July 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev

Male writers are wont, after years of hard drinking, to head out to the woodshed in Ketchum, Idaho or Bolinas, California or Woody Creek, Colorado and shoot themselves in the head. It's only occasionally that a woman artist does this (Dora Carrington did, a couple of months after Lytton Strachey died of cancer) -- we tend, instead, to asphyxiate ourselves or take our lives by drowning or hanging, after years of residual trauma from incest or other abuse, through self-cutting, drinking, drugging, eating disorders, destructive sex, agoraphobia and other madness, and clinical depression.

It's a cliché, a truism, that writers and artists of all kinds are consumed by misery and self-destruction -- that we want to cut off our ears and send them to our lovers. That we are always eyeing the pier with a shadowed longing. It seems almost inevitable that creative women, especially, would need to find some way to express and deal with our thwarted power and vision in a society that denies it. I've always been sold on the idea that, for all creative geniuses, the work itself is so volatile that making it is playing with fire -- a problem that is not to be confused with the spurious claim that trauma causes creative genius. Although, does it, sometimes? It's easy to get obsessed with this question. Creativity and self-destruction are both about stretching the limits of mortality.

Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, a collection of essays by talented badasses, punks and radicals like Nan Goldin, Kate Bornstein, Carol Queen, Eileen Myles and bell hooks, takes up the powerful, complicated question of the connections and correlations between art-making, femaleness and personal darkness. I want to love it.

Even though many of the contributors are important and ground-breaking as artists and writers, Live Through This somehow, overall, conflates art with women’s art therapy. This is a grievous problem when, if you are a woman, your memoir of being a novelist from Connecticut whose work got easily published when you were twenty-four and taking a fat advance from your agent to travel to countries starting with the letter “I” will sell better than the works of Wislawa Szymborska, and Gayl Jones, and Elfriede Jelinek, and Eileen Myles, and Bessie Head, and Christa Wolf, and Angela Carter, and Enid Dame, and Emer Martin

By talking about and including only female and woman-identified artists without explicitly addressing why men are omitted, Live Through This unwittingly propagates the malignant, pervasive, pernicious idea that all women's art is therapy, release, and identity-building. After all, male artists and writers are (famously, infamously) self-destructive, too. The creation process wreaks disaster on its mediums and visionaries. How does the experience of the call to create (as art, rather than for personal healing) connect differently to self-destruction depending on one’s race, sex, sexuality, class, or nationality? And how are self-destructive creative geniuses, who happen to be female or woman-identified, different from random self-cutters, anorexics, manic depressives and suicidal ideators? I would contend that they are extraordinarily different. Maybe gender is omitted from the subtitle because some of the contributors are “gender outlaws” (like the fabulous Kate Bornstein, whose My Gender Workbook rocks my world on every rereading) -- but Kate herself has given us a great model for understanding gender as a continuum. The book ends up being heavy on the women’s empowerment, and dishearteningly light on empowerment for writers and artists.

I am much more worried that the next Sarah Kane will never be recognized than that she will commit suicide. In her essay “Lady Lazarus: Uncoupleting Suicide and Poetry,” Daphne Gottleib wonders what might have become of the depressive poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton if they “had had more time” and if they “had made it through”? Imagine, though, if Plath had lived to age sixty-eight or seventy, and Sexton had made it to the ripe old age of eighty-three, and they'd both had comfortable lives, but they'd left their poems in scrawled journals in the attic, or publishers had rejected all of their work, or they themselves had burned it -- not in a moment of self-transformation, like when Lee Krasner went into a frenzy and hacked up her paintings, only to turn them into revolutionary collage work -- but because they couldn't face it any more. What if they had stopped working, or never started? 

It's a sweet, progressive idea -- one that makes me guiltily furious -- that all feminine self-destruction lies at an edge of great untapped creative power. It may be that the journaling, middle class teen anorexic who fights the urge to buy gauze for self-mutilation and allows herself to enjoy the taste of a tomato sandwich (a subject of Nicole Blackman's essay) is simply transforming her own life in some way, working on a process of self-creation, finding a voice as a person without also finding a voice as a writer or as an artist. Well, great. I want “Alice,” the teen anorexic, to sign up for volunteer work too, and to meditate or take notes for her therapy sessions instead of gauging her thigh with a knife or taking too many diet pills. And maybe “Alice,” in rechanneling her power, will awaken as a great artist or writer. But really, maybe she won’t.

