“You don’t know if you’re creating a monster.” On Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Phantoms of Nabua, Camille Roy, Jacques Derrida, xenia, domestication and writing, being possessed.

I am someone who has long been a host or playmate for monsters and ghosts. My maternal grandmother had to spread chicken blood around my house as an offering to the ghosts who were befriending me and thereby killing me. These friendships were thought to be the source of my early (and enduring) frailty and sickness.

(And not, for example, the great quantity of immunosuppressive and antibiotic drugs of which I had regularly been the recipient. But this essay is not about the trials of children of medical professionals, of which there are many, all with varying levels of hilarity and cutting.)

The idea of “Being friends with ghosts diminishes your health” is similar to: “Whom the gods love, die young.”

Camille Roy, “Monstrous”: “For me writing grinds itself into what’s familiar yet unbearable.”

Here I was going to write that, at least for me, writing must also (must instead?) grind into, be grinded by, that which is both unfamiliar and unbearable—but then I read that apparently “familiar” also means a kind of low-level demon or monster, kept as a witch’s assistant or attendant.

The familiar survives by sucking blood from the witch’s fingers, or any other raised bits of skin: scars, warts. (Nipples? Clitoris?) During a witch trial, you have to check for these scars.

I had my unbearable familiars, yes. Many things were eating my blood. I would not have passed this test.

 

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(Should have known that what is conceived of as the familiar is always already a foreigner tentatively permitted; a parasite, a grotesque thing and the space for its body.)

 

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Jacques Derrida, “Passages: From Traumatism to Promise,” trans. Peggy Kamuf: “But the notion of the monster is rather difficult to deal with, to get a hold on, to stabilize. A monster may be obviously a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. This in fact happens in certain kinds of writing. At that moment, monstrosity may reveal or make one aware of what normality is. faced with a monster, one may become aware of what the norm is and when this norm has a history—which is the case with discursive norms, philosophical norms, socio-cultural norms, they have a history—any appearance of monstrosity in this domain allows an analysis of the history of the norms. But to do that, one must conduct not only a theoretical analysis; one must produce what in fact looks like a discursive monster so that the analysis will be a practical effect, so that people will be forced to become aware of the history of normality. But a monster is not just that, it is not just this chimerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive, let us not forget. Monsters are living beings. The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely, the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself [elle se montre]—that is what the word monster means—it shows itself in something that is not yet shown and that therefore looks like a hallucination, it strikes the eye, it frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure. One cannot say that things of this type happen here or there.”

 

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Does monster, monstre, really mean to show, montrer? I think it must also work the other way around. To show means a monster. It is the showing that is monstrous, not the monster that shows itself. Writing advice: “show, don’t tell.” Show or tell, show and tell. Both are ways of dealing with what exceeds both showing and telling.

 

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Derrida: “But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins, because of the “as such”—it is a monster as monster—to compare it to the norms, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. And the movement of accustomizing oneself, but also of legitimation and consequently, of normalization has already begun. However monstrous events or texts may be, from the moment they enter into culture, the movement of acculturation, precisely, of domestication, of normalization has already begun. One begins to repeat the traumatism that is the perception of the monster.”

 

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Story of domestication: I do remember the ghosts. (Ghost-monsters?) My younger brother saw them, too. We could not get him to sleep at night. He would sob and point. We went to the place he pointed. He would begin to sob again, point again. The ghost would have moved, back to where we had begun. So cheeky! My younger brother’s ghosts were almost always miserable and mean-spirited; mine were over-solemn and monopolizing. (Making our monsters cute.)

I realize now that one of them was a tiger, like in Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. I did not realize it then. “Unprepared to identify this figure.” In any case, it never devoured me. Not yet, I guess. I have not surrendered. To other things, however: yes.

Roy: “As a narrative writer I improvise recognition. It’s like a location from which mutant beings emerge. This feels true, in life they never stop emerging. Look—they even swarm through this text. I allow it because I’m terrified and seduced. To encounter them via narrative is to formalize a moment of surrender.”

