César Aira, Ema, the Captive

Ema, the CaptiveEma, the Captive by César Aira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading and rereading Wilde over the years, I note a fact that his panegyrists seem not even to have suspected: the elementary and demonstrable fact that Wilde is nearly always right.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “On Oscar Wilde” (trans. Esther Allen)

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.

To emphasize the stakes of the conflict, David’s victims are a crew of married couples on a mission to colonize a new planet (in a bathetic attempt to offset the film’s homophobic deep structure, we are provided among the crew a gay-married couple). The film’s emotional core is a scene wherein David attempts to seduce the crew’s own android, Walter. Both played by Michael Fassbender, the scene, notable for the double entendres that had the frat bros in the audience cackling (“I’ll do all the fingering,” David says as he teaches Walter to play a pipe), evokes the Narcissus topos of gay male desire. The seduction, alas, fails, as we might have predicted from the two androids’ verbal mannerism: Fassbender plays David in homage to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, all insinuatingly nasal cultivation, while he plays Walter with the exaggerated accent European actors always use when their characters are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth middle Americans.

The film seemingly pits family values against its queer Satan, who is more monstrous than the monsters he manipulates, and Scott and co. cynically deploy homophobia (and heterosexual titillation) to keep those frat bro ticket-buyers entertained; but I ultimately hesitate at the judgement that the film is homophobic. Who could demiurgic David represent if not the film’s maker? Who does an artist watching the film have to identify with besides its maestro of mayhem, whether director Scott or Scott’s surrogate droid? Family values, the “good” in good vs. evil, are colors on the palette (or tastes on the palate), but the artist—whether Oscar Wilde or Ridley Scott, David or myself—are in this for the excitement, beyond good and evil.

The laborer in the factory of popular culture cannot publicly advertise amoral aestheticism, however, or not for long, anyway. There is too much money at risk, too many constituencies to please, so values must be affirmed. Hence Alien: Covenant‘s plucky widow, its explicit protagonist, en route to fertilize the cosmos. Even a pop artist who does endorse aestheticism must eventually come back to hearth and home: witness the current public-spirited sorrow of poor Lana del Rey, once our nightingale of sexual nihilism, now so distressed about “tensions…rising over country lines” that she must ask, like a PTA or PSA mom, “What about all of these children?”

In “high culture”—or as Pierre Bourdieu calls it, the “field of restricted production”—you are allowed say, “Well, what about them? And who cares, anyway?” (Which vicious aloofness has this to recommend it: if you can recall being a child, you might remember that this was what you always wanted to say in the face of the adult world’s furrowed brow.) Hence Wilde’s theoretical essays and dialogues, which are forthright in their dismissal of extra-artistic interest from art; hence Borges’s equanimity in contemplating the replacement of reality by fictions, the process he narrates again and again, which politico-moral critics try to recoup as a critique of totalitarianism, like trying to convince yourself that pornography is a moral warning against fornication or, as we now call it, objectification.

By a commodious vicus of recirculation, I return from Ridley Scott’s interstellar jaunt to Argentina—not to Borges, but to his distinguished successor in his country’s avant-garde, César Aira, who candidly tells an interviewer, “maybe all my work is a footnote to Borges” (maybe?). I justify the above digression—can you begin an essay with a digression?—with the statement that Aira’s second novel, Ema, the Captive, now translated into English for the first time, tells the same story as Alien: Covenant, right down to the breeding motif (called by a character “sodomy incarnate”—i.e., queer reproduction). Though Aira wrote this book, according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

Aira is an avant-garde writer whose rejection of traditional novelistic realism and psychology takes the form of a sort of surrealist automatic writing practice: he writes his novels forward, without planning, research, or revision, inventing as he goes. Ema, the Captive is my third Aira novel, and like the other two, its story is an allegorization of the pleasures and perils of this procedure. Like the other two I have read, Ema concludes that there is in fact no “forward” in this life, nor any separation of art from nature, just an interlocking set of gestures and processes, pursued by animal, vegetable, and mineral alike, in the making and remaking of the world.

Ema, the Captive has roughly four movements. It begins with a military caravan of white men and convicts as they cross the pampas to reach a distant European outpost in the wilds of nineteenth-century Argentina. The hero of this section is a French engineer named Duval who is gradually initiated into Aira’s endorsement of procedure for its own sake:

But he cherished the hope that the task assigned to him would be all-encompassing and absorb his life entirely. He could not, in that state of mind, have found satisfaction in anything less sublime.

