The Thrill of the Kill: Pushing the Boundaries of Experience in the
La antigua relación entre víctima y victimario, que es lo único que humaniza al crimen, lo único que lo hace imaginable, ha desaparecido. (. . .) Para nosotros el crimen es todavía una relación — y en este sentido posee el mismo significado liberador que la Fiesta o la confesión—. De ahí su dramatismo, su poesía y — ¿por qué no decirlo? — su grandeza. Gracias al crimen, accedemos a una efímera trascendencia.
(Paz, El laberinto 55)
Nada como matar a un hombre. Oler la sangre ajena, sentirla en la piel; probarla con la punta de la lengua es la mayor conquista
(Parra 2002: 210)
Within the span of the last ten years, the contemporary Mexican writer Eduardo Antonio Parra has established himself as the author of a particularly visceral and brutally explicit prose.(1) His texts faithfully portray bleak urban environments, grim US-Mexican border towns, and desolate rural areas, where resentment and loneliness prevail above all other sentiments. Just as he reveals a predilection for nocturnal settings in his fiction, Parra seems to be drawn to the dark side of the human mind; his fascination with shadowy emotions such as erotic fury, aggression, blood thirst, and the pleasure found in pain— both one’s own and that inflicted upon others— is the key building block of his entire work. His protagonists’ quests for the ultimate ‘high’ and the lowest ‘low’ translate into what Albert Camus called ‘metaphysical rebellion’ (26), when referring to crimes executed as deliberate acts of protest against the human condition. In other words, these transgressive yearnings always appear against the background of an omnipresent violence, invariably envisioned in Parra’s poetics as part and parcel of the human condition.
Studies devoted to Parra’s work have sought to privilege his trademark symbolism of limits: be it the spatial frontier between two countries or the existential bounds of man’s actions.(2) Likewise, this essay will foreground the very antipodes of experience by exploring the topic of death, the ultimate boundary par excellence. I will focus on Parra’s novel Nostalgia de la sombra (2002) and the short story “El placer de morir” from Los límites de la noche (2000), in which dark instincts play themselves out with a particular force and where murder, the ultimate taboo, becomes the common denominator. These texts are also bound by an implicit misogyny and an outright gendered violence, where a woman, the erotic other, is the object of man’s destructive pleasures. In both cases, it is also woman’s corporeality where the drama of transgression is played out, thus conferring a particularly literal relevance to the expression ‘over her dead body.’ Through the grid of George Bataille’s philosophy of the extreme and his celebration of self-ruin as a divine or sovereign inspiration, I will examine Parra’s male protagonists as they embark upon an unbridled pursuit of ecstatic experiences in search of the raison d’être of their own existence. I will argue that, ironically, this very moment of final self-realization is a double-edged sword of an almost mystical illumination and self-inflicted, irreversible condemnation.
Under the Rubric of Death, or Where Parra and Bataille Converge
Parra’s gritty world of tormented individuals is violent, but not gratuitously so. Rather, it appears that its destructive tendencies are an inherent human condition making coexistence with others so much more challenging. In an interview with Eduardo Castañeda, Parra articulated his interest in humanity’s evil side and his belief in its strong influence over the choices we make. He stated that all are capable of most violent reactions and it is often coincidental whether kindness or cruelty predominates in a given situation:
cuando estás en convivencia siempre hay una chispa de ira. La violencia está en todos lados, entonces, lo que yo he tratado de hacer es cuestionarme por qué. Creo que en mis textos hay una cierta perplejidad, una fascinación y una intención de desentreñar esos orígenes. No sé, no quisiera irme al lado metafísico, este de que el mal está en todas partes, pero yo creo que de alguna manera sí. El ser humano es totalmente contrastante; todos traemos lo maldito adentro y lo bendito también. La cosa es cuál te domina más.
