A scarred love letter from abroad: A Dutch art collective’s smart book on Southern Gothic
By Nathan C. Martin
Discussed in this essay: To Live in the South One Has to Be a Scar Lover by Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout (eds.), published by 1646.
A long and varied body of literature, film, and theory exists that addresses the United States from a European standpoint, and selections can often be just as revelatory to Americans as they are to those considering us from across the Atlantic. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to Borat’s Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the outsider looking in has always proven a useful tool for Americans to examine themselves.
This is by no means a unique or nationalist phenomenon. A native New Orleanian I spoke with recently about a book of New Orleans essays she’s editing emphasized the importance, to her, of including work by as many writers who recently moved to the city as by longtime New Orleans residents. She said newcomers tend to gaze at things in fascination that locals walk past every day without notice.
The awkward title of To Live in the South One Has to Be a Scar Lover and the wistful introduction by its editors—Dutch curator Maaike Gouwenberg and artist Joris Lindhout—prepared me for a creation by a duo I imagined to be the artsy cousins of Knops and Dik, the playful gay Danish couple in Bill Cotter’s fantastic novel, Fever Chart, who live in an apartment above Bourbon Street and provide the novel’s protagonist unlikely wisdom and comedic insight in broken English. Instead, I found the book’s essays, for the most part, to be intuitive takes on subjects I’d thought about, but perhaps not that deeply, and illuminations into dark corners of Southern life I had predominantly skipped. The book’s stark, somewhat morose imagery and design—by New Orleans’ Erik Kiesewetter—constitutes a complete and appealing package for its Gothic-themed content.
Scar Lover consists of five essays by American and European writers that, besides coalescing well in an autonomous publication, also serve as a jumping off point for Gouwenberg and Lindhout’s larger project, which tries to “formulate an understanding of what Gothic can do, culturally and socially, in a society.” The editors took a road trip through the South for field research in autumn 2010. They went looking for new and old manifestations of Southern Gothic. Among the things they found were Press Street vice president and artist Brad Benischek, whom they flew to the Hague to create a related gallery installation in 2011.
Scar Lover’s essays explore the Southern Gothic tradition from a variety of perspectives. Unsurprisingly, the most specific articles are the most successful.
The collection’s two weakest pieces attempt to tackle the large and foggy notion of “Southern Gothic” all in one bite. Dutch theorist Agnes Andeweg argues that the unifying strand that runs through all things Gothic—from the Gothic tribes that conquered Rome in the 1500s to the Louisianan vampires in True Blood—can be best understood not so much as a set of stylistic or aesthetic tropes, but as a cultural strategy that pits the ancient against the modern. In another piece, essayist and critic Hal Crowther, from North Carolina, provides a primer on Southern Gothic literature. He relies mostly on vague generalizations, questionable assertions, and personal anecdotes to argue that the Southern Gothic tradition still exists in literature today. I don’t necessarily disagree with either argument, but the clearer focus of the rest of Scar Lover‘s essays gives them an advantage in the short book.
The enjoyable odd-ball in the collection is an essay by Maarten Zwiers on the decline of the Democratic Party in the South. Zwiers is a Dutch academic who holds degrees from the University of Groningen and the University of Mississippi. His essay, “The World I Know is Crashing to Bits,” takes its name from a quote by prominent lawyer and social leader William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy’s second cousin, who took the New Orleans writer into his Greenville, Mississippi, home and sophisticated social circle after the deaths of both of Walker’s parents.
Zwiers’ essay recounts the transition of Southern politics at the turn of the 20th century from being completely dominated by the Democratic Party, whose aristocratic plantation-owner leaders (like William Alexander Percy) advocated for the humane treatment of former slaves because they wanted to protect their property, to the contemporary political landscape, mostly run by allegedly populist Republicans who, since the days of the Klan, staunchly advocated for state autonomy and have never taken much trouble to hide their racism. Zwiers focuses on a limited cast of key colorful characters, whose narratives he illustrates exquisitely:
[Republican Governor James Vardaman’s] political ally Theodore “The Man” Bilbo, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1911, matched Vardaman’s rhetorical talents and racist inclinations. At a gathering in the small Mississippi town of Blue Mountain, Bilbo denounced one of his political opponents as “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel, begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow and educated by a fool.” Bilbo had already established a reputation for slandering his enemies. At a previous rally, he called distinguished Civil war veteran Washington Gibbs a “renegade confederate soldier.” After the speech, Gibbs tracked Bilbo down in the streets of Yazoo City and beat him up with his cane. “War Horse of Yazoo Broke Good Walking Stick Over Head of Poplarville Pervert,” reported the Jackson Daily News afterwards. John J. Henry, Bilbo’s target in the Blue Mountain address, also redeemed his honor with a violent retribution. Once Henry found out Bilbo was on his way to Sturgis, he boarded the same train, walked up to his adversary, and thrashed him across the head with the butt of his pistol.
