Powers of Horror  

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No Beast is there without glimmer of infinity,
No eye so vile nor abject that brushes not
Against lightning from on high, now tender, now fierce.

--Victor Hugo, La Légende des siècles


Excerpt: There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful - a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (1982, Pouvoirs de l'horreur: Essai sur l'abjection, 1980) is a book by Julia Kristeva, an extensive treatise on the subject of abjection and all it entails. Starting with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's theories, Kristeva delivers a comprehensive look at horror, marginalization, castration, the phallic signifier, the "I/Not I" dichotomy, the Oedipal complex, exile, and other concepts appropriate to feminist criticism and queer theory.

According to Julia Kristeva, one of the "powers of horror" is the freedom to explore an abject humanity that appears completely other. Kristeva describes abjection as "immoral, sinister, scheming and shady, a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles...the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes its subject...the criminal with a good conscience, the killer who claims he is a savior".

Purifying the abject

The abject for Kristeva is, therefore, closely tied both to religion and to art, which she sees as two ways of purifying the abject: "The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion" (Powers 17). According to Kristeva, the best modern literature (Dostoevsky, Proust, Artaud, Céline, Kafka, etc.) explores the place of the abject, a place where boundaries begin to breakdown, where we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object. The transcendent or sublime, for Kristeva, is really our effort to cover over the breakdowns (and subsequent reassertion of boundaries) associated with the abject; and literature is the privileged space for both the sublime and abject: "On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject" (Powers 207 ). According to Kristeva, literature explores the way that language is structured over a lack, a want. She privileges poetry, in particular, because of poetry's willingness to play with grammar, metaphor and meaning, thus laying bare the fact that language is at once arbitrary and limned with the abject fear of loss: "Not a language of the desiring exchange of messages or objects that are transmitted in a social contract of communication and desire beyond want, but a language of want, of the fear that edges up to it and runs along its edges" (Powers 38 ).

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