to illustrate this aforementioned exuberance of forces than a
spontaneous murderer? A common citizen who becomes capable of executing
the most horrific crimes under extreme circumstances, thus achieving a
previously unimagined sense of control and freedom? Parra’s characters
often flirt with danger but none of them undergoes such a complex
metamorphosis as Ramiro Mendoza Elizondo, the protagonist of Nostalgia de la sombra. His transformation from a
harmless family man to a ruthless killer does not impugn his
circumstances but rather points to the latent death instinct hidden in
many individuals. Ramiro’s life can be divided into three fundamental
stages, where first, he discovers his aggressive potential, in order to
embark on a career of killing and lastly, to return to his native
Ramiro is a
compliant, law-abiding citizen. Caught up in a dead-end, paper-pushing
job at a local newspaper in
As a consequence, the obedient and emasculated editor who “nunca había hecho nada aparte de dar media vuelta y retirarse” (2002: 48), unleashes his anger and pent-up frustration, responding to nothing but his survival instinct: “De cuando en cuando lograba atrapar un miembro, una cabeza y la molía con puños y rodillas, con la frente, mordía la carne hasta arrancarla y después escupía la sangre” (2002: 53). When everyone collapses under his raging fists, he finishes off one of the attackers with the obvious pleasure and dexterity of a professional:
Adelantó su rostro hacia el
This unexpected massacre becomes a rite of passage for the killer who, as Parra would concur with Bataille, is secretly living in everyone: “There is a potential killer in every man, the frequency of senseless massacres throughout history makes that much plain” (1986: 72). From this moment on, Parra’s protagonist is a different man, no longer attached to worldly concerns or worried about his future. In a strange, twisted way, he becomes free, liberated from his fears and obligations (“El miedo se había esfumado para siempre” ). In the past, in his respectable life, Ramiro only fantasized about transgression, translating his destructive desires onto a film script whose hero was a merciless but a justified killer: “La venganza fría y absoluta (…) representaba el éxtasis. El hecho de tener una sola misión en la vida, y cumplirla desdeñando lo demás, significaba que venir al mundo no había sido un desperdicio” (2002: 32). Now, he enthusiastically embraces the lifestyle of an outlaw, at the same time revealing that he has secretly craved this status all along: “El demonio. Cada uno de nosotros lo carga escondido en las entrañas. Queremos que salga porque cuando se agita retorciéndose nos sentimos hinchados, a punto de reventar” (2002: 27). By crossing the boundaries of what is permissible and by putting his own life in danger, Ramiro has finally found the way to feel truly alive and empowered.
On a parallel note, Bataille observes that only by the use of reason do we control the future, grasping instead the significance of pure instantaneity through the realm of our passions (1994: 88). Similarly, Ramiro abandons what reason has always dictated to him as morally right, deciding to live in and for the moment only, in the vertigo of a continuous risk. As Miguel G. Rodríguez Lozano rightly notes, “Aquí se trata en todo caso de exterminar y gozar, disfrutar con ello. Por esto, la idea del mal vinculado con la violencia vibra como discurso zigzagueante” (70). No longer subjugated to work or the law, Ramiro discovers within himself a new man who does not have to respond to anyone for his actions. He begins an existence on his own terms, far away from his previous family; first, as a homeless man, than, as a prison inmate, and finally, as an assassin for hire who does what he likes best, namely, to play with death for the mere thrill of the moment. He knows that sooner or later he will have to pay for this transgression with his own life, yet he does not fear death, for he has lived what Bataille would describe as an experience ‘freed from all constraints, including and especially the constraint of duration’ (1994: 115).
While Ramiro’s transformation into a killer is presented retrospectively in alternate chapters throughout the novel,(5) the first section of the book marks the beginning of an end: the protagonist’s return to his native city with the assignment of eliminating his first female victim. The reader suspects that this murder will coincide with the protagonist’s change of heart or perhaps even his downfall, because Ramiro has completed a full circle by returning to his hometown, and because his current mark goes beyond the usual elimination of other men. What gives the story another twist is his unexpected infatuation with the person he had agreed to murder. While following his female victim Maricruz Escobedo around town, Ramiro becomes fascinated with his charismatic prey. Her mature beauty, her inner resolve, the impenetrable veneer and fearlessness with which she strikes business deals with influential men, all make Ramiro esteem and desire her. Such a turn of events makes us suspect that Ramiro might give up his mission and decide to save the targeted woman in the name of love. Nonetheless, far from an idyllic solution, the novel embraces instead a sublime combination of love and death, thus augmenting Ramiro’s final transgression. Just as for Bataille, “[t]he anguish of death and death itself are at the antipodes of pleasure” (1986: 102), Ramiro comes to experience the ultimate vertigo by loving and annihilating what he grew to love. Bataille believes that there is an indelible connection between eroticism and death because the momentarily upsurge of life, attributed primarily to the instant of imminent death, can also be experienced in supreme erotic encounters. Likewise, Parra’s protagonist comes to the point where death and eroticism converge, where the sensuality of crime opens for him yet another mystical climax.
