Antinomian Chic

Danny Karlin

  • Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists edited by Brian Wallis
    New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York/MIT Press, 431 pp, £13.50, January 1988, ISBN 0 262 23128 X
  • Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
    Picador, 227 pp, £10.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 330 30192 6
  • The Western Lands by William Burroughs
    Picador, 258 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 330 29805 4

Kathy Acker, wild and woolly avatar of William Burroughs, is also one of the Blasted Allegorists, contemporary American artists whose self-important and talent-free doodles about Life, the Universe and Everything are hyped by Brian Wallis in his Introduction, a piece of writing conceivably worse than the pieces it introduces:

For the writers in this book, these critical forms, such as interviews, monologues, jokes, dream narratives and parables, oppose the imposed narrative structure, the unquestioned hierarchy of characters, and the easy closure of much conventional – or even modernist – literature. In place of traditional expository writing or even experimental texts, the works collected here posit a wholly different approach to textual production which challenges accepted sites, structures, and meanings of discourse. In place of aesthetic innovation, these writers employ appropriation and reinscription of existing voices, styles and genres; in place of the coherence of the conventional text, they favour a form which is fragmentary, inconclusive, digressive, and interpenetrated with other texts; in place of the omnipotent author, they acknowledge a collectivity of voices and active participation of the reader; in place of the new or the original, they accept an understanding of language and stories as ‘already written’ and shaped by social and political conditions.

Being derivative sounds better when you call it ‘appropriation and reinscription of existing voices, styles and genres’, doesn’t it? If only the re-invented wheel worked better: but this is Tristram Shandy (‘fragmentary, inconclusive, digressive’ etc) without the jokes, or the point. The ‘collectivity of voices’ here is that of a Manhattan cocktail party or private view; the real ‘textual production’ is that of the glossy, expensive physical format of the book itself (‘made possible through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Fund for Scholarship in American Art’); the real ‘site’ is that provided by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the MIT Press, organs of the established order whose ‘discourse’ subsumes and defines that of the ‘artists’ it patronises. Mr Wallis’s own Introduction is part of this process: it can never have occurred to him that the very fact of providing an official Introduction, let alone one which so unequivocally and authoritatively tells the reader what to think, is a denial of the book’s purported ‘subversive potential’. None of this is acknowledged: we have self-scrutiny without self-knowledge, gesture instead of action, challenge devoid of risk. All these people (‘the writers in this book’, ‘the works collected here’) have been made safe; let us hope for the sake of their souls that some of them winced when they read the formal, dogmatic, curatorial language with which Mr Wallis has embalmed their rebellions.

Not that these rebellions amount to much. They manifest themselves as the high seriousness of trivia (John Baldessari’s alphabetical list of the contents of his files of movie stills); as Native American bluster and vanity; as halfbaked intellectualism; above all, as the intoning of feminist and other contemporary cultural pieties. (Yvonne Rainer: ‘At this historical moment we still need to search out and be reminded of suppressed histories and struggles: housewives, prostitutes, women of color, lesbians, Third World people, the aging, working women’). Then there’s Dan Graham’s description of the Manhattan nightclub ‘Cerebrum’:

The atmosphere, which once seemed bland, slowly begins to change. Each person is starting to relate to his or her partner and to the guides. Now another guide enters and, propping herself, kneels by me with a small bowl. She removes a white lotion (baby cream?) and then starts to massage (I see, the medium is the massage) my hand. At first I am unresilient, but then begin to ply her hand with the lotion. Couples begin putting the stuff on hands, arms and faces to feel and touch. We are inside our skins, not merely looking out at an illusion of ourselves. As more props are brought in and are related to, we relate to our own bodies and to those of our neighbours. There is no need to relate or project to the others our experiences. Nothing is happening on stage and we are not being used by the performers; we ourselves are on stage. We are our own entertainment tonight (if ‘stoned’, ‘living’ our fantasies) as we are here.

