By Chris Kraus
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Have you ever been at an art museum and heard some idiot, standing in front of a Pollack or a Rothko, say, “I don’t get it – I could paint that”? And did you then feel a stab of rage towards that idiot, because a) even if they could have painted it, they didn’t and b) they definitely could not have painted it. And did you silently congratulate yourself on your sophistication and appreciation, on your ability to see the enormous amount of skill and learning and vision that lies behind deceptively simple masterpieces?
Well I definitely have, which is what made it a little alarming to read ‘I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus this week and think, over and over again, “I could have written this”.
‘I Love Dick‘ was Kraus’s first book. Published in 1997, it is an epistolary novel, a series of letters from a woman Chris Kraus (and her husband, Sylvère) to Dick, her husband’s friend, with whom she has fallen in love. The novel was, apparently, in large part memoir; Kraus was married to Sylvère Lontringer and the eponymous Dick was later identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige.
However, the novel isn’t really about either of those men – it’s about Kraus, and about female desire, uncontrolled. It’s about how when your culture will not recognize your legitimate desires, it robs you and your desires of dignity. It is about the way that women in unreciprocated lust are ridiculous in our culture (“debased”, to use Kraus’s word). It is Kraus’s attempt to take back her own dignity by fully inhabiting that debasement.
I loved ‘I Love Dick‘, and when I say, “I could have written this”, I don’t mean, “I could have written this because it seems so easy, so amateurish”. I mean: “I wish I had written this.” I mean: “I am so glad that someone wrote this, and I only wish that it had been me”.
‘I Love Dick‘ is considered an important feminist text (The Guardian called it “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”), and that makes sense to me: I feel as though I connected to it primarily as a woman. This is unusual for me – I don’t read books as a woman. And what I mean by that is, ‘woman’ is not the first lens through which I experience most literature. Sometimes a text, or a portion of a text, will remind me that I am a woman, but it is rare that I engage with a book in constant awareness of the fact that I am a woman, rare that my femininity, my lived experience as a woman, is the best tool I have for connecting with a text.
Aside/Manifesto: I believe that there is an enormous amount of information about humanity lurking within the Amazon algorithm. When Amazon suggests a product to you based on your purchase, it is essentially telling you what kind of person you are, and what it is that your kind of person buys. What I have learned from ‘I Love Dick”s Amazon page is that Amazon thinks that people like me (women?) are stupid: the ‘Sponsored Products Related to this Item’ include: ‘Stone Heart: A Single Mom & Mountain Man Romance’, ‘Bad Seed: A Brother’s Best Friend Romance’ and something beggaring description called ‘Falling For My Dirty Uncle: A Virgin and Billionaire Romance’. These books are ‘related’ to ‘I Love Dick’ the way gonorrhea is related to penicillin.
But I found that I did read ‘I Love Dick‘ in large part as a woman. It is as a woman that I was best able to understand what Kraus felt as she thrashed around in love, and shame, and fear. And it is as a woman that I was best able to relate to her desire to understand, articulate, express herself. If femininity is a house, a large, complicated, rambling house, with an old, old main building but with additions and wings and rooms in the back that we all forgot were there, then ‘I Love Dick’ is spring cleaning, airing out the attic and the basement and spending some time in all those rooms which we don’t like to show to guests.
And the part of me that did not read ‘I Love Dick‘ as a woman read it as someone who loves texts, and meaning. ‘I Love Dick’ is often described as a semiotics text. Kraus was a filmmaker (in fact, much of what ‘I Love Dick’ is about is her reckoning with the failure of her filmmaking career; it is failure transformed, escaped from, into sexual desire, and, really, who hasn’t been there?), and if her book is about love, and lust, and failure, then it is also about art. It is about how we use art to understand ourselves, and our feelings. It is about the collision of our selves and the content we consume, and how the result is our lives.
Kraus loves art that I do not love, but I understood the enormous meaning that she draws from art. I am, like her, built from the parts I have found in art. And, even if her taste does not suit, her eye is phenomenal. She is a witty, biting observer of…everything. Born, perhaps, to be a critic, she weaves art into her life, and then shreds the result with observation:
“Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.” (p. 21)
“”As soon as sex takes place, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange. The two together get too scary. So she wrote some more about Henry James.” (p. 51)
“Because [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction: i.e., they tell each other everything.” (p. 21)
People often seem to object to ‘I Love Dick’ on the grounds that it is ‘difficult’, that it is dry and theoretical and abstract. I find this puzzling: I found warmth and wisdom and sadness here, no difficulty, just a winding path. A novel analyzing love is still about love, and observing something doesn’t make it any less true. I recognize myself in Kraus’s love, and I think that many women do, in the snarls and complexity of it all:
“If the coyote is the last surviving animal, hatred’s got to be the last emotion in the world.” (p. 160)
“How do you continue when the connection to the other person is broken (when the connection is broken to yourself)? To be in love with someone means believing that to be in someone else’s presence is the only means of being, completely, yourself.” (p. 168)
“And isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” (p. 181)
“Isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” I could have written that.