I Love Dickis the first book in ages I've wanted to proselytise.
Something about the fervency of first person narrative brings out the
zealot in me. I've been giving copies to my friends, convinced that exposure
to Chris Kraus' raw-nerve-ending style will provide the catharsis necessary
to anyone existing within any kind of "art scene", and certainly
to anyone who needs help coping with their heterosexuality.
I Love Dick is primarily an epistolary novel addressed to the absent
Dick. In fact you might say it's a tongue in cheek actualisation of penis
envy in all its highly self-conscious "hysteria." The central
protagonists Chris Kraus and Sylvere Lotringer, seem to be closely based
on the real Chris and Sylvere; a married couple, he a prominent French
theorist in his late fifties, she an experimental film maker (ex-Kiwi to
boot) turning forty and freaking out. They meet the "cultural critic" Dick
Hebdidge (a would be "private" Dick; due to legality his last
name is never mentioned but his real identity is already urban myth). Believing
Chris and Sylvere to be a friendly and sophisticated frat couple, Hebdidge
invites them into the inner sanctum of his deserted country abode. Dick
flirts with Chris in what he assumes is a harmless fashion. What Dick doesn't
count on is that Chris will take up the challenge implicit in his mandatory
sexualisation of their male/female encounter. Dick becomes the all-consuming
cipher for Chris' passions, not the mention the salve for her agonies.
And he does so without even being there.
Like some kind of absent paternalist God, as the addressee for Chris' letters
and diary entries, Dick becomes a metaphor for every kind of spiritual quest.
(Like the Hindu worship of Shiva through the form of an erect penis - Lingam
- whether it be in the architecture of a giant temple or as a sacrificial phallus-shaped
altar which has milky liquid rubbed into it as a regular oblation, so Kraus choses
to intellectually worship someone whose loaded name symbolises the apotheosis
of the sexual). "You're shrunk and bottled in a glass jar, you're a portable
saint. Knowing you's like knowing Jesus. There are billions of us and only one
of you so I don't expect much from you personally. There are no answers to my
life. But I'm touched by you and fulfilled just by believing." (As a parable
of faith I Love Dick can also be compared to Lars von Trier's controversial Breaking
the Waves, a film which disturbed many "feminists" because it centred
around an extremely vulnerable and naive woman who sold her body in the blind
hope that it would save her husband's life. But whereas von Trier is a Catholic
convert, Kraus' faith does not shine through triumphant in the end. In fact,
everything turns to shit; like the angel that becomes a devil in Scorcese's Last
Temptation of Christ, Dick's a chimera at best. At worst he's a representation
of the evil patriarchy that thrives on stamping out difficult women).
||The Ling Raj or "King
of Boobaneswar, India
I Love Dick is an exercise in astute masochism. In Angry Women,
Kathy Acker thanks the intellectual that first slapped her while they were
having sex. (Could this have been Sylvere? In I Love Dick, Kraus
reveals Acker as one of the many daunting inscriptions in Sylvere's library
of conquests.) On the same kind of journey, Chris learns that to seek and
control certain debasing circumstances can lead to a higher physical state,
becoming its own kind of liberation. I Love Dick is also a female
appropriation of a male genre - love poetry from Boccacio to Shakespeare
in which the literary form is contingent on the silence of the (generally
female) love object. Or, just as Greta Garbo was directed to be blank so
that her face could become a screen for (generally male) projected fantasies,
so Dick becomes the tabula rasa for Chris' desire and intellectual rapacity.
The emotional torment that Chris chooses to put herself through is a birthright,
like claiming the right for women to smoke cigarettes and drive cars (cause
just like men they have every right to fuck their bodies and every right
to fuck the planet).
In many ways, I Love Dick is the most deeply religious book I've read
for a long time, where the author is on a genuine and permanent quest to work
stuff out in a continual acknowledgement of the processes of living. But there's
more to I Love Dick than cringe-making honesty (check this, "And
I wonder if there'll ever be a possibility of reconciling youth and age, or the
anorexic open wound I used to be with the money-hustling hag that I've become.")