Why did they only visit the two of us? I read somewhere that the American children of immigrants are often sicker than their parents (though the parents get sick too, eventually, like everyone else)—difference in diet, lifestyle, etc. Because we were allografts. We were experimental. The new Americans. We were porous.

Roy: “Disjunction is the formal consequence of this ripping and tearing, and it’s packed with information, almost to the point of being insensible.”

For us, information = ghosts, monsters. We were packed. Ripped and torn, then packed with the things that eventually make: writers. Or made one, anyway.

Secretly, I continued to make entreaties to the ghost-monsters, even when they had supposedly left us. (And my brother, who is now eighteen, did the same, I think.) I remember saying or thinking something like: If you need a place to stay. We didn’t relate to them, or even like them, really. Just radical openness. Hospitality being foremost in our relationship, or any. Xenia.

Now that our father’s dead, we do the same for him. He does come around. At some point he was around so often that even my partner started seeing him everywhere, too. “He’s in a white suit, right.” “Yeah, he wore those a lot when he was younger.” “And he’s always smoking.” “Surprise, surprise.”

(What’s sublime in xenia is, you know how it should turn out, but you don’t know how it will turn out—or if you even want it to turn out that way. “The way it should turn out,” which is to say, seamless social interaction: NO TRAGEDY. But sometimes you have to be a bad guest, a bad host. Like Tantalus, sometimes you want to please your guests so much you boil up your son and feed the pieces to them. Or like Paris, you have to run away with the girl. The entire Trojan War is fought because someone was a bad guest. The bad guest is a revolutionary figure; but this is not that essay, either.)

Roy: “Narrative provides context so that the rupturing of identity is recognizable. I think we are impossible beings. We ruthlessly evade scrutiny, yet recognition is the beginning of transformative emotion. It’s a feeding process. You don’t know if you’re creating a monster.”

 

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In Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the dying Boonmee’s dead wife and lost son return to him, on his longan farm (I remember it as a tamarind farm, but everything I’ve read called it a longan farm, so I’ll trust the world) where he is preparing to die, where he is having his kidney regularly drained (sounds like a sexual euphemism; it only slightly is) by Jaai, the illegal Laotian migrant who both cares for him, and is chief worker on his farm.

The dead wife materializes at the dinner table in an empty chair. The lost son walks up the stairs to the dining area, not being dead himself, but transformed into an ape-like creature, having mated with a monkey-ghost and moved further north.

The film already takes place in Nabua, a town in the northeast, on the border of Thailand and Laos, site of violent suppression of the Communist insurgency and its supposed sympathizers in 1965, then occupied by the Thai miliary from the 1960s to the 1980s, in continued efforts to destroy the insurgency. Boonmee says his kidney failure is a result of having killed too many Communists in his youth.

(Monsters have to move away. Was the son a tortured, then disappeared villager? Or did he run away to become a Communist?

Like my cousin [redacted], who had to be smuggled out of the Philippines, who now lives in [redacted], who had her phones tapped.

Bhanu Kapil, Incubation, a Space for Monsters: “A monster is always itinerant. She has a suitcase, not a shopping cart; is brown not pink.”)

In Weerasethakul’s short film, Phantoms of Nabua (embedded below), a group of young men plays soccer with a ball of fire. In the background, black and white projections of lightning or bombing on a large screen, on which we see the scene of a village being repeatedly struck by lightning. Is this what it is to remember things? How ghosts and monsters have to age, how to live in time, space. You’re a ball of fire that young men play soccer with. In the dark, the ball looks like a flaming missile. It’s dangerous and fun. Flaming missiles through history and into the heart. The lightning sounds like bombing. Making of the shellfire monster. Then the boys accidentally/not-accidentally set the screen on fire. The screen burns. Lesson: it’s hard to show and tell the monster. The space around it burns.

