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.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.