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Quod Nomen Mihi Est?: Excerpts from a Conversation With Satan

Paul Pfeiffer

I was 10 years old the first time I was possessed by the devil. It happened in the small city of Dumaguete on the island of Negros in the Philippines, where I was attending sixth grade at one of the oldest American missionary schools in Asia. One night I was jolted from my sleep in the wee hours of the morning by a terrifying feeling. I woke to find my room and my body completely out of proportion. My head and hands felt too big for my body. My heart was racing. And as I looked around the room my sense of space was becoming monstrous and strange: my vision felt decentered, like I was floating outside of myself; everything around me was small and far away, like I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Or maybe it was that the room was looking at me. It was full of a presence that penetrated me with a gaze that seemed to come from every direction at once. I jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and still barefoot and in my shorts, began walking instinctively in the direction of sunrise. I didn’t stop or turn around until the sky began to glow a dull blue and the birds announced the coming dawn.

At the time of this encounter, if anyone had asked the question “What scares you?”, I would have answered with a series of movie titles: Jaws, Helter Skelter, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist. The last two of these, The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist, both entail scenarios of demonic possession in enclosed domestic spaces, and both scared me so much that I never dared to watch them. But that didn’t stop me from thinking about them with a kind of morbid fascination, to the point that I practically reinvented the scenes over in my head. So when I woke up that night in the Philippines, I recognized my altered state of consciousness as a sign that the devil had entered me and I was possessed. After that incident I became afraid of my room, and of sleeping in the dark, quiet heat of the tropical night. For what seemed like a long time afterward I dreaded the moment when all the lights in the house would go off and I would be left alone, lying awake in my room with Satan waiting for me to drift off to sleep.

There is a book that brings me back to the scene of childhood terror: the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Set in the late 1800s, at the height of the industrial revolution, Heart of Darkness follows the trail of Marlow, a young seaman, up the Congo River where he has been sent by a mining interest called The Company, to survey the expanding imperial domain of King Leopold of Belgium. More specifically, he has been sent to look for the enigmatic Kurtz, a Company agent who has cut contact with the home office, and whose activities in the furthest reaches of the African jungle are now a matter of suspicion and doubt. The novel could be read as a fictionalized travelogue: a geographic and historical account of the events and landscape during the heyday of European colonial expansion. Yet as Marlow goes deeper and deeper into the African continent, his journey becomes as much psychological as geographic. He reaches his final destination at the end of the book to discover he has come full circle, facing not a dark secret about the jungle but a dark truth about himself and the values of his society.

The plot is surely familiar to all by now, if not through Conrad’s book, then through the various Hollywood remakes that have come since: from Orson Welles’ adaptation for radio, through Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, to his wife Eleanore’s subsequent expose on the making of her husband’s epic, to Nicolas Roeg’s telenovela starring John Malkovitch as Kurtz and Iman as his jungle bride. More broadly speaking, Heart of Darkness belongs to an age-old narrative structure that is the basis of every journey into the unknown, a pattern that extends from Oedipus to Star Wars, from Medusa and the Sphinx to Aliens, from Homer’s Odyssey to Pigafetta’s journals, Nanook of the North, South Pacific, Lost Horizons, Jungle Fever. Many have sought to understand the endurance of this pattern. There is much to support the theory that the hero’s journey is the very spark and engine of the narrative drive itself. Nor is the jungle setting of Heart of Darkness particularly new. The homes and bodies of black people, of women, and the poor have always been the preferred site for the hero’s transgressions.

Yet two things distinguish Conrad’s version of the plot, the first being that it takes place just as the foundations are being laid for the economic order we live in today. Contemporaneous with the Philippine American war, Marlow’s journey up the Congo — and by extension, up all the Congos of the world — is the precise journey into nature that makes global capitalism possible. The second thing that distinguishes Heart of Darkness is its psychological depth. Written at about the same time as Sigmund Freud’s early lectures on psychoanalysis, Heart of Darkness is full of descriptive clues and literary symptoms that provide a window into the perceptions and phantasms of the Colonial imagination. The novel stands as a rare case study of the Western psyche at the dawn of the modern era. Marlow himself narrates: “It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot. I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.”

