Stolen Childhoods Redreamed

Reviews

Stolen Childhoods Redreamed

Kathy Acker, My Mother: Demonology, A Novel. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.)

Normative language cuts, curses, and economically separates those it envelops. Normative language forcibly imprints its categories upon and imprisons the relationality our bodies, placing us at a moral or religious distance from fleshy animal relations to our (m)others and all others. Normative language ritually labors to replace the fluid poetic materiality of our actual relations with the sacrificial virtuality of binding moral prose. This is a history of our Euro- American present — a violent and flesh-defying history of cultural FORMS at war with and within our bodies. FORMS that simultaneously construct and defy conscious memory. FORMS that are as invisible as they are omnipresent. Unconscious FORMS. Linguistic FORMS shaped by the psychic and economic restrictions of deadly fascist fatherly white sickening cultural practices.

Kathy Acker’s writings reel within and against the disembodying violence of such normative cultural FORMS; raging, laughing, screaming, deconstructing and doubling back upon, daring to dream a way out from within this hellish moral system. Daring to give themselves over to dreams of being periodically carried beyond the confines of what is perpetually useful to this system. Daring to give themselves, like menstrual blood, back to the earth. Back to the fire. Back to the water. Back to the air of a childhood marked, not by the paranoia of romantic desire, but by the self-lacerating joys and tenderness of being recurrently with others ‘before the creation of the world.’ This is to periodically return to ‘the convulsive beauty’ of human animal childhood. This is to return, not to innocence, but to often painful healings and to generous FORMS of being-in-relation, FORMS rendered impossible by the restrictive cultural economics of life within this ‘Belly of Hell whose name is the United States.’

My Mother: Demonology is a moving and demanding fiction of return — a deeply personal and rigorously political challenge to radically redream the compulsive structural repetitions which mythically and materially separate us from others. Or, worse yet, place us at each other’s throats. Here, Acker critically explores, passionately exposes, and poetically attempts a partial uprooting of unconscious social FORMS. Mirroring back upon and writing through the surreal-like feminist texts of Laure (Colette Peignot) — the important, if still untranslated into English, French woman, writer, critic, activist, theorist, and lover of Georges Bataille — Acker’s text enacts a genealogical descent into a world where orphans, pirates, biker-rebels, and an assortment of other cursed female animals subvert the linear violence of clear western (male) cultural memories and logic. ‘The child’s eyes pierce the night.’ Memories (and forgettings) inscribed in the name of a long historical series of dead (linguistic) Fathers are colored in horror. These violent memories are countered by red. ‘Red’s the color of passion, of joy. Red’s the color of all the journeys which are interior, the color of hidden flesh, of the depths and recesses of the unconscious. Above all, red is the color of rage and violence.’

As the reader enters My Mother: Demonology s/he passes through a gateway constructed out of two narrative passages. In the first, one encounters Hatuey, a fifteenth-century Indian insurrectionist. Hatuey opts for Hell rather than the nightmarish version of Heaven offered by his Christian captors. In the second, the reader meets ‘My mother [who] began to love at that same moment in her life that she began to search for who she was. This was the moment she met my father.’ This is a haunting moment. The Father’s presence here signals nothing but absence — a repetitious state of lack or discontinuity. This creates a murderous divide between ‘my mother’s ‘desire for love and her search for existence. Does this mean that ‘my mother’, like Hatuey, the Indian insurrectionist, has nowhere to live (and die) in this world except in that Hell instituted by the father’s present absence? If so, what gifts or what curses will this mother pass on to her daughters?

Much psychoanalytically oriented feminist theory addresses the gendered violence to female subjectivity occasioned by patriarchal culture’s white economic flight from human bodily interdependence. Acker’s novel conjures up this primal scene of family violence in the color of religious horror. This horror envelops a daughter’s journey along the darkened hallways of the Church or prisonhouse of men’s fears: anxiety, pain, sickness, and an amalgam of longing and loneliness. Here things smell of being sexually, emotionally, and economically schooled ‘halfway between life and death… In the history books, in the poetry we read, no one ever tried to tell me what causes pain. In the school that I attended I learned, seemingly by chance, that pain, if anything, is a bad smell. And I tired to run away from that pain named childhood, like you flush a huge shit down the toilet. I’ve been running ever since.’

