Borges said the writing of Kafka was so original it created its own precursors. It made us read Kierkegaard and the 9th Century Chinese writer Han Yu as Kafkaesque. Without Kafka, we would not notice their calm ability to make strangeness ordinary and the ordinary strange. The writing of Chris Kraus is so layered and witty, it is causing things to look Krausian. The best way to read the writing of Kathy Acker is as a precursor to the writing of Chris Kraus.
Acker still won’t give you pleasure. No one including Kraus claims they feel pleasure reading Acker. In a recent phone conversation, Kraus said that, as an aspiring, some-kind-of-artist in 1980s New York, she got high on Acker’s chutzpah to place her own subjectivity at the center of her sentences. That, Acker does, as well as her menstrual blood, bad fucks, ambition to be famous, torture porn, and rich-girl stealing from better writers to pay herself. On the phone, Kraus said, “I would see her at an art opening or a party, and my palms would get sweaty, and I’d be frozen with awe and terror.” Years later, Kraus reports in the autofiction I Love Dick (1997), she was browsing through the books of Sylvère Lottringer, whom she would marry, and found a volume inscribed, “To Sylvère, The Best Fuck In The World (At Least To My Knowledge) Love, Kathy Acker.” So there is that link, too.
Acker died in a Tijuana alternative health facility in 1997, at age 50, from breast cancer she chose not to treat with chemotherapy. Five or so years later Kraus thought of writing a biography of Acker but hesitated, sensing she didn’t have the detachment she would need to find a story worth telling and a voice to tell it in. The story worth telling could not celebrate Acker’s artistry, although there is daring and invention in what she wrote. She was an avatar of the great, Lower East Side do-it-yourself art camp, where anyone can put on a show in a hole in the wall café and anyone can be an artist with a patchwork of found objects. Acker spliced her letters and diary entries between slabs of appropriated texts from Dickens, Propertius, Emily Bronte, and scads of others, producing surprising formal effects and willing her experience into the body of Literature. No detail of corporeal existence was out of bounds. She could be rude, occasionally funny, and stark. Sentences here and there jump out with simple truth and wit. “Intense sexual desire is the greatest thing in the world (Eurydice in the Underworld).” “Murderers know nothing about fashion (My Mother Demonology).”
Still, overall, the writing is dull in its sameness. The narrators look in, not out. They feel, feel, feel, but we do not see, see, see what they are looking at. Their pronouncements are melodramatic, their images overblown. They ask for love, a pat on the head for their erudition, and agreement with their analyses and summaries. It’s exhausting to keep having to say okay.
Wisely, Kraus turned her attention to the circus of Acker’s life and to her disciplined march to a place in the world. Wikipedia lists 26 published titles in Acker’s entry. By the time she was 32, she was the subject of an hour-long documentary as part of the prestigious British South Bank Show. She began by self-publishing and eventually formed a relationship with Grove Press. She became a literary superstar in 80s England and in the States and elsewhere a punk glam luminary, performing on state to large, appreciative crowds, marketing herself as a gender outlaw with her tattooed, pierced biker body and Comme de Garcin clothes.
She lived like a man without pregnancy; she lived like a woman by putting her body at risk of pregnancy and having five abortions. She lived like a man by ignoring women; she lived like a woman by focusing on men. She lived like a man by putting work at the center of her life; she lived like a woman by asking men to advance her career. She was the smartest girl in any room, her hand darting up to answer all the questions and nab all the boyfriends. If you, too, were a cannibal, Kathy would eat your friends and then eat you.
