By María Negroni
Translated by Michelle Gil-Montero
This essay is from Dark Museum, now out from Action Books. In this collection of lyric critical essays, Argentinian poet and critic María Negroni writes about Gothic works—ranging from Horace Walpole’s classic novel The Castle of Otranto to Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun to (as featured here) James Cameron’s film Aliens—and develops an accumulative, absorbing, transnational theory of politics and aesthetics.
There is a space ship called Nostromo and a crew who travel in glass coffins. Therein lies Lieutenant Ripley. As a sleeping beauty waiting to be awoken by the blue prince of a computer screen, aboard a dinosaur ship that rocks her in her stellar cradle, protected from corruption and the passage of time by cold and pulchritude, she sleeps her hyper-sleep, the only truly safe place, free of nightmares, of that which always bursts into the blankness of the mind incalculable as any mortal enemy.
When she wakes up, “reality” will be something very different. At the end of the journey of technology, of the multimillion dollar investments of megacorporations, lies a land of rubble. A post-nuclear landscape, ravaged by wind and acid rain, recalls the city in Blade Runner or the flood in Metropolis. A place of destruction. The other side of the mirror. A swampy death dump in the foundations of space. Full of flats and slopes, passageways, doors that the earthlings seal shut—an exercise in futility, because it is impossible to protect ourselves from the very thing that lives inside us. Ripley, ultimately one of them, believes she has arrived at base LV 156. Her companions, meanwhile, pass through tunnels and nooks and viscous cavities, as one might enter the interior of a body. Where are they? What might you call this place, this pulsing cemetery? Rife with incomprehensible forms, the fossilized, resin-soaked walls suddenly come alive with the appearance of the aliens, those monstrous creatures whose embrace is fatal because it promises a metamorphosis and malignant gestation, like a tumor that metastasizes from the body’s ineradicable thirst.
“This place is dead,” one of Ripley’s men says at the outset. He is wrong, of course. Nothing is farther from death than this underground city. Unless death is precisely a kind of hyper-fertility. That ancient mother, unbridled in her sexuality, who is self-sufficient and does no more than incubate, like a maleficent empress in her brooding apparatus, killer spawns.
It’s a matter of knowing where to look. Or maybe of hearing the susurration of her breath. Because the alien is a pre-verbal mother. Silence that utters atrocious, fascinating things. Pure music that precedes signs and displays itself in a scenography of drivel, bodily fluids, secretions as the promise of a return to a terrifying (desired) fusion, to that undifferentiated unity before the limits and demarcations of antiseptic reason and the amputations of moral Protestantism.
While the ancient mother figures in Gothic novels as a suture that reappears, hidden in the nocturnal fantasies of child artists (abandoned, predatory beings), here the lens zeroes in on the act of reproduction itself, maybe because the genetics experiments of the end of the twentieth century (in vitro fertilizations, the existence of reproductive clinics, and more recently, experiments with cloning and the construction of cyborgs) are today some of mankind’s greatest fears. In fact, those discoveries, as revolutionary as Copernicus’s proposals or Darwin’s theories of the evolution of species in their day, not only challenge the very notion of the human, they repel us because of the sinister consequences that would accompany their ultimate application to society or politics. Something like this was captured by Bergman in his horror film The Serpent’s Egg (about the racial strategies of Nazism) and echoes, as a slip, also in Aliens: don’t forget that the ship carries inside it—like a latent virus—several “xenomorphs,” or potential enemies (the Puerto Rican Private Vázquez, the black soldier, and the android).
The combat will be among women. Or rather, between two versions of the feminine as divided and opposed by a masculine gaze. Thus, to the “unbridled” sexuality of the mother alien, to her catalog of violence, and to the Eros of shadows and the loss of control that unleashes and sows the seeds of her profusion of life (of death), Lieutenant Ripley responds with the line of duty, the lack of makeup, the dream of a glass coffin. As if to reproduce, in the code of science fiction, the eternal dispute between the prostitute and the virgin. With one addition: it seems that motherhood itself, devoid of the sanctification of the asexual, becomes the carrier of a deadly AIDS for the survival of the species, contaminating everything with anxiety and disappearance. Do we even need to be reminded that men inevitably succumb in this plot?
