January 28th, 2011 / 5:49 pm

Necro, Necro, Necropastoral

Hieronymus Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delights (1503)

Like Joshua Corey & others, I’m bewitched by Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of “the necropastoral.” (read her posts at Montevidayo) I fear I have little to contribute, but much to wonder about. My inclination is to assume I’m misunderstanding what she means by the term, even after reading her definition:

[the ‘necropastoral’ is] a term which denaturalizes the pastoral by focusing on its always/already unnatural qualities. In its classical form, the pastoral is a kind of membrane on the urban, an artificial, counterfeit, impossible, anachronistic version of an alternative world that is actually the urban’s double, contiguous, and thus both contaminatory and ripe for contamination, a membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego). [here]

But since I’ve never let misunderstanding stop me from asking questions, or engaging in conversation, I thought I would share some thoughts (more bricolage of ideas than exposition) provoked by the evocation of “the necropastoral.”

Part of what interests me about the necropastoral is the tension between the visible and the invisible, especially the hauntology of that which goes unseen. Thinking now of how Lia Purpura describes Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in her essay “On Invisibility” from her book On Looking (pg. 105):

In Bosch’s hell, being unseen is a sickening constant: the action’s all tripping, spilling, and cracking–all the bent bodies make a writhing mosaic–but no one is watching anyone else. If a tree were to fall in this forest of horrors there would be no philosophy, no koan about it–which requires the mind at nimble attention, human discussion, an idea in passing, passing along, gathering steam, gathering moss. And hell is being passed over untouched. Going glimpsed-but-unseen.


Jacek Yerka "Desert island" (1999)

Martin Clark:

An island (particularly a deserted one) is a thing to be inhabited, to be claimed. In fact it can only appear, it can only exist for itself, once we are there to complete it, to give it expression. Just as the island creates the wilderness about it, makes visible the desert of the sea, so to the subject is necessary to create the island, to complete it. In his essay “Desert Islands” Gilles Deleuze writes: “An island doesn’t stop being deserted simply because it is inhabited… Far from compromising it, human beings bring the desertedness to its perfection and highest point… those people who come to the island indeed occupy and populate it; but in reality, were they sufficiently separate, sufficiently creative, they would give the island only a dynamic image of itself, a consciousness of the movement which produced the island, such that through them the island would in the end become conscious of itself as deserted an unpeopled. The island would be only the dream of humans, and humans, the pure consciousness of the island.”


These passages from Blanchot’s The Space of Literature (pg. 137):

Thus one could say that the Open is absolutely uncertain and that never, upon any face or in any gaze, have we perceived its reflection, for all mirroring is already that of a figurative reality. “Always it is the world and never a Nowhere without no.” This certainty is essential: to approach the Open as something sure would surely be to miss it.

& (pg. 258):

The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow.

& (pg. 259):

We do not cohabit with the dead for fear of seeing here collapse into the unfathomable nowhere — a fall the House of Usher illustrated. And so the dear departed is conveyed into another place.


The similarities between:

the shepard's crook

the priest's crosier

the magician's wand


Renaissance occult figures John Dee and Edward Kelley, pictured here in a pastoral setting (?), conjuring a spirit:


According to New Advent (the Catholic Encyclopedia):

(nekros, “dead”, and manteia, “divination”)

Necromancy is a special mode of divination by the evocation of the dead. Understood as nigromancy (niger, black), which is the Italian, Spanish and old French form, the term suggests “black” magic or “black” art, in which marvellous results are due to the agency of evil spirits, while in “white” magic they are due to human dexterity and trickery. The practice of necromancy supposes belief in the survival of the soul after death, the possession of a superior knowledge by the disembodied spirit, and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead.


Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Comte de Lautréamont (pg. 112-116):

The next day she would wander off anew through the daisies and mignonettes; amid the sunbeams and the mayflies’ swirling flight; knowing only the prismatic glass of life — not yet its gall; happy to be bigger than the titmouse; making fun of the warbler for not singing as well as the nightingale; slyly sticking out her tongue at the nasty crow who would watch her paternally; and graceful as a kitten. I was not to delight in her presence for long. The time was approaching when, in an unexpected manner, she would bid farewell to life’s charms, and abandon forever the company of turtle-dove, hazel-grouse, and greenfinch, the prattle of tulip and anemone, the counsels of the march-grass, the rasping wit of the frogs and the freshness of the brooks…

…Maldoror was passing by with his bulldog. He saw a young girl sleeping in a plane tree’s shade and first he took her for a rose…

…The blood from her lacerated abdomen ran once again down her legs and on to the meadow. Her moans mingled with the animal’s whining…

…From this enlarged trough he removed the internal organs, one after the other: intestines, lungs, liver, and finally the heart itself were ripped from their roots and pulled up through the frightful aperture into the light of day. The sacrificer perceived that the girl — a drawn chicken — had died long ago. He cut short the increasing persistence of his ravages and let the corpse again sleep in the plane tree’s shade. The knife was found lying a few steps away. A shepherd witnessed the crime — whose perpetrator was not discovered — and only told it long afterwards when he had ascertained that the criminal had safely reached the frontier…


