The Narcissism of I Love Dick: On Female Monsters

I enter the café and PJ Harvey is playing. I feel supported cosmically and decide to start writing immediately. Walking here, in the cool morning sun, running over opening sentences, wondering where to begin.

I wrote an essay for one of my lit units that I finished last week. It was the final essay of the year, heavily weighted, but already I’m bored talking about this. I wrote on one of my favourite books: I’d negotiated with my tutor to select my own text to analyse the narrative self in regards to subjectivity, confession, memory or dream. When we studied Proust I wrote about a vagina that looked like a pastry shell, we had to skip Plath but I had already written about her for an essay on sad girl writing, and during the initial weeks with Descartes and Locke I gained a better grip on Irigaray. All in all you could say I was finally ready to write about I Love Dick.

It can be hard to explain what I Love Dick is because it defies neat categorisation. It is branded as fiction although it deals with real events, unfolding over a series of letters written to a man named Dick. Kraus herself has called it a ‘dumb cunt exegesis.’ She writes about art, desire, theory, sex, anorexia. She writes about women, she writes about herself. It is political, it is intimate, it is feral and lucid. The essay I wrote was 2200 words and not enough. Kraus wrote, ‘there’s not enough female irrepressibility written down’ and I wanted to spill over like she does, on the page in lucid prose and a distanciation in a casual, female use of the objective correlative. The objective correlative uses symbolic articles (objects, situations, events) to provide explicit access to inexplicable concepts, such as emotions. An outer way in.

There’s a chapter in I Love Dick called ‘Monsters.’ It appears late in Part 2: Every Letter is a Love Letter, after some fierce essays on art and a sentimental detour on chicken Marengo. The idea of artist as narcissist is where she starts to sketch a new outline for the female monster: self-generative, multiplying herself into the world. Her love letters to Dick act like this.

If women have failed to make “universal” art because we’re trapped within the “personal”, why not universalize the “personal” and make it the subject of our art?

Hannah Wilke made cunts out of washing machine lint and was called ‘boring and superficial,’ her wit reduced to a reproduction of female oppression, ‘swamped by aggressive ideology.’  My colleague at the bookstore, Nina, a gorgeous, complicated, rebellious intellectual, told me she hated Kathy Acker because she didn’t think men needed another reason to want to rape angry feminists and I disagreed. There is a need for a woman so outrageous and defiant and ugly and excessive because there is not enough female irrepressibility written down and those men already want to rape angry feminists, they don’t need Kathy Acker and her masturbatory musings about fucking her granddad to give them more ammo. Nina agreed, because she’s smarter than me and already saw my argument stretch ahead of us before I gave it form. Kraus writes about Hannah Wilke with an intensity that suggests she’s really writing about something else. When she discusses her with an art critic friend they agree Hannah ‘became a monster.’ He seems to laugh at this, accept it straight. Kraus solemnly announces to us that she aims to be a female monster too. Meta-narcissism: she talks about how the critics called Hannah a narcissist to talk about her falling into a pigeon hole as a woman artist. Hannah becomes a screen, a mirror. Any woman who dares to be interested in herself is Eve flirting with an Apple: vain, insecure, only concerned for herself, ready to lead humankind out into the desert, full of shame. Was Eve the original monster?

From the very start, art critics saw Hannah’s willingness to use her body in her work as an act of “narcissism”… As if the point was not to reveal the circumstances of ones own objectification. 214-15

Kraus parodies an imaginary response from her beloved (Dick) to the obsessive letters she’s been generating to and for him. ‘I believe these letters will interest the reader as a cultural document,’ she writes. ‘Obviously they manifest the alienation of the postmodern intellectual in its most diseased form. I really feel sorry for such parasitic growth, that feeds upon itself.’ (42) The parasitism of Kraus’s letters rejects the exchange and focuses on the proliferation: because Dick never writes back the “parasite” remaps her territory and disrupts the relationship between host and feeder. She erases his form and becomes excessive, irrepressible through a monstrosity; the self as machine. Kraus overwhelms Dick through writing hundreds of love letters: merging art essays with a frustration of being female and never heard. Meanwhile, he is silent: a silver screen to project herself ruthlessly upon. She writes to him, ‘what hooks me on our story is our different readings of it. You think its personal and private; my neurosis… I think our story is performative philosophy.’

Let’s take a detour and think about lonely girl phenomenology, a phrase Kraus used to describe an earlier manifestation of her work. I like this description, it appeals to me. Isn’t every girl a lonely girl? To describe such a phenomenon is an interesting project, one we each contribute to when we write about ourselves, when narcissism becomes a way out. Girls take selfies because the mirror is not enough, and voices belong to human bodies—they aren’t abstract at all. Barthes was wrong: isn’t that why the death of the author is so famous and isn’t that why I’m sitting here coffee going cold, trying to get my head around the monstrosity of a woman who exposes herself, debases herself and writes about failure in a personal way? ‘Female monsters take things personally as they really are. They study facts. Even if rejection makes them feel like the girl who’s not invited to the party they have to understand the reason why.’ (218) Kraus is stubborn and articulate. She writes outside and inside the text, flipping from first to third person: her “I” only exists when there is a “you.” In other words, the only way to first person was through correspondence with Dick: the epistolary genre means that women are heard by default, even when no-one’s listening.

Dear Chris, I want to be a female monster too. I think I’ve also become a fucking parasite, using your work to make my own, writing about you writing about other women and the way they used themselves (their bodies) to make art, to write, to say something about everything. You said you fused your silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. In a way we are already one, and as I use you to locate my positionality we speak simultaneously about something bigger than us. If women are denied access to both the a-personal and the universal (not the same thing) then we can only ever talk to ourselves. Women talking to women about women, writing to men and being read by everyone.

Samantha Abdy is a writer who lives in Melbourne. Her work explores feminine psychology, becoming, and the unsaid.

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