This hit promises to be very special; it is where the protagonist truly submerges himself in his mission, where he grows to desire the same individual he has every intention of eliminating. Solitary and detached from society by choice, Ramiro realizes that he has found an equal in this woman who, like him, has grown to control her circumstances by playing tough and by sacrificing most of her personal life. Doing what infatuated people tend to do, Ramiro watches Maricruz’s every step, repeatedly looks at her photograph, and inwardly talks to her, trying to comprehend her unforeseen appeal. In his mind, he will finally communicate with his victim through an act of the ultimate wounding, while sinking his knife in her chest. Penetrating her with the weapon and imagining her hapless body softening in his arms, he achieves a feeling of being swept off his feet, of falling headlong as if in the greatest erotic episode. Unlike previous lovemaking with his wife or dispassionate sexual acts with prostitutes, this encounter promises what Bataille described as an intoxication of existence, where for a moment, he can lose himself in another being: ‘If love exists at all it is, like death, a swift movement of loss within us, quickly slipping into tragedy and stopping only with death’ (1986: 239).
Clearly, the violence underwriting Parra’s novel is highly eroticized, because woman’s desirability is configured as that of an oblivious target to man’s attack. However beautiful she may be as an object of desire, this desire always takes on the trappings of pure fetishism. Ramiro indulges in a sexualized cat-and-mouse-game, where only he knows about his victim’s imminent end. Exercising the role of omnipresent narrator in his own, real-life criminal script gives him an additional thrill, continuously echoing Bataille’s belief in the intrinsic connection between love and death: ‘Possession of the beloved object does not imply death, but the idea of death is linked with the urge to possess’ (1986: 20). The day of the planned execution Ramiro fantasizes about their encounter, as if it were a rendezvous between two lovers:
Pensó en Maricruz Escobedo recién despierta, desnuda en la orilla de la cama, acariciándose la piel de los pechos. (…) ¿Eres tú? Sí, soy yo, Maricruz (…) Ramiro, te hablo para recordarte,…hoy debemos encontrarnos antes de que anochezca.¿No lo has olvidado? No, Maricruz, desde hace más de una semana no pienso en otra cosa. Qué bueno. A mí me pasa lo mismo. Ardo en deseo de conocerte (…) Quiero saber lo que es capaz de hacerle un hombre como tú a una mujer como yo. (2002: 279)
is something morbidly sensual in his planned act of femicide, since
Ramiro will consummate the ultimate possession of this woman’s body.
Parra’s novel strongly suggests that seeing her life slipping away will
be the most intimate act the protagonist can perform on her, the
supreme sacrifice and the
But Bataille’s poetics of justice projects a dramatic end as the only possible denouement for an unrepentant transgressor: “The modern rebel exists in crime: he kills, but in his turn he accepts that his crime consecrates him to death: he ‘accepts dying and paying for a life with a life’. In human terms there is a curse on all sovereignty, as on all revolt. Anyone who does not submit must pay, for he is guilty” (1994: 171). Similarly, as Ramiro returns to his car amidst the sounds of sirens and a general tumult, he realizes that annihilating Maricruz has led to his own downfall. The initially unnoticed gun wound, inflicted on him by Maricruz’s driver during their brief fight, turns out to be lethal. After all, “at the summit the unlimited negation of otherness is the negation of self” (Bataille 1986: 173), and Ramiro had exterminated what he had grown to respect the most. Having reached the zenith of his rebellion against the world, he now lets go of it all, confronting his most intimate desire for (self) annihilation. As he sits in the car, oblivious to the world around him, Ramiro bleeds to death, thereby paying for his wild detour from the mundane existence of a middle-class family man. Having reached the limits of evil, he quickly fades away, no longer fearing his own imminent end. Behind him, the female character who never served any other purpose than to be the target of man’s eroticized violence, fades into the background again.
