The heading refers to Kalervo Palsa’s comics Eläkeläinen muistelee (’A pensioner reminisces’). In the comics, Palsa identifies himself as the author by numerous references to sexuality. At the same time, Porno-Kalle leads us to question sexuality in Palsa’s works.
Young Palsa felt ashamed of his pornographic comics and regularly burnt them. Likewise, journal entries reveal an anxiety about masturbation. Later Palsa seems to forget his earlier shame. Masturbating self portraits turn into series, and sex is a recurrent theme to which the artist returns time and again. The journal entries from this time contain digressions on how the artist feels it an absolute necessity to paint his works, which have been branded pornographic in the press. What exactly did happen?
Depicting the hidden
For me, Palsa’s works are a documentary of what the subconscious could look like. They speak of the obsessions of sexuality, the compulsion to repeat, or fetishes. Their clarity is just the kind of clarity a person can experience in his dreams. In the dream, the meaning of life was revealed, but in the morning the notes are incomprehensible gibberish. Palsa’s imagery is clear, but the final meaning remains open.
When we think of Michel Foucault’s observation on how important the question of a person’s ’true‘ sexuality has become in the modern idea of sexuality, we might better understand Palsa’s meaning. In his works, Palsa deals with such things as necrophilia, masturbation, sex between men, celibacy, and everything else possible. Actually, it seems as if Palsa is illustrating a book on sexual perversions. However, he does not pathologise these manifestations of sexuality, but creates a new, human tragicomedy, with macabre humour very much in the picture. And in no way does he seem to be revealing the final truth about what sexuality ought to be. Rather, he presents ever new variations, so that viewers feel their cheeks burning more and more. How to relate to such things!? Or what is acceptable to me?
Against the ’natural’
Naked Lunch by Beat author William S. Burroughs was a significant reading experience for Palsa. Burroughs’ position in gay literature is controversial. He was sometimes accused of not presenting homosexual characters in a positive light in his hallucination-like works. Nowadays, his frenzied style and the fragmented structure of his works seem to forebode the militant gay movements of the early 1990s. No apologies, I am what I am, live with it. Burroughs really seems to feast on anal intercourse instead of apologising for it like some 19th century advocates of homosexuality, for whom mutual masturbation was a way of making sex between men respectable. Burroughs’ works raises the ’unnaturalness‘ of anal intercourse into rebellious glory. In Palsa’s imagery, the anus becomes a reverse force of life, reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s essay The Pineal Eye, which makes a carnival out of all the shame that has become rooted in our minds concerning anal pleasure. Palsa forces us to think about why we should be embarrassed about our own anality, when its ’shamefulness‘ is difficult to justify, to say the least.
The otherness found in works by Burroughs or Jean Genet seems also to be present in Palsa’s works. In his works, Genet glorifies the connection between crime and sexuality, whereas in Burroughs’ work drugs, death, and sex merge into a pattern, covering everything. In Palsa’s works, death and sex go all the time hand in hand. The connection between hanging and orgasm seems to derive from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, in which men, hanging themselves, ejaculate for the last time the moment their necks snap. What these depictions seem to have in common is how the heavy separation in the last moments of one’s life can at least slightly be alleviated by the idea of the last pleasure. The French nickname for orgasm, la petite mort, or the small death, inevitably comes to mind. A touch banal, but when discussing sexuality, one inevitably faces questions classified as banal. So deeply rooted does the rule of shame and silence seem to be when it comes to sexuality. It is the subject of a similar, but less profound silence as death.
What is it?
Self-fertilisation and men giving birth are the elements in Palsa’s works that allow us to address complex questions about creativity and naturalness. A man giving birth seems like a mockery of the traditional idea of a genius, because the genius (man) is a completely self-satisfied father and mother of his own works. Palsa’s works do not present us with a romantic young genius, but rather an aged libertine resembling the texts of de Sade. Palsa also seems to reveal a secret that most of us would want to keep quiet. It is the fantasy of omnipotence, with the desire of immortality as the driving force. If I can clone myself, I can become immortal. If I cannot do it, I can transcend death by writing, creating art, or, for instance, entering politics or committing murders. It is a brave thing to reveal one’s dreams of immortality this openly, but we must remember, however, that dreams or Palsa’s works do not translate into diagnoses in prose without problems.
Axel Sandemose’s Commandments of Jante were among the mottoes of the artist. Its main thesis is the prohibition to be different from others. Palsa’s works, on the other hand, endeavoured to present unconventional ideas about sex and death. Thus he turns to examine critically that which we consider natural or proper, whether it be heterosexuality made natural or denying the possibility of suicide. Palsa also seems to force us to think about everything we would rather not think about, as it would be so much nicer if the world was a completely rational, quasi-tolerant, and quasi-pleasant place. Kalervo Palsa preached against this straitjacket of denial and conformity. Through him, anything classified as perverse became heard.
The writer is a researcher and a critic