These questions are about Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction (Seven Stories Press, 2008), an anthology edited by Chapadjiev that collects stories, essays, and art by mostly feminist and queer artists and writers who have lived through periods of self-destructive acts.
MILDRED PIERCE: I appreciate the approach you (and the majority of the authors in the book) take to self-destruction, challenging the ‘bad bad’ psychological and social discourse on self-destructive behaviors that can be quite necessary — at the same time avoiding romanticizing such behaviors. Why do you think so much of the discourse around these issues is so simplistic and moralistic?
SABRINA CHAPADJIEV: I could talk for hours on this. But I will say that it is changing, and that we’ve come a long way in understanding/talking about mental health in the past twenty years. I am not an expert by any means, but I give a lecture on the history of sanity, specifically focusing on the gender difference in sanity/mental health through the years, and these moralistic and numbingly pedestrian outlooks on self-destruction stem from a place of power, which to me was the main way mental health was seen in the past. ‘Insane’ people were weak, ‘sane’ people were powerful. But who got to decide? Well, men, first and foremost. And then Religion took a stab at it. And then Freud came and since then we all want to fuck our fathers and have penis envy, and then there’s now.
For years, the pen of psychiatry was held by primarily by men. Before that, exclusively by men. Only women could be deemed ‘hysterical.’ It was primarily a ‘female disease’, this thing now called ‘mental instability.’ Though self-destruction is something that both men and women experience, there is definitely a gendered difference on how forms of self-destruction have played out. Cutting and anorexia — two primarily female related forms of self-destruction — are damned because a lot of the people studying it have been male, or been working in a relatively extreme male work-force. I think this moralistic misunderstanding is a form of patronization and an attempt of ownership over a woman’s true experience of the world.
Basically, it’s condescension, but a condescension that has been qualified over years of gendered or religious theology over mental health.
Again: I’m talking from an understanding of how females have been seen in the whole self-destructive manipulation. Dudes have their own problems. There is a lot less problematizing of male self-destruction — in fact, it is glorified. I do believe that female self-destruction is shamed and male self-destruction is either glorified or is simply not demonized in the same way.
In my last post I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and how many critics perceived the hallucinatory visions/dreams in that film as “garish” interferences with the plot, and how the movie itself seems to display anxiety about “garishness” by making them all a symptom of an original trauma, which explains them. The critics’ feelings of imbalance is proof that these hallucinations are so much more visually fascinating than this explanation; and so is the fact that the number of original traumas seems to grow, as if to make up for this deficiency.
I’m interested in works of art that purse intensive states of consciousness without pathologizing them as trauma, curbing their power with sentimental notions of interiority. I’m interested in more interesting, dynamic relationships between language and image than of the plot as an attempt to restrain the image (caption it, make it meaningful).
Although you can find these garish visions far more often in literature than film (think of all of Rimbaud for example), there is a close connection between the anxiety about these and cinema.
I’m reminded of Susan McCabe’s book Cinematic Modernism, where she shows modern poetry in conversation with the emergent art form of film, arguing that the fragmentation of the body experienced in film “ruptured fantasies of physical self-presence or wholeness.” She also shows how film created a hysteric body on the screen, as well as had “the capacity to induce in the spectator the hysteric’s physical symptoms of dislocation, amnesia, suggestibility and even anesthesia. Most importantly, “modernist hysteria brought into the open the blurred ground between corporeality and consciousness, undermining the absolutist categories of sexual difference.”
I also really love Steven Shaviro’s book, The Cinematic Body, where he argues against a lot of pervading ideas about film (and art in general) – for example the idea that there is something immoral about the affect of cinema. He argues for “visual fascination”:
“Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze. And it is linked with the delegitimation of violence, its dissociation either from the demands of social order or from the assertion of virile (stereotypically male) power and control, for Eugene “catches” violence as one catches an infection, more than he inflicts it as a willful expression of a warped self. His Phallic, aggressive fantasies are decentered and unhinged in the very movement by which they are intensified. He is less an independent character than a hysterical figuration of the destabilizing excessiveness of Turner’s own desire. And Blue Steel as a whole celebrates this excess… Blue Steel exposes visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility – rather than as the stabilizing fixation assumed by so much film theory,” (9)
What might Shutter Island look like if Scorsese did not turn the fascinating visuals into symptoms of trauma, did not make it about character, did not attempt (and apparently fail) to balance his film, instead letting it be about destabilizing excessiveness of desire?
One way it might have looked (I will post others in the near future), is Swedish novelist Sara Stridsberg’s brilliant 2006 novel Drömfakulteten: Tillägg till Sexualteorin (The Dream Department: Appendix to the Sexual Theory), which was recently picked as the top novel of the 00s in Sweden (which would be unimaginable in the US, where it would dwell in obscurity on some small indie press at best).
The novel is really a series of vignettes, a series of dreamlike scenes involving Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous SCUM manifesto and the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol, as she lies dying. Sometimes she talks to The Narrator, a well-meaning but square woman doing research on the history of women’s lib, her mother Dorothy or a woman named Cosmo.
The mis-en-scenes changes, starting out in a down-and-out flophouse called Bristol Hotel in San Francisco (where Valerie is dying) but going into the deserts where the atom bombs are tested and a mental hospital in New York etc. Something that really fascinates me is this dream-like space the novel opens up, a space Stridsberg calls Bambiland (an kitschy Americana that shares aspects of the space Alice Notley generates in Alma, and the America Swedish author (and member of the academy Lotta Lotass creates in her book about American serial killers, My Voice Will Now Come From Another Place in the Room).
And also, the garish vignettes in Shutter Island.