Unlike Parra’s novel, where carnal pleasure is suppressed, and the erotic emerges only half way through the text and exclusively at the spiritual level, the short story “El placer de morir” is all about the orgy of the senses. From the onset, the text stands out as deliberately disturbing and controversial, as it tracks the vicissitudes of Roberto’s erotic development and his rapid descent into a decadent world of perverse carnal pleasures. The story brings Sade and Bataille together, as Roberto’s lifestyle faithfully mirrors Bataille’s observations about the father of sadism, whose life “was the pursuit of pleasure, and the degree of pleasure was in direct ratio to the destruction of life” (1986: 180). Unabashedly perverse, Parra’s protagonist is intent on satisfying his utmost desires starting at the early age of twelve. Nightly escapades to the maid’s quarters, where he finds alcohol, cigarettes, and a nascent sexuality, give him a taste for the forbidden, a penchant that only grows with every passing year. His vocation is simple but uncommon: ‘tener lo indispensable y dedicarse a fabricar deseos y satisfacerlos’ (2000: 22). He does not crave the usual riches, power or fame but, instead, dedicates himself to the pursuit of what he holds in the highest esteem: “el placer: exprimir el máximo goce que la vida pueda ofrecer a un hombre” (2000: 22).
His parents’ death in a car accident enables him to descend into the X-rated world, where he can dispose of his inheritance with impunity. Though still under-aged, Roberto secretly acquaints himself with local brothels in order to satisfy his curiosity about the intricacies of sex. This self-proclaimed “buscador de placer” and “huérfano libertino” (2000: 25, 27) explores manifold means of sexual gratification, invariably intent on learning how to maximize his pleasure beyond what he has experienced so far. Fully corrupt and debauched, the protagonist engages voyeurism rather than rapport in the reader, since his only motivation is nothing other than pure, selfish pleasure. His aloofness notwithstanding, Roberto, just as Ramiro in Nostalgia de la sombra, represents Bataille’s sovereign rebel, an explorer of all that can be explored in his quest for the extreme. Ignoring the risk of eventual poverty once his parents’ money runs out, he refuses to subjugate his life to work, which in his mind, would make him bear the same weight overwhelming all the socialized others.
Roberto’s early predilection for transgressive practices takes him one step further when he meets his first long-term girlfriend, a wealthy virgin who submits to his growing sexual demands in order to keep him attached. Their unequal experience with sex causes Roberto to become the girl’s tutor, manipulating both her body and mind to keep himself entertained. Gradually, his games escalate to a pre-calculated sadism in which, in the sense of Bataille, “Cruelty and eroticism are conscious intentions in a mind which has resolved to trespass into a forbidden field of behavior” (1986: 79-80). Having already experimented with the pleasures and varieties of sexual intercourse with local prostitutes, he craves something superior to the mere usual. Consequently, the story demonstrates that the allure of their bond does not build itself upon his love or her willingness to fulfill his desires, but on the humiliation and the depravation that Roberto can inflict upon the compliant and utterly devoted debutant:
Vencida por el amor, no se atrevió a poner reparos a los deseos de Roberto, que experimentaba con ella todas las fantasías que brotaban de su mentalidad de sádico en ciernes. La sodomizó, la flageló. La obligó a representarle las más descabelladas comedias, la llevó a todos los límites imaginables para una muchacha como ella. (2000: 30)
Echoing Sadean philosophy, Roberto finds the most extreme pleasure in inflicting pain through the misogynistic practice of subjugating the woman’s body (“el goce sin límites de provocar dolor en el sexo opuesto” ). Unlike Roberto’s peers who, in his eyes, live enmeshed in a bourgeois malaise with the primary purpose of getting ahead in life, the protagonist closes himself to the outside world, listening exclusively to his own instinct. Unapologetically, he chooses libertine behavior in his tenacious pursuit of personal gratification through sex and drugs.
