The Rope Trick
David Crane

I have added this prefatory postmortem to my essay for two reasons. The first is to prepare the reader for what may seem to be an arbitrarily selected set of incompatible concerns: Houdini's magic, the destruction of Pompeii, Viennese actionism, and Gilles de Rais's child murders. I've ignored the usual trick of naturalizing the arbitrary with necessary scholarly organization. Still, my selections are not random. They're drawn together by the more abstract - and perhaps more inherently arbitrary - issues of truth, reality, performance, and psychosis. The trick I've tried to employ is the one that hides between arbitrariness and coincidence - the one that disguises the two as logic (or at least the belief in such a thing). At least, that was my intention. The second reason responds to a true and horrific coincidence: the Jeffrey Dahmer murders, which occurred here in Milwaukee as I was preparing this essay for publication1. Those murders, and their grisly, sensational discovery, were enough to show that an encounter with the real is not only possible but, in reality, terrifying. More than that, Dahmer's alleged crimes revealed other truths: truths more terrifying because they don't get banner headlines and segments on Geraldo. These are the real, day to day, and not so arbitrary truths of homophobia, racism, and police (but not only police) indifference. In their ubiquity, these perversions trick us into believing that their terror is really normality and that the ever-present pain they inflict is just society. Dahmer brought them to the surface for a moment. Only time will tell if they will hide again behind the more publicized crimes which cover for them. They remain hidden here, as well.
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"To some readers it might come as a surprise to learn that Houdini exposed some handcuff secrets, considering that his career depended on them," writes Walter B. Gibson in his commentary to Houdini on Magic. But, Gibson adds, Houdini's purpose was twofold: "He wanted to establish himself as the pioneer of the Challenge Act and at the same time worry his imitators by giving away the more common devices upon which they depended" (2).2 Houdini himself explains his actions more forcefully, though not quite as clearly:

I am induced to take this step for the manifest reason that the public of both hemispheres may, through ignorance of the real truth, give credence to the mendacious boasts and braggadocio of the horde of imitators who have sprung into existence with mushroom rapidity of growth, and equal flimsiness of vital fibre, and who, with amazing effrontery and pernicious falsity, seek to claim and hold the credit and honor, such as they may be, that belong to me. (3)

Houdini appears to be up front about his motives, but because his explanation concerns the technology of trickery, it also has a tricky techne of its own, one that posits the reality of trickery as it presages the trickery of the unrealizable Lacanian real.
      The real is elusive not just by definition but in its elaboration. In "Tuché and Automaton," Lacan defines "the encounter with the real" as the Aristotelian "tuché": a coincidence extraneous to causation (53).3 Commenting on the real, Jacqueline Rose calls it "the moment of impossibility onto which both [the symbolic and the imaginary] are grafted, the point of that moment's endless return" (31; my emphasis). The moment of impossibility, of course, is vital to the magic trick. It makes the trick truly a trick. In the blink of an eye, a fraction of a second, the reality of the illusion manifests itself in the image(ined) of the performed revelation. The moment of impossible disappearance and escape entwines the three Lacanian orders in a borromean knot, a knot both tightened and slackened by the technë of the me-deum.4 This technë shifts the process of revealing (that is, escape or trick) to the practitioner as me-deum and away from the technological medium through which the trick is realized - a trick of transference. As Houdini writes of the rope-tie escape, "no possible suspicion is attached to the ropes themselves. In many cases where locks, chains, handcuffs, . . . and the like are used, the apparatus is more or less under suspicion, but where ordinary ropes or tapes are the only means employed, the performer gets all the credit for the escape" (32-33). The truth, of course, is in the technique. One such technique involves inserting a wedding band into a knot. In offering the knot for a spectator's examination, Houdini out-cons Lacan (and the spectator, whose attention these words were meant to distract while Houdini substituted rings):

Is this [ring] big enough? Examine it please; Solid ring? No opening? No? You did not examine it closely; I find an opening almost big enough to put my fist through. You saw the ring, but didn't see the hole, because the ring part is bigger than the hole, but we all know that the whole is bigger than any part, so, while the ring is bigger than the hole, the whole is bigger than the ring, and the whole is bigger than the hole, and still you didn't see. (36)

Where else could this statement lead except back to the real truth?