The movement of pastoral representation from clarity (which is false?) toward opacity (which is true?):

Asher Brown Durand - "Pastoral Landscape" (1861)

Matisse "Pastoral" (1905)

Kazuya Akimoto "Haunted Place" (~2000)


In her book Black Sun, Julia Kristeva reminds us of Prince Myshkin’s encounter with Holbein’s painting of “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” in the outset of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:

Here one cannot help being struck by the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who overcame nature during His lifetime and whom nature obeyed, who said Talitha cumi! and the little girl arose, who cried, Lazarus come forth! and the dead man came forth? Looking at the that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast…


“The abomination of desolation” (from The Book of Daniel)

“…false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect…” (from Mark 13 — The Little Apocalypse)


Alfred Jarry envisions the world after civilization, when machines continue to exist, in his book Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911):

…Meanwhile, after there was no one left in the world, the Painting Machine, animated inside by a system of weightless springs, revolved in azimuth in the iron hall of the Palace of Machines, the only monument standing in the deserted and razed Paris; like a spinning top, it dashed itself against the pillars, swayed and veered in infinitely wavried directions, nd followed its own whim in blowing onto the walls’ canvas the succession of primary colors ranged according to the tubes of its stomach…


Where does the necropastoral intersect the posthuman?


E.M. Cioran A Short History of Decay (pg. 73):

I wanted to love heaven and earth, their exploits and their fevers—and I have found nothing which failed to remind me of death: flowers, stars, faces—symbols of withering, potential slabs of all possible tombs!


Henry David Thoreau, “The Maine Woods” (pg. 645-646):

Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain. We were passing over “Burnt Lands,” burnt by lightning, perchance, though they showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer, exceedingly wild and desolate, with occasional strips of timber crossing them, and low poplars springing up, and patches of blueberries here and there. I found myself traversing them familiarly, like some pasture run to waste, or partially reclaimed by man; but when I reflected what man, what brother or sister or kinsman of our race made it and claimed it, I expected the proprietor to rise up and dispute my passage. It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, — not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there — the home this of Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we. We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping from time to time to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste. Perchance where our wild pines stand, and leaves lie on their forest floor in Concord, there were once reapers, and husbandmen planted grain; but here not even the surface had been scarred by man, but it was a specimen of what God saw fit to make this world. What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?


Does the necropastoral need a soundtrack? If so, what about:

Moondog – “Pastoral” (1971)



  1. herocious

      i just wanted to go on record as severely liking (liking hard) garden of earthly delights.

  2. Kent Johnson

      And, too, you know, while we’re pondering the Necro mysteries of the pastoral (lucky us and our leisure thanks to the surplus made by others!):


  3. Sean

      This whole post and link captivated me and made me feel stupid at times, but that is OK. Much of I locked into. It’s what I read HTML for; it made me think. The decay, the decay. It’s as if life is a joke and we know the punch line perfectly. I don’t know. I think I will drink beer now and laugh.

  4. deadgod

      Death being what’s excommunicant within and without ‘pastoral’, what is biopastoral?

      Sprich auch du,
      Sprich als letzter,
      Sag deinen Spruch.

      Sprich –
      Doch scheide das Nein nicht vom Ja.

      [Speak also – you – ,
      Speak as the last,
      Say your speech.

      Speak –
      Yet divide the No not from Yes.]


  5. Cole Anders

      “Another name for it is Death, or Media.”–another quotation from Joyelle McSweeney’s posts on the necropastoral. Thanks for pointing out these posts, and especially for bringing them into connection with Blanchot and Kristeva (and everything else).

      Me and a friend once tried to write a book about the Green River killings; we wanted it to be a true-crime book without a criminal (and without heroic policemen). We would focus on the quasi-suburban landscape where the bodies had been found (near a slaughterhouse, near a prison, near an airport). We called the object of our investigation–that landscape–the pastoral abject.

      Soon everything seemed to be the pastoral abject, we thought: gruesome counterfeit pastorals like the slaughterhouse (animals were once slaughtered in the marketplace, until 19th century reforms decreed that death should take place elsewhere, in the city’s other); also golf courses, federal prisons, a ghost suburb that the airport had bought up and emptied…

      In the end our project overwhelmed us; we wrote only a booklet, a bookini. We felt vindicated and disappointed when, some time after, the traditional true-crime account of Green River came out, and one of the photos of the killer’s bedroom showed that it was completely wallpapered in a giant photomural of a forest.

  6. Christopher Higgs


  7. Christopher Higgs
  8. Christopher Higgs

      one of the photos of the killer’s bedroom showed that it was completely wallpapered in a giant photomural of a forest.

      Wow, creepy!

      I had never heard of the Green River killer. Had to do a little research. Not exactly the best accompaniment for my breakfast, but very interesting in relation to this topic.

      Would love for the small press world to start publishing true crime books. That would be cool. Your project of writing one without a killer or cops sounds brilliant. “The pastoral abject” is another interesting concept. You should revive that project. It sounds awesome.

      Thanks for your comments, Cole!

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