We meet the Ema of the title only in passing; she is a “white” convict caring for her child (though Aira mocks the arbitrariness of racial classification by noting that she does not at all look white but functions as white in both European and Indian racial economies because both groups wish her to be so for their own purposes).

She is eventually traded to the Indians, and the second movement details her experiences with her “husband” Gombo in a native settlement near a European fort, where she contemplates the colonel Espina’s introduction of money into native society as a medium of pure and meaningless representation that somehow creates value (one character makes the analogy to art clear: “Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as a means of passing the time”).

Their town is attacked by Indians from the frontier, however, and the third movement, mimicking the first, features Ema only as a side character as it details the languid, melancholy, Huysmans-like pleasure of prince Hual, on an island sojourn with his courtly retinue, including Ema. On this island, he delivers himself of beautifully nihilistic speeches—

“Life,” he said, “is a primitive phenomenon, destined to vanish entirely. But extinction is not and will not be sudden. Destiny is what gives the incomplete and the open their aesthetic force.”

—as the Indians pull a fish like a “very white woman” out of the water, thus certifying the universality of captivity.

In the fourth movement, Ema decides to take some control of her fate by breeding pheasants and thus participating in the complicated and interconnected economies of various Indian nations and the white colonizers—like Espina, like her creator, she too wishes to invent a self-replicating system of arbitrary values. This should not be read as a conventional triumph, however, but only Ema’s own initiation into what the other characters, from Duval to Gombo to Hual to Espina, have come to understand: as Gombo tells Ema, “If it weren’t impossible, life would be horrific.” I take “impossible” to mean, paradoxically, both “unendurable” and “full of infinite potential.”

That was the last and definitive lesson remaining for her to learn. Then everything fell into silence. There was no anabasis.

One could object all day long to this novel on political grounds, from its blasé depiction of the heroine’s rape to its wholly fantastical portrayal of Native Americans, but this would be an external critique and so somewhat beside the novel’s point (Wilde: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming”), which is that all life is a skein of procedures stretched over the void. As this article explains, Aira wrote the novel under conditions of a fascist regime, so his apolitical styling was an evasion worth making. Aira anyway evades the usual stereotypes in pursuit of new ones: his victimized heroine is not the “strong female character” of captivity narratives celebrated from Mary Rowlandson to Ellen Ripley by what critics have called a culture of imperialist feminism, but a novitiate in the aesthetic clerisy, while his Indians are not noble savages but, like Wilde’s Japanese, a nation of exemplary artists:

Imitating them was like returning to the source. Elegance is a religious, perhaps even a mystical, quality. The aesthetics of polite society: an imperative departure from the human. […] But the Indians kept still; their sole occupation was hanging from the blue air like bats.

Ema, the Captive is short, but it took me a long time to read. Aira remarkably recreates the trance-like state of his benumbed characters as they contemplate the impossibility of everything. In Chris Andrews’s translation, Aira’s phantasmagoria comes to listless life, feverishly dreamy, grotesque and sexy, a genuine and difficult pleasure:

They realized that they were, by chance, about to witness the act of mating. The male could barely control his excitement. When he swam upside down, they saw two horns, one on either side of the anus, as long and thick as pencils, with sharp points. The female turned over: her anus was surrounded by bulbous rings of throbbing tissue. The creatures coupled and sank to the bottom. The water made their cries sound distant. They tumbled in ecstasy, still clamped together. A web of white threads spread out around them.

I recommend Ema, the Captive with reservations (it is slow; it is, in its way, didactic), but even the reservations are recommendations—it is as slow as its preponderant mood of entranced nihilism demands; what it propounds is the truth, or one mood or mode of truth, even if we are not usually permitted to admit that we find life meaningless and impossible. To repurpose a line from the novel, Aira’s “words [stand] out beautifully against the ambient strangeness.”