Not everything is so cut and dry, however. The film appeals as well to outright feminine ambivalence. We cannot forget that Ripley is the model of a strong, militarized, and de-eroticized woman—that is, the ideal of an autonomous woman who does not need men to succeed in life, not even when it comes to having a child (also female), whom she finds and adopts without requiring any sort of sexual exchange. In other words, the combination of fascination and terror that wanton sexuality unleashes is not an exclusively male attribute (although men feminize such sexuality, to demonize it and keep it at bay). The human, we might say, in its most primitive form, enveloped by passion, always possesses something horrible—something like an inexpugnable sin, an asphyxiating symbiosis, an acid that corrodes everything it touches. Any given body can transform, suddenly, into the receptacle of illicit fantasies. Unleashing ordeal, criminality. Rousing the animal hibernating in its cave. For that, Lieutenant Ripley, disembarking at that steamy and tentacled Paleolithic lair on her mission to annihilate, functions as the heroine for both sexes, appeasing both by modeling a less threatening image of woman.
In this struggle to the death between two females in defense of their young (or their ideologies), the figure of the child is crucial. The lone survivor in the abandoned, ravaged world that is the base, the vestige of nameless hecatombs, the hidden key that awaits, the girl crouching in the shattered room of childhood can be recognized, no doubt, as the girl Ripley herself once was.
“Hard to believe… there’s a little girl under all this,” someone says. Yes. In the middle of that wasteland, the little girl did not die. Surprisingly she stays alive, with her wide doll eyes, blanketed in the wisdom of her naivety, her purer light that is not very different from amniotic fluid, still unadulterated with knowledge of the sewer. She does not even die when an alien cocoons her in libidinous silk in an attempt to prepare her child body (that timeless depository of human emotions) for the incubation of the terrible. Instead she screams once more, and her little screams guide the heart of the Lieutenant. Otherwise she speaks in her half-language to complain of adult deceit (her own mother, assuring her that monsters did not exist) or to help her new friends to escape. It is she who reports that the predatory aliens set out at night (like vampires). It is she who knows the secret escape routes in the labyrinth. It is she who knows, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, that horror can be, under the right conditions, the door that opens to reveal marvels.
For the time being, Ripley will not abandon her. For her sake, Ripley will fight the alien mother.Supported by a giant prosthesis (which is perhaps her attachment to the child who she already lost once and could lose yet again), she will expel that monster into space, establishing a temporary ceasefire, a new equation for the cold that might save them from nightmares for a little while. And so, in the end, the alien is left floating in the icy plains of space like a Frankenstein lost in an intergalactic pole, outlawed in the official grammar of the universe, and the two of them, mother and daughter, will return to their glass coffins to sleep—together—an anesthetized slumber away from danger, under cover of the ship of patriarchy, that bellicose edifice of clarity.
The state of orphanhood (omnipresence of the maternal), decline and persecution, water and cold, creative hubris and night, blurry borders between what is human and what presumably isn’t, the persistent incompatibility between progress and happiness, and above all, those monstrous figures that arise again and again from the black lagoon of desire: these things constitute, as always, the topical arsenal of the Gothic, and they are replicated here with the accuracy of something forgotten. The affinity between Manfred’s castle and the base in Aliens, I mean to say, is dead-on. The same thing might be said of the house of Usher, of the underworld of beggars in M by Fritz Lang, of the laboratory of Dr. Jekyll, and of London’s underworld districts where Dorian Gray wanders astray. The same drama of evil sweeps through those places. It renders them the nocturnal stages of an ill-fated obsession with something that eludes our conscience, drawing it like a magnet towards that (unknown?) sexuality that hums its lullaby through the tunnels of the body.
It does not matter that, instead of frightened young women, these characters are NASA astronauts; that instead of ghosts, we face the monsters created by technology; that instead of vampire crypts, this subterranean world houses immense egg-wombs. The chase is the same; the descent to the “hell of the senses” persists, and the gaze again passes over the enchantment of atrocity as if a secret were hidden there: something indecipherable, though vital, that has to do with certain suppressed or underlying evils. The rest are cadavers. Or rather, a single cadaver, reiterated ad infinitum. A deleted body over which buildings are erected: art, progress, science, those murky and magnificent songs that we sing with hatred, at the expense of the mother’s lost body.
María Negroni (b. 1951) is an Argentinian poet, writer, translator and essayist. She is the author of twelve books of poetry, two novels and five collections of essays. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Octavio Paz Foundation; she received the Argentinian National Book Award for her collection of poems El viaje de la noche, a PEN Award for best book of poetry in translation (for ISLANDIA), and the Siglo XXI International Prize for Non-Fiction for her book Galería fantástica. Previous work translated into English include ISLANDIA: A POEM, Night Journey (both translated by Ann Twitty), The Tango Lyrics and MOUTH OF HELL (both translated by Michelle Gil-Montero). DARK MUSEUM consists of 5 out of the twenty essays of her essay collection Museo Negro (originally published in 1999).