      In her essay "The True-Real," Julia Kristeva traces through the web of intersections which tie and cut truth and the real, a network that binds, and is itself bounded by, the nexus of art, religion, and psychosis. The relationship between truth and reality and true and real resonates in the field of the plausible which that relationship has itself opened up. Kristeva runs through the historical transformations (from the Platonic to the post-Hegelian) of the philosophico-logical concept of truth. She states that

the ongoing subjectivization of truth, the fact that it depends on the namegiver inevitably gives rise to uneasiness in the face of another truth which cannot be determined and which does not even operate in its own field of effects, although it is always evoked, like a phantom, by those who wish to under- stand: that is to say, the semblance of truth which is at work in the discourse of art. This widens the field of the plausible, making it decidable but uncertain, making homologous with the truth the discourse of another speaking being, who is no longer a namegiver but a ludic accomplice of the law: the subject of art, and the object of rhetoric. (220-21)

But if we take Houdini at his word, this subjectivization works as well (if not better) for those who wish to fool as for those who wish to understand; but those two are made for each other, if only because the play of the law is complicit with the namegiver. In the magic trick, different sets of truths are assembled as if one, allowing the mystery and surprise when the one disguised by the other appears. As the mediator of the play of the law, the magician can make the real truth appear to be a hysterical hallucination. In that case, the field of the plausible becomes "a border zone where the real, in order to burst on the scene as truth, leaves a hole in the subject's discourse, but is none the less taken up by that very discourse in a repetitive representation that produces meaning (thus allowing life and jouissance to continue) . . ." (Kristeva 228). Defying Kristeva, Houdini also allows signification to continue as he patrols this zone in order to make a name for himself.
      The trick, through naming, showing, offering for examination, organizes the decidable uncertainties within the field of the plausible in order to realize the implausible. Likewise, Houdini's explanation of tricks and his biographies of historical conjurers serve as masterful interweavings of mystery and publicity which, in a broader sense, frame his own importance, his own mastery.5 Personality, stardom, and fame may be part of the way the image tricks reality and congeals its own truth around a corporeal support. Still, the state of the truth's corporeality is uncertain. It is an ectoplasmic thing issued from a production (or negation) of truth in the plausible, a production (or negation) called forth from the spirit world of the real. Houdini most dramatically encrypts Lacan's three orders through the actions of his body, a body more powerful than knots or crypts. But with Houdini, nothing that is seen or heard can be taken for real, except the reality of the illusion. Hence the world still awaits his promised message from beyond the grave.


      Ropes, handcuffs, medium's cabinet box, Water Torture Cell, self promotion: these apparatuses of containment construct the magician's body in the terms of Kristeva's phantom, the phantom that haunts the field of the plausible and stalks the line between illusion and reality, performance and actuality. In the container is the thing Herbert Blau claims we anticipate: "the ghostliness that moves the performance." Blau (citing Coleridge and referring to Hamlet) asserts the

credibilizing power of the omnibus word thing. Whatever the power is behind that power - like the power which summons away the Ghost which came in the Name of the Father - the thing is sufficiently indeterminate that one feels it has to do with more than the mere physical presence of a probably improbable ghost, or from what terrestrial direction the appearance occurs . . . ("Universals" 172)

It is plausible that the power behind is the one that can both summon the phantom and transform the phantom from nothing to thing, materialize the corpse into a performing body. Perhaps the power is not behind at all; perhaps it is all around, above, underneath, and in the seats. The space itself enframes and fabricates the physical true-real (or "true illusion" [Artaud 92]) of the performative body and fills its flesh with what makes the thing not only appear but obey - or appear to obey. How palpable is that body on display, especially when (and while) it slips past its carefully inspected bonds? Perhaps thingness itself is the ectoplasm emitted by the stirrings of truth (or its semblance) on the boards of the plausible, boards concealing the hole left by the real.
      The body on those boards, the body waiting to burst from those constraints, is enunciated in a location and by its position in that location. It takes up space, though its not fixed in that space - otherwise there'd be no trick. On the contrary, the form is reformed, repositioned within its own solidity and in relation to its own presence. Its transmutation into and of the real truth remains subjunctive - something to become history, something with the semblance of history.


