Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Master Builders: Villa Straylight as Deviant Gesamstkunstwerk

I was able to understand much of the technological jargon of Neuromancer on only the simplest level, but I did find the architecture (what a surprise) of Villa Straylight and Case’s memory of the wasp’s nest intriguing. It reminded me of a lecture on animal architecture (EEB 311—excellent class) that focused mainly on termite mounds, which are absolutely spectacular on the inside. They look like very modern interiors—something Verner Panton might have come up with if he worked with a less psychedelic color palette. Wasps, too, are impressive builders. In Neuromancer, Case connects a wasps’ nest with Villa Straylight, a structure I would compare to a warped version of Art Nouveau.

Left: termite mound. Right: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Termites are blind, by the way.

Art Nouveau interiors are sometimes described as “cocoon-like” and are characterized by a sometimes bizarre, highly stylized version of nature. They are organic, with curves and swirls and whorls of every kind everywhere, and they exemplify what the Art and Archaeology Department likes to call the “GESAMSTKUNTSWERK.” Unfortunately, (perhaps the Art and Archaeology Department is not aware of this fact), we do not all speak German. In short, the Gesamstkunstwerk is a total work of art. The architecture/artist/creator takes care of absolutely everything, down to the smallest detail. In the case of the Art Nouveau interior, this means that all the furniture and artwork is site-specific and built-in, nothing can be moved or changed, and every surface, every corner, from the doorknobs to the glass of the windows, has been designed by the creator.

Collaboration between scientists, architects, and artists to replicate a termite mound interior on a human scale.

Villa Straylight represents a perversion of the total work of art. Instead of creating new objects for the space, scavenged items are brought in and violently forced into place. Case, looking at the Villa through Molly’s eyes, is appalled by the “ugliness” of an otherwise beautiful door. The door itself is not repulsive, but the way it “had been sawn down to fit a particular entrance” is (173). Case observes how everything in the house has been “forced” into place when in fact “none of it fit” (173). He sees Villa Straylight as the result of the “compulsive effort to fill space, to replicate some family image of self” and it reminds him of “the shattered nest, the eyeless things writhing” within it (173). In the broken nest, Case sees “the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed:” “Horror. The spiral birth factory…a kind of time-lapse photography…hideous in its perfection. Alien…bulging, writhing life” (122). Within the nest, and within Villa Straylight, nature is perverted and hideous, a factory of reproduction devoid of love or humanity.

Wasps' nest exterior and interior.

To Case, Villa Straylight is a “place grown in upon itself” (172). But in 3Jane’s description, Villa Straylight is a “body grown in upon itself” (167). Like the endless layers and chambers of the wasps’ nest, it is organic and alive, like a growing organism. But a body can never attain the level of Gesamstkunstwerk. Life is just too messy and too out of our control to ever be a perfect work of art, complete in itself with nothing more to be added or adjusted. A faint tang of horror, hinting at the hideous sights within, is always present. This idea relates to the mask of Armitage’s face, which breaks down into Corto’s tormented visage (188) and the fact that for all the advances made in surgery, it is always apparent when someone has had a little work done (for instance, Case can discern counterfeit youth by looking at people’s knuckles (153)). The mask or shell, though disguising the interior, nonetheless subtly betrays itself.


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