‘Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant’:
The collapse of the historical and the personal in Chris Kraus’s Torpor
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? Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
‘Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording’ Elena Ferrante, The Paris Review
‘Creative nonfiction’ is a hybrid genre, situated between two competing objectives; these works must abide by the pressures of non-fiction’s truth claims, while also embodying an awareness of their status as a literary artifact. Arguably, what distinguishes the genre of ‘creative nonfiction’ from traditional accounts of nonfiction is precisely an attention to text as form, as a medium that mediates experience and constructs its own internal design of reality. Some critics contend that the ascendancy of creative nonfiction as a mode of writing ‘more or less coincided with the advent of literary postmodernism’ (Poletti, ‘Performative Life Narrative’ 373); indeed, David Shields terms this increasing fascination with the ‘lure and blur of the real’ as ‘reality hunger’, wherein writers are ‘breaking larger and larger chunks of reality in their own work.’ The ontological instability of the postmodern era brought with it a thoroughgoing sense that reality and history are provisional; no longer built on a world of eternal verities but, rather, precariously situated on a shifting ground of constructions, artifices, and impermanent structures (Lewis 178). Thus, as Rebecca Solnit argues, objectivity in writing is a fiction; what we collectively take to be ‘truth’ is, in fact, ideologically and historically mandated — ‘it sits atop a mountain of unexamined assumptions.’ Truth claims, and the subjects who speak them, are inextricably tied up with dominant discourses and practices (Poletti, ‘Performative Life Narrative’ 362). Indeed, recourse to authoritative speaking positions of ‘truth and fact’ has historically been gendered; to speak objectively about the world is perceived to be masculine attribute. Yet, over the past few decades, there has surfaced a distinctive genealogy of women’s nonfiction writing; an alternative ‘canon’ of feminist and queer writers who emerged in the 90s, for which Chris Kraus has been a central figure, as both publisher and writer. In Kraus’s body of work, the question of correspondence between text and reality is secondary to the idea of abstracting one’s experience and one’s self as theme. Her texts enact paradox, resulting in unconstrained, disobedient texts that eschew a single pronouncement of truth for a multiplicity of meanings.
As Virginia Woolf observes in A Room of One’s Own, women are limited in their position within the public sphere: ‘far from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical’ (96). Chris Kraus describes her character in I Love Dick as such: ‘because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her and she is used to tripping out on layers of complexity in total silence’ (21). In Torpor, Kraus examines the condition of the female intellectual, the ‘thinking woman’ who desires intellectual equivalence, yet is trapped beneath the shadow of her more celebrated and recognized husband: ‘before they’d met, she’d been a fan of Jerome’s cultural events and publications. Secretly, she has the arrogance to think that she can do this, too: construct a life in which she issues bulletins on her experience, and find enough people interested to matter’ (‘Torpor’ 74, emphasis mine). The category of ‘women’ did not fit into the abstract, rationalistic, universal subject valorised by Enlightenment era; thus, the exclusion of women from the public sphere, and the hegemony of male-authored discourse, is, as Mary Beard writes in her essay ‘The Public Voice of Women’, a tradition in which ‘we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs.’ What is commonly held to be natural, true, and inevitable is in fact a product of discursive activities, inextricably bound to practices of power:
‘Discourses refuse to acknowledge their own perspectivity, (sic) their own interests and values; they implicitly rely upon concepts of women and femininity in order to maintain their own ‘objectivity’, scientificity,’ or ‘truth’— that is, their veiled masculinity’ (Grosz 180).
Gendered assumptions continue to dictate the subjects with which women have authority to speak. Women’s nonfiction writing is often perceived as ‘a creative practice that privileges an inner self, rather than pushing outwards in dialogue with institutions and histories’ (Griggs). As Kraus expresses in an interview, she deliberately pushes against this ‘persistent lag in the culture, that continues to view female writing in this tradition as memoir’ (Poletti, ‘The Anthropology of the Setup’ 7). She states:
‘Women have been denied all access to the a-personal. The female “I” was never read as universal and transparent. That, to me, points towards this great disgust with femaleness. As if a revelatory female self cannot be anything but compromised and murky’ (Frimer).