Running parallel to the femmo-Judaic self-debasing humour are some wickedly clever
games. Kraus manages to undermine everyone, not least herself and Sylvere as
the postmodern couple from hell ("Because the two are no longer having sex
they maintain their intimacy via deconstruction"). Although surprisingly,
what endures is a picture of a very strong and very intense marriage, where communication
never lets up, with Sylvere assimilating Chris' questions and desires, just as
any good academic's or artist's wife should do.
What I admire most about the book is its daring. Coming from a reasonably comfortable
position, Kraus and Lotringer are like a couple of credible enfants terribles,
licensed to ill by the establishments that keep them employed. But Chris goes
beyond those boundaries in I Love Dick. "Chris considered using her
studio visits at Art Center to testify about Dick, exhorting all the students
there to write to him. "It will change your life!" She'd write a crazy
tract called I Love Dick and publish it in Sylvere's school magazine.
Hadn't her entire art career been this unprofessional?"
I try to imagine the import of this literary event with a local cast of characters.
It reminds me of the time I sat in on an American Poetry lecture given by Wystan
Curnow at the University of Auckland. Wystan was introducing the work of Ron
Siliman, and so read a piece by Kathy Acker in which Acker talks about picking
up Siliman, taking him home and giving him an uninspiring blow job.
I was always amazed when Acker used real people's names, and it was hard to imagine
what kind of a relationship she really had with Siliman. It was an outrageous
form of literary radicalism where anything was possible - forget technology,
overuse of TRUTH (a substance like any other) is still the biggest mindfuck available.
Anyhow, Wystan was thrilling to the modicum of shock he was causing, and certainly
no one else in the faculty would have heard of the piece, let alone had the temerity
to read it out to a lecture theatre full of students.
But what bugged me about Wystan's delight was its safety. He could enjoy
Acker's genius from a remove, but how would he cope if he was written about
in such a
manner? Wystan, a great poet and critic, attractive for his age, with a penchant
for Kathy Acker at her raunchiest, was just the kind of guy who was ripe for
a bit of gentle "ribbing for her pleasure". And yet Wystan, the happily
married man with four sons and a house and rambling garden in a quiet North Shore
suburb, like most academics the world over, would scream blue murder and vilify
any woman who wrote him into her sordid literary experiments. Which is exactly
what Dick does to Chris; disdain and lawsuits hang pendulous over the action,
but this only ever serves to empower Kraus' narrative.
OK, here's another story, with perhaps even more pertinance to this issue of LOG as
well as I Love Dick. Originally, Giovanni Intra, an artist and critic
who should need no introduction in these pages, was to be the guest editor of LOG
6. Giovanni chose the theme, "Abuse of Substance" meaning the issue
as a good excuse to fling some dung straight back at the sacred cows. But Giovanni
was too busy with his Art Center programme (where, thanks to the support of Chris
and Sylvere, he has been firmly ensconsed for the last couple of years) that
he had to renege on the guest spot in LOG. However, we decided to stick
with the theme, ever partial to a little dung-flinging. It occured to me though,
that Giovanni himself had at times been on the receiving end of this kind of
art terrorism, and that even in hindsight, unravelling the meaning in acts of
critical violence is awful hard.
When Giovanni was turning 21, there were a bunch of wannabe artists who
were pissed off that Giovanni was a better artist than they were, and the
despite being neither queer nor a junkie (at the time), he could still make works
that were far more transgressive than their knee-jerk "smear a crucifix
with faeces" kind of stuff.
So they turned up to his 21st party with a bag of tricks, and started filming
things in his living room, stuff like Brent Hayward shoving objects up his own
arse. This shocked and disturbed most of the people present, mainly straight
young art students, and it really upset Giovanni, who even called the talkback
radio station the next night when rumours of the party spread like wildfire.
