August 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"The Skull Beneath the Skin": Kathy Acker's Essays

Certain writers return to certain words as if seeking a replenishment of spirit, as if kissing the Blarney Stone. Dostoevsky had his "magnanimous" and "nasty"; Conan Doyle had "singular"; and Borges never felt repose unless presenting the reader with a "labyrinth."

Kathy Acker, in her collected essays, makes no secret of her obsession with "the body." Fair enough, you might say: I have a body; you have a body. Bodies would appear to be fairly prominent in life and therefore proper subjects for any number of typing sessions. But, as with the authors above and their peculiar words, the repetition of the phrase suggests its private, talismanic power, as if Acker's "the body" means something very different than just the flesh of an organism, our phenomenal being: "One must be where one is," she writes. "The body does not lie. Language, if it is not propaganda or media blab, is the body; with such language, lies are not possible."

The Acker "body," first of all, is something alien to the speaker. One is reminded slightly of schizophrenics who come to believe that their arm or leg is a mechanical parasite, belonging to some other being or blind force. But immediately this picture turns complicated, because Acker also professes a horror of "Cartesian dualism," meaning the belief that body and mind exist separately. Adding to the complexity, Acker has affection for the Gnostics, who famously thought this world and all matters of the flesh were a malign hallucination foisted upon us by some Devil-God. The Acker "body," then, is in a paradox, both, an object of horror, because violent men can suborn it and destroy it, but also the source of everything good, dependable as earth in a world of airy lies.

This ambivalence is refreshing. In the ongoing soul-flesh boxing match, the fans have been notoriously partisan and rowdy. D. H. Lawrence declared Mind itself the enemy; Simone Weil starved herself to death; but the regular, honest person would have to conclude that his allegiance to mind or to body shifts randomly, oscillating even in the course of an instant. We aren't totally at home in either camp, and the primacy of either isn't obvious. (At least not to me.) Nevertheless, it bears repeating that despite seeming to extol the body, Acker, like one of her great heroes, Baudelaire, feels a mixture of disgust, ennui, and jubilation when confronted with the fact of her own flesh. Her essay on bodybuilding, for example, despite praising the activity, glows with strange anxiety that is never made explicit.

Acker's other preoccupation is with something she calls "language," and again her repetition of the word creates a kind of hypnotic hum around it, suggesting esoteric meanings. Acker's "language" is not simply talking and writing, but the entire enterprise of trying to "pin things down," to particularize them in a system of symbols; it also encompasses the privilege of being heard and understood on one's own terms. This take on "language" will sound familiar to anyone who has encountered French literary theory, and Acker was obviously steeped in this tradition. But ancestry isn't destiny; like the whole Christian vocabulary of "sin," and "grace," among other things, the French theory words -- "language," "signifier," and so on -- can be wielded differently by different people. Language has certain associations for Acker: with advertising, the military-industrial complex, with powerful men. Language, as treated by Acker, is a way in which the definite and the clear are put to use as tools of deception. The surface clarity is a trap, and, like a Gnostic mist, it enslaves our unassuming souls. The oppressed are exiled from it and impaled on the sharpness of its specificity: "Instead of having language, women have babies," Acker writes. They are swept back into the realm of the body.

"In Nayland Blake's work," Acker writes, "the body finds peace (freedom from chaos) and joy only when restrained, in prison." Once more the ambivalence about freedom and flesh rears its head, and the reader realizes that Acker is not really an essayist as much as she is an aphorist -- specifically, the book's stylistic forerunner is Baudelaire's Intimate Journals, in which the mad poet wrote cryptic remarks such as "Morality of the toilet, the delights of the toilet," and also confessed that he had always thought the chandelier was the secret protagonist of every opera.

The articles collected here tend to be about art -- movies, novels, paintings; however, even in articles that are ostensibly profiles of artists, her subjects are merely pretexts for her Baudelairean guitar solos. On a Goya painting: "Three men are talking. These're the men who cause war... These hideous monsters-being-men are controlling the world Our Father Who Art All Men're Created." (Here her Gnosticism turns positively incandescent.) An essay on the artist Nayland Blake mixes a retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" with verse by William Blake. And here is another remark that could have come straight from the Intimate Journals: "The only religions are scatology and intensity." In fact, the line comes from a series of numbered aphorisms rounding out an essay on de Sade, seduction, and abortion. The quality of her formal inventiveness is not her distinguishing feature as an essayist so much as the fact that she is formally inventive at all. Her rivals don't even care to play the game of finding new forms.

Then there's Acker's utopian imagination; in this respect, too, she's utterly gnostic with perhaps a dose of Jewish messianism thrown in for flavor. Her narrative is summarized as follows; the sixties were a brief springtime for human decency, with the hippies in arms against capital and war and white supremacy, a brief yet glorious uprising against the Romans, Acker thought. But then: failure, a counterrevolutionary routing, leading to the arrival of her bleached-teeth Great Satan, Ronald Reagan. Perversely, not only was greed in ascendency in New York (and in her beloved art world!) but also things appeared to be getting even more dilapidated and violent for those not in the rentier class. No wonder she felt the world was in the grips of a demiurge.

Yet she kept her bohemian faith. Her creed was that of millions of urban artists from the nineteenth century through to the shuttering of the Times Square porn theaters:

I learned in the New York City art world many other things. That every phenomenon, every act is a text and all texts refer to all other texts. Meaning is a network, not a centralized icon. Most of all, I learned that it is art that matters, the making of art that gives value to my life and that I'm allowed, indeed I must do whatever I have to do, to make art.

And yet there was this paradox or frustration: dedication to art did nothing to dethrone the world's overlords. Was she praying to a dead god, art?

In the church of art, she was a believer continually revivified by doubt. "Why bother to write at all?" is her refrain in the preface to this collection, first published in the year of her death. Her answer: "For me writing is freedom. Therein lies (my) identity. I prefer writing fiction to essays because there is more freedom in fiction and so, I question my essays." This explains, too, her allegiance to formal innovation, and her piety toward the lineage of literary devils, from de Sade to Baudelaire to Burroughs to Ballard.

The radicalism of her worldview may be glimpsed most clearly, though, in her anti-literary stance, her belief that literature will not save us:

It is said that in the Middle Ages, monks contemplated skulls in order to see God or Truth. To see clearly is to perceive that one must die. The logos must realize that it is part of the body and that this body is limited. Subject, not to the mind, but to death.

Kathy Acker died of breast cancer in 1997 at a clinic in Tijuana.