As editor and publisher for Semiotext(e) Native Agents series, Kraus sought to recover a different line of female-authored nonfiction; works that, like her own, deliberately engaged in performing, and troubling, the practice of self-disclosure while crossing genre boundaries of poetry, fiction, criticism, and theory. Sylvie, her fictional counterpart in Torpor, sees this interjection of women’s writing as a disruptive act of ‘philosophical intervention’: ‘though written in the first-person, the books are well-constructed rants, not introspective memoirs. Finally, she thinks, a female public I aimed towards the world’ (‘Torpor’ 196). Kraus takes as starting point the realm of her own experiences to construct her fictional narratives and theoretical reflections. By doing so, she disrupts the exclusion of the female subject position in discourses beyond the personal, the particular, and the niche; upending the masculine, universalist ‘I’ that claims to speak with objectivity.
It is difficult to classify Kraus’s writing into a single designation —‘too punk to be a formalist, too intellectual to be underground’ (‘Torpor’125) —she transgresses across cultural criticism, art writing, biography, fiction, and memoir, while explicitly refusing to identify absolutely with any particular genre. Kraus’s literary output can be classified ‘creative nonfiction’ in the sense that she perceives her texts to be ‘active transcription rather than sheer invention’ (Frimer). In The Summer of Hate, Kraus’s fictional avatar Kat comments on her own writing method: ‘having no talent for making shit up, [she] simply reported her thoughts… and to a certain extent she’d succeeded, but as a female whose thoughts arrived mostly through the delirium of daily life. She saw no boundaries between feeling and thought, sex and philosophy’ (15). Torpor can also be categorized ‘autofiction’, a term coined by Serge Doubrovsky to describe ‘an intimate narrative whose author, narrator and protagonist share the same nominal identity’ (Ferreira-Meyers 195). Autofiction is one way to get around the paradox presented by autobiographical endeavors, since, in its attempt to inscribe subjective coherence, autobiography inevitably reveals that coherence as illusionary; the splitting between the writing ‘I’ and the ‘I’ that is written about—the subject and object of discourse—exposes the ‘otherness’ at heart of subjectivity (Radstone 30). For Doubrovsky, autofiction ‘authorizes the construction of personal myths: to exist as several entities at various levels in dream and reality, whatever it may be’ (Ferreira-Meyers 387). In her auto-fictional narratives, Kraus privileges literary conceit over a faithful rendering of any such ‘objective truth’. While her novels have hewn very close to real life, she foregrounds the artifice of their own construction by courting a disjuncture between the ‘real’ and the ‘composed’. The translation of personal experience into language is always a decisive act, one that intervenes into the world as it seeks to capture it (Meuiner, ‘Return to Inquiry). For Kraus, ‘as soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection—if we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite—things are constantly shifting’ (Frimer). In the wake of post-structuralism, the materialist, positivist, and empiricist world-view, the view that took for granted a unitary reality that could be apprehended objectively and recorded in language, no longer obtained. Transcribing reality in its multiplicitous, fluid, and indeterminate complexity always involves little slip; intrusions of one’s own subjectivity. However, recognizing the fallibility or words to render reality does not mean giving up on truth entirely; Kraus characterizes her approach to authenticity in writing as one of ‘candor’ rather than confession: ‘while confession pursues its cheaply cathartic agenda, candor is essentially disinterested. Candor is a willingness to speak to the present with a certain presence, or, the exact transmission of mind into word’ (Meunier, ‘Speaking Candor’ 77).
For Kraus, there is no separation between the historical and the personal. In Torpor she instrumentalizes the specificity of her own experience as a case study to examine broader themes—marriage, happiness, female abjection; genocide, American capitalism, the collapse of communism and the birth of a ‘New World Order’. Kraus’s articulation of self is always outward facing, reacting against external contexts; it was no longer the fact of the female personal ‘I’ that was important, ‘but the way it moved through the text and the world’ (Kraus, ‘The New Universal’). Kraus defines her sensibility as a writer as primarily anthropological; all her novels are situated against the backdrop of a grand historical narrative. Kraus rejects the label memoirist because it privileges the emotional transformation of the narrator is above all else (Heti): ‘memoir implies the neoliberal illusion of the autonomous individual—as if one person’s crises and traumas were his or hers alone’ (Poletti, ‘The Anthropology of the Setup’). Indeed, Torpor is as much a biographical portrait of her ex-husband Sylvere Lotringer as it is autobiographical self-representation. In examining the outcome of trauma and our inability to separate ourselves from history, Kraus views Torpor as one of her most personal books: ‘I found I could be much more truthful, writing in the third person…I wanted to take something very painful and close, and deal with it at some distance—turn the two people into a couple of clowns’ (Frimer).