In After Kathy Acker, Kraus nails this persona as a crafted calculation: “Just as the twenty-three-year-old Acker trained herself to heighten the emotional pitch of her diary by deleting conjunctions and adjectives, throughout her life she consistently sought situations that would result in disruptive intensity for all parties involved. Almost all the emotional tributes and essays penned in the wake of her death by friends speak of her ‘vulnerability’. Yet, like most of the rest of her writing and life, her vulnerability was highly strategic. Pursuing a charged state of grace, Acker knew, in some sense, exactly what she was doing. To pretend otherwise is to discount the crazed courage and breadth of her work.” [p. 176]
After Kathy Acker is a brilliant meditation on female ambition in the second half of the 20th Century. Note to humans: Do not stop writing, even when you are suffering from an STD, recovering from an abortion, pining for the most recent schmendrik who, after that morning’s fuck, cast dead eyes upon the space above your head. Kraus’s book is fun, fun, fun. It reads like a performance monologue you don’t want to end, layered with her trademark descriptive powers, exhaustive research, personal revelations, and gossipy eyewitness accounts of the Downtown scene. Like Acker, Kraus is interested in the female body and the female mind in a world that reviles them. Like Acker, Kraus is interested more generally in power granted and power denied. And Kraus, too, combines genres with anarchic flare, but where Acker is pounding, abstract and grandiose, Kraus is comic, speculative, and compassionate.
With typical fluidity, Kraus here sketches the freewheeling dance scene of the 1970s and Acker’s intersection with it: “Soon after arriving back in New York [in 1976], she discovered the open dance/movement classes that were held in loft studios with wood floors and huge rattling windows, in apartments and theater spaces rented on an hourly basis by soon-to-be-legendary dancer/choreographers Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, and Kenneth King. No formal dance steps were taught. . . . King shared Acker’s background in philosophy and Latin. His ‘grid dances’ . . . must have seemed to Acker like an embodied analogue to her own texts. . . . Acker embraced the community’s grueling regime of back-to-back classes preceded by two hours of yoga and followed by marathon jams.” [p. 119]
Most enjoyably, After Kathy Acker is a love letter to all the sexually abject, bookish, hungry girls who have ever looked for a way to get to the party, and it invites you to the party you wish you had been cool enough to attend in the first place. Kraus forms a bridge to Acker, even arousing tenderness for a person who, by all accounts, was as self-centered and demanding in life as her narrators are on the page.
In I Love Dick, Kraus writes, “What happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s least described.” [p. 214] Kraus looks out. Acker tries to make an impression. In My Mother Demonology (1993), she does a mash-up between her personal writing and Wuthering Heights, taking on the role of brooding, sadistic Heathcliff, who has been abused as a child. Kraus, on the other hand, echoes the rebellion at the heart of Jane Eyre. When Charlotte Bronte’s sisters Emily and Anne warned her that no one would read a book about a heroine who was plain, Charlotte said, in effect, Just watch me. Kraus, too. (In reality, she is quite attractive, but her narrators call themselves “hags.” We feel what we feel about our bodies.)
Acker strove to be singular and to become a star. When she controls the narrative of her life, we see cartoons, meat, and pain. The power of Kraus’s book is in the way it looks at Acker as an example of a collective condition. By focusing on Acker’s desires—whether fulfilled or thwarted—Kraus is in her element and Acker becomes human.
Suppose, Kraus invites us to imagine, you are a waify, Jewish girl who does not think she is pretty and who other kids think has cooties and smells bad and does smell bad because her parents don’t notice how often she bathes and do not trouble themselves to buy her nice clothes. Suppose you are a girl who reads all the time and carries her books spines out so everyone can see she is devouring Dostoevski, Gogol, and Turgenev. Suppose your mother does not love you and your father has left before you were born. Your mother will commit suicide in a hotel rather than learn to spend less money on clothes and food. Suppose you mistake sexual desire for interest in you and discover you like sex or at least seducing people because it makes you feel connected and powerful in a way you will never put your finger on. Suppose you feel rejected almost as soon as sex is over, and you become a student of abjectness, turning the subject this way and that in various lights. Suppose you find a voice by combining your love of books with the subject of sexual abjectness, and suppose you observe that males have power. You situate yourself with them, identify with them, get them to teach you, introduce you to people with jobs, money, places to stay, because males have been trained to say yes to almost anything a female asks if he thinks he will get laid.