      When Vesuvius burst forth in AD 79, it let the negative space of bodies at the catastrophic limits of reality pass through time as frozen moments of the real's terror of possibility. This is how Mortimer Wheeler describes his encounter with those traces of mortality:

Elsewhere, again, the corpse of a woman clasped a baby, whilst two small girls were clinging to her dress. And so on. These and many other Pompeiians, beaten down by the burning ashes or asphyxiated by fumes, had been perpetuated as cavities in the encompassing lava and have been recovered with astonishing completeness by the process of pouring liquid plaster into the iron-hard moulds. In their cheerless way these plaster images bring vividly to life again the inhabitants, slave and free, of the doomed city. (7)

Isn't it odd that the rigidity of a plaster cast can not only bring back life, but do so vividly? Those materializations of spaces emptied of life and tangential to what was once alive - and once suffering - provide a conduit to a life distanced not only by death but by history. As if by magic, those lives once touched with the permanence of death have been transmitted to us in the permanence of form, yet in effigie, in absentia (see Lacan, "Tuché" 54).
      What is immanent in those casts of corpses is the power to make imminent the distant fact of destruction. They are mediums, and that they are inanimate makes plausible the immediacy of their vividness. That the destruction they signify was so ancient allows less troubling access to the deaths to which they refer. But that recast space draws history itself forward, infecting our time with its deadly touch in a way other historical objects cannot. The spectralness of their negativity drags a true moment of impossibility through a historical cavity, as if to make timeless Houdini's moment of disappearance. Grounding that moment in cremation says much about the real's terror in concreteness. And, it recasts Lacanian subjectivity in a new way, a way akin to Schreber's way.6
      Schreber's way, Lacan tells us, circumvents "the hole dug in the field of the signifier by the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father . . ." This circumvention moves the ego ideal toward the spot once occupied by the Name-of-the-Father. "It is around this hole, in which the support of the signifying chain is lacking in the subject, and which has no need, one notes, of being ineffable in order to be awe-inspiring, that the whole struggle in which the subject is reconstituted itself took place" ("Possible Treatment" 205).7
      Schreber's transformation is itself transformed when the form it takes - as magic act or history - is staged. The true-real complicates its own plausibility on the stage, where "people are pretending to be what they are not, including other people, and even when they're pretending they're not pretending, or pretending to be themselves" (Blau, "Certifying" 33). Here the true-real strives for the illusion of a plausibility that transcends itself in the very action of transcendence.


      Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler are three of the better known members of the no longer so well-known Viennese actionists. What is generally known remains haunted by myths; and the actionists' works get lumped together despite the artists' different, and often opposing, approaches and motives. Yet while those works are distinct, they all depend on an intrinsic connection between the organization of the body and the space and time in which it is organized, the space in which it performs.
      Nitsch's actions in his Orgies Mysteries Theater involve ritualistic dismemberment of animal and human corpses, real bloodbaths for psychical and physical catharsis. For him, the action's crucial moment is the abreactive movement to the transcendental - a transcendental actively engaged with both reality and activating the real. "The fact of our being," he writes, "of our existence and our natural orientation towards the intensive comprehension of our being is the only tangible reality. In it is hidden all the limitations enclosed in the transcendental sphere. We can only fulfil the plans developing from our natural predisposition which was formed in the transcendental" (331).8 Yet the facts of this comprehensive (de)subjectivization are hard to pin down. As he implies, this tangible reality hides as much as it reveals, hides as it reveals, and the trick to this lies somewhere between limitations and transcendence - the hole and the whole and the knot that entangles them. Like Houdini, Nitsch is a ludic accomplice to his own version of perversion, a me-deum that must cast that perversion into a new form in order to bring that form to life, to reach the tuché beyond the automaton (Lacan, "Tuché" 53).9
      Peter Gorsen calls the O.M. Theater " 'non-aesthetic,' " though he always places the term in quotes. Gorsen realizes that the "complete lack of restraint" striven for in Nitsch's theater belongs within an ancient form, "within the tradition of the 'Incest Drama' " (25). And for Jonas Mekas, Nitsch is a formalist comparable to Mozart. In an interview with Mekas, Nitsch himself insists that

the main reason why I make my work is because it's beautiful. . . . Art must be beautiful. All art, of every age, period, country, is beautiful. Which is to say it's formal. Without form there is no art. Form is a special thing of art. In form ALL IS. The real message which art can bring to the people is form. Form is that special thing which art is. (18)