While writing in third-person permits Kraus a degree of ironic, analytic detachment from her subjects, the most intriguing feature of Kraus’s narration is her experimentation with temporal perspective:
‘Parataxis is a strange literary form…Flashing back and sideways, holding back the outcome of events, these tellers fracture old familiar and heroic tales into contradictory, multiple perspectives. It becomes impossible to move the story forward without returning to the past, and so the past both predicates the future and withholds it’ (‘Torpor’ 88).
The effect of parataxis on the novel is a kind of fragmentation, a disruption of the causal sequence of personal and historical events: ‘the Holocaust had made it ethically impossible to ever say If A is true, then therefore B… because to understand it is to no longer believe in rational causality’ (Torpor 46). Parataxis is a way past and future events can be recontextualized in the ordering of their telling, the means by which a single instance or event takes on significance across various temporal arrangements: ‘long after the events themselves, the effects will linger. And these effects live on by breeding other causes’ (‘Torpor’ 62). Sylvie and Jerome’s failure to fulfill their cross-continental endeavor to acquire an orphan is signposted from the outset; the breakdown of their marriage disclosed early on. Yet, the possibilities that were contained within are captured by Kraus through her use of the future anterior tense, a tense that doesn’t occur in English but exists in French: ‘the past and future are hypothesized, an ideal world existing in the shadow of an if. It would have been’ (Torpor 163). The future anterior suspends and lingers on the present as it is already receding into the past, delaying the inevitability of its own vanishing: ‘history would soon be disappearing (‘History’ was defined by them as the continuity they knew)’ (49). In particular, this tense is unique to trauma narratives, when the ‘who’ recalling the event is no longer self-identical to the person they were before, and the past contaminates their engagement with the future. The future anterior is a way Kraus illustrates the torpor that saturates Jerome and Sylvie’s life, preventing them from moving forward into a future promise that has always been deferred:
‘Sylvie wanted to believe that misery could simply be replaced with happiness. Time was a straight line stretching out before you. If you could create a golden kind of time and lay it right beside the other time, the time of horror, Bad history could just recede into the distance without ever having to be resolved’ (‘Torpor’ 51).
Narratives are constructions that we build out of language, experience, and history; they are dependent on who we are in the moment of telling, and thus our memories of past moments are never identical to themselves, but paradoxically always caught in a juncture of self-difference:
‘Their Romanian adventure will become a well-crafted story to tell at dinners in New York and LA. They’ll find ways of telling it that obscure the purpose of their trip…But sometimes, on bad days when they are alone together, Sylvie and Jerome will remember their trip to Romania as it really happened’ (279).
While ‘the personal is the political’ is a popular feminist refrain, Kraus —by collapsing the boundary between personal history and global history— demonstrates in Torpor how, for her, the political is the personal. Her novels blur the boundary between text and reality, art and life, refusing to resolve these life materials into a single, coherent narrative, or to deliver any kind of one-to-one correspondence between lived and constructed experience. Experiments in literary aesthetics are a means by which a writer can penetrate beyond surface truths: ‘it was as if reality could no longer be contained within a single story, so they devised new methods of bisecting it’ (‘Torpor’192). Kraus abstracts from her own experience to provide a portrait of female subjectivity in the midst of our contemporary era; her novels are ‘versions of one central drama: a female consciousness struggling to live a meaningful life’ (Jamison). In her nonfiction writing, Kraus champions ‘a personal ‘I’ that is constantly bouncing up against the world—that isn’t just existing for itself’ (Kraus, the New Universal). Kraus’s writing demonstrates how ‘gender causes the nonfiction genre to slip – augmenting its possibilities, provoking it into new postures and practices’ (Griggs). As Sylvie argues: ‘female lived experience can be channeled through poetic avant-gardist forms, but in the process, changes them’ (‘Torpor,’ 198).