Like other of Acker’s writings, My Mother: Demonology embodies a disturbing feminist evocation of a culture of male terror — a culture of rape, mutilation, linguistic silencing, and the murder of daughters by morally respectable priests, politicians, educators, artists, and businessmen, and mothers who fathers drive to the edge of what’s entirely imaginable. But despite the dedication of Chapter Three to Dario Argento, My Mother: Demonology is not merely a horror story. Redreaming its way through a wide and provocative collage of literary, philosophical, political, pop culture and personal texts, documents, and fragments — from the writings of Laure, Dante, Emily Bronte, Freud and T.S. Eliot to materials drawn from Dominican witch-burners, pirate histories, Tarot card readings, the post-L.A. uprising Bloods and Crips proposal for social change in the USA, and her own dreams — Acker’s novel is also a healing descent into a space where historical memories and haunted fleshy sensations are allowed to encounter and set each other on fire. A wild and curious mixture of psychic and material transformations, this text may set its readers’ minds ablaze.

Acker likens the materiality of her ‘story-telling method’ to body building. In this, new language FORMS, like muscles, can be built ‘WHEN AND ONLY WHEN … EXISTING FORM IS SLOWLY AND RADICALLY DESTROYED. IT CAN BE BROKEN DOWN BY SLOWLY FORCING IT TO ACCOMPLISH MORE THAN IT’S ABLE. THEN, IF AND ONLY IF THE MUSCLE IS PROPERLY FED WITH NUTRIENTS AND SLEEP, IT’LL GROW BACK MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN BEFORE…. TOWARD A LITERATURE OF THE BODY…. THE SPIRIT OF PIRATES.’ And the spirit of orphans as well — the spirit of those who (whether by will or the force of circumstance) embrace dreams of different and more radically reciprocal FORMS of human animal kinship.

This is to redream kinship, intimacy, and pleasure in FORMS that engender rather than repress the ‘gorgeous mutability ‘and ‘always changing, menstruating, turning to shit … physical world’, the world of ‘all that is flesh.’ To be healingly touched by this world, which is ‘before the world’ as western Man murderously defines the world — this is what is at stake in Acker’s moving novel. This is to poetically picture the world in emotional and sensual forms at exactly those points where patriarchal language fails to deliver it of anything but obsessive memories of lack, law, and violence of impossible desires. And, this My Mother: Demonology accomplishes with spell-binding phrasings, unflinching honesty, and a political commitment to not abandoning one’s dreams, even when dreams assume or are forced to assume the most abject and nightmarish FORMS of horror. Not that one’s dreams are ever really One’s dreams. And this is a lesson taught page after page in the novel: dreams enter and pass through the body in FORMS that are at once transferential and cultural, personal and political, intimately biographically and laughably historical.

My Mother: Demonology may be Kathy Acker’s most complex and challenging novel. As its central character(s) take leave of the haunted prison cells of what poses as if One’s truthful identity, each must struggle to death with ‘the actuality of the Father.’ This always absent figure of speech and psychic- political hegemony — with his multiple personae and narcissistic ghosts — rules over our contemporary cultural imaginary. His absent presence — in the FORMS of deadly patriarchal language — inflicts those it splits (as subjects) with invisible senses of rejection, abandonment, and authoritarian (religious) belief. For the multiple figurations of the mother/daughter couplet in Acker’s text this is literally murderous.

But what happens when the color of (Fatherly) horror is confronted with the redness of a feminist rage that has wildly redreamt its claims to childhood lusts for life? And what of the brothers and sons in this political allegory of women’s body building? Heathcliff makes a fateful appearance. So does the elusive figure of B. Is this Georges Bataille or George Bush or even Dante’s Beatrice cross-dressing? Or may it’s some other B. — a B. who can never be present until ‘it’s going to be night in full noon and dusk’s going to turn into the break of day?’ My Mother: Demonology hints at this possibility, but not without piercing screams and subtle laughter. It calls upon its readers to risk reversing the violent relations between everyday language and wild dreams of new and more generous FORMS of cultural gift-exchange. This is to shit away the self-contained violence of old social FORMS while opening ourselves out to others. Beware: the images this text evokes may enter your dreams. And, through dreams, your life. When I came to the end of the novel ‘I looked up. Above me, the roll of white toilet paper was covered with specks of black hairs … It was a reflection of my face before the creation of the world.’

Stephen Pfohl is author of the CultureTexts book, Death at the Parasite Cafe. A video-maker and performing artist, he is Professor of Sociology at Boston College.