[Essay] ‘Becoming-Animal’: Idle Bodies in Marie Darrieussecq and Lucien Freud — Susannah Farrell

Marie Darrieussecq’s novel Pig Tales (1997) unfolds the slow, nightmarish transformation of a beautiful young woman, working as a beautician and prostitute, into a sow. With Kafka-esque imagery the world Darrieussecq creates is that of a dystopic fairy-tale. There are no happy endings. Instead there flows an undercurrent of consciousness-raising which unearths the deft horror latent in society. In this essay, I discusse the theme of metamorphosis and its relationship to sleep in the novel. The narrative focuses on the theme of consciousness throughout, specifically that of animal–human consciousness interaction. As Darrieussecq explains in an interview with Jean-Marc Terrasse, the story’s narrator ‘is compelled [as a result of her transformation] to think for the first time […] she becomes a person; it is the metamorphosis of a female object into a conscious woman.’

In this world, beauty is deformed and the animal self takes over the human subject. With reference to Lucian Freud’s oil painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), I will also be discussing how Darrieussecq and Freud’s  representations of women question the perception of the female body; specifically that of the large, the heavy and the cumbersome. The nude figure in Freud shares the humbling qualities of Darrieussecq’s pig: she curls up her soft pink folds of skin and tucks herself onto the collapsing sofa. Darrieussecq focuses on the issue of the female narrator’s psychological identity alongside the traumatic physical transformation of her body, a body violated by grotesque clients who prove themselves far more beastsly than her new porcine self. Later, abandoned in a mental asylum on the outskirts of the city, her only choice of food is the decaying, worm-ridden bodies of dead patients and doctors. The tale of pig and woman perhaps becomes, as the author herself comments, a modern day ‘sensual fable.’

Alongside Darrieussecq, I will also make reference to French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992). From their influential, two volume work Capitalism and Schizophrenia [Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980)]. I will utilise the concept of the “becoming-animal”. Simply put, this is considered to be a movement in which the subject no longer occupies a state of stability. Instead, that stability is replaced with a “nomadic mode of existence”, something which is inaccessible to any form of definition. Thus, it is not animal metamorphosis but an achievement of non-identity which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the condition of freedom —for both animals and humans:

We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away. [A Thousand Plateaus, 237]

Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales explores the animal as “being” in this Deleuzian sense. The term being here refers to the concept of the animal as self, an idea constructed by Deleuze and Guattari, who analyse the significance of animals’ ‘otherness’[1]. It is the nameless female narrator who undergoes a metamorphosis, her mind and body slowly transforming from human to pig, a surreal state of change in which her human self cannot comprehend her new animal self. It is interesting to note that during sleep (an intrinsic part of the metamorphosis) the character finds herself  human again, perhaps alluding to how her dehumanization can be counteracted, something as simple as a bed making her feel human again.

One can actually question whether the transformation from human to pig-self is really all that drastic a change. It is possible that it is simply the body’s reaction to the environment: a society in which humans are beginning to take on more abhorrent qualities. Perhaps it is her subconscious response to the dystopian culture she wallows in. For, in this detestable world, the primal, inert, human desires of indolence and gluttony are ultimately the only means of survival. That Kafka-esque, nightmarish metamorphosis could be read simply as a macabre representation of determinism, cultural and environmental. This in turn results in her metamorphosis into her ‘true’ self, an ‘otherness’ to which only the inner animal can properly respond: ‘if all men are pigs, then what can a woman do but turn into a sow?[2]

The transformation is considered alien and abject to the human “being”, with the narrator’s body rebelling against the thriving impulses from deep inside of her and flooding her brain, as she says, ‘you should have seen me eat those apples (…) My mouth would be bursting with juice, my teeth crunching up the flesh! My few moments of pleasure, off in the little park with my apples’.[3]

The reference to food as pleasure suggests the female narrator’s new state of mind. She has developed an ‘eatingmagination[4],’ a term coined by French New Wave film-maker Agnes Varda in her film Ulysses (1986). This conceptualisation of eating, paired with the animal imagination, is portrayed by Varda through the example of a goat offered a crumpled photograph of a deceased limp goat. This morbid image, which any human would refuse, the animal simply eats, showcasing a ‘self-predatory imagination[5].’ This is simply, as Varda comments—with a distinct Deleuzian undertone—part of the animal self.

The act of eating becomes a form of leisure for Darrieussecq’s narrator: ‘I must admit that my new way of life, the frugal diet I follow, these rustic accommodations that suit me perfectly (…) are good reasons why I don’t miss the more painful aspects of my former life.’[6] The narrator calls her snuffling for truffles and apple cores a, ‘frugal diet,’ a nod to the human obsession—in women’s magazines and self-help books—with diets and detoxes. Darrieussecq playfully sets up these ironies to assert something more serious, suggesting that it is better to be a pig than a human under patriarchy, thus inverting the Socratic maxim: ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’.  In her new life as a pig, the narrator can ‘dare to be lazy’[7]. Simply put: she is free, with her memory no longer a ‘rumination of mental images’[8] or an endless repetition of negative emotional experiences. Through this subjective disintegration, idle thoughts and sleep unfold freely.