  One of the attractive girls on the platform across from me walks onto my platform. ‘Join me with the others,’ she says. We lie beneath an opened parachute given to ‘us’ earlier, feeling the cool air of its movement. I feel part of a warm humanity. ‘Why have you been sitting alone all evening?’ the girl asks. There is no ‘distance’ here. The free-floating mood changes as all couples return to their platforms. A fog appears from beneath the platform and fills the air. Then the fog disappears and into the clear space the guides bring strawberries soaked in wine. I am ‘together’. Alive, calm as the music stops.

I haven’t made this up: the baby cream, the venerable McLuhan joke, the relating to our own bodies, the attractive girl (it wouldn’t do to be solicited by an ugly one), the opened parachute, the warm humanity, even the strawberries ... The only thing missing is the name of the credit card used to pay for it. ‘Cerebrum’ should really have been the title of the volume: brain-death. Manhattan style.

Is there nothing to salvage from this ship of fools? Matt Mullican tells the story of an ordinary life in a sequence of phrases and images put together with feeling and respect. Spalding Gray tells good, kooky stories about himself and others. Gary Indiana writes about Aids, troubled and troubling. On the other hand, there’s nothing special about these pieces, they are unassumingly well-made and give pleasure within familiar boundaries; their virtue is precisely in not conforming to the drill of Mr Wallis’s avant-garde, in not being advertisements for preposterous selves. There is little modern writing in any age; the truly modern is always sublime, an encounter with something previously unknown – the enemy, in other words, of fashion; mode is the travesty of the modern, its high-wire a catwalk. Modern writing makes each particular hair to stand on end; as the Fat Boy says, ‘I wants to make your flesh creep.’ What’s the point of descending into the Underworld if not to bring back either love or terror? The only example of such writing in the book is Kathy Acker’s.

It is called ‘Russian Constructivism’. The title (of a piece about love) suggests euphoric ‘revolutionary’ abstraction, rejection of the ‘natural’, and a synthetic, mechanical eroticism, but the label is (wilfully?) misleading; the aesthetic is older, it is that of the Gothic, the Romantic conjunction of imaginative and sexual excess, and the writing is passionate in an old-fashioned (and thus, in this context, pre-eminently modern) sense. It opens with a section called ‘Abstraction’, which phantasmagorically maps St Petersburg onto New York: it has the Nevsky Prospect and Puerto Rican bums, racial ghettoes and the Winter Canal; it is the ‘new holy city’ of modern times, a super-power amalgam ‘whose first characteristic is it gives nothing.’ Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ was the site of the vision, however warped and attenuated: Acker’s Petersburg is the site of less than that, a ‘romanticism of no possible belief’. With this phrase the story changes tack: the word ‘Peter’ is abstracted from Petersburg and becomes the name of a character to whom frenzied love letters are addressed (the high-low speech of these letters, their lurches of logic and cadence, make them terrifically and authentically mad, as anyone who has written or received such letters will recognise):

Dear Peter,

  Please understand me. Please believe what’s in my mind at this very moment. I do everything you want. Now you want to be away from me ’cause you’re fucking your wife. You’re the only one I love and this moment’s infinite I’d do anything to phone you right now. ’Cause I can’t phone you, I hate you. ’Cause I hate you. I’m never going to phone you ever again,’ cause I hate you. I’ll say your name so the whole world’ll know.

The letters come up against the gap between writing and being: the ‘right now’ of writing displaces the ‘right now’ of its desire; writing literally takes time. ‘I have to mold my passion for you out of time,’ this first section concludes: time is the material of passion, and also that which passion must get out of. In the following section, called ‘Poems of a City’, we get fragments of Catullus in a macaronic patchwork of paraphrase and marginal gloss: Acker’s style dismembers traditional discourses (narrative, descriptive, dramatic, critical, lyrical, meditative), but it also – in ‘Russian Constructivism’, at least – remembers and re-combines them: despite its rapid shifts of focus and register, its jumps from surreal and fantastic to literal and explicit, it is neither deconstructive nor anarchic, but inventive and prodigal of gifts.