Tom Patterson contributes an intelligent and concise essay that follows Zwiers’, in which he argues that Southern Gothic literature is responsible for the lens through which we view Southern outsider artists. Patterson, an art critic based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, lays out the parallels between the ways in which Southern outsider artists are often depicted and the famous themes of Southern Gothic lit.—key characteristics for both include “mystery, isolation, madness, decay, and the grotesque,” he writes. He cites examples of real-life Southern eccentrics building wild and colorful monuments to God and remarks upon how neatly they might fit into novels by Faulkner, O’Connor, or others. Patterson smartly points out that the stereotypical and limited set of preconceptions commonly used to characterize Southern outsider artists—as well as the South in general—largely facilitate the connection.
Patterson argues that outsider artists’ personas and biographies matter just as much as—or more than—their actual work. “Artist’s stories are routinely used to promote and market their work,” he writes, “and the more peculiar the story, the better—especially if it involves some form of mental aberration, a propensity for religious visions, and/or a history of alleged alien-abduction experiences.” Compare this notion to the argument that art critic Chris Kraus makes in her 2004 book Video Green—that the increased importance of MFA degrees to “traditional” artists has had a homogenizing effect on the variety of backgrounds and stories they can bring to their work and the field of contemporary art. If an artist is showing in a professional gallery, his or her history can almost certainly be traced: high school, college, MFA. “The artist’s own biography doesn’t matter much at all,” Kraus writes. “What life? The blanker the better. The life experience of the artist, if channeled into the artwork, can only impede art’s neocorporate, neoconceptual purpose.”
In other words, today’s art world prefers its outsiders extra-weird and its gallery artists certified.
The final essay in Scar Lover is a touching, if at times vulgar, homage by French journalist Maxime Lachaud to his favorite author, Harry Crews. Lachaud has written at length about Crews’ novels, and eventually decided to visit the author personally at Crews’ home in north Florida. Though this initially conjured in my mind something akin to the episode of Swamp People in which the Italian fashion designer who makes alligator-skin wallets and belts comes to Louisiana to go out on a gator hunting boat, the long excerpts from the conversation between Crews and Lachaud that make up most of the piece suggest a deep and fruitful exchange ensued. Crews, who would have been about 70 years old at the time of the 2006 interview, is still alive, but at the time insisted he was close to death, and that he lived a largely solitary life: “Nobody comes around, people that said they were my friends never come. I’m old and crippled now, I hurt all the time. The nerves are dead in my foot. Sickness or near death embarrasses people.”
What follows is four pages of long quotes from Crews, author of novels A Feast of Snakes, The Hawk is Dying, Body, and Scar Lover, among others. He was a protégé of Andrew Lytle, to whom John Jeremiah Sullivan paid homage in his 2010 essay “Mr. Lytle.” One imagines Crews’ European counterpart in the conversation egging on his anti-American sentiments, but regardless of prompting, he deposits lots of gems, such as:
We say Blacks are free in this country, they are free nowhere. This country is so eat-up and corrupted, with bias and prejuedice, and what goes around comes around. We’re gonna pay for this shit.
I hate cars. Let me tell you how I happen to write Car, I said to myself: how much sense does it make for 118 pounds of a house wife to take 4,000 pounds of machinery two blocks for a loaf of bread. You take a walk, ride a bike. That’s madness. This country has gone crazy. And a good many other countries. This country most conspicuously reflects senseless consumption. We just consume shit to be consuming it, for none purpose.
My books are strange. I amaze myself very often: this book I’m writing right now, when the father changes the diaper of the baby, and the dick, big as a peanut, has a birth mark, it looks like a red camel. When I wrote that, I looked away at the walls and said, “Crews, where in the name of God does this shit come from?”
To Live in the South One Has to Be a Scar Lover is hand-bound with string and glue. A smearing extends throughout, across the pages of text and pictures. The images hardly feature people—they’re almost all structures and landscapes, churches and swamps, a bridge, a shot-up sign. The title font seems tongue-in-cheek, in terms of the goth theme, playing to the camp so often associated with the genre. But there are actual sinister elements to the book’s look and its feel, which is also requisite for any truly successful Goth object.
Scar Lover was printed in a limited edition of 500. You can purchase a copy for $10 here.