Brent Hayward recorded Intra's radio debut (in which he came close to tears)
and released it in a CD simply entitled Giovanni. For the perpetrators,
it was a case of justice served. Freaking out the artwankers is a job that always
needs doing, and indeed, Giovanni went on to make a career of weeding out pseuds
(check out his wicked attack on Derek Cherrie's transgression-by-numbers in Monica 1).
It's always going to be a matter of degree. On one level, Giovanni got
what he deserved, what he was inviting with every radically conceived and
of art. On the other level though, the bad boys were the artwankers, the psueds
who thought that simply dilating one's rectum confered automatic artistic credibility.
As a "writer" I find I'm forever offending my audiences, either for "selling
out" or for being too brash and gauche. In a karmic sense, Kraus has started
something revolutionary and potentially very dangerous. Imagine the end of all "objectivity".
Imagine if every newspaper article and every theoretical text was written in
the first person. What chaos that might cause and yet how much narrower that
might actually make the chasm between signifier and signified. Kraus writes: "Now
I can't stop writing in the 1st person, it feels like it's the last chance I
will ever have to figure some of this stuff out." It's not a great big melting
pot that we need, it's a crap incinerator.
I was so sure that the first person revolution was nigh, that when I got asked
to write a response to the 11th Biennale of Sydney for Artspace, Sydney, I went
ahead and gave them a bunch of diary entries. After all, the Biennale was entitled, Every
day, and in the catalogue essay curator Jonathan Watkins went to great lengths
to be "unpretentious". But I found out that responding in such a concrete
fashion, making my text conform to the same thematic as the one that was informing
the artwork, was considered undesirable, and my essay was dropped. Kraus: "Because
emotion's just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued
as discipline, as form." The world, or at least Artspace, wasn't ready for
the Krausian model and what they did publish was a bunch of same-old same-old
pseudo-theoretical stuff in which each text segued into the next cause without
putting themselves into the mix the writers had just become the homogenous "voice
Kraus uses her correspondence with Dick as an outlet for her myriad ideas
about feminism and criticism of female artists. Importantly, Kraus re-visits
models of feminism that have been regarded as "unfashionable" for far
too long. For example, she re-valorises Hannah Wilke's project as being intensely
relevant to artists today. "I think the sheer fact of women talking, being,
paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is
the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be 20 years too late but epiphanies
don't always synchronise with style."
Ironically, as Kraus outlines this familiar conspiracy of silence and gifts Dick
with some killer prose about inequity, her texts are doomed to his scorn. Better
yet, she apes massaging Dick's ego (Reflecting Men at Twice Their Natural
Size) when in fact she's quoting her own writing as Dick's (again for reasons
of legality). She makes out that her forthcoming Aliens and Anorexia is
something that Dick has already published and then says, "This's one of
the most incredible things I've read in years."
Hebdidge, who occasionally solicits the reader's pity for the unfair (and
seemingly pretty random) plight of being Kraus' object of intense adoration,
in the end as being nothing but a great big stiff. His lack of humour and generosity
towards Kraus' project reveals a closed kind of intellectualism. In Dick's world,
it's fine to own and discuss Kathy Acker books, but not to actually indulge in
the kinds of sado-masochistic relationships she outlines as both metaphors and
as valid ways of working through things. As Quentin Crisp put it, Dick's way
is "sucking life through a straw" rather than skulling for all you're
worth as the metaphysically thirsty Chris does. Sylvere too emerges as someone
who is willing to take emotional risks, and this, in the context of I Love Dick,
augments rather than diminishes his intellectual stature.
There's nothing wrong with Dick's model of closed comfort, except that
it presupposes a distinction between art and life, and the insanity of
the rare few that are
committed to dissolving this distinction. As Kraus says to Dick: "If we
want reality to change then why not change it." Read I Love Dick. "It
will change your life!"
Copies of I Love Dick are available for $24.95 from Brick Row Books, PO
Box 100-057, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland, or from www.amazon.com