And what characterizes this psychological profile? As we follow Marlow upriver, we find his perception of the jungle becoming increasingly paranoid. He says, “I had... judged the jungle of both banks quite impenetrable — and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us.” Throughout the story the feeling of eyes watching from the trees grows stronger, until it seems it is not just animals or people watching but something much bigger, maybe the jungle itself. “The inner truth is hidden — luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks...”

Towards the end of the journey Marlow’s boat is enveloped by a dense white fog. As it descends, the crew is filled with fear because suddenly they are robbed of their power of sight — that primary, if paranoid, sense perception that has kept them centered on their tenuous course up river, and has protected them from running aground on the shallow banks. More disturbingly, without the benefit of a panoramic view it becomes virtually impossible to judge depth and distance with any accuracy, much less to maintain a safe distance from the threatening presence in the trees. In this moment of sensory overload the jungle rushes in, becomes suffocating and tactile, seeps into the very pores of their skin. Marlow recounts, “Our eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton wool. And it felt like it too — choking, warm, stifling.”

This is an identity crisis in the deepest sense: a face to face encounter with an other, where the boundary between subject and object, self and other, narrator and story, Marlow and the jungle seems to blur and disappear. It is a moment rich with visual resonance: imagine a mode of perception so paranoid that visual reality seems to fall apart, and ceases to make sense. In such moments, distinctions between inside and outside, nationality, religion and language lose their power to explain. For an artist this is the moment of truth.

In a scene from the 1972 blaxploitation thriller Across 110th Street, a Mafia don stands at the window of his Central Part South apartment, looks out across the trees, and says to his son-in-law, “What do you see?” The heir apparent answers, “Central Park.” To which the don replies, “Central Park, si. But there is also no man’s land that separates us from the blacks in Harlem.” In October 1998, as I was preparing to mount an exhibit at the newly opened gallery The Project on West 126th Street, I thought about this scene, and about what it would mean to have denizens of the downtown art world going uptown in search of new art. Of course, New York’s bohemians and investors have always looked to the more exotic parts of town for novel thrills and new ideas. At this moment it is already too late to buy up property above the park. Disney is opening a mall right down the street. Still, when people started asking if it would be safe to go up and see the show, I knew that they were not referring to the threat of police harassment.

The central piece in the exhibit was conceived as an extension of the downtown patron’s journey uptown into the Heart of Harlem. You would come out of the subway on 125th, walk one block north and two blocks west until you arrived at the gallery. Once inside, you would go downstairs into the basement and through a dark hallway to find a wood and glass display case, a replica made from a 1911 photograph in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History. Inside the case was a little diorama of a jungle scene, and in the middle of the jungle was a little white tent. The contextual details of the scene were left purposely minimal. The historical setting was specific. It could have been any jungle in the world, but it definitely had to be somewhere in the tropics. And the tent would indicate that wherever this was, there was somebody there who was not at home in the terrain.

Moving into a second room, you would then find a large, floor-to-ceiling movie screen, onto which was projected a life-sized image of a tent against a leafy background. If you were to move back and forth between the room with the projection screen and the room with the jungle diorama, you would realize that you were looking at a live-feed video signal coming from inside the glass case. This was made possible via a tiny surveillance camera hidden in the trees, and pointed at the tent. If you looked hard enough you could even see the peering eyes of other viewers looking at the diorama, caught on camera and projected as giants among the trees. Going upstairs again, you would then find an arrangement of peep-holes set into the wall in a dark corner of the main gallery space. Looking into the peep holes you would see another live-feed image of the room downstairs with the diorama you had just left. If there were people downstairs, you could observe a fly’s eye view of the viewers peering at the little tent in the little jungle of the diorama.

