the ego in S/M, which Bersani suggests is complicit with death, or the sedentary couple, easily recoverable by the state, this non-relational relation is neither easily stratified nor potentially fatal. The sexually charged description of the becoming-woman of the rowers echoes the sexually charged description of the miche in Parque Lezama and O negocio do miche. Prostitution, and the nomadic wandering and anonymous sexual liaisons that accompany it, and the Santo Daime religion, offer the same possibilities for escaping the individual through desiring-connections. However, while the former is both dangerous, through AIDS and frequent outbreaks of violence (Prosa, pp. 35-40), (28) and increasingly accepted within the market place and thus tamed of the possibilities for unleashing becomings that challenge the dominant social order, the latter, organized through the structure of a religion, and still ignored if not marginalized by the state in Brazil, represents a more feasible alternative, distanced from the market, yet relatively safe.
The same aesthetic is also found in several poems in El chorreo. The title of 'Albaniles Desnudos (I)' is drawn from a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theme in painting used as a means for portraying the male nude; previously in Western painting only the female nude was considered worthy of the artist's attention:
Con temple atisbo desde la ilusion de los tules biceps lardos lerdez de movimientos en el aire desnudo tachonado de cuerpos que se tasan a la luz esplendida del cuelgue de las cuerdas tonsado el halito frio de la brisa vespertina agitando calzones desde lo alto de si, donde se arroja. Cata la turmalina rociada trepidez de polvos que se echan al vacio desde arriba de un mueble: cuece andamios la costa inefable su jalde borroneo, en balde la cosquilla de la roca en la nube. Vecina a las inspiraciones abre los brazos socorriendo la distraccion de la pupila en las hamacas paraguayas. Tizne del morenillo y el resbalar oleoso de los huevos. Los huecos en la cima, el portland los rellena con su balde irguiendo toscamente las arenas del sueno en el serrallo. Hay una confusion de abedules erectos, la contorsion, la distorsion arquean arqueros apostados en las almenas liminares cuyo salto doblega al malandrin en el torneo deseante. Y humeda flecha moja la entretela sudada. (Poemas, p. 301) (29)
The poem exhibits a play between metaphorical base (it is a poem that could be described as being about sexual relationships with proletariat men) and a drift away from that base; here the effect is achieved through long commaless enumerations (lines 1-5), an accumulation of nouns ('la turmalina rociada trepidez | de polvos'), and the inflation of clauses through conjunctions and prepositions ('abre los brazos socorriendo | la distraccion de la pupila en las hamacas paraguayas').
The poem's language juxtaposes two quite distinct fields: the mercantile body at work ('albaniles', 'biceps', 'calzones', 'polvos', 'mueble', 'portland', 'arenas') and the classical in register and theme ('temple', 'ilusion', 'tonsado', 'vespertina', 'serrallo', 'arquero', 'almenas', 'malandrln', 'torneo', 'flecha'). The mercantile elements are dealt with in Perlongher's thesis: for example, 'cuerpos que se tasan a la luz esplendida del cuelgue' recalls 'la conversion de las intensidades libidinales en signos monetarios'. (30) There is in parallel in the poem a 'sintaxis de la piel' and a 'gramatica de los cuerpos' that connect the body to exchange value.
The poem's ending thus defies a unified reading; it has elements that can be read as sexual metaphors or as a barroco castle scene ('abedules erectos', 'humeda flecha'). The last line offers several possible readings; intriguingly, its two elements offer literal readings, each of which calls for a metaphorical reading of the other. Therefore
humeda flecha [arrow] moja la entretela [i.e. bloodies the guts]
humeda flecha [i.e. ejaculation] moja la entretela [wets the lining, where 'entretela' is a synonym of 'forro', and therefore condom].
An irresolvable tension is thereby created between two possible readings, just as the 'arqueros' are stationed on 'ahnenas liminares': that which is supposed to divide in what Perlongher called the 'sistema significante despotico' (Prosa, p. 96) (31) is instead placed in an unstable, liminal and dynamic shuttle. Importantly, this shuttle is between sex and death, pleasure and pain. Again this returns us to the mystical experience, aided by the effect of distancing the subject matter, e.g. the 'ilusion' and 'sueno', together with vision: 'atisbo', 'pupila'. It is this physical distance from the sexual act itself that changes the tone of the poem. Perlongher described the anthropological immersion of his research and the poems in Parque Lezama that dealt with prostitution as a form of participative observation. (32) Here we have a nostalgic and physical distance in the consideration of potential sexual partners.
