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Self-Realization 

Bob Flanagan, Chris Kraus, Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy

Wednesday, Jan 17 2001

In the last entry of Bob Flanagan’s The Pain Journal, dated December 16, 1995, Flanagan looks forward to editing the manuscript he‘s gathered: “The journal was intended to be just a day-to-day record, a minimum of a paragraph a day, and never meant to be read unedited by anyone but me.” Two and a half weeks later, the cystic fibrosis that had plagued him all his life, and at the same time been the fuel for his legendary masochism as well as for his art career, took his life at age 42. He didn’t write another journal entry, didn‘t -- despite his dissatisfaction with much of it -- edit what he’d already compiled. Semiotext(e) and Smart Art Press are nonetheless releasing the journal this month, uncensored and, save for a brief introduction by Semiotext(e)‘s West Coast series editor Chris Kraus and an afterword by Flanagan’s lover and collaborator Sheree Rose, unadorned.

The result is a fascinating but harrowing document, at times unbearably sad, elsewhere hilarious, giving constant witness to the terrible banality of dying. Flanagan was better acquainted with death, and certainly with pain, than most. He was “in and out of hospitals most of his life,” he writes in one entry, an auto-obituary composed five months before he died. “Doctors gave him little chance of survival past the age of six or seven years, but survive he did, well beyond anyone‘s expectations.” Through SM, and through his performance art (“which earned Flanagan dubious fame as ’the guy who nailed his dick to a board‘”), he transformed physical suffering into triumph.

There’s little sense of that in these pages, penned after his illness had gained the upper hand. Misery has taken over here: “Pain pain pain. Odd that what was once the fuel that ignited my soul has become the very thing that dampens my spirit. It just ain‘t no fun anymore.” He dreads his few remaining performances; tensions erupt in his relationship with Rose because he’s no longer interested in masochism. “I miss my masochistic self,” he writes. “I hate this person I‘ve become.”

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Most of The Pain Journal records almost unremitting depression, exhaustion and doubt: about the value of his work, about his friends’ loyalty. Perhaps most difficult is the everyday ordinariness of dying. Life is slipping away, but all he has the energy to do is watch TV (“fucking O.J. trial”). The bills don‘t stop coming, the petty tasks and worries are no more glamorous than ever (“Gotta mail that stupid check to that stupid woman in New York, and mail my car registration too”), the exasperating neuroses of loved ones don’t let up.

There are respites, however. Flanagan‘s sex drive waxes and wanes. The moment it returns, he’s up late, affixing alligator clips to his genitals, devising a complex auto-humiliation mechanism, a cage from which he can‘t free himself until he’s eaten through a pile of his own shit to get the key. And, despite it all, Flanagan‘s humor rarely ebbs. He thinks up final projects, a video camera in his casket to record his decay, a plan to slice off his testicles just before he dies: “I want to cut them off and give them to Sheree to remember me by, and to video the whole thing, of course, and maybe charge money for the whole final performance -- but what will I need with money? Okay, fuck the money idea . . . I just want to cut my fucking balls off and that’s that.”

Early last spring, Chris Kraus published a work of her own, Aliens & Anorexia, a tantalizing, messy, wildly associative and often brilliant book that leaps effortlessly between autobiography, art criticism, philosophy and fiction. To the extent that it‘s grounded in narrative, Aliens recounts Kraus’ disastrous experiences making and attempting to sell Gravity & Grace, which she describes alternatively as “an experimental 16mm film about hope, despair, religious feeling and conviction” and “an amateur intellectual‘s home video expanded to bulimic lengths.” (A treatment of the film is included as the book’s final chapter.)

But here, unlike most autobiographical works, weaving a narrative of one‘s life is hardly Kraus’ task. She writes extensively about the French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, with whom she openly identifies, defending her from male critics who dismiss her work as stemming from one among various uniquely feminine maladies: anorexia, chastity, ugliness. Weil is labeled “the anorexic philosopher,” Kraus complains, yet though “Friedrich Nietzsche suffered blinding headaches, The Gay Science is not interpreted as a Philosophy of Headaches.” Men‘s words are taken at face value, but “Anything a female person says or does is open to ’interpretation,‘” generally of the crudest psychological or biological sort.

In her first book, I Love Dick, an epistolary account of her obsession and unhappy affair with CalArts prof and cultural critic Dick Hebdige, Kraus laid out her answer to this problem, albeit in the form of a question: “If women have failed to make ’universal‘ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?” In both books, she does just that, freely intermingling theoretical speculation with personal recollections, all of a refreshingly anti-therapeutic bent (“Things don‘t come out. They fall apart”).

  • Bob Flanagan, Chris Kraus, Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy

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