Sleep plays a pivotal role in the narrator’s metamorphosis, especially in its the effect on the human-animal self. In one scene she describes herself as she wades in:

a lovely puddle with nice sun-warmed mud […] I lay down in the puddle and stretched out my limbs, which eased my joints no end […]. It was delightful, refreshingly cool on my irritated skin and relaxing for my muscles, like a massage.[9]

The passage registers the desire to be lazy, to sprawl out and stretch every inch of one’s being, with only the sky, grass and birds to witness that act of not-doing. This image of porcine idyll and human laziness takes us to Freud’s painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), a depiction of a female nude which supplies a visual analogue to Darrieussecq’s narrator.

Freud depicts the nude slumped onto an old tattered sofa, which appears to be on the cusp of collapse. The sofa’s murky, leaf-green colour is decorated with swirling white flowers, echoing the delectable flower buds Darrieussecq’s pig  ‘eat[s], […] nature outside coming inside (…) and stirr[ing] something in me.’[10] Freud’s nude could easily open her pursed mouth to nibble at the white fabric flowers on tatty couch. Her large, cumbersome body encapsulates the exhausting nature of the woman-pig’s undertakings and her squashed features include a set of small tightly puckered pinkish lips, as though hiding behind them a set of sharp teeth perfect to devour small, ‘mice (…) and earth worms’ just as Darrieussecq’s narrator does.[11] The ambiguous mouth Freud depicts leads up to a precious-looking rounded nose, sculpted from curved lines in pinks and peaches; avowedly porcine and ready to sniff out any approaching humans.

The neck is neatly tucked under the face, layers of soft, smooth delicate skin attached to a body with arms that clutch the sofa and support the bosom. The breasts are reminiscent of the ‘pinkish dugs[12]’ Darrieussecq’s narrator mention, an intrinsic defining feature of her female self- both human and animal. This physicality is not only part of her design but speaks to the almost maternal affection she begins to show to her ‘piglet’ and the baby she spies out in the park[13]. The ‘dugs’ are a source of life but are treated violently; her breasts become a source of pain, a mere commodity for her clients.

In Darrieussecq’s narrator, sleep is the catalyst which fluctuates metamorphosis. As she wanders around the city, she discovers a near-abandoned hotel, deciding that, if she can find a room, she may return to her human self: ‘I stayed on my bed (…) I rested (…) My face was less puffy. I tried to look human again.’[14] This suggests that by temporarily abandoning her animalistic urges, she is able to re-condition herself back into humanity. Perhaps it is her indulgence of sleep and her indolence that cure her porcine disposition. This notion of laziness is discussed by the Roland Barthes, who says that laziness is not a concept, but is ‘fundamental and quasi-natural,’ something which can be both ‘a painful experience of the will […] [or] euphoric idleness.’[15]

For Darrieussecq’s pig there is an emphasis on the nurturing qualities of laziness, which Barthes calls a way of ‘marinade[ing]’ oneself. When ‘you don’t do anything, your thoughts whirl around,’ achieving a true laziness the ‘Western World’ renounces.[16] In Pig Tales there is a clear divide between the pigs and humans of society. The narrator has suffered the exhausting and violent privations and abuses of being  human. Her porcine renaissance sees her become one with her body’s real needs; she has reached a nirvana-like state, as her ‘idleness takes on a dimension of annihilation[17]’:

The rising sun caressed my snout. I inhaled the passing of the moon as it dropped down to the other side of the Earth […] It was easier to let myself go: eating and sleeping didn’t require much effort, just a little vital force […] I flexed my muscles in communion with the trees, odours, mosses, ferns and rotting leaves.[18]

In this passage, a Taoist perception of idleness is expressed, to think ‘on doing nothing,’ to ‘determine nothing.[19] That stillness inheres in Freud’s painting, as the supervisor appears idly dozing, frozen in sleep. Barthes’s idea of ‘marinade[ing]’ oneself hints at a process, even in laziness, that returns us to the Deleuzian notion of perpetual ‘becoming’. In Darrieussecq and Freud, that possibility of becoming is tied to the in-human, and to nothingness, so that idleness, nothingness and animality become affirmative. No longer nihilistic, these modes instead open up forms of being not circumscribed by western philosophy, patriarchy, or even the human body itself.

*

Susannah Farrell completed an Art Foundation Degree at the University of Arts London in 2014, and is currently studying for degree in Art History at the University of Manchester, UK. Her interest in Old Testament texts has seen her write papers examining the biblical imagination and the relationship between Jewish religious praxis and representations of God in visual art. Susannah’s creative work focusses on the human body, particularly in life drawings. Alongside her studies she sells her art and photographs in the Greater Manchester area.

Citations

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Continuum Impacts No. 21), International Publishing Group, New Ed edition, 2004, 237.

[2] Sarah Dunant, The Observer, 6th July 1997.

[3] Marie Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, Paris, 1996, 12.

[4] Agnes Varda, Ulysses, 1982.

[5] Varda, Ulysses, 1982.

[6] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 1

[7] Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980,  September 16th 1979 Interview conducted by Christine Eff.

[8] Varda, Ulysses, 1982

[9] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 73.

[10] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 25.

[11] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 30.

[12] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 33.

[13] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 45, 58.

[14] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 76.

[15] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339.

[16] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339.

[17] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 343.

[18] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 127.

[19] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339.

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