This distance, framed by Perlongher's own isolation through sickness--he was bedridden while writing many of the poems in El chorreo--is commented upon by Leo Bersani. Bersani argues that writers such as Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, and Genet, although by no means gay-affirmative, can offer a radical challenge to homophobia and the society in which it predominates through their attacks on conventional relations between persons, in particular through their desexualization of the erotic, or, in other words, through their ability to complicate received social classifications and expand the possibilities of pleasure beyond genital sexual contact. In the case of Gide's novel L'Immoraliste (1902), Bersani detects what he calls 'a nonsuicidal disappearance of the subject'. (33) To explain this, one might call on Perlongher's earlier poems and anthropology. If the behaviour of the client seeking the dissolution of his ego in the exchange with the miche is potentially masochistic, it is also suicidal with inherent risks of violence. With the appearance of AIDS, sex becomes very visibly unsafe. So in comparison with the development of the mystical masochism we detected in Perlongher's poems that interacted with the work of Genet et al., these late, distanced poems offer a different aesthetic. As Bersani suggests, the strange relationship that Gide's protagonist undertakes in observing beautiful Arab boys without ever engaging in sexual intercourse is a form of 'nonrelational pederasty'. This 'eliminates from "sex" the necessity of any relation whatsoever'. (34) For Bersani, this circumventing of the couple or interpersonal relationship, also in Genet's Funeral Rites, (35) offers a new possibility, that of 'turning away from the entire theater of good', (36) and of 'declining to participate in any sociality at all'. (37) Despite the seemingly nihilistic connotations, this turning away from the relational relation, the community and the intimately conjoined couple, has a radical potential: bodies project 'out of themselves, out of any absorption in each other'. (38) What is important for our reading of Perlongher's work here is that the combination of a sexually distanced sexuality and the overriding mystical background allows Perlongher to formulate in these last poems possibilities for anti-social socialization that move beyond his sexual aesthetics in purpose and dynamic, while maintaining the sexual vocabulary and tone.
This turning away is taken a step further in the most mystical poems of Perlongher's last two collections, specifically those which demonstrate a mystical purpose. After a series of poems in verse that describe the Daime ceremony and visions, the sixth poem of Aguas aereas reverts to the prose form used in many of the poems of Parque Lezama:
Acrilico (Acre Lirico) * mas que esplendor volumen tornaluz luz fria acuatica su raye (interseccion de elitros, choque o ballet de vagalumes, niagara) de guante calza el espesor glaseando el manati de una cuticula de nubes, cutis niveo, glostora de nivea, en la ampulosidad del ademan glorioso disponiase el zarpe de la raya, cuadriculado en vertigo, craquele, sin dejar de ser ruina, pegoteado de babas, la rebaba de nacar estirada en el borde de su vaina de vals, rispido enroque que trastoca los estremecimientos en connubios, leves, alados, casi voiles, manaties sirena, bosques rio, pues el milagro de su sobresalto, al cascar, en granadas, los aretes de esparto, les despertaba napas de titilante finade, vaclo, vagabundo, su tersura de plumas en el cauce azaroso, no nada sino que se deja llevar, ser arrastrado, en el remolineo de las helices por el torrente pantanoso, escfindalo de espumas la ola orln, agua de porcelana en el chorro de joyas, un portland numinoso al recubrir da vuelta al pulpo como un guante, perla que se revela en goma o nace caucho, dolido por el acre o el aclbar, en lenguas marejadas de un-unguento encantado. * Caetano Veloso. (Poemas, p. 256)
Two fields of language are at play here. The first is that of the purge, the ceremony, and the visions; hence 'acre lirico' offers the bitterness of vomit and the lyrical ordering of a hymn. We also have 'acibar', aloes, a bitter herb with purgative effects, together with lights and illuminations ('tornaluz', 'luz', 'vagalume', Portuguese for glow-worm). The second is distinctly sexual, particular those elements that imply sheathing and ejaculation:
su raye [...] de guante calza el espesor glaseando el manatl pegoteado de babas la rebaba de nacar estirada en el borde de su vaina agua de porcelana en el chorro de joyas da vuelta al pulpo como un guante perla que se revela en goma o nace caucho.
