Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love
by Joseph Suglia
The definitive psychopathology of love has yet to be written. Perhaps it never will be. Love has been praised as a virtue, as the affirmative emotion par excellence at least since Petrarch; indeed, it is quite possibly, along with the concept of freedom, the most dominant ideal in Western culture. (Is it even logical to make of an emotion an “ideal”?). Nonetheless, we have yet to understand (or at least to conceptualize) all of the valences that comprise this strange emotion. It could be argued that love throws us into our more profound dimensions, that love, far from being merely the affirmation of the in-amorata, impinges upon much darker affects. When Christianity orders us to “love one another,” “love” seems to be conceived as a form of harmonization. But doesn’t love also call forth division, antagonism—even violence?
Dennis Cooper’s fiction offers a discomforting interpretation of the phenomenon of love (particularly, erotic love and filial love). Let us say a “punk” interpretation, precisely in the sense that he gives to this word in his breakthrough collection of short stories, Closer (1989): “Punk orders us to demystify everything in the world or we’ll be doomed to a future so decadent, [sic] atomic bombs will seem just one more aftershave lotion and so on.” Dispensing with all literary artifice, his savage fiction desublimates one of the West’s most influential values. There is in his work a demythologization of love, a kind of “punk” reductionism of an affect that is relentlessly praised in most arenas of Western culture. “Love” is portrayed, rather, as a form of submission and of domination, of cruelty and of brutality.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Cooper’s most challenging work of fiction, Frisk (1991). The crux of the narrative is as follows: As a young boy, the book’s protagonist, Dennis rifled through hardcore pornographic magazines at Gypsy Pete’s, a storefront run by an aged, unshaven alcoholic. Gypsy Pete introduces Dennis to even more subterranean publications, some of which contain what appear to be images of necrophilic sex. From this moment on, Dennis links desire with destruction, love with assassination; sexuality appears intimately bound to murder. As he grows older, Dennis finds himself attracted to the same type of boy that he saw in the magazine, with the same hairstyle, the same bedazzled expression in his eyes, the same “look.” He careens from one impersonal tryst to another, seemingly in order to master his original experience. He “loves” his conquests “according to [his] loose, personal definition of the word”—which seems to be, to quote Dennis’ counterpart, Julian, “what you feel for someone you don’t know very well, if at all”:
‘Christ,’ Julian groaned. ‘Are you one of those guys who think love’s … whatever, sacred?’ Henry shook his head. ‘Good, because as far as I’m concerned, love’s what you feel for someone you don’t know very well, if at all. Maybe I was ‘in love’ with your body when you were over there studying Jennifer and me. Now I’m just, uh … hungry, you could call it. You being my… meal …’
No, love is not “sacred”; one may say that it is, rather, a mode of desecration. A form of cannibalism, if you will.
The narrative takes an even darker turn when an older version of Dennis teams up with two Germans. They move from one scene of human destruction to the next, murdering young boys and having sex with their dead bodies. In one especially disgusting scene, the narrator inserts **************** into the mouth of a corpse.
What is particularly striking is the way in which these necrophilic encounters mirror all other forms of sexual relation. Desire for the beloved, in this body of work, is indistinguishable from the desire to kill that person. Take the following scene as an example. While traveling on a train through Holland, Dennis stares at a young Dutch boy lying across from him and fantasizes about the things that he would like to do to the latter’s body: “I’ve filled the Dutch boy’s lips with the words, ‘Kill me, Dennis.’” Whether or not one should kill the person one desires or loves is never a question in Cooper’s fiction: Indeed, the ultimate, poisonous destination of all love is here the slaughter of the one whom one loves. The novel (if it is one) suggests that love brings us to such extremes. His main character precipitates down the descending scale of desire until he reaches the end point, which is death.
It is not merely the case, however, that the lover is violent. What most readers find troubling about Cooper’s books is their suggestion that the victims are complicit in their own destruction, that they willingly lower themselves to the status of dead meat in order to complete the desires of their tormentors. Such is indeed the intense fascination that exists at the heart of all of Cooper’s work: a fascination with young boys who allow themselves to be exploited and violated—sometimes even killed—in order to recognize the desires of their tormentors as belonging to the sphere of love. A fascination with young boys who permit themselves to be, to use an over-used word, objectified. Objectification (the reduction of a human being to the level of an object), Cooper seems to suggest, is essential to the erotic process.
Let me refer to another representative text to make my point clearer. Ziggy, the dazed protagonist of Cooper’s most formally sophisticated work, Try (1994), is sexually manipulated by both of his male parents to the point at which he can no longer distinguish love from erotic exploitation. While his stepfather obsessively roots around ************* as if he were a hound in rut, Ziggy, stoned and stupid to all sensation, submits to his protector’s will, as if the invasion of his body were the parental prerogative, as if the impossible completion of the love process were an act of *************** performed by the man responsible for the cultivation of his person. A transformation, again, of consciousness into object. A sexuality that ends in the “death”—the making-object—of the loved one.
It would perhaps not be superfluous to pause over the philosophic import of relationship of sexuality to death.
The end of all desire, it may be said, again, is destruction. Why else would thoughts of suicide and even murder be seldom absent from the mind of a lover? The Oscar Wilde cliché “All men kill the thing they love” is a propos to this context. What drives us crazy is that in the object of desire which is free from our desire, that part of the other human being which escapes us infinitely; the absolute self-sufficiency of the other person brings us into a frenzy. No one can control, absolutely, what the other person thinks, says or does; s/he can always respond negatively to any possible affirmation on our part, or vice versa. Insofar as s/he is infinitely and absolutely free, the other person forces us to experience the limits of our own presumptions. This inevitably converts the desire that we have for the other person into the desire for his/her destruction—that is to say, the desire to reduce that person to ourselves, to nullify that person’s “otherness,” the desire to turn that person into nothing.
It is perhaps the case that what is called “love,” the most intense form that desire may take, draws out the deeper dimensions of human selfhood. It exposes, perhaps, our most profound valences; it makes apparent our drive toward aggression, our desire for domination, our wish (whether conscious or unconscious) for the annihilation of the beloved.
Baudelaire wrote in his journal: “Even though a pair of lovers may be deeply devoted, full of mutual desires, one of them will always be calmer, or less obsessed, than the other. He or she must be the surgeon or torturer; the other the patient or victim.” That is, in love, one partner is absolutely passive; the other is absolutely aggressive. This same zero-sum relation is apparent everywhere in Dennis Cooper’s fiction. The rapists and murderers that populate his work are needed by their younger victims; these same victims are needed by their older predators. The interdependence of victim and victimizer is what is most uncomfortable in this reading experience–a relationship which is not reducible to the psychological categories of perversion or depravity; its all-pervading status incites one to believe that it is, in fact, absolutely normalized. Cooper’s world is one in which the pebble is substituted for the clod (to refer to Blake), a world in which the consciousness of the beloved is reduced to mute matter. Love, then, is not equated with affection in this oeuvre. The perfect expression of love, in this body of work, is the ***********.
One could, of course, dismiss such an equation as the agitprop of a “transgressive” novelist. Soberer minds will recognize that the same thought is pronounced throughout the history of classical literature–most precisely, perhaps, in the later verse of William Butler Yeats: “Love has pitched his mansion/In the place of excrement.”
Unfortunately, I must add that Dennis Cooper has a thudding, awkward prose style. I find his writing nearly unreadable and sloughing my way through his novels was a burden and a chore.