In Kraus’s rich account, the story of Acker is also the story of Kraus and the story of all females who will continue to scratch at the gate until the gate has been burned down. For all Acker’s cyber punk stylings, she comes off a throwback to women such as Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag, who wanted to be glittering exceptions rather than runners in a pack. Everywhere in Acker’s surround the women’s movement was rethinking how women are represented and how women represent themselves. Acker did not engage in activism. In terms of creating an alternative female model, she wound up inventing fire in her own small room while outside crowds had already built a bonfire.
What makes a book? Whatever wakes up desire—and not necessarily good romance—both Kraus and Acker believe. Kraus turns the idiom of Fatal Attraction on its head. In the movie, Alix, the opera-loving predator, is meant to be a monster. In the literature of Kraus and Acker, the fevered, infatuated stalker/lover is the hero and every man is at risk of finding the family bunny cooked in a pot. And why not? Who wants to wait to be chosen when it is never going to happen?
I have been watching the HBO show “High Maintenance.” Its effects are difficult to pin down, and that is part of its charm and aim. You feel off balance when you are watching it. Your focus shifts. You are not sure what you are looking at and what you are being shown. Richard remarked, “The style of the show produces the feeling of being stoned on pot.” Style holds the show together as well as several other elements, chiefly the central character, called “the Guy,” who deals pot and edibles on his bicycle to customers in his home turf of Brooklyn. It is a soft-edged, high-hazed shaggy Brooklyn of graffiti art and sub cultures bleeding into each other. One episode entered the world of pot-smoking orthodox Jews. (They speak Yiddish, and I felt a pang for the kitchen banter of my mother and grandmother. I could understand much of it!!) The Guy (Ben Sinclair, one of the creators of the show with Katja Blichfield), is the candyman who arrives with his metal-corned little suitcase. My favorite aspect of the show is the way it substitutes character for plot. It is interested in watching people be themselves, not in their arriving anywhere. Usually each episode brings us into the apartment of one of the Guy’s customers. We enter the scene before he does. He’s a Rosencranz or Gildenstern, dropping into a drama-in-progress he has to piece together. In media rez is the method of the show, and it feels like going on a long walk without a destination, a walk for its own sake. In one episode a friend suggests a partnership that would involve meeting customers in a car, and the Guy declines the offer saying, “But then we wouldn’t see the apartments.” Sadness or melancholy or vague yearning hovers over the show. Happiness almost always requires a drug. Life without it is hard to bear, and this seems especially apt during the past 18 months of shared helplessness. The first episode of Season 2 takes place on the day after the election. It isn’t named, the way the Guy isn’t named. The characters wake up to an apocalyptic upheaval, the big one, the beginning of the end. The Guy is getting on in years, nearing his late 30s, and he’s still dealing pot, as he did in college. What does he want? Does he need to want something other than what he has? Is he bored by the repetition of his routines? He is wary of involvement, yet he becomes involved. He helps one customer who is agoraphobic leave his apartment. He helps a pregnant woman get a ride to the hospital. He listens to people. Above all, he isn’t judgy. It appears to be his temperament and his offering. He wants to stay in one piece by the end of the day, which isn’t always possible. In one episode he’s robbed, in other knocked off his bike. His arm is broken, and he’s homebound for a while. He stays stoned almost all the time. The most recent episode centered on a teenaged girl, the daughter of a woman still dining out on her East Village sexual conquests of the ’90s. It’s the daughter’s birthday, and three of her female friends spend the night in her house, drinking and using drugs paid for by her mother. They dance. One girl gives another a tattoo. They smoke and one girl passes out. The camera lovingly follows the birthday girl, who finds herself often in the role of cleaning up after people. She is sad and also yearning for something. She draws, alone in her room. Late at night she slices a large piece from an uneaten birthday cake. Later, she serves it to a blond woman her mother’s age who is visiting from a Scandinavian country. In a surreal and beautiful moment, the girl kisses the blond woman passionately, and the woman responds. They stop shortly and go their separate ways in the house. It is a large event and a mysterious event that does not bring resolution but moves us.