These are given a focus by the central cultismo 'connubios', a marriage couple. One must be careful, though, not to say that Perlongher is writing here about penises, condoms, and ejaculation. While 'manati' and 'guante' may be very close to the type of slang used to describe sexual practices in many earlier poems, as described above, they are not simply metaphors for the initiated. This is revealed by the appearance of the 'finade'--which might be interpreted as 'ano'--alongside 'su tersura de plumas en el cauce azaroso': too much duck to be just an anus. The difference between this work and earlier poems is that elements that might have been interpreted sexually are stripped of any street context. Thus while words such as 'finade', previously sexually suggestive, appear in these poems, they are orientated in a different direction. This new direction is indicated by two other sets of vocabulary in the poem. The first is related to flight: 'elitros', 'vagalumes', 'vertigo', 'leves', 'alados'. The second, with which there is some crossover, is light. Therefore I would argue that while the poetics and aesthetics of Aguas aereas XI are not radically different from those displayed before, still concentrating on the movement of a middle-class educated figure into a predominantly working-class environment characterized by drugs, dirt, and intense physical sensations, the key difference is that whereas in the earlier poems the movement within this territory had been traced down--into the darkness, towards the genitals, or in the mud--now, while the dirt and lowness may still be present, the poem is tracing a journey up and the poet is facing in the opposite direction, turned towards the divine.
Similarly, in El Chorreo, Perlongher outlines another divine telos. 'Luz oscura' has for a title an oxymoron drawn from the mystical experience and an epigraph from Santa Teresa ('recio martirio sabroso'), with its play between pain and pleasure:
Si atrevesada por la zarza el pecho arder a lo que ya encendido ardia hace, el dolor en goce transfigura, fria la carne mas el alma ardida, en el blanco del ojo el ojo frio cual nieve en valle torrido: el deseo divino se echa sobre lanzas igneas y muerde el ojo en blanco el labio henchido. Funambulesca beatitud la suya, de claroscuros, que al soltar el pliegue de luz inunda el esplendor febeo. 'No es resplandor que nos deslumbra, sino una blancura suave y el resplandor difuso que alto deleite da a la vista y no la cansa, ni la claridad que se ve para ver esta hermosura tan divina'. (Poemas, p. 304 (italic original))
The opening line recalls a rapture recounted by Santa Teresa:
Velale [Jesus] en las manos un dardo de oro largo, y al fin del hierro me parecla tener un poco de fuego; este me parecia meter en el corazon algunas veces y que me llegaba a las entranas; al sacarle, me parecia que las llevaba consigo y me dejaba toda abrasada en amor grande de Dios. (39)
The image is of opening oneself up to pain so as to achieve divine ends, thus lending corporeal sensations a purpose other than the search for intensity. We have discussed the problems that Bersani attributes to the supposedly death-complicit nature of these aesthetics. However, Perlongher's poem is now informed by a new purpose, and unlike the mystical poems of distanced relations, exhibits a different teleological aesthetic; this is reinforced by the final verse, a quote from Santa Teresa that exceeds the confines of the sonnet form in rhyme, line length, and metre. Teresa's quote deals with the overwhelming brightness of the mystical experience. Teresa Bielecki, a Carmelite follower of Santa Teresa, observes:
Sex is disguised mysticism [...]. Eroticism, a preoccupation with genitality, is a deflection of real energy and the end of any mystical possibility [...]. Sex is a need, Eros is a desire [...]. Eros is the longing to enjoy such deep and wide-ranged dimensions of relatedness--all originating from a critical center and tending towards an ultimate end. (40)
This approach to desire offers a radical alternative to Deleuze and Guattari's view of it as flow, connection, and flight, the view that dominated Perlongher's earlier works; Bielecki's mystical desire is a movement out of the body, but it is logocentric and teleological. Nevertheless, Bielecki characterizes this experience as a radical attack on binary systems:
In Hebrew there are no separate words for 'body' or 'soul' [...]. Only in the mystical experience is the dilemma of duality resolved. For to the mystic is given the unifying vision of the One in the All and the All in the One [...]. Santa Teresa, the grand wild woman of Avila, teaches us to live life in its total polarity: agony and ecstasy, warring and wedding, madness and reason, masculine and feminine, action and contemplation, discipline and wildness, fast and feast [...]. Life is not either-or but both-and. (41)
However, rather than replace the binary with the multiplicitous or the rhizomatic, the new term is Oneness: a movement from Henri Bergson to Zeno. Two aspects of Perlongher's poem suggest this change in perspective: the overwhelming light in the poem ('luz', 'esplendor') and a qualifier for desire, delayed over a line-end by enjambment for emphasis: 'deseo | divino'. As Bersani observes, S/M practitioners often speak about pain in terms of 'cosmic ecstasy'. (42) Perlongher's extension of this is to inscribe pain totally within the framework of religious teleology.