The title of the piece is Perspective Study (After Jeremy Bentham). Jeremy Bentham was the architect of the Panopticon, the pioneering 18th century prison design that would become the template for the modern penitentiary, among other things. The central principal of the Panopticon is total visual access to the inmate’s every move. The guard is positioned at the center of a multileveled rotunda; the prisoners’ cells are spaced evenly along the inside perimeter. The front of each cell is made of metal bars so that the captive is in plain view at all times. The inmates cannot see each other, only the guard tower. The observer in the tower at the center sees all. As for the Perspective Study that makes up the rest of the title, it is a reference to a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer, the 16th Century artist and proto-naturalist. The etching shows the artist in his studio surveying the world (a female model) through the newly invented technology of the Cartesian grid. In the Perspective Study (After Jeremy Bentham) in Harlem, the viewer is enveloped and positioned within a web of shifting perspectival lines — a network of ocular relationships, of seeing and being seen. There is no singular “meaning” to the work. It merely functions as a three dimensional schematic diagram for your consideration. You may note, however, that there is an implied obverse relationship between the Panopticon and Marlow’s jungle. The suggestion is this: that the man who sees and controls all must also be the most paranoid man alive.

The mechanics of perception and the formation of identity have always been intimate bedfellows. At the dawn of Western architecture, the ordering of space through strict laws of proportion was not just about making a shapely building; it was a projection of an imagined accord between individual bodies, social relations, and the natural universe. In the Renaissance, as many studies have shown, the discovery of linear one-point perspective and Cartesian space was pivotal in laying the foundations of modern science. In 1936, Walter Benjamin made the link explicit in the context of Marx’s theory of class struggle when he wrote, “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.”

The matter of human sense perception becomes a question of faith in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. In the movie, a modern family unit in the nation’s capitol struggles to come to terms with a rather severe identity crisis on the part of their daughter, Regan. Regan develops a series of bizarre, and baffling symptoms: she flies off her bed as though propelled by some unseen force; she speaks in a voice that is not her own; she pees on the rug in the middle of a cocktail party and announces to the guests, “You’re all going to die up there;” she stabs her face and genitals with a crucifix, shouting to anyone who will listen, “Let Jesus fuck you.” Her head spins 360 on her neck in defiance of the fundamental laws of human anatomy. After all else fails to cure the child, a priest is brought in, Father Karras, who attempts to discover the identity of the demon by engaging him in conversation. Father Karras asks, “Quod nomen mihi est?” Who are you? To which the devil replies, “La plume de ma tante,” the tail feathers of my aunt. Sheer nonsense.

So who is the devil? If we follow Regan and her family closely through the movie some interesting clues emerge. Before the demon even makes his appearance, we find that Regan has already been possessed on two different counts: first by Hollywood, and second by Medicine. In an early scene of the movie, Regan’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, goes to tuck her daughter into bed and finds her asleep with the lights on. Sticking out from under her pillow is a Hollywood fan magazine. The mother picks it up, at which point we discover that she is, in fact, a famous movie actress, because there before us is her face is on the cover of the magazine. Along side her we also find Regan’s smiling face, suggesting that by default she has become a part of the film industry, her life permeated by her mother’s on-screen personality and career.

Later on in the movie as Regan starts to become “sick,” she is brought to the hospital where she is subjected to a series of grueling and invasive medical tests. She is strapped to a metal bed under fluorescent lights, she is surveilled via closed circuit TV, she is injected with dyes, brain scanned and x-rayed, and tapped for spinal fluids. The hospital scenes are in fact some of the most graphic in the movie. In one particularly terrifying scene, Regan is strapped to an operating table, and an intravenous needle is inserted into her neck, sending blood spurting out in spasms. The needle is then taped down and used to pass a long plastic tube through her neck and deep into her body.

What are we to make of such images? Are we to see a link between the media, the medical establishment and the forces of evil? Does it even make sense to think about technology in religious terms? From the earliest days of this century, new technologies — from the movie camera to the microscope — have been the source of deep feelings of ambivalence, promising transcendence to a new level of human consciousness, while at the same time representing a Pandora’s box leading to self-destruction. But the human propensity for both good and evil is nothing new. Questions of ethics predate the advent of genetic engineering, just as the idea of community predates the interactive CD-ROM and the internet. If anything, the invention of powerful new technologies merely increases the stakes, multiplies the costs, and heightens the impact of established values and morals on our daily lives. As Donna Haraway puts it, “It means there has been a deepening of how we turn ourselves, and other organisms, into instruments for our own end.” Like a guilty wish or an unconscious desire, technology is already deep inside you. The more you deny and repress its existence, the more it grows, and grows against you, until it returns as an alien being from another dimension. This is what for me remains compelling about the movie The Exorcist: the vision of an evil doubly terrifying because there is no possibility of shutting it out or running away; no escape because it is inside you; without recourse, even, to any distinction between you and it.