Before feminist criticism, It used not to be a thing to consider if female characters in the stories of men were portrayed as separate human beings, with agency and desires of their own, or whether they figured exclusively as functions of a male character’s sense of his identity or were his obscure objects of desire and hatred.
We have been thinking together about the works of art produced by people who do shitty things to women. How to encounter them, classify them, or quarantine them. Today Richard pointed out a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in the current “London Review of Books” that speaks to some of these issues. I am going to quote from it at length. It makes an argument for work that is defunct in the present cultural turn. The present cultural turn is a widespread acknowledgement that feminist criticism is a way to sift through experience and art. Is this story I am reading or film I am seeing rapey in its consciousness or its obliviousness? Does it portray female characters as creatures women feel themselves to be? Yes, I can generalize. Of course there is such a thing as “how women feel themselves to be.” That thing powers the new surge of feminism expressed in the “Me-too” and “Times’s Up” movements. It’s expressed in the anti-gun movement as well in that the central figure who has emerged as a voice people want to listen to belongs to a young woman.
Back to Vonnegut. The following, written by J. Robert Lennon, details the way, when mass consciousness shifts, some writers, artists, and works of art are left atop the trash bin of history with no hope of restoration.
“‘I can never get a woman into my stories’, he [Vonnegut] wrote to a friend; later, in a “Playboy” interview, he said that he’s given up trying ‘to do women well’.” Dan Wakefield has written the introduction to the collection. Lennon quotes Wakefield: “Every girl[!!!] in this book is either ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’, or the opposite; they are never not characterized by their degree of attractiveness. They marry, which is a happy outcome, or they don’t, which isn’t; a bad marriage is a miserable end, but it’s never an opportunity to break away into an independent life. . . . In “Shout about it from the Rooftop,” a woman writes a roman a clef about her town that becomes a surprise bestseller; her notoriety and her sudden affluence begin to destroy her marriage. Vonnegut recognizes the gender inequality that gives rise to the woman’s problems, but can’t think of anything for her to long for other than to be a ‘dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again’. . . . [T]he dystopian “Welcome to the Monkey House” . . . presents rape as a therapeutic solution to female frigidity. In 2014 . . . Kathleen Founds wrote in “Buzzfeed” that the story embraces ‘the myth that a woman who dresses provocatively shouldn’t be surprised if a man forces her to have sex. The myth that women unconsciously desire to be raped. The myth that proud, stuck-up women must be humbled through rape. The myth that rape is corrective, a cure’.”
Lennon explores other aspects of Vonnegut’s dated attitudes, including some about race. The point is not to ban any work. The point is to see that it is already dead. It has disqualified itself from our interest. The point is to allow it to be buried. By buried I mean ignored.
Today on Facebook a writer wondered if she should in good conscience continue to teach a story by Sherman Alexie. I have been thinking about category mistakes. The writer found value in the story before she learned about the author’s actions in the world. When experiencing art, we need to test the art against our hearts, not the person. When we are naming crimes and acts of coercion, we are naming crimes and acts of coercion. People who do very shitty things to women and others in their power also make art that is larger and more complex than would seem possible, given their personalities and histories. These people generally have worked hard at craft. They have experimented to create lies that touch us. That mystery is partly what we enter art to contemplate. I do not want a world of artists whose actions need to pass a morality test or a criminal test. Very humane and decent people are hopelessly drab and inept artists. When I write stories, I purposely create narrators who are funnier, more open to the world, kinder, and less solipsistic, hungry, and larcenous than I am. If I wrote everything as me, it would all be “Notes from Underground” revisited. The songs you want to hear are composed of artifice, smoke and mirrors, tricks.