It is the absence of these qualities that makes her Empire of the Senseless such a disappointment. Perhaps the difference in length has something to do with it: at any rate, the book seems much more knowingly a ‘cult’ product than the story, the cult being that of antinomian chic. Despite some passages of bravura writing (in particular, the fantasy-revolt of the Algerian underclass in Paris and the description of a homo-erotic tattoing session), the main impression is of a performance both turgid and trivial, like a critical essay done as an avant-garde video nasty. The blurb claims that the novel ‘marches to an alternative marseillaise devised by de Sade, through depths charted by Genet, into a revolution dreamed by Fanon’, and that it is ‘at least an extraordinary achievement, at best an ultimate act of outrage’. No, it is Frenchified, not French; you need the savoir-défaire of the French language to get away with iconoclastic pornography – that is, if you take it seriously. Norman Mailer gets away with it by clowning; so does Burroughs. Acker makes the mistake of taking herself seriously here, as though ‘ultimate outrage’ were not a commodity being peddled by her agents and publishers as assiduously as ‘towering genius’, ‘warm humanity’ or ‘delightful touches of wit’. An air of unreality, of cuteness, hangs over the book: it’s like a child saying naughty words and looking up slyly. The shock-value of such writing is defused by the context of its literary production; readers who buy this book have already read it, or, to put it another way, it can’t reach them in the way it intends. The medium is like a lightning rod which conducts Acker’s fierce bolt and domesticates it into a thrill.

The book has two narrators, Abhor (female) and Thivai (male), whose stories, dreams, fantasies and speculations set out to map the post-modern world. The balance of power is unequal, however: Abhor, who begins the book by speaking through Thivai – women’s language is mediated by men – ends up with the last word, speaking for herself, and articulates the lion’s, or lioness’s, share of Acker’s visionary thesis. The values which govern things as they are are irremediably corrupt: a strategy of denaturing will strip away a mask of normality and reveal the true face of authority, the demonic hegemony of white capitalist patriarchy in language, in politics, and in human relations. Acker is not above direct statement:

The USA is a dead nation. It’s devoid of dreams. The USA has destroyed all that we call human life and substituted religion. This religion is worship of money and blind faith in stupidity. The USA has decimated its own soil and air. The USA has substituted learning how to be controlled and the rote memorisation of facts for any education in living. Every aspect of the USA’s life is now fit for death. Fucking leads only to disease. The USA is a cancer on the flesh of reality. All Americans are born diseased and live writhing.

She voices an anti-materialism and disillusion almost as old as American culture itself (you can find it in Poe, in Thoreau, in Whitman). The difference is in the flatness, the totalising of her negative expressions: every aspect, all Americans. It’s not hyperbole, but apocalyptic rhetoric; it demands, not understanding (the activity of the reader), but assent (the activity of the believer). Since America is ‘devoid of dreams’, the book sets out to fill this void with demented, perverted substitutes, anti-types of the dreams of a healthy culture. Beyond the apocalypse lies the heavenly city: ‘a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust’ (the book’s last words). But for now, pure disgust: the book’s bad taste offends against literary taste and leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Landscapes of urban nausea, scenes of torture and sadistic sex, hauntings of the drug culture, are all shot through with the book’s idea, its intellectual formula; everything, besides being shown (indeed in the very act of being shown), is relentlessly and tediously explained. The reader sits in a kind of narrative dentist’s chair, where being talked at is worse than being operated on. Here, for example, is Thivai, in the section called ‘Child Sex’, describing one among many of the book’s barbaric sexual encounters:

  ‘Don’t touch me but whip my cunt,’ the young whore said to me.

  ‘I’m not a brute,’ I told her. ‘It’s wrong for any human to hurt or kill another human. Even to reject to the point of banishment another human. Corporate executives commit atrocities. Must we act like them, sexually, in order to fight them successfully? No.’ I was answering myself. ‘Acting like shits will only make us become shit. Greedy and maniacal. Of course we have to use force to fight for our freedom. For forceless humans are dead. We should use force to fight representations which are idols, idolised images; we must use force to annihilate erase eradicate terminate destroy slaughter slay nullify neutralise break down get rid of obliterate move out destruct end all the representations which exist for purposes other than enjoyment. In such a war, a war against idolatry, ridicule’ll be our best tool. Remember, whore: Julien’s sarcasm did more damage than Nero’s tortures.’