The message is real for Nitsch because form is not just a matter for art: it is a necessity for transformed reality. It is the festive medium to a "concentrated awareness of being. . . . Form forces us into being, activates and sensitizes, makes us experience ourselves intensely by becoming aware of it. Reality is concentrated in the sense of form" (332).
      If the plaster casts of Pompeii could speak, they might agree though they might not call the process festive. Transcendence takes the form of the whole reality, circumscribed by a borderline-plausible encounter with the real. Where hole was, there whole shall be. We should remember that Houdini's infamous Water Torture Cell also contained - and hid - the limitations to his transcendence. The cell was part of his scheme for transcendence, and its limitations were his means:

The cell front had interior metal bars, ostensibly as protection in case the glass broke and the water rushed out. Actually, Houdini gripped these bars with his hands, to work his head and shoulder to the top. There, doubled up, he sprang the secret release of the stocks composing the top and slid the rear half, drawer-fashion, from its frame, automatically releasing his ankles and providing sufficient space to emerge from the top. (Houdini, caption facing 25)


      "It may well be," writes Lacan in a different context, "that this schema suffers from the excess endemic in any attempt to formalize the intuitive" ("Possible Treatment" 212). The first passage I quoted from Houdini demonstrates one form this excess takes when gambling with real truth at the outer ring of the plausible. Nitsch's excesses show what formal restraint is needed to realize lack of restraint. Both are examples of performative excesses that are centered in but not limited by the space of performance. Both gain new forms when they take on the cast of historical artifacts, when they become the casts of phantoms cast by facticity, not unlike the lost corpses of Pompeii: those (no)things with the potential for future access to ancient agony. In the light of historical distancing, then, how do we read Nitsch's proposed directions for his action play, The Boy?

The [dead six-year-old] boy's body has been bathed in hot and lukewarm water and anointed with oil. Number 0 nails the boy to the wall above the bed as if crucified. . . . Blood and water ooze out of the wounds and flow down the wall. Number 0 cuts a deep . . . wound slightly below the left nipple of the crucified boy. Number 0 opens up the wound in the boy's side and with two fingers, rinses it (washes it out) with lukewarm and hot water and cotton wool.

Number 0 hacks and cuts up the body of the crucified boy (with surgical tools) , cuts both kidneys, the fat of both kidneys, the fat on the intestines, the fat covering the intestines, the liver, and the membrane of the liver from the open body of the boy. While Number 0 is tearing out the entrails, a second man pours fresh blood into the broken-open body. (239-40)

Number 1 stuffs lilies and narcissi dipped in fresh cold water into the broken open body of the boy. (242)

His sexual organ is painted with strongly smelling oils and cosmetic ointments, wound in blonde woman's hair and dusted again with powder. The sexual organ is soaked in blood and lymph and washed with spirit, wine and lukewarm water. (252)

      Tearing up children's corpses has the power to burst a hole through the barrier of time. That power might be a form of truth, especially since the meticulousness of the violence comes so close to Hegel's statement in The Phenomenology of Mind: "The truth is thus the bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober; and because every member no sooner becomes detached than it eo ipso collapses straightaway, the revel is just as much a state of transparent unbroken calm" (qtd. in Kristeva 221; my emphasis). Kristeva cites this passage (with different emphasis) to mark the detachment of classical philosophy, which connects the true and real, and logical positivism, which claims no such connection.
      It shouldn't surprise us that from the outset Nitsch links his work with Dionysian rituals that "represent the sado-masochistic excess as an end-point of the orgiastically intoxicating enjoyment of life to the full." For Nitsch, the direct participation in the cruelty of sacrifice intensifies a "sensual sensitivity" that ultimately leads to abreaction. "Sado-masochistic needs are lived out under the pretext of ritual. (The tearing up of living, feeling flesh as the most intense form of abreaction) " (102-03).10
      Yet, in his actions dead flesh is torn open, displacing tragedy's power of representing dying and replacing it with the passive power of real death. Dismembering something already dead violates a different law than does mutilating and killing a real person, or even pretending to do so. Within the space and time of the performance, the law can be foreclosed under the pretense of an effable real reality. But as Blau observes, "Whether the event is distanced or participatory, mediated or (claiming to be) unmediated, the taboo outwits it. This is not to say that the performance is in vain, only that - in the inviolable law that proportions recession into transgression - it is never what it appears to be." Nitsch recognized that the mediation of ritual is necessary for realizing the real. Yet when the sado-masochistic needs are lived out through the medium of corpses, ultimate intensity becomes a one-sided illusion. The meaning, the truth, registered by pain remains impossible to transcend, and "the repressive apparatus consolidates itself around what it appears to break" (Blau, "Participation" 196). Nitsch's statements, then, not only seem to have a twofold purpose, but to be two-faced.


