Reading: “I love Dick” by Chris Kraus

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“To see yourself as who you were ten years ago can be very strange indeed.”

I didn’t know anything about this book, only saw it a few times on Bookstagram (and actually thought it’s a comedy because it sounded funny…) and that was it. So when I read the Guardian’s remark about this being “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”, I had quite some expectations. Long story short: they were not fulfilled. After all, I haven’t read that many books about men and women from “last century”, and I still believe there’s more out there, somewhere, maybe less hyped and famous, but more interesting. Also, this was probably too much of a praise for one author and her book to live up to.

The point of departure for this literary tour de force is an evening Chris Kraus — a 39-year-old, unsuccessful artist who is successful as being a savvy and (self) educated wife of an European academic and intellectual — and Sylvère Lotringer — said French intellectual and academic, her husband — spend with an acquaintance of Sylvère, Dick (who was identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige some time after the initial publication of this book in 1997). Dick seems to be flirting with Chris throughout the evening, and after initially being irritated she feels excited and empowered, enough so to eventually fall in love with him — or is it love? Desire? Obsession? Whatever it is, it initiates a foray into Chris’ past and the his(her)story of male and female artists, thinkers, authors and philosophers in regard to modern feminism and the (art) world.
The people mentioned here – Chris, Sylvère, and Dick – are all real, they exist and are not mere characters in a novel. In what sense these ‘real’ people correlate with the characters in this book is unclear and – to me at least – irrelevant.
Chris Kraus’ I love Dick is not a conventional novel, as you may have guessed by now, but rather something Joan Hawkins in the afterword of the 2016 edition calls ‘theoretical fiction’, which sums it up rather nicely. Chris jumps from the early 80s to the mid 90s to 1992 to 1995 and back; she leaves her husband, only to be with him again in the next passage and then she is with someone else – all this due to the leaps in time throughout the book. And she regularly interweaves theoretical, philosophical, historical and gender perspectives with her own story, the people she knew, read, watched, or heard of. While this at times interrupts the “story”, it was also the thing I liked most about this book. It is full of information about artists, thinkers, philosophers, and authors, male and female, their lives, works, and passions. Still, this constant switching between a sort of actual narration and her theoretical explanations regarding certain topics, often with a feminist background, was at times too much for me to keep up with. Now and then it just took me some time to actually recognize another switch when there was one and I felt confused and lost for the moment; that’s not necessarily bad but it CAN be unnerving…

Most of all, I enjoyed Kraus’ discussion of feminist issues. Doing so, she keeps it open-minded and down-to-earth, elaborating on various problems a lot of female artists and thinkers faced and still face (even today). Quoting the American poet Alice Notley she declares:

“Because we rejected a certain kind of critical language, people just assumed that we were dumb.”

And even in 2018, I can still relate to this quote, in an academic as well as a professional context. Exploring how being a woman and deciding to live independently – be it in a professional, personal, or artistic understanding – can influence our whole existence in all its various facets was interesting and by far the best about this book, at least in my opinion.

But there were also times I simply didn’t ‘get’ her (this was actually quite often…) — I’m rather the down-to-earth and practical kind of person, so some of her explorations into the world of art and theory were simply to abstract for me. Again, this is just me and may be perfectly fine for a lot of other people out there. And since this is a sort of theoretical fiction with a lot of essayistic sections, there is actually the possibility to disagree with the author – see here for yourself (and disagree with me, for that matter):

“The philosopher Luce Irigaray thinks there is no female “I” in existing (patriarchal) language. She proved it once by bursting into tears while lecturing in a conference on Saussure at Columbia University.”

Let me tell you: I too was close to tears last December when I gave a lecture at Columbia University, though not because my female “I” felt misunderstood and lonely within this system of patriarchal language, but rather because of stress, anxiety, and being close to a panic attack. Still, I can understand that one cries while giving a lecture about Saussure (who is very interesting, but also very male, especially in regard to Irigaray’s line of thought) at Columbia; but this “proves” nothing, especially not something the philosopher is/was “thinking”. “Proved” is the wrong term for this, she may have “underlined” or “emphasized” her thoughts about patriarchal linguistics by crying, but it is no “proof”. I’ve read some of Irigaray’s work and she’s much too theoretical and high-strung for me; as long as women still face male (and societal) aggression in a lot of ways every day and everywhere as well as a huge gender pay gap, I personally don’t give a shit about the female “I” in our patriarchal language (though of course I know that this is an important issue too – it’s just a question of priorities, and mine differ from those of Irigaray and like-minded feminists). Though this is just a small paragraph at the end of the book, I found it highly irritating, probably because it is a very narrow-minded conclusion for someone as open as Kraus seems to be throughout the rest of her book.