The poem 'Alabanza y exaltacion del Padre Mario', from El chorreo, takes the form of a long prayer with refrains and imprecations for the divine and priestly figure of the title. Much of the poem stands in radical contrast to Perlongher's earlier poetics, particularly with regard to light and darkness. Perlongher can also be seen dealing with the contradictions and paradoxes thrown up by a meeting between experimental poetics and teleological religious systems. This occurs particularly with Perlongher's treatment of the up/down binary. Whereas in previous works Perlongher has moved down (to the anus, the penis, the petticoats, or the sewer), here a change occurs:
Oh Padre Curenos la salud y las escoriaciones del alma y los pozos del trauma y las heridas que hilan en el fondo de si de cada cual las babas de la sierpe y nos enriedan la cabeza enrulada hasta hacernos perder toda razon y arrastrarnos enloquecidamente con el absurdo sueno de salir por abajo bajando descendiendo sin ver que la iluminacion viene de arriba como un sol que fijo sobre los ventanales de voile atravesandolos de luz divina luz de la que irradian sus ojos claros ojos abriendo una vereda de fulgor en la tiniebla floreciendola. (Poemas, p. 332)
Perlongher's becoming-mystic is posited on two very new premisses: up is good and down is bad; there is centre to the universe, a source of all light and therefore all goodness. This again offers a marked change to his earliest poems. There is, furthermore, another key difference. Perlongher suggests a new element for his poetics: the notion of curing. We have seen in Aguas aereas that Perlongher cultivated an aesthetic of extreme physical sensations, while most of the poems in El chorreo can be divided between those that suggest an anti-social sociability and those that suggest a form of mystical masochism that seems to see death as inevitable. This poem differs in that the poem seeks a cure. One can relate this to Perlongher's late fascination with popular faith healing, an interest not revealed in his writing outside this poem. However, as Perlongher's lifelong friend Sara Torres points out, after his fascination with Santo Daime ended, 'vino su fascinacion con el Padre Mario, un cura sanador [...] de Gonzalez Catan [a suburb of Buenos Aires], donde iba en peregrinacion cuando ya habian comenzado los sintomas de la enfermedad'. (43)
The aesthetic of curing offers a contrast to Perlongher's early reaction to AIDS. The essay 'Disciplinar os poros e as paixges' (1985) (44) and his book O que e AIDS (1987) both attacked medical and judicial discourses that promoted safe sex as a means of preventing the spread of HIV; however, in later interviews Perlongher seemed to recant his early, combative stance:
La expansion de la enfermedad fue mucho mas grave de lo que 7 u 8 anos atras uno se podia imaginar. Ahora es un momento para auxiliar a los enfermos y en el que la cuestion de la muerte nos obliga a repensar el tema del hedonismo individual occidental. En un primer momento mi reaccion fue decir: 'resistamos'. Ahora me doy cuenta de que en muchos aspectos me equivoque. Y en relacion con la enfermedad, le tengo temor y respecto, la tengo en cuenta. (45)
The change that Perlongher highlights is that AIDS moved from distant menace to real threat, and with it death became a far more immediate threat. Bersani criticizes the 'death-complicit' aesthetic of many gay theorists. (46) However, the question Perlongher's work raises is how one avoids being death-complicit when death is brought into the closest possible focus and visibility by terminal illness. Perlongher's last poems approach the near impossibility of answering this question without recourse to metaphysics or mysticism.
In Perlongher's final collections, then, we can detect three key aesthetics: firstly, the masochistic aesthetic of mystical suffering; secondly, the non-relational relation that questions conventional notions of sociability; and, thirdly, poems turned completely towards the divine that react to imminent death. His mystic poems are related to the end of possibilities presented by sex and prostitution, but still show the strong influence of the sexual and kitsch aesthetics that he developed in his earlier poems.
(1) J. J. Sebreli, 'La historia secreta de los homosexuales en Buenos Aires', in Escritos sobre escritos, ciudades bajo ciudades (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1997), pp. 275-370 (p. 370).
(2) N. Perlongher, O negocio de miche: prostituicao viril em Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987), p. 231.