Derrida: “The absolute misfortune—and it is the misfortune of cinders—is that the witness disappears. Cinders is a destruction of memory, one in which the very sign of destruction is carried off… To name and to cause the name to disappear is not necessarily contradictory… This double bind to which we are always coming back renders impossible a determined or determinable decision concerning which is better: very often to inscribe the name is to efface the bearer of the name. In this meditation on writing, one must constantly try to make the absolute destruction reappear, which does not necessarily mean to save it or resuscitate it.”

Inside the burning frame that once held the screen, a blinking light. The projector. Still the sound of bombing, or thunder—a recording. But these things no longer have a screen to project onto, a scene to accompany. In one review of this film I read, it said that this meant there was nothing to project onto. No surface. Something about tenuous, transience, immateriality.

No. They project onto everything. The screen burns so that everything can become the screen. If you were watching this in a theater, it would be easier to see, and feel, how they project onto you.

People need to learn to realize when they’re being possessed.

 

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See Phantoms of Nabua here.

 

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The only monstrous part of Kanye West’s collaborative “Monster” is obviously Nicki Minaj’s verse. Everything else is grotesque, not monstrous.

“Now look at what you just saw / This is what you live for.”

 

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(Although Rick Ross’ line: “As you run through my jungle / all you hear is rumbles” is a pretty exact description of the soundtrack of Uncle Boonmee.)

 

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You can be a little afraid of the monster, that’s fine. But you have to give it something to eat. You have to be kind. Even though this often means entering into yet another semi-shitty dynamic of power in which you are the host and the monster the guest-pet (the familiar). Guest-friendship, ghost-friendship; guest-worker, ghost-worker. Boonmee’s sister-in-law, who lives in the city, says, after being asked to take care of Boonmee’s farm when he is dead: “How can you expect me to live here with all the ghosts and migrant workers?”

One way to get around these shitty dynamics is to be a weak host. Not empathize. But to let yourself be taken in, possessed, undermined. To submit. Boonmee’s sister-in-law, in her prejudice against migrants, her slight urban disdain for the countryside, often evinces an impatience with Boonmee’s attitude: with his easiness, his naïveté, his weird-tasting Chinese folk remedy tea (“Why is it so bitter?” she asks; “You’ll get used to it,” he answers), his lack of defenses. Out in the farm with his workers, Boonmee points out one who speaks (good French and mentions that through him he has managed to learn some French, too. Boonmee says, badly, Vous allez travailler maintenant. It’s an order from a boss to his workers. But the words come out clumsily, all wrong. They’re barely words at all. Travailler in particular is impossible for him to say. The workers laugh at him, at his comic bumbling. He fails at saying the words of power.

(Though of course when his workers dismiss him, they’re still dismissing him to go back to work.)

The sister-in-law remarks, a raised eyebrow in her voice: “What an interesting farm you have.”

At the end of the film, in a cave where Boonmee says he was born in his very first life, Boonmee’s dead wife drains his kidney, as she has already done before, taking over Jaai’s work. It drains for a long time. Boonmee’s still-alive sister-in-law looks alarmed at how much is coming out, clearly wants to tell her dead sister to stop, that’s too much. The stream is heading towards Boonmee’s nephew, a few feet away. The nephew hesitates, gets ready to move his feet away the minute it gets too close, from this steady fluid pouring from the draining catheter.

(A catheter is something else you insert into your body. Like a parasite. A familiar. People used to use leeches.)

Boonmee does not argue with his wife’s ministrations. He is in someone else’s hands. A hole in his body for a migrant or a ghost. The next day he is dead.

 

*

 

Derrida: “Rather than writing monstrous texts, I think that I have, more than once, used the word monster to describe the situation I am now talking about. I think that somewhere in Of Grammatology I said, or perhaps it’s at the end of Writing and Difference, that the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which we are not prepared, you see, is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture. Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field, of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience. All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example, in philosophy or in poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, for a certain monstrosity.”

