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Self-Realization

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.”

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”).

 

She thus liberates herself to jump from the German journalist-cum-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, to Weil, to her miserable attempts to find a buyer for her film at the Berlin Film Festival, to New Zealand in the 1980s, to the Great Disappointment of 1844, when the Apocalypse, as it so often does, failed to arrive as scheduled. Onward to pages on conceptual artist Paul Thek, letters to Walter Benjamin about an acid trip in Morro Bay, a long-distance SM phone-sex relationship, and the misogynistic assumptions of writing about anorexia, even by feminists. Kraus interprets this last as “a psychic-intellectual equation between a culture’s food and the entire social order,” and thus as “an active stance: the rejection of the cynicism that this culture hands us through its food.”

Intriguing as they are, some of Kraus‘ theories end up feeling underdeveloped -- lost, in part, in the whirlwind. But there are more ideas on every page of Aliens & Anorexia than in most books published in the last year. It is an exciting and courageous work.

No greater contrast could be found than Christopher Isherwood’s Lost Years. In I Love Dick, Kraus attacked “the ‘serious’ contemporary hetero-male novel” -- in which the protagonist is a stand-in for the authorial ego and the supporting characters are his friends and lovers, their names and “insignificant features of their identities” disguised -- as “a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy.” Though Isherwood was famously, even heroically, not hetero, Kraus‘ words could easily describe his fiction, which often starred a character named Christopher Isherwood interacting with camouflaged but easily recognizable contemporaries. Isherwood added to this body of autobiographical fiction several volumes of out-and-out memoir, including more than 1,000 pages of diary entries. Fourteen years after his death, the publication of his oeuvre is complete with the release of Lost Years, the product of Isherwood’s attempt in the 1970s to reconstruct the period from 1945 to 1951 (during which he did not keep a daily journal) on the basis of his correspondence and skeletal day-to-day diaries.

What‘s curious about this volume is that for all Isherwood’s obsessive attempts to re-create his daily doings -- whom he dined with, whom he slept with, who complimented his looks, work and sexual prowess -- he seems thoroughly uninterested in analyzing his motivations in any but the most superficial manner. Lost Years is somewhat jarringly written in the third person, as if Isherwood the elder were researching a biography of his younger self (“Did Christopher rent a car until his return? I don‘t think he did.”). He explains that “This helps me overcome my inhibitions, avoid self-excuses and regard my past behavior more objectively.”

It’s that very objectivity, the flatness and apparent lack of curiosity about its subject, that makes this work so strange. Lost Years is nonetheless frequently entertaining. It‘s filled with bitchy gossip and amusing stories, such as the “alleged peeing incident” that Isherwood returns to time and again: Charlie Chaplin stopped inviting him to parties after Isherwood passed out and pissed himself on Chaplin’s couch. “Personally,” Isherwood looks back, “I‘m pretty sure that Christopher was innocent.”

But for all the illustrious names in these pages -- W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster, Stephen Spender -- there’s very little that brings the cast to life. It‘s hard not to sympathize with Isherwood when he writes, “I am inclined to feel irritated by Christopher, because the memories he has chosen to pass down to me are chiefly compliments paid him, of sex encounters and suchlike, while his meetings with (so-called) valued friends seem to have left only faint impressions.” He concludes, “Of course, Christopher himself must have been doing much of the talking.”

There is far more insight into character in Stars in My Eyes, the new book by Isherwood’s longtime lover Don Bachardy. The book collects Bachardy‘s somewhat creepy drawings, largely ofaging celebrities, joined by essays culled from his diary entries about the sittings. Bachardy has a sharp eye for nuances of character, particularly as expressed in subtle physical and gestural details, that comes across as much in his writing as in his portraits. He largely erases himself from his accounts, letting his subjects display themselves in full force, from a tough and lonely Bette Davis, to an imperious Ginger Rogers, to a fiery but faded Louise Brooks, who, peeing with the door open, impressed Bachardy with her no-nonsense ways by letting out a small but dignified fart.

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