      A different form of impossible pain governed Günter Brus's and Rudolf Schwarzkogler's actions. Brus and Schwarzkogler consolidated Nitsch's festive rituals around their own subjectivities, into their own flesh, in ways that eventually prohibited further actions. For Brus, this prohibition meant a prison term and eventual exile. For Schwarzkogler, it led to a solipsistic, self-destructive asceticism and ultimately suicide. And for both artists, the impossibilities of realizing their works were inextricably tied to the self-mutilation and pain which they enacted.
      Brus's first action, Ana (1964), was enacted on a space rather than his body, though it involved "incorporating the body directly into a spatial situation." To do this, he painted a room and its furnishings white (to make them appear two-dimensional), wrapped himself in white cloth, and rolled through the room "as if in catatonic paroxysms." Next he planned to paint his wife's body, but since the action's progress didn't satisfy him, he canceled that part: "He doesn't succeed in realizing the score as it was planned" ("Brus Biography" 115-16).
      Like Nitsch (and of course Houdini), Brus carefully planned his actions and expected them to proceed accordingly. His methods moved from self-painting to self-mutilation to "body analysis" (Körperanalyse), culminating in his final performance, Breaking Test (1970). The challenge he put to his body, like a true Challenge Act, was twofold. It tested his endurance, his skill (if not exactly mastery), and it tested the audience's relationship to the work, especially if we believe Hubert Klocker's claim that the test "makes the representativeness of art fall to pieces, . . . the sign becomes one with the idea" ("Dramaturgy" 55). Breaking Test was not the same as a magic trick; Brus was trying to move past the illusion of the real. What the two types of performing have in common is their challenge to representation, a challenge made in the name of the real, in the name of the rejected (after Hegel) namegiver who makes the real both true and taboo. But the challenge may only acknowledge the taboo's evasiveness.
      What if the taboo is itself a magic box, with mirrors and false bottoms, capturing expectation and belief in the reality of its illusion? Challenging this trick taboo would appear to involve the chiastic duplicity of pain. "Just like the interrogation, like the pain, is a way of wounding," writes Elaine Scarry, "so the pain, like the interrogation, is a vehicle of self-betrayal. Torture systematically prevents the prisoner from being the agent of anything and simultaneously pretends that he is the agent of some things" (46-47).
      And what was Breaking Test? Brus invites us to examine the magic box in his description of the piece:

The attempt is made to bare the skeleton from the puffy body of drama, to brew a body and soul extract. The action is shortened, compressed. The body of the acting person is put to a hard test - muscles flutter, and there is gasping for air, underarm sweating and other sweating and visual disturbances with reddened eyes. . . . The intervals are not stretchable, practical entities of a formally preconceived scenario. The intervals are stops for breath. Point [sic] of departure are simple acts like reading, walking, lying and so on. The actor is aggressive against himself and against surrounding objects, as the result of which appropriate reactions are set free: self-injury, rattling sounds in the throat, strangulations, floggings, spastic behaviour and so forth. A breaking test of nerves means the sudden change in the direction of the action, the abrupt stop of an action. Shock-like impulses should be emitted, which may at first irritate the viewers but later change to a comforting conflict solution. ("Brus Biography" 142-43)