The complete severance of art from life—or the claim that life is art, which amounts to the same separation as it undoes the hierarchy that allows art to be understood as a representation of nature—is the logical terminus of the aesthetic, its becoming free, like the droid-bred alien that menaces the crew of the Covenant. Art is too powerful to remain at large, though; readers of my recent reviews, those on Georg Lukács and Gillian Rose, will know that I fully expect—and in some part of my divided psyche, I even welcome—a forced recapture of art to affirmative values. Maybe it has to be that way, even from the perspective of art’s own interests: Aira is an end, not a beginning, and the paradox of aestheticist art, as I am always saying, is that it is less exciting than art that more urgently narrates the conflict of values. As he writes in this novel of an Indian ceremony, Aira’s work “require[s] the maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” For now, though, we can say with Borges that Wilde was right whether we like it or not about art’s separation from life, and learn to enjoy, along with Aira’s text and Scott’s subtext, the fact that we are all, in the end, equally alien, and that there is no known higher authority with whom we may covenant as we invent ourselves and our planet.



  1. Excellent essay. Any thoughts on what will do the forcing & who will do the recapturing (or vice verse on who & what) of art to affirmative values w/r/t your final paragraph?

    Speaking of agents, someone should write a brief survey of cladestine cells of amoral aesthetic laborers in the factory of popular culture. Or an anatomy of the ways autonomous art camouflages, conceals, or otherwise occults itself in those parts of the public sphere where money & risk threaten its existence.

    • Thank you!

      I think I was carried by the drift of my own rhetoric into excessive apocalypticism. I guess the main option right now is “culture” of various identitarian stripes, “right” or “left,” but this might involve too much kitsch to be persuasive for long. American liberalism is a ship that usually rights itself, so the aesthetic, which needs liberalism to protect it from outside interference and which liberalism needs in turn as a supplement to bloodless proceduralist secularist universalism, will probably be safe here for a while. In the long run, who knows? If history is any guide, a religion of some sort will fill the present vacuum, but we might be dead by then if we’re lucky.

      Agreed on your survey idea; wasn’t that what the second volume of Sexual Personae was supposed to be? My reading of Raymond Chandler suggests he might be exemplary here…and he leads to Ridley Scott via Philip K. Dick, so there are even genealogies that might be drawn up.

      • In the long run (& maybe not so long; I think excessive apocalypticism is warranted), recapture will be a contest between groups resembling Hugo de Garis’s Cosmist, Terran, & Cyborgist factions, whose religious orientations are, respectively: god builders, god worshippers & gods themselves. All three have corresponding aesthetic orientations, though I’m still figuring out what those would likely be. Let’s hope Wilde continues to be nearly always right (& why wouldn’t he be?), and Art & Thought prove to be more self-righting than liberalism or even humanity.

        Yes, genealogies too, & all the other metaphors for describing influence. Delany calls it a web in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, in a few of whose pages he traces the influence of Huysmans’s A Rebours on Disch’s & Bester’s Hell is Forever and the divagation of “an SF literary technique … [from] “an American fantasist [Poe], … over the ocean to be translated by a great poet [Baudelaire], … furthered by a French decadent [Huysmans], … return[ing] a hundred years later to American magazine fiction. … [T]his is the way the web of influence works, passing in and out of the genre, crossing national and language boundaries and returning, completely frustrating the historical critic who would keep everything in its proper path.”

      • Thanks! The aesthetics of the new gods are beyond my twentieth-century-humanist/modernist (i.e., Terran) ken, alas; I will probably die preferring Woolf to Lovecraft. (Not that Woolf does not occasionally get post-human psychedelic.) But if we splice your two paragraphs together and imagine a circuitous route from Poe through French modernism and Anglo-American pop and from there to the stars, perhaps recognizable neo-divine artistic productions are imaginable. As for Poe, I think of Guy Davenport’s essay “The Geography of the Imagination” hinting at a kind of genetic encoding of Grotesque (Northwestern European), Classical (Western Mediterranean), and Arabesque (Eastern Mediterranean and points further east) aesthetics in his work; in which case, your cosmic optimism is warranted even from my perspective.

  2. […] visually arresting, Alien: Covenant: just as Lorentzen compares BR 2049 to Ishiguro’s fiction, so I compared Covenant to César Aira’s fiction earlier this year. It answers the question Lorentzen asks at the end of his essay, wishing for an alternative to the […]

  3. […] is Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. I smuggled an essay on it into what was nominally a review of César Aira’s extraordinary novel, Ema, the Captive, since I saw both narratives purposefully manipulating myths and stereotypes toward the end of […]

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