“There was something to be done before anything could be done.”

chris kraus i love dick signedYesterday I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop run by Chris Kraus. I hadn’t applied for it but a last minute favour from my PhD supervisor (who owed me big after forgetting to turn up to my annual review) got me slipped in unnoticed and, without initially realising it, sitting across the table from the author of I Love Dick herself. As I’ve said on here before, I’m really interested in Kraus and the way she treads the fine line between fiction and autobiography. Not only that, Kraus had chosen to discuss an excerpt from Dorothy Richardson’s The Tunnel, the fourth volume of her thirteen-part Pilgrimage novel sequence which I’m writing my PhD on. The Tunnel contains my favourite one-line ode to procrastination, my own personal mantra, “there was something to be done before anything could be done.” In the workshop we discussed Richardson’s work for a while; a great experience for me as someone who works on an obscure text in a small community of readers and scholars to hear people less familiar with the writing talk about it. Then Kraus got us all to watch a strange short film of the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka performing in the grounds of the famous La Borde psychiatric clinic in France. The film is on YouTube in two parts, which you can watch here and here. After watching the film, we were all to write our immediate thoughts. Here is what I wrote:

I thought a lot about contradictions. At first I was concerned with the weightlessness of the dancer, how he seemed to barely connect with the ground that he danced upon. Just a moment before, however, he had been dragged down, almost painfully down, towards the hard surface, writhing like death was pulling him down. This was when the audience caught my attention. One audience member ran into view, perhaps as a joke if the laughter that accompanied him is any indication, but seemingly it was to aid what he thought was an injured dancer. Up until this point, and indeed throughout the remainder of the piece, the audience looked entirely nonplussed. Bored, almost. Yawning. This is contradicted, however, by the interviews they gave after the performance. Those who spoke seemed deeply moved by the dancer and his dance, noticing moments of “deep misery” from a protagonist “desperate to have flashes of joy.” Another gave an emotional account of how the piece reminded him of fellow patients at La Borde, “comrades,” who had passed away. It was then that I remembered that these critics were patients at a psychiatric facility, potentially not to be wholly trusted, particularly the man who claimed to be a member of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Institute and thus something of an expert on Japanese art and culture. Does it matter if an expert is truly an expert? Can we rely on feeling when discussing art, dismissing knowledge entirely?

Kraus then got a few of us to read our pieces out loud (I was too shy) and graciously hung about signing books and chatting for a while. Later in the day she gave a reading of her new work in progress, a biography of Kathy Acker, at the Glasgow School of Art and answered questions on French feminism and Acker’s star sign. She also, excitingly, confirmed the production of an I Love Dick TV show. I personally can’t wait.

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Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (1997)

Chris Kraus I Love DickThe subject of this blog post is a little different from those that have gone before, and from what I anticipated writing about. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick was first published in 1997, although I’ve borrowed the beautiful 2015 edition from my local library. The protagonist is called Chris Kraus, an artist and filmmaker, who is married to Sylvère Lotringer, a cultural theorist. So far, so autobiographical. But while traditional autobiographical fiction makes use of pseudonyms and fictions to mask its proximity to reality, I Love Dick instead feels like a fictional tale made to look real. As Leslie Jameson of the The New Yorker claims, it’s “an experience that can feel like voyeurism but isn’t really voyeurism at all.”

In a 2006 interview with Denise Frimer for The Brooklyn Rail Kraus reinforces the fictionality of the text:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.”

Here Kraus also brings up a recurring theme of this blog: the fictional nature of life writing, that the process of writing down one’s life will always force choices to be made over what is included. Jonathan Gibbs for The Independent calls I Love Dick “both an influential feminist text and a key intervention in the debate over where life-writing ends and fiction begins” which it is, but also so many texts (especially those by women) exist on this line between fiction and autobiography.

I Love Dick is interesting and unusual though. Part epistolary and part confessional diary, half written in first person narrative and half in third, this is most definitely a text on the subject of critical theory. The text itself even ponders on its own writing, and narrative, with Chris questioning her style: “but in order to write 1st Person narrative there needs to be a fixed self or persona and by refusing to believe in this I was merging with the fragmented reality of the time” (I Love Dick, 2015, p. 122). But it’s funny too. The narrator calls Chris and Sylvère’s letter writing to Dick “DICK-tation” (p. 22) and the couple’s frequent bickering about their obsession with Dick is a constant source of humour. The second half of the text sees Chris and Sylvère’s relationship dissolve, in part because of this obsession, and the narrative turns to Chris’s search for who she is as a person and as an artist.

“‘Who’s Chris Kraus?’ she screamed. ‘She’s no one! She’s Sylvère Lotringer’s wife! She’s his “Plus-One”!’ No matter how many films she made or books she edited, she’d always be seen as no one by anyone who mattered as long as she was living with Sylvère.” (p. 100)

The afterword of the 2015 edition by Joan Hawkins discusses the fictional nature of the text, stating that “it’s strange that critics have tended to treat I Love Dick as more of a memoir than fiction” (p. 249) and “it’s difficult to know whether certain things that Kraus describes in the book ever really happened” (p. 254). However, the text can never truly be considered fiction, especially as Kraus continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding it. When questioned in the Brooklyn Rail interview how she first knew she had become a writer, Kraus answered “it was when I started writing those crazy letters to Dick.”