Wednesday, June 14, 2006

God of Thunder, meet Count Olaf: Evil, Transference, and Jewish Aesthetics

Ever since a dear friend hooked us up with tickets to the sold-out Lemony Snicket reading here in Austin last fall, I have been thinking about Jews and art and evil and transference. Lemony Snicket is the alter ego of writer Daniel Handler, who are collectively responsible for the massively popular "Series of Unfortunate Events" books. Handler/Snicket (who self-identifies as a Jewish writer) taps into a rich tradition of Ashkenazic melancholy and gallows humor in these books, inspired partially by stories he heard as a child of family members' flight from Nazi Germany... Rather than present escapist fantasy or wish-fulfillment diversions like so many other kids writers, Handler/Snicket elicits pleasure by satisfying his readers' appetites for horror and catastrophe. He warns his young readers to resist reading about the endless unspeakable disasters that plague the books' protagonists, the luckless Baudelaire orphans, (most caused by a evil, obssessive predator, Count Olaf) and then, of course, ruefully delivers the bad news...

Besides his incredible anti-reading/performance in Austin, which concluded with an extraordinary accordion-driven sing-a-long (a tune by Stephen Merritt about the audience's collective death at the hands of Count Olaf), two things got me very interested in Handler/Snicket. The first is that a fully formed and quite radical ethics informs his books. When NPR's Terry Gross asked if Count Olaf was not perhaps
too evil, Handler replied something to the effect of: "He is. Let's get him." The second is that this engagement with "real evil" comes via an act of creative transference-- here meaning an identification with or adoption of the features that we despise in our adversaries. In a revealing throwaway comment, Handler revealed that the name Lemony Snicket was a pseudonym he used originally when he was doing research on far-right white supremacist groups, whom he did not want to give accurate personal information.

I was reminded of this during Vh1's aweomse "Metal Month," now sadly over. During a feature on KISS, I got to see a remarkable 1974 clip of Gene Simmons on the Mike Douglas talk show, which is even more mind-melting in its full form:

Gene Simmons was born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel... and as his fellow panelist (does anyone know who she is? She looks so familiar...) kibbitzes, he could not hide his "nice Jewish boy" interior under his demonic regalia. Do we not find here another example of Jewish transference in Simmons's attempt to make himself into "evil incarnate"?

Okay, what's the connection between Witz/Simmons and Handler/Snicket? Well, besides the obvious one-- two Jewish-American artists who assume pseudonyms and flamboyant alter egos to work out their fascination with radical evil-- they both select counter-intuitive names and personas. Lemony Snicket is the tragic Jewish writer with the ridicuolous WASP name who stands in for the tragic Jewish writer... Chaim Witz chooses to embody the demonic as a fire-breathing bat decked out in the clip above in garb eerily reminsicent of the skull and crossbones of the 1930s KKK offshoot Black Legion, but calls himself Gene Simmons-- of all the names in the world, he chooses the one that sounds most like a B'nai Brith vice-president? This is a joke, of course, but also psychologically/ideologically significant... as if Simmons needed to Judaize his satanic alter ego...

To further complicate matters, the KISS image-system included some overtly Third Reich elements. As a child, I was simultaneously drawn to and very disturbed by something about the KISS logo-- later I figured out that this was a function of the Waffen-SS logo embedded in the KISS insignia. At the time, of course, I didn't not realize that Gene and Paul were as Jewish as Streitz's matzohs... but even if I had known, the question remains. What were they doing borrowing this Nazi iconography? I don't mean this as an accusation-- it is really more a technical curiosity. Was this intentional? Accidental? Some sort of creative exorcism by indentification/simulation, maybe?

An interesting note: apparently, the "SS" on KISS records is forbidden in post-WWII Germany, so Deutsche metalheads get a modified logo on their their copies of "Alive" and "Destroyer."

I think Lacanians would have interesting things to say about this. Anybody know any?

When I was a kid (maybe 9 years old or younger) my crazy, fundamentalist Christian aunt informed me that KISS was actually an acronym for "Knights In Satan's Service". Does anyone know if that's actually true?

Her efforts were wasted though. If she knew me at all she'd know I already didn't give a damn about KISS. It was all about Poison. They're not satanic, just really into sex and drugs.
I know very little about KISS, but feel compelled to make the (probably banal) suggestion that perhaps KISS purposefully appropriated their imagery from real-life evil groups (nazis and the kkk) as a way to undermine said groups. Their own version of performed evil is, to me, simply entertaining. The main thing this performance seems to threaten/challenge is the buttoned-up sensibility of folks like the fundamentalist christian nhennies describes. Therefore, I guess I would also posit that the appropriation of this imagery initiates a counter-transference as well. In other words, the people most likely to be scared or offended by Gene Simmons or Lemony Snickett are (in some ways) those who are most afraid of some potential/repressed evil within themselves.
Yes, nhennies I heard the same thing as a child... also that WASP stood for We Are Sexually Perverted and KMFEDM stood for Kill MotherFucking Depeche Mode.Wait-- that might actually be true. It amazes me that church lady types think that metalheads are so into acronyms. I have met many rockers, and they don't seem more acronymically inclined than your average person.

You know what disturbs me most about Poison videos now? The too-small-for-their-heads-and-perched-atop the poodle-poof-fedora-hats. There is something so unwholesome about those small hats.

FF-- brilliant comment. I hadn't thought about the effects of the appropriation/transference on middle america, which of course is the population that must be offended if kids are to relate to KISS or Lemony snicket as their own secret passion. Food for much further thought. Along these lines, we might think about 1990s examples that I dislike, such as Marilyn Manson's Nazi imagery and the role of the tyrannical closeted father's "Nazi plates" in the film "American Beauty."
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