From this description, we'd hardly guess that Brus sliced himself with razor blades and drank his own urine; but he had done those things in previous body analyses. His test of the limits of corporeality and the constraints which bind subjectivity in its puffy form cuts to the aspect of pain in which, Scarry says, "suicide and murder converge." When physical pain dissolves the boundary between inside and outside, self and object, it creates "an almost obscene conflation of private and public. It brings with it all the solitude of absolute privacy with none of its safety, all the self-exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibility for camaraderie or shared experience" (53). So much for the festival.
      Still, Breaking Test was not torture; it was not involuntary. While it unmakes, it is more the second of pain's major properties, what Scarry calls "making"; and it includes all the artifice Scarry attributes to that domain. Writing of the Scriptures, she calls the artifice of making the path to the supreme artifact: God (181) . This would be the me-deum in reverse. But what Brus acts out may not be pain at all, but something that can only be staged and spoken of in terms of pain. If pain is exceptional because it has "no object" (Scarry 161), staging its reality makes a magic box. In it, the subject becomes the object, the Ego Ideal acts in the Name-of-the-Father, and the signifier becomes "real in order to become true" (Kristeva 226). This artifice is not merely physical, nor merely psychical, but borders on psychotic. It makes the real, like Pompeii's dead, perpetual, and not simply "en souffrance" (Lacan, "Tuché" 56).11 It brings flesh to ghosts and reanimates the dead.


      Schwarzkogler's corpse is haunted by the myth of his own death. The myth says he died from injuries inflicted during a performance in which he dissected his penis.12 That myth fatally ties the staging of death into a knot of real truth. Maybe this knot could only be fully realized in suicide, and maybe that explains the myth. And the myth seems plausible knowing that Schwarzkogler struggled with the impossibility of performing until that impossibility spilled over into his everyday reality. After giving up his solo performances, he tried to develop a Gesamtkunstwerk where "one's entire life was to be ritualized and aesthetically organized." At the same time he sought a fool-proof betting system for the horse races ("Biography" 379-80).
      Schwarzkogler's concern with the proper form and setting for his actions seems to be the reason he abandoned performing. Even in his later solo works, he cut off the possibility of direct access or immediate communion by presenting them only in photographs. But this cutting off was his way of transforming the semblance into the real truth:

The pictorial construction on the surface is replaced by the construction of the conditions for the act of painting as determinant of the action field, of the space around the actor - of real objects found in the surroundings. . . . The period of the act of painting and the period of the presentation become one. Out of the movement and confrontation of the selected elements variable mountings are created, out of their transformation and sequence the dynamic course of the action in time. Expansion up to the total act of synaesthesia is possible, which via all senses can be experienced and followed by others. As real process it reveals its form to the sculptural image of a multiple comprehension through the various apparatuses. (Qtd. in Klocker, "Shattered" 94)

Schwarzkogler regarded the photograph as more than the documentary medium it had been for the other actionists. Instead of being traces or relics, Schwarzkogler's photographs were at once the action and the barrier to acting: artifice in the broadest sense, and not artifacts. Eventually even the shield of emulsion was not enough, and he could only develop conceptual architectures for unrealizable actions.
      His interest in Gesamtkunstwerke seems similar to Nitsch's but was in fact different. Nitsch sought a totalizing ritual that would explode and cure the repression of reality; Schwarzkogler yearned for a controlled ritual that would permeate reality and heal it. By 1968 Schwarzkogler was following the dietary regimen of Franz Xaver Maier's book Schönheit und Verdauung (Beauty and Digestion) and had lost a great deal of weight ("Biography" 380) . The healing of his world would not be through rituals of abreaction or testing; he would not be the medium for an encounter with the real. He would become real and, through Hegel's "transparent calm," make it true. As he writes in The Necessary Talent (1968):

The distinction between the mortal and immortal.
The strength to be able to renounce enjoying the fruit of the works.
The ability to keep calm (reserved, self-controlled, resigned, collected, confident and concentrated in thought and desire. The determination to be free. . . .
(Qtd. in "Biography" 381)


      Writing about his six-day play, "the greatest and most important festival for humanity" (333), Nitsch takes his work to the limit of performative plausibility, to something that doesn't even appear in the play: killing. He posits a phylogenetic need to kill, a need so repressed it is nearly impossible to access. Yet his drama allows the possibility of its return: "The intoxication of cruelty allows the forbidden extreme and culminates in killing" (338). For him, killing is the ultimate existential experience, "a penetration and break-through into the surrounding world..." (339). But he adds:

The above argument should in no way glorify killing or even induce killing. On the contrary, the unfulfillable wish to kill must be freed from its repression and be satisfied by an experience, which exceeds the intensity of the experience of killing and brings the feeling of lasting mystical unity with the whole. It is intended that the entire course of life should be concentrated into a mystical experience. The intoxicating intensity of existing must be extended to all areas of being in daily life. (341)