I love Dick was interesting, confusing, multilayered and at times fascinating. The ‘love story’ of Chris and Dick offers a sort of base on which much more important things are discussed, especially regarding Chris’ self-discovery and her relationship to the world around her. There’s hardly an interaction between the two and the main male voice we hear is Sylvére’s.
Because of the different styles of narration — third person narration, first person narration, emails, letters, diary entries — I had my difficulties getting ‘into’ the story. I read three pages, then I suddenly remembered I had to water the plants, look for the cat, clean some dishes, read/write an email, shave my legs, eat something, drink something, use the bathroom, check on the cat again…you get the picture. I love Dick wasn’t much of an intriguing or captivating reading experience BUT it was really interesting, I learned a lot and I really liked it.

[Under the rubric “things to ignore”: The back cover mentions several ‘fans’ of this book, amongst them the unbearable Lena Dunham, the epitome of ignorant (rich) entitlement. Miss Dunham being “a fan” is definitely NOT something to put on the cover of a book or a good reason to start reading that book (rather to throw it away or burn it) but I got an excellent shit filter and learned to ignore Dunham’s name long ago, at least most of the time. After all, it is not Chris Kraus’ fault that someone in the marketing department felt the urgent need to name-drop a bit too much…]

Chick(s) without kids

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Today, by chance I listened to the episode “Choosing to live child-free” of the What would a feminist do?-podcast (you can listen to it here); I haven’t thought about that issue for a while, but what the three women – host Jessica Valenti and her two guests, authors Meghan Daum and Danielle Henderson – talked about resonated deeply with me: I never wanted kids and therefore, at 30+, I don’t have kids.* [I will continue to talk about the conscious decision to not have children, NOT about involuntary childlessness. For obvious reasons I’m in no position to talk about the latter, nor do I want talk about something I know nothing about. So let’s continue with the less tragic part of this vast subject.]

Whilst all my female and even male friends are breeding like there’s no tomorrow, I would rather drop dead than seriously think about having a baby. Usually, I’m the sole master of my life, my time, and my priorities which is a privilege I treasure very much, even though this means I have less financial security than someone else my age who leads a ‘traditional’ life. But for me, that’s worth it. I can read a book at any given time, I can stay up and work all night, I can withdraw from the world every time I feel the need to be alone and no human being depends on me. This is exactly how I want it.

On an intellectual level, I can understand why people want children: all these myths and stories about having children as a sort of symbolic immortality, having someone to take care of, humans having a biological urge to breed – I get that.

On an emotional level: no way. Why someone would sacrifice all her time, energy, health, well-being, money and sleep for a being that will not be able to take care of itself for at least 10 to 14 years and at times will treat you like shit and still take all your energy, money, and well-being is a mystery to me. There is nothing lovely about that, it rather reminds me of leeches or tapeworms. Also,  there is nothing sweet about babies or toddlers; they smell, cannot communicate properly, and cry a lot. I can take that for a while concerning my friend’s kids – since I don’t want to lose close friends just because they choose a different path, I am indeed in regular contact with human beings who can stand tall beneath my kitchen table –, but not much more because I don’t want to. Most kids are boring and I don’t know what to say to them; like many people (and as stated in an earlier post) I’m really bad at small talk and this gets worse the younger my conversation partner is.

The most important aspect is one I mentioned before: I don’t want anyone to completely depend on me; this is a sort of responsibility I am NOT seeking. Thanks to some of my issues there are days when I’m glad I can take care of my own most basic affairs – I never felt the need to extend this experience to other human beings. As weird as it may sound, at times I really NEED to be alone because otherwise I know I might get a panic attack or fall into one of my dark holes due to the sensory overload of all the people and the world around me. I would never risk my solitude, ever. Especially not for kids.

My mom once said that when she listens to me explaining why I don’t want kids she gets the impression that having a family is like being in solitary confinement in Alcatraz; I told her that I would choose solitary confinement in Alcatraz over children at any given time.

In the end it all comes down to this: individuals deciding what to do with their lives. It’s as easy as that. But because some of those individuals are biologically female it gets out of hand; religion, society, politics, medicine, and other people want to interfere with decisions that are none of their fucking business. At which point the never-ending cycle of explaining and justifying yourself starts again, again, and again.
Still, let’s wish each other just the best, no matter how we decide to live our lives. 

 

*Yeah I know, what a statement! Groundbreaking, never heard before, and totally trivial! But also still relevant, because as a woman who consciously decides to not procreate, therefor NOT blessing the world with another set of urgently needed no-necked monsters, you do know that at certain points in your life – with your family, friends, in-laws, colleagues, acquaintances, and at times even strangers – you will have to discuss your decision again and again. And again. Because breeding is the ONLY thing that gives the existence of a female human being any sense and fulfillment AT ALL. So your refusal to do so is unacceptable and has to be challenged. [And now the rant is over, I promise.]