  ‘Decomposing flesh moves me the most,’ the young whore said. ‘Give me hell.’

  I laughed at myself and gave her what she wanted. I pierced myself through her belly-button. I thrust and pushed her own blood up her womb. As her red head rose out of the white fur, her mouth opened: monstrous scarlet. Tiny white shells appeared in that monster sea. ‘My little dead shark. Better than dead fish.’ I whispered to her while I fucked her in her asshole.

It is Acker’s ‘representations’ which ‘exist for purposes other than enjoyment’: her scatology is dogmatic, marked by an underground version of academic jargon, as lazy and stupid as its official counterpart. It’s odd of her to invoke Julian the Apostate when the real war against idolatry was waged by the Jews and Christians themselves. After all, the Second Commandment denounces graven images and defines the abstract character of the One God: it’s on the altar of a similar abstraction that Acker heaps her offerings of entrails. Isn’t the ‘ultimate outrage’ of fiction to reduce its imaginative scope to that of a third-rate lecture?

Acker has something to learn from that virtuoso of outrage, William Burroughs, but if critics of The Western Lands are right, there is also something in him for her to beware of: nostalgia, pastoral, auto-elegy. It’s instructive to compare the British reviews of The Western Lands – knowledgeable, respectful, even affectionate – with the furore over Burroughs’s status which erupted in the correspondence columns of the TLS in 1963-4. Such passions have long since died down; the Beats with whom Burroughs was associated – notably, of course, Kerouac – are all canonised now; responding to Burroughs’s suggestive title (the Western Lands are those of life after death in ancient Egypt, and also, as has been pointed out, a pun on Eliot’s The Waste Land, one of many quotations from which ends the book), and to the fact that the book is the last of a trilogy – before it came Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads – reviewers have interpreted it as a valediction to that phase of the Post-Modernist enterprise of which The Naked Lunch was the first resounding blast. The Western Lands has in abundance Burroughs’s sardonic verve, his playful mastery of repulsive detail, his clarity and integrity of vision. Is it also a sentimental book? Does Burroughs, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, set out here on a last journey whose heroism is perplexed and vitiated by a lyrical weariness?

The theme of the The Western Lands is the journey from the Land of the Dead to the paradise of immortality. Immortality is figured (with rich concreteness) as an actual place, but the spatial metaphor is not the same as those of the ‘Christian Heaven of pearly gates and singing angels, the Moslem paradise of eternal whores and plenty of water, the Communists’ heaven of the worker state’. In these formulations the ‘space’ of immortality is secondary – the locus of ‘predictable recurrences’ (the choir, the brothel, the factory). For Burroughs, on the other hand, the elaborate imagining of an ‘actual’ place is a metaphor, not for the eternal, but for the transient – ‘flashes of serene timeless joy’. The journey to this ‘place’ is thus not, like that of Pilgrim’s Progress, a sequential narrative: it is rendered as a discontinuous series of episodes, an asteroid belt revolving in the orbit of a central preoccupation. The settings of these episodes are by turns personal, historical, mythical, fantastic; their juxtaposition is intended, I think, to signal Burroughs’s rejection of an authoritative regime, a discursive economy in his own text which would reflect the conditions of human life he fears and loathes. For the book’s ‘magical visions’ to carry conviction, there must be, in his own words, ‘no rules, no series of steps by which one can be in a position to see ... such visions are the enemy of any dogmatic system.’