Beard, Mary. ‘The Public Voice of Women.’ The London Review of Books. Vol. 36 (6), 20 March 2014, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Ferreira-Meyers, Karen. ‘Autobiography and Autofiction: No Need to Fight for a Place in the Limelight, there is Space Enough for Both of these Concepts’ in Writing the Self: Essays in Autobiography and Autofiction, eds. Kerstin W Shands, Giulia Grillo Mikrut, Dipti R. Pattanaik, Karen Ferreira-Meyers. Elanders: 2015
Griggs, Rebecca. ‘Imagining Women.’ Overland. Edition 208, Spring 2012, https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-208/feature-rebecca-giggs/ Accessed 15 Oct. 2016
Grosz Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge, 1990
Jamison, Leslie and Mendelsohn, David. ‘What Accounts for Our Current—or Recurrent—fascination with Memoir-Novels?’ The New York Times (Sunday Book Review /Bookends). 23 Dec. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/12/28/books/review/what-accounts-for-our-current-or-recurrent-fascination-with-memoir-novels.html?_r=0 Accessed 12 Oct. 2016
Kraus, Chris. Torpor. Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2006
- I Love Dick. Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 1997
- Summer of Hate. Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2012
Meunier, Karolin. ‘Return to Inquiry.’ Publisher Unknown. Date of Publishing Unknown. http://karolinmeunier.org/testseite-1/books/return-to-inquiry/ Accessed 21 Oct. 2016
Poletti, Anna. ‘Performative Life Narratives.’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Duke University Press, Vol. 22 (3), 2016
Radstone, Susannah. ‘The Confessional Mode: Confession and Autobiography,’ in The Sexual Politics of Time: Confession, Nostalgia, Memory. London & New York: Routledge, 2007
Shields, David. ‘Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.’ The Believer. March 2006, www.believermag.com/issues/200603/?read=article_shields Accessed 13 Oct. 2016
Solnit, Rebecca. ‘To Break the Story you must Break the Status Quo.’ Literary Hub. 26 May 2016 http://lithub.com/to-break-the-story-you-must-break-the-status-quo/ Accessed 22 Oct. 2016
Secondary Sources on Chris Kraus
Gumport, Elizabeth. ‘Female Trouble.’ n + 1 magazine. Issue 13: Machine Politics. Winter 2012, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-13/reviews/female-trouble/ Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Jagoe, Rebecca. ‘Leaking into Fiction.’ Four by Three Magazine. http://www.fourbythreemagazine.com/issue/deception/leaking-into-fiction Accessed 17 Oct. 2016
Jamison, Leslie. ‘This Female Consciousness: On Chris Kraus.’ The New Yorker (Cultural Comment). 9 April 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/this-female-consciousness-on-chris-kraus Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Klassen, Lois. ‘Arriving at Nowhere: Reflecting on Chris Kraus’s Radical Localism.’ Fillip 20. Fall 2015, http://fillip.ca/content/arriving-at-nowhere-reflecting-on-chris-krauss-radical-localism Accessed 21 Oct. 2016
Kraus, Chris. ‘The New Universal.’ Sydney Review of Books (Features). 17 Oct. 2014, sydneyreviewofbooks.com/new-universal/ Accessed 11 Oct. 2016
- ‘I Love Dick happened in real life, but it is not a memoir.’ The Guardian. 17 May 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/17/chris-kraus-i-love-dick-happened-in-real-life-but-its-not-a-memoir Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Miller, M. H. ‘The Novelist as Performance Artist: On Chris Kraus, the Art World’s Favorite Fiction Writer.’ The Observer. 30 Oct. 2012, http://observer.com/2012/10/the-novelist-as-performance-artist-on-chris-kraus-the-art-worlds-favorite-fiction-writer/ Accessed 23 Oct. 2016
Rothfeld, Becca. ‘Null and Void.’ The Slate Book Review. 6 Feb 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/02/chris_kraus_torpor_reviewed.html Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Smallwood, Christine. ‘The Debasement Tapes.’ Bookforum. Sept/Oct/Nov 2012, http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/019_03/10023 Accessed 17 Oct. 2016
Interviews with Chris Kraus
Epps, Philomena. ‘Chris Kraus on her radical 1997 novel ‘I Love Dick.’ Dazed and Confused Magazine. May/June 2016, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/31239/1/author-chris-kraus-on-her-radical-1997-novel-i-love-dick Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Guthrie, Kayla. ‘Performing Is Storytelling: Q + A With Chris Kraus.’ Art in America. 22 June 2011, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/chris-kraus-real-fine-arts/ Accessed 24 Oct. 2016
Heti, Shelia. ‘Chris Kraus.’ The Believer. September 2013, http://www.believermag.com/issues/201309/?read=interview_kraus Accessed 20 Oct. 2016
Indiana, Gary. ‘Chris Kraus: Looking Back.’ Purple Magazine. Issue 6, 2006, http://purple.fr/magazine/fw-2006-issue-6/chris-kraus/ Accessed 19 Oct. 2016
Poletti, Anna. ‘The Anthropology of the Setup: A Conversation with Chris Kraus.’ Contemporary Women’s Writing. Vol. 10 (1), 2016
 Poem by Emily Dickinson
 ‘Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.’ http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6370/art-of-fiction-no-228-elena-ferrante