There is plenty of trauma in the book (she’s raped by stepdad for example), but the trauma doesn’t explain the hallucinatory vignettes, doesn’t turn them into symptoms of the trauma. The trauma saturates the vignettes. Solanas comes off as a courageous person, and the vignettes are beautiful and traumatic. These two (trauma, beauty) are of course not as separate as they are often imagined. It becomes an absolutely absorbing book about feminism, hysteria, violence; a kind of hagiography of sorts, in which Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Ulrike Meinhof and Valerie Solanas are all connected as violent women martyred by the patriarchy.
Here’s an excerpt that I really like (my very rough translation, apologies to everyone, I’m doing it quickly). As you can tell from this frist excerpt, the novel consists largely in what appears to be scripts for a movie.
Briston Hotel, April 12, 1988
The Narrator: I can help you sort your papers, I can exchange the light bulbs so that you won’t have to lie in darkness, I can help you get up for a while.
Valerie: Thanks, I’m fine the way I am. And I prefer to lie here alone. But go ahead. Keep at it. I’ll sleep for a while.
The Narrator: We have to talk more about prostitution. We have to talk more about the American feminist movement. You have to tell me more about your relationship to the liberation project.
Valerie: I don’t have to do anything. I have to lie here and wait and see if I decide life or death. My heart still beats. I am still full of hate. I can still see you. And all of your papers. That means I’m not dead yet.
The Narrator: To get close to the authentic material…
Valerie: Am I the material?
The Narrator: Maybe not material… You are the subject matter of the novel. I admire your work. I admire your courage. I am interested in the context of the manifesto. Your life. The American women’s movement. The sixties.
Valerie: There is nothing called context. Everything should be pulled out of its context. Contexts explain away the most apparent connections. Buyers, dealers, dildoes, fake cunts. It’s a question of detachable phenomena.
The Narrator: I’m interested in your world.
Valerie: I’m not interested in living in this world. Marilyn Monroe. Sylvia Plath. Cinderella. To lie murdered and raped on the beach. I ran with dying animals in my arms through the desert back home to Dorothy. I waited for the animal to decide life or death. Sometimes they decided to die, sometimes to live. Sometimes it was a giant dragonfly that would die before nightfall anyway. It’s always been that way for me, I’ve had a hard time making decisions. It has been neither life nor death. But now it looks like it’s going to be death for the foreseeable future. Yes, that’s a decision one can stick to. It has an enduring character.
The Narrator: Talk more about the manifesto, talk more about SCUM.
Valerie: A worldwide, anti-violence organization. A utopia, a mass movement, a laughing blob that slowly spread across the world. A state of mind, an attitude, a way of moving through the city. Always shitty thoughts, shitty dress, shitty long intentions.
The Narrator: Number of members?
The Narrator: Who were the members?
Valerie: Arrogant and selfish women all over the world who could not longer wiat and hop for the deprogramming of millions of assholes. Universe-rulers in all nations… All the women of the world or just Valerie…
The Narrator: And you?
Valerie: The loneliness of the desert.
The Narrator: Can I hold your hand?
The Narrator: Can I sit with you when you sleep?
Valerie: Remember that I’m sick and that I’m waiting to die. Remember that I am the only woman not crazy around here.
The Narrator: I love you.
Valerie: Fuck you.
[Here’s another little bit about SCUM Manifesto that I love for the way it seems to revise, or rather pre-vise (it comes earlier in the book) Valerie's answer above:]
If you fall asleep and dream about Maryland and wake up again and it’s dark and death is there, a vertiginous aching chasm of black trees and black snow that is falling. There is no organization called SCUM, it has never existed. The only thing that remains is Society for Cutting Up Myself, a worldwide organization with countless members. An organization that will never cease and disappear.
In addition to these scripts/potential movies, the books contains many intensive passages that, as i the McCabe quote above, not only creates a fragmented, hysterical body in Solanas, but also generates that effect in the reader:
You cough and get blood in your hand and beneath your silver robe there is a screaming under-water animal that wants out, a bird-like horror without feathers and skin that bites and chews around. The belly aches and cries and the silver robe is wet and cold of urine, but you love it and if you are anyway going to die now, you want to die in silver and with silver buttons. If you are anyway going to die, you want to die with Cosmo in your hand. The last thing she said was don’t leave me here and the sky was heavy and pressing and your leopard fur was wet from fear when you took the train back to Maryland the last time.
In this particular piece, I love the way materials seem infused with the trauma, and how the interior is conceived of as not just a montage but an impossible montage (the underwater animal that both is an is not a bird, that has no skin).
OK, that should give you an idea. It’s a harrowing, beautiful book. One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
I feel there is a connection between Valerie’s detachable body and the cinematic body, the hysterical body, the violence. What I’ve elsewhere called a “Spasmadic Aesthetic.”
The book does decidedly not take the route of Scorsese in Shutter Island. The hallucinations are not explained away as symptoms of inner trauma and the trauma is not originary, cannot be fully explained. The trauma saturates the text. Valerie even rejects “context.”
I haven’t done a great job explaining myself, but hopefully it will come together more in my next post. Next up: Atrocity Kitsh, Ken Chen’s Sublime, Aase Berg’s trauma-rama body infested by media, Abu Ghraib aesthetics, Carolyn Forche’s kitschy dead dissident bodies.
The vignettes in Stridsberg’s novel are cinematic the way August Strindberg’s (no relation!) Dream Play was much more film than any possible theater back in the early 20th century. Funny that it should be a book about Valerie Solanas, the one feminist who might actually have believed what Strindberg thought all women believed (ie want to kill men).