For all his efforts to reunite the true and the real, Nitsch's repudiation of killing makes the whole process a semblance, an illusion. The hole really is larger than the whole, and that is the tuché of the real. The above argument should in no way glorify killing or even induce killing. On the contrary, it should only offer a glimpse at how implausible the true-real can seem. But with murder such a fact of life, in reality it's not implausible at all.
      Houdini might have praised Nitsch's artful escape from the necessary consequences of his proposition; but Schwarzkogler's isolated suicide might have been that proposition's painful realization. Perhaps Nitsch knew he was less adept than Houdini at breaking out of prison; perhaps he knew that the me-deum must repress his deification to remain on reality's stage. Certainly he knew the lesson of Gilles de Rais, a real, executed murderer now condemned to history's stage.


      Artaud knew, and listed Gilles's story among those most fit for the Theater of Cruelty. It was to be "reconstructed according to the historical records and with a new idea of eroticism and cruelty" (99). The Boy pales next to this story of child-murder and dismemberment that, after five centuries, still haunts the Loire valley, and the world.
      Gilles's murders were staged performances nearly as elaborate as the play he created in honor of his former compatriot, Joan of Arc. His valet testified that after briefly hanging his victims, Gilles "let them down or had them let down, cajoled them, assuring them that he did not want to hurt them or do them harm, that, on the contrary, it was to have fun with them, and to this end he prevented them from crying out" (Bataille 219). He displayed the severed heads of some of his prettiest victims in beauty contests "and often kissed the heads that pleased him most . . ." (231); and though he raped the boys he killed, he told his accomplices that he enjoyed watching them die more than the sexual act. He repeated this in his public confession, and he insisted its transcription be published in both Latin and French so that everyone could learn from his example: " [H]e had their bodies cruelly opened up and delighted at the sight of their internal organs; and very often, when the said children were dying, he sat on their bellies and delighted in watching them die thus, and ... he laughed at them . . ." (190).
      This is part of the historical record Artaud calls for, but he does so in the name of "Bluebeard" - not Gilles de Rais. The two have become conflated, especially in Breton and French folklore. Along the Loire, Gilles's ruined castles have, for those still living in their shadows, truly become Bluebeard's. This confusion is more than local myth superseding historical truth; it is more than competing truths. In its quest for facticity, the science of history fills the void of the past with the cast of its truth: chance event (automaton) becomes purposive (tuché). The stage of history acts out the Theater of Cruelty, but it cannot keep criminality tied into the historical record.
      "Crime hides," writes Georges Bataille in his introduction to the trial records. "On the night marked out by fear, we are bound to imagine the very worst. The worst is always possible; and also, with crime, the worst is the last thing imaginable." He believes that "crime's legendary aspects alone . . . have ordained the truth of crime" (9). But for Freud, as Kristeva tells us, "Not only is truth murder," it is "nothing more than language as a mechanism for displacement, negation and dénégation." Truth's artifice "leaves behind only a system of passages, folds, thresholds, catastrophes - in short, negation" (224). Between Freud and Bataille, then, not only does crime become the legendary truth of murder; but the legendary aspect of crime escapes the real truth of murder. The legend of truth is that it murders its own cause: the real.
      "Benveniste," Kristeva reminds us, "said that Artaud was the greatest French linguist." He may also have been the greatest historian. His way was Schreber's way: to "express the truth of the signifier as a mourning for an impossible real."

To be sure: such a practice of truth cannot be carried out with impunity. Since the signifier is the (sole) truth, it is the body and vice versa. In this economy, there are no images or semblances (any more than in the Eucharist): each element is neither real, nor symbolic, nor imaginary, but true. Thus the truth of the signifier, namely its separability, otherness, death, can be seen to be exerted on the flesh itself - as on words. (236)

Gilles ended with the knot around his own neck, and not in play. Then his body was burned. The bodies of his victims were burned as well, in the fireplaces of Machecoul, Tiffauge, and Champtocé. Their molds do not survive, though the testimony of the family members who lost them does.
      The records state that on the way to the gallows, Gilles comforted the two accomplices to be executed with him. He implored them to have faith in God and asked to be executed first so as to strengthen their faith with his contrition, which he displayed till the end. That contrition was deemed so true by the crowd in attendance that they wept and prayed for his soul (Bataille 278-79). Perhaps the greater truth of this performance was that it shifted attention from the murdered to the murderer - from crime to redemption. The thing, the phantom of forgiveness, was taking power. Unlike and yet not unlike Houdini, Gilles's extraordinary technë drew attention to himself as a transcendental trick. He was the unrepressed me-deum. Flaunting his version of père-version, he bound the Lacanian orders into a true terror that can still veil murder with crime, the paingiver with pity.