(3) Sebreli, 'Historia', p. 364.
(4) Perlongher, Prosa plebeya (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 1997), pp. 85-90, first published as 'La desaparicion de la homosexualidad', in El porteno (Buenos Aires), 119 (Nov. 1991), 12-15. In future references Prosa plebeya will be abbreviated to Prosa.
(5) O. Baigorria. 'La Rosa Mistica de Luxemburgo', in Lampenes peregrinaciones, ed. by A. Cangi and P. Siganevich (Rosario de Santa Fe: Beatriz Viterbo, 1996), pp. 175-81 (p. 178).
(6) N. Perlongher, Austria-Hungria (BuenosAires: Tierra Baldia, 1980); Alambres (Buenos Aires: Ultimo Reino, 1987); Hule (Buenos Aires: Ultimo Reino, 1989); Parque Lezama (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1990) (for convenience I refer to the edition Poemas completos (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1997), abbreviated below as Poemas); O que e AIDS (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987).
(7) First published as 'Vicissitudes do miche', in Temas IMENC, 4 (1987). Information on this publication and on other first editions of Perlongher's poetry has been obtained from the edition of Cangi and Siganevich.
(8) (Buenos Aires: Ultimo Reino, 1991). For convenience, I refer to the republicationin Poemas.
(9) XUL, 2 (1981), p. 27.
(10) L. Bersani, Homos (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 94.
(11) Bersani, p. 96.
(12) First published as 'Poesia y extasis' in La letra A, 3 (1991).
(13) Published as a collection of four poems (Caracas: Pequena Venecia, 1992), and later as a collection of thirty-one poems in Poemas.
(14) F. Rapisardi and A. Modarelli, Fiestas, banos y exilios: los gays portenos en la ziltima dictadura (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2001), p. 200.
(15) First published as 'La force de la forme: notes sur la religion du Santo Daime', in Societes, 29 (1990).
(16) First published in Alambres.
(17) e.g.F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans, by S. Whiteside (London: Penguin, 1993).
(18) J. Marti, Diccionario delpensamiento de Santa Teresa de Jesus (Valencia: Edicep, 1981), p. 395.
(19) Santa Teresa de Jesus, Obras de Santa Teresa de Jesus, ed. by P. Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, 9 vols (Burgos: El Monte Carmelo, 1915), 1, 148.
(20) J. Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan. On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Book XX. Encore 1972-73, ed. by J.-A. Miller, trans, by B. Fink (London: Vintage, 1998), PP. 73-74.
(21) Lacan, p. 76.
(22) Lacan, p. 83.
(23) Trans. by B. Frechtman (London: Paladin, 1988).
(24) Bersani, p. 51.
(25) Bersani, p. 99 (italic original).
(26) F. Guattari, Molecular Revolution (1977), trans, by R. Sheed (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 228.
(27) Bersani, pp. 122-23.
(28) First published as 'Matan a una marica' in Fin de siglo, 16 (1988).
(29) First published in Diario de poesia, 22 (1992).
(30) N. Perlongher, La prostitucion masculina (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Urraca, 1993), p. 108.
(31) First published as the prologue to Caribe Transplatino (Sao Paulo: Illuminaras, 1991).
(32) M. Eckard and E. Bernini, 'Nestor Perlongher: el negocio del deseo', ESPACIOS de Critica y produccion, 10 (1991), 82-86.
(33) Bersani, p. 99, quoted more fully above at n. 26.
(34) Bersani, pp. 122-23 (italic original).
(35) Trans. by B. Frechtman (London: Faber & Faber, 1973).
(36) Bersani, p. 163.
(37) Bersani, p. 168.
(38) Bersani, p. 165.
(39) Marti, p. 393.
(40) T. Bielecki, Holy Daring: Mn Outrageous Gift to Modern Spirituality from Santa Teresa the Grand Wild Woman of Avila (Shaftesbury: Element, 1994), p. 48.
(41) Bielecki, pp. 99, 115.
(42) Bersani, p. 93.
(43) Rapisardi and Modarelli, p. 198.
(44) Lua nova, 2.3 (1985), 35-37.
(45) C. Ulanovsky, 'El SIDA puso en crisis la identidad homosexual', Pagina 12, 19 September 1990, p. 11 (interview with Perlongher).
(46) Bersani, p. 97.
This article was written while the author was in receipt of an AHRB grant for study towards a Ph.D. at King's College, University of London.
KING'S COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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