The earnest documents of self-creation and self-healing can be useful for people in recovery or titillating for lovers of “misery porn.” But to conflate them -- and especially the cathartic process of making them -- with the intense, rupturous (and also cathartic) alchemy of making art gives short shrift to women artists, as artists. The rich, fascinating topic of self-destructive women writers and artists needs to be “uncoupleted” from the also-interesting topic of self-destructive women.

I care about keeping women from offing themselves, or cutting themselves, or using too much crystal meth or vomiting up dinner. I just care about it separately than I care about making sure that truly radical work gets created, and honored, and seen.

Some -- most -- of the contributors to Live Through This are making great work, but in these essays, they talk more about how they are managing their manic-depression (Fly), or their “negative feedback loop saying that (they) should die” (Bonfire Madigan Shive) or their “brains drunk on malfunction” (Gottleib) than about managing their careers. Only one contributor (Eileen Myles) even mentions, in passing, ever having worried about not getting work published and understood. Toni Blackman recovers from an abusive relationship by spitting rhymes onstage. Inga Muscio chooses writing as an alternative to “heroin, insanity, or full court press emotional retreat,” but then, recovering from her brother's death and so overwrought that she can't eat or sleep for a year, she turns to cutting herself with a bunch of broken glass she keeps in the fridge. Cristy Road detoxes by drawing. Silas Howard uses the “restless energy” that comes from sobering up to start a band.

I always used to think that when a woman writer or artist combusted or self-destructed, it was because her work was misunderstood or overlooked, or, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s autobiographical protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” someone tried to stop her from working. I off-handedly assumed that the self-destruction is a side-effect of the fury and shame of believing in your own seismic, mystifying talent and having it ignored (or worse, celebrated but misrepresented) by the gatekeepers of the art world. This is empirically wrong, but it gets at something.

I am scared that, increasingly, the only women who get published, or shown at the Whitney, will be those whose work is mediocre and innocuous (hip multiculti reworkings of Howard's End and lives of octogenarian locksmiths as rendered by rich girls from Long Island), or those whose work, though sometimes better than mediocre, is simply and straightforwardly confessional -- an oily pile of bulimia memoirs and bright red screams and institution memoirs and “drunken girlhood” memoirs that are palatable to sexist marketers in a way that radical, cutting-edge poetry, autobiography or fiction by the most original women writers is not. We need some way to talk about the mystifying brilliance of Elfriede Jelinek or Louise Bourgeois or Dorothy Allison’s work, to acknowledge why it’s so different from “rage to page” notebook or sketchbook therapy. It’s a conundrum, because sometimes the processes are similar. Daphne Gottleib writes:

As therapeutic as it may be, barfing raw feelings onto the page doesn’t make for great art either. Usually when we’re depressed, we’re not at our best. Our perceptions are skewed, our brains aren’t working right (despite how real these perceptions feel), and we’re not in full control of ourselves… In a depressed state, we might find a few words, a perspective, an idea that can move or delight us or just capture something elusive. But art demands control and perspective, and it’s only possible to make consistently transcendent art when our brains are working right. I do not write when I am depressed, except in a journal. And in the journal… I can see how I am wrong or just writing badly… In the end, it does not matter whether the pills the doctor offers will silence me or not: On its own, depression steals my words. The pills offer at least the hope that I can have them back -- even for a little while. And with my words, maybe myself, too.

But clearly, many great writers have written masterpieces during moments of brutal depression, or, for that matter, while stinking drunk, strung out or besieged by a saddening and terrifying madness. In many cases, an out-of-control brain doesn’t stop great writing, but it also doesn’t cause great writing. And, happiness, health and balance don’t cause or stop great art, either. Art isn’t necessarily better if it’s created out of abyss-edge misery, but it isn’t necessarily worse, either. Gottleib’s rationale is, presumably, that maybe if Plath, Sexton and others like them had been helped to stay alive, they could have written even more great work. But it’s clear that lots of great writers and artists have been “at their best” in the throes of depression, and managed to create world-changing art during their short, depressive lives.

Every artist, like every human being, is going to die, whether it's in some quick, manly moment in the woodshed or from a crippling disease or from gassing herself after leaving a snack out for her children or from a car accident or from the tedious ravages of accumulated life and gravity. Every artist is a human being, but not every human being is an artist, and not every artist’s work will ever be seen. We need a way to talk about how and why “barfing raw feelings onto the page” is different from writing “Lady Lazarus.”

I’m not sure how a book with pieces in it by Nan Goldin and Eileen Myles ended up being more about women’s empowerment and healing than about the frightening, numinous connection between genius, death and the underworld. I want to love it. But a book about how and why the creation process brings many artists and writers too close to self-annihilation is past due.

Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 1583228276
240 Pages