      1 And as I write this postmortem, the worst single-instance mass murder has taken place in Texas.
      2 The Challenge Act was a promotional gimmick in which the magician would escape from devices - ropes, handcuffs, straitjackets, jail cells, etc. - provided by someone or some organization (such as a police department) challenging the magician's ability. The materials, therefore, would be beyond suspicion, thus making the escape more amazing.
      3 Tuché and automaton both mean, roughly, chance or luck. In the Physics, Aristotle develops a distinction between the two when considering supplements to his four causes. Both are in the sphere of purposive events, but tuché (I'll retain the French for consistency - and because it looks more like "touché") becomes an incidental cause involving - but not caused by - rational choice, while automaton remains more general. To oversimplify, tuché would be coincidence and automaton spontaneity. Neither involve the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover: God. But when deified by the touch of the me-deum (see note 4), tuché takes on some god-like qualities. This explanation is based on Guthrie's detailed and concise discussion (233-42).
      4 See Lacan, "Seminar." In his later seminars Lacan uses borromean knots, which he draws from mathematical topology, "to stress the relations which bind or link Imaginary, Symbolic and Real, and the subject to each" (17ln.6 [Mitchell and Rose's note]). The as yet untranslated Séminaire 197 4?7 5 ("R.S.I.") deals with this more fully. His pun on "the happy me-deum [le juste mi-dieu]" (167) (to which I would add the conjuring medium) is, as Mitchell and Rose explain, a substitution of dieu (god) in the phrase le juste milieu, with an added pun on dit (that which is spoken) (171n.4). Lacan calls the happy me-deum the site of the repression of the father's "version of his perversion [père-version]": normality, "the happy un-spoken." The father is the model (me-deum) of the function (père-version) , "in that he can only be an exception": a demigod. But this operation rarely succeeds (167) . The operation does, however, imply a similar sounding pun, a me-dieu (me-god), and the Anglo-Latin translation fortunately reinforces this. I use the term with this in mind, particularly thinking of Schreber. Speaking of mediums, Houdini was famous for debunking spiritualist mediums following a failed attempt to reach his deceased mother (or so the story goes) . Still, he believed in the possibility of communication between the worlds of the living and the dead, and promised his wife that he would send her a message from the afterlife - if there was one.
      5 For a psychoanalytic look at how Houdini fabricated his mastery, or at least his publicity, see Meyer.
      6 See Schreber. Schreber (1842-1911), who was a judge in Chemnitz and Dresden, was hospitalized three times for psychotic episodes. He published his Memoirs (Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken [Leipzig: Mutze, 1903]) following the court-ordered release from his second hospital stay. This book became the foundation for Freud's theories of psychosis (dementia paranoides, specifically) and schizophrenia, and it (and Freud's reading of it) continues to inspire writers and analysts up to the present.
      7 It should be noted that the corresponding hole in the imaginary field is emasculation.
      8 The Nitsch book cited below is a collection of manifestos, essays, action play directions, and interviews spanning the 1960s.
      9 But not to reach utopia. Nitsch said in 1962: "My theatre-project is no UTOPIA, in fact I would go as far as to say on the matter of its realization that it could easily be brought into being six times, if they were to stop wasting money on the federal army and the training of sportsmen" (39).
      10 Ironically, Breuer and Freud introduced the term "abreaction" as the talking-cure alternative to violent reaction (such as revenge) to trauma. They write: "But language serves as a substitute for action; by its help, an affect can be 'abreacted' almost as effectively" (Breuer and Freud 8).
      11 Alan Sheridan notes that souffrance means "abeyance," "suspense," as well as "pain" (Lacan, "Tuché" 56n.l).
      12 The truth is that he jumped out a window in 1969, penis intact.

from Discourse, Vol. 14, No. 2, Performance Issue(s): Happening, Body, Spectacle, Virtual Reality (Spring 1992), pp. 103-123.

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