Acknowledging the inspiration of Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, Burroughs takes up the Ancient Egyptian idea of the seven souls whose different natures and functions (from Ren, the ‘Secret Name’, and Sekem, identified with ‘Energy, Power, Light’, down to Sekhu, the physical remains) must be reconciled if the human identity they constitute is to succeed in its journey to the Western Lands. But Burroughs is not re-creating Ancient Egypt in Mailer’s image: he claims that when he encountered the concept of the seven souls he ‘saw that it corresponded precisely with my own mythology, developed over a period of many years’. Accordingly the seven souls become guises for a host of Burroughs’s angelic and demonic familiars, and the journey to the Western Lands is also the framework for long-standing preoccupations, and not simply those personal to Burroughs (homosexuality, drugs, physical and spiritual pollution) but ones, too, which he inherits from American literary culture. In particular, the journey is a test of integrity, of authenticity. ‘Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbour says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!’ So wrote Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, and he added:

Our statistics are at fault: the population has been returned too large. How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men to settle here?

Burroughs has an unkind swipe at Thoreau (‘drowned himself in Walden Pond with a dead loon around his neck’), but this might have been the motto of his book. For Burroughs, too, ‘civil government’ is a souldestroyer; the world is populated by half-men, ghosts, mummies, vampires and their victims, defectives and fakes and plague-carriers. The plague is loss of self, loss of authentic individuality. As one character explains, during an episode set in a hallucinatory landscape where the ‘already dead’ are preyed on by a giant centipede god:

A country is bankrupt. No gold whatsoever in the coffers, and they are issuing paper money without anything to back it up. So the bottom falls out and the money isn’t even good shit-house paper. Same thing here. They were issuing fraudulent human stock. Nothing to back it up. No gold. The backup here is Sek Energy Units. They got no Sekem.

The journey to the Western Lands is punctuated by violent purgative encounters with ‘fraudulent human stock’ and its predators, enemies of the free self: in these encounters Burroughs lets his grotesque imagination rip. Readers who are sympathetic to such Swiftian rage might feel repelled by the equally Swiftian contempt Burroughs lavishes on those inadequate to be saved. Women, needless to say, don’t get much of a look-in: they are the ‘parasitic female Other Half’, and ‘the Western Lands are reached by the contact of two males ... The Western Lands is the natural, uncorrupted state of all male humans.’ But it goes beyond specific categories of gender, class or nationality: most of the human race are ‘walking Remains, who fill up the vast medical complexes, haunted by nothingness ... This planet is a Death Camp ... the Second and Final Death. Chances of getting out are maybe one in a billion’ – and these are ‘good biological odds’. The ethic of the book is Emersonian self-reliance taken to a drastic extreme, and Burroughs refuses to comfort his reader with the notion of a collective human survival. On the contrary, it’s every man for himself: the only thing which contradicts this principle is the text itself, since ‘writing, if it is anything, is a word of warning.’ What readers make of the warning depends on how they translate the symbolic vocabulary of the book into the terms on which they lead their own lives – and on the strength of their stomachs.

Only the writer himself can take no profit from his vision. The Place of Dead Roads was a Western, and announced the theme of The Western Lands, the theme of immortality. Kim Carsons, the hero of the earlier book, ‘intends to become a god, to shoot his way to immortality, to invent his way, to write his way’. For Kim Carsons, the shootist, is also William Seward Hall, the writer who writes Western stories under the pen-name ‘Kim Carsons’, and Hall is one of Burroughs’s closest alter egos. ‘The immortality of a writer is to be taken literally. Whenever anyone reads his words the writer is there. He lives in his readers.’ This faith gives The Place of Dead Roads a drive which sustains its elaborate loop of narrative from the shoot-out which opens the book to the one which closes it. But the opening and closing scenes of The Western Lands are those, not of climactic confrontation, but of exhaustion and melancholy. The shootist who was also a writer is now only the writer – and ‘the old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words ...’ By the end Hall hasn’t enough energy to apply for a renewal of his driving licence, to write himself back into movement. The pathos of this ‘end of words’, from which the sense of an ending as achievement is strictly excluded, shadows Burroughs’s wildest excursions into the territory he has made his own. ‘The old novelists like Scott were always writing their way out of debt ... So William Seward Hall sets out to write his way out of death.’ The project is unrealisable: death can only be paid in person, in the gold coin of identity; writing’s multiple shifts and displacements, its imagining of other realities, other plots, other fates, are nothing but paper money.