When we meet Roberto in the story, he is a mature man who has finally squandered his entire inheritance. Ensconced in a seedy hotel, he is engaged in a night of sex and drugs with an unidentified woman. As his companion dozes off from partying, Roberto sips leftover wine in the dark and reminisces about his whole life, thereby providing us with flashbacks of his sordid adolescence. Once his partner wakes up, they return to their drug-enhanced orgy, maximizing their pleasure by rubbing cocaine on their gums and on each other’s genitalia. A repeated focus on sexual organs in states of arousal and in coition situates the story deep in the realm of the senses, exploring the purely physical disconnected from any pretense of sentimentalism. However, while the orgy seems to satisfy his partner, who moans in response to Roberto’s automatic caresses, the protagonist is overcome by an acute sense of insufficiency. In fact, he has wanted more his entire life, and only now the idea of what he envisages as “la máxima creación, la obra maestra” (2000: 32) slowly materializes in his mind.
Bataille has stated that ‘at the basis of human life there exists a principle of insufficiency (1985: 172). Haunted by the reality of death, we seek to provide ourselves with a security that would somehow cheat the inevitable end. For Bataille, this desired refuge can occur in erotic communication between two individuals, where, albeit only momentarily, I and otherness merge into one. The motivation for such a longing is that, in the process, it will offer a glimpse into an ephemeral, cosmic continuum. Likewise, Roberto seeks tirelessly to surpass his own limited condition in order to return to the comfort of undifferentiation and universal communion. Yet he is doomed to be unsatisfied, for desire is by definition insatiable: “El placer se agota porque es uno mismo: por eso es necesario acumularlo, atesorarlo como riqueza debajo del colchón de la memoria. Si no, es semejante al dolor, propio o ajeno: hay un momento en que se desvanece” (2000: 31).
protagonist exhausts the pleasures of life, he begins to suspect that
the supreme transgression—the supreme orgasm—may indeed come from
living the pleasure of death, the ultimate boundary bracketing human
experience: “[Roberto] ha comprendido que la tentación de la muerte es
As Roberto approaches his climax while the entranced woman begs for more brutal caresses, he reaches for a knife buried in the sheets and frantically stabs her without withdrawing his organ. Unconcerned about the consequences of his action— the woman’s death, his own long-term incarceration or other inevitable repercussions— Roberto finally feels accomplished in his search for the ultimate, knowing that he could never top what he has just experienced: “Y Roberto ya no piensa ni imagina nada cuando las contracciones internas de la muerte son dos fauces que atrapan su miembro hasta exprimirlo por completo, antes de desplomarse sobre un cuerpo húmedo y pegajoso, temblando en la satisfacción de haber experimentado la última frontera del placer” (37). His controversial quest for the supreme orgasm finally dissolves in the erotic experience of murder, in what he has envisaged as the intimate communion between slayer and slain. Envisioning himself as an artist—a man who by definition makes and unmakes things—and not the cold-blooded killer that he is, Roberto, as Black would say, domesticates ‘the most aberrant, sociopathic behavior—of converting a moral transgression into an amoral, aesthetic digression’ (111).
There is no
doubt that the most fundamentally tragic feature of life is its
finiteness; to live is to march steadily towards death. While most
individuals retreat within their daily routine to eschew the anguish of
the inexorable end, Parra’s protagonists choose to confront this truth
through unconventional and pathological means, probing the very core of
who they are and what they have become in the process of their
tumultuous search. Rejecting any moral standard that could prevent them
from crossing over into the abyss, they push beyond the systems that
reassure and insulate others, deciding instead to face the consequence
of their rebellion against the existential yoke. But in this brief
moment of insurgence, they live fully their evilness, confronting life
in an open way and accepting responsibility for their role in the
journey. In the end, Parra’s most unsettling provocation lies, I think,
not in his insistence on exploring the darkest human side but in
demonstrating that there is something intriguingly alluring in
transgressing and accepting one’s own evil. In the end, even if the
results of their actions are disastrous, his protagonists make the
choice to live their rebellion against all prescribed moral values
rather than to accept the burden of living that was placed upon them.
(2). See Diana Palaversich’s ‘Espacios y contra-espacios en la narrativa de Eduardo Antonio Parra,’ Miguel G. Rodríguez Lozano’s ‘Sin límites ficcionales: Nostalgia de la sombra de Eduardo Antonio Parra,’ and Pablo Brescia’s ‘Los límites
(3). See Bataille’s Eroticism and Parra’s short stories, especially ‘El Cristo de San Buenaventura’ from the collection Tierra de nadie ([México: Ediciones Era, 1999] 109-141), which amply explores the theme of infinite cruelty.
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