The diaspora is not about us, it’s about Michael Jordan. To see him soar through the air, a sparkling, shiny creature traveling at the speed of light, landing in every first, second, and third world city all at once, is to understand you play a minor role in a very big game. He has visited more of your extended family than you could ever dream to. His reach defines the meaning of community in the television age. In the Philippines, voter turnout for nationwide local elections in 1996 reached a record low during the airing of game six of the NBA playoffs (the Bulls won). When Jordan announced his retirement in January 1999, his life and times were the top story in the daily news of your home town.

It is no coincidence that black is the color of his skin, the color that fills the TV screen in your living room. Black has always been the color to express the depths and furthest frontier of the knowable universe. Like the scientist-turned-insect in the sci-fi classic The Fly, Jordan is an experiment in human evolution: an exceptional talent re-packaged and distributed by Turner Sports and David Stern; grafted with 16M parts Nike, 5M parts Bijan Cologne, 5M parts Gatorade, 4M parts MCI WorldCom, and 2M parts Rayovac Battery.

Editha Bensi, a working class home maker and mother of five from the Central Visayan island of Cebu, is another face of the diaspora. A vial of her blood appeared along side three others on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on April 26, 1998. Her family’s blood is a genetic gold mine: for generations the mutant gene considered to be the cause of cleft lip and palate disease has been running through their veins. Editha Bensi’s DNA is now part of the Human Genome Diversity Project, a detailed road map of disease genes that promises to one day provide an “operating schematic for mankind — a detailed picture of who we are and how we work.”

For her services she is given a plastic washtub, a beach ball and a thermos, a fast-food lunch, and candy and cookies for the children. On the agreement she signs with the project, the stated reason why she is not paid in cash is that “ is a means of coercion, and compliance cannot be truly informed and voluntary if it is purchased.”

When the doctors come to take blood samples from Editha Bensi’s children, they struggle to free themselves from doctors’ grip and run away. Mrs. Bensi explains that they are fighters, that they have had to be because they are different. And when Operation Smile arrives with the opportunity for corrective facial surgery, Editha Bensi flatly refuses. The doctors and her husband attempt to persuade her, and she snaps, “You said it didn’t matter how I look.” So why did she agree to give blood to the geneticists? For the good of medical science? For the benefit of future generations? When asked, her answer is clear and simple, “Because they wanted it,” she says. “Because they asked.” How often had she and her family been regarded as the objects of fear, ridicule, and suspicion. Had she ever been approached before as the bearer of knowledge, the one holding the key to understanding the world?

On February 4, 1999, about a year after his arrival in New York City from Guinea, Africa, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed twenty-two year old, was murdered in the entryway to his apartment in the Bronx by four plain clothes policemen. They said it was a mistake, that they were suffering from Marlow’s jungle disease: they panicked in the face of an illusory threat they thought to be real. A child of the diaspora, Amadou Diallo was, after all, W.W.B. when they shot him — Walking While Black. There is no mistaking the message written in a shower of forty-one bullets from four semi-automatic handguns in nine seconds. The letter of the law has always been written in black ink on white paper. And the message is this: In the richest city of the richest nation in the world, we will do anything and stop at nothing to protect our interests and the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.

On 126th St. in Harlem, just down the street from The Project, there is an Episcopal church which flies the African liberation flag above its steps. The meaning is clear if you turn your head to the police precinct across the street. The new diaspora is not about crossing national borders, biracial babies, or dual citizenship. There is no such thing as being in between two cultures, half and half, or the best of both worlds. It is a battle between good and evil, a question of morality, a matter of faith. A dense white fog is descending, your sense of space and time are becoming monstrous and strange. The devil lives behind your eyes, his name is branded on your flesh, he is built into the structure of your DNA. He is knocking on your door. It doesn’t matter if you let him in. He is already traveling in the blood through your veins.