 

*

 

There’s another scene in Uncle Boonmee in which an aging princess wades into a lake beneath a waterfall, strips herself of all her finery and gold as an offering to a talking catfish, in exchange for beauty. As she wades deeper and deeper into the water, you’re kind of waiting for disaster: for her to get sucked in by some evil gross giant fish, some ogre that has used her silly vanity to trick her, then eat her.

Instead, the catfish then begins, vigorously, to make love to the princess (eats her out?).

Beauty’s nearness to the monster: sometimes the fish eats you.

 

*

 

Familiarity, domestication, entering into culture. For a long time I tried to resist all these things, in a move that was kindred to wildlife protection. But it turns out I don’t know writing all that well, despite having lived in it, and having had it live in me, for so long. I enter into a process of domestication; I house things in words; I hate it and feel I am destroying or flattening everything . And I am. It’s naïve to feel this way, and it is imperative that I hang on to certain kinds of naïveté, if not all. In order to still feel this cruelty, the cruelty that I am showing now, by not dying from the monster that loved me and still does; but, instead, writing about it. Showing and telling.

But you already know how this idiotic folktale goes: you think you’ve done it, you’ve set the trap, the monster-thing is now housed in whatever makeshift genius-cage you managed to fashion. And just as you’re beginning to feel a bit sheepish about your own triumph, the monster-thing reveals that super-extra power you didn’t know it had (the skill kept a secret, as a last resort) and saunters out of the cage. Or crushes it. Burns the screen.

Some processes of domestication are only able to produce a different kind of wildness. Monsters can make themselves. I don’t know what I’m doing when I write. Knowing has nothing to do with it. I’m going to be exceeded. I saw the tiger again in London, a year ago, in Hyde Park and then in a doctor’s office, when I was finally getting serious about not dying. Both times I recognized it. And was recognized. It was probably visiting someone else. It still hasn’t eaten me.

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11 thoughts on ““You don’t know if you’re creating a monster.” On Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Phantoms of Nabua, Camille Roy, Jacques Derrida, xenia, domestication and writing, being possessed.

  1. “Thanks” hardly seems like a fitting response to this, Elaine — as if I were to offer your monsters a few factory-made bon-bons, sold at a discount & antiseptically sealed — but thanks just the same. A thoughtful probing of regions beyond thought, where the creative impulse prowls.

    Here’s something — did you know Wm. Blake wrote his monster-meditation “Tyger, Tyger” after he was one of the lucky few to see a live tiger, a first in those days, exhibited in a London zoo?

    • Hi, John; thanks for your thanks! And although I myself am now mostly allergic to them, I still love a discount factory-made bon-bon, having more or less lived on them until the age of… er, well, too long. My blood is definitely part food coloring.

      I think I heard about that Blake story, though I haven’t read the poem in a while. Love that it overlaps with my London sighting. Maybe there’s something to London and tigers…


  2. Excellent taxonomy of the monster, and examination about how notions about the monster and hybridity are interwined, descriptions of the former complicating the latter, and vice versa.

    I found this quote from Derrida particularly pertinent and spot-on:
    “Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field, of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience. All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example, in philosophy or in poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, for a certain monstrosity.”

    I question, though (and I don’t think Derrida is saying this here, or you, for that matter), whether it’s inevitable—once their unfamiliar aspects and the discomfort they produce are negotiated, absorbed, or understood—for these anomalies and monstrosities to be de-monstered, as it were. I wonder if those same monsters can—while they are presumed assimilated and digested, and therefore completely broken apart—sometimes incubate within the host, hatching other monsters, thereby continuing to disrupt, like some ever-burrowing worm.

    • Thanks for the comments, John! I think Derrida is actually talking about the eventual and inevitable de-monstering of the monstrous; in the quote just before yours: “All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture.”

      I think what’s refreshing is that he doesn’t make the figure of the monstrous some figure of absolute and immutable alterity, but traces the process of this relationship. When we say “monster,” we’re already de-monstering: “to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. And the movement of accustomizing oneself, but also of legitimation and consequently, of normalization has already begun. However monstrous events or texts may be, from the moment they enter into culture, the movement of acculturation, precisely, of domestication, of normalization has already begun. One begins to repeat the traumatism that is the perception of the monster.”

      So the word monster becomes the trace of that initial trauma, already a scar. Writing as already de-monstering. What I appreciate is that he doesn’t say, monsters are so scary, look what they do to us. But: when we are met with monstrous, this is what we do to it. Always.

      Later in the interview, in a passage which I only incompletely quoted, he talks about the way in which the speaking of the name effaces the bearer; the way entering into language is already the beginning of a taming. He was talking specifically about witnessing, the figure of the victim, and what realm of experiences are unreadable; the victim (who cannot even identify as a victim) being annihilated by language, by history. A part I didn’t quote: “To meditate on writing, which is to say also on effacement—and the production of writing is also the production of a system of effacement, the trace is at once what inscribes and what effaces—is to meditate constantly on what renders unreadable or what is rendered unreadable. The unreadability arrives or happens, like the date, with the first inscription. But there is also the unreadability that stems from the violence of foreclosure, exclusion, all of history being a conflictual field of forces in which it is a matter of making unreadable, excluding, of positing by excluding, of imposing a dominant force by excluding, that is to say, not only by marginalizing, by setting aside the victims, but also by doing so in such a way that no trace remains of the victims, so that no one can testify to the fact that they were victims so that they cannot even testify it themselves.”

      Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua can come in here, I think… the impossibility of depicting the trauma that happened there from the 60s to the 80s, and the whole performance like a weird diorama, like the deconstructed remake of a war scene; which sounds sort of awful, digested and broken apart, like you said. (Maybe this is also a comment on the war film itself as genre?) But then, the way everything burns at the end, the way you feel as though the experience that was being creatively “recreated” exceeds its own recreation. And then the light of the projector and those disembodied sounds, just facing the spectator… a really powerful evocation of what can hold memory and what can’t; how volatile it is, to try to hold a trauma. Maybe you can only be held by it. Have to be laid open to it.

      (Speaking of laying open, and Japanese monster depictions, that catfish sex-scene really echoes The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.)

      What interests me is exactly the suggestion you’ve made, this idea that the process of domestication or taming is being constantly undone or undermined, how things can still exceed what makes the claim to house them. Writing as de-monstering, yes, but not a closure: it doesn’t have to end there. Hatching monsters, yes! That’s another fantastic way of thinking about how assimilation can be exceeded, I love that. I’m always obsessed with stuff like fungus and parasites and mold–now the worm!

      I’ll try to hunt through the Diagram site for that monster essay…

      I like this one: [img src= http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l8flkpfSvC1qc8i5v.jpg%5D

  3. Wow. This is fantastic. I have a fairly broad obsession with monsters, ghosts, and demons, and this was a nice lunchtime obsession-quencher for me today. Brilliantly done.

    (For what it’s worth, also, my brother and I were absolutely convinced our furniture was inhabited by the ghosts of dead monsters and that if we didn’t make little bargains with it every night, it would eat us up. I don’t know about him, but I still sometimes find myself doing a little magical thinking and silently telling my dresser I”ll polish it tomorrow if it won’t eat me tonight. Still domesticating the monsters, as you quote Derrida.)

    • Hi Amber; thanks! I like the idea of the dead monsters in furniture. I definitely still talk to ghosts when they show up. Though when they’re particularly frightening, I don’t know why, I think maybe someone in my family told me this–you’re supposed to laugh at them? Apparently that dissipates their power over you, or their will to eat you, or something. So I have spent a lot of time just maniacally laughing, especially during those middle-of-the-night bathroom trips!

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