Listen: Every day of my life, Death followed me. I saw It in the red soil, in mud, in the sky of stars; I saw It partaking of the intense hatreds and joys of others.... I saw Death in the horror of the simultaneity of the frightfulness and the sweetness of language, of human communication. Death was the line of the horizon, as simple as anything geometrical (265).
When somebody you love dies, itís hard not to speak of them with piety and reverence. The work of mourning ends in idealization: the construction of a monument, the erection (pun intended) of a statue. In the case of writers, and the words and books they leave behind, this process is called literary canonization.
But I donít want to recall Kathy Acker with piety and reverence. Because to do so would be to contradict everything she did and wrote. Ackerís words have no respect for fathers, traditions, institutions, authorities, or even for themselves. All such imposing finalities are only obstacles: taboos to be shattered, rules to be evaded, impediments to be overcome. Thereís an urgency to Ackerís writing, a rush that never stops. Even if I do attain some goal, she writes, at that very moment the only thing thatís important to me is to go beyond that which is no longer a goal but now only a stage. To go beyond (249). Can we, reading and rewriting her words, do any less?
Ackerís novels do of course display many of the old-fashioned literary virtues, even if the official guardians of High Culture were never willing to acknowledge this. Books like In Memoriam To Identity, My Mother: Demonology, and Pussy, King of the Pirates are as dense, dissonant, and prodigiously inventive as any modernist text. In Ackerís writing, language is shaken up and turned inside-out. Narratives are eviscerated, fragmented, and recombined. Myths are probed to their profane, erotic depths--and in this way, perhaps, resacralized.
For Acker, writing was a quest, but one with no conclusion. Whenever she finished a novel, she immediately started the next one. What was important was not the culmination, but the process itself; coming and coming and coming, without end. It was not the finding that mattered, but the incessant search. For in the end, there was nothing to find: In my search for myself, I found nothing... Itís necessary to cut life into bits, for neither the butcher store nor the bed of a woman whoís giving birth is as bloody as this. Absurdity, blessed insolence that saves, and connivance are found in these cuts, the cuts into "veracity" (267).
These cuts--of flesh and language, of life itself--are painful. Ackerís novels are about disinheritance and loss, alienation and exile, denial and rejection. Perhaps all that humans have ever meant by love is control (105). Ackerís novels enact, again and again, the suffering of the abused child, which is also the suffering of being female in a patriarchal, misogynistic society. These books then are all about marginality: about the pain of being marginalized, in a phallocentric world.
But Acker also writes in full consciousness of what it means to have power, to be privileged, to be an oppressor. After all, she was a well-to-do white American. Writing, therefore, necessarily meant to her being a traitor to her class. Thatís why her novels are also reports on what itís like to be at the center, to live in the belly of the beast, to engorge oneself at the very heart of empire. These books bear witness to the full horror of the American imperium. I keep coming back to Ackerís vision of the monstrous apotheosis of President Bush, in My Mother: Demonology. The reign of the Son--Bush the Second--repeats the reign of the Father--Bush the First. Can Jeb the Holy Ghost be far behind? Where does Bushís power stop? Where does an authoritarian leaderís power stop? Tell me, Mommy, where and how will Bushís power stop?... I donít want to live where Bush is leader so you who are unknown, Death if need be, please hold me (174-175).
All this is not to say that Ackerís novels are uniformly, or even predominantly, grim. I would say that they are on the side of life, rather than that of deathó-if it makes any sense to speak of taking sides. I would even say that I find them inspiring, and full of hope. For Ackerís novels imagine how life might be otherwise. They push beyond the boundaries of consensus reality, of what is generally thought of as common sense. They map lines of escape, they multiply possibilities, and they conjure up magical transformations that undo Bushís power. They do this, primarily, by turning against themselves: by obliterating their own stories, and especially by ruining language. Puns, bad language, and memory are closely conjoined, Acker writes (187).
Puns, bad language, and memory are behind the writing process that Acker sometimes called "plagiarism," and that postmodern critics usually call "appropriation." My Mother: Demonology, for instance, contains cutups of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Dario Argento's Suspiria, Shelley's The Cenci, Akutagawa's "Hell Screen," Augusto Roa Bastos' I The Supreme, the diaries of Laure, and the poems of Paul Celan--among other sources. But with all her plagiarisms and reinscriptions, Acker merely foregrounds the process of writing. Appropriation could just as well be called "literature" tout court. Books have always been made out of other books. Culture endlessly eats, digests, and shits itself. Meanings are made, broken, and remade, only in order to be broken again. Memory is the mother of the Muses, but she is also the handmaiden of oblivion.
This is why writing is "the death of the author"; one might better say that, in writing, the death of the author--which will happen in any case--is actually made flesh. Writing is an exploration, a metamorphosis, in which the authentic voice of the inner self is lost--or better, in which such a voice, such a self, is blindingly revealed never to have existed in the first place. To remember Kathy Acker, to continue to read her books, is also to be dazzled by the light of this absence, this forgetfulness, this loss. This point where culture is garbage, and where language itself breaks down. Itís a repeated gesture in all of Ackerís novels. And I left this world of language (199), she writes; I left school for a world without language in which I had no language (206).
Of course, it is only in language that Acker can record this loss of language. Language, like sex, is of course intrinsically double-edged. It provides no guarantees, and it offers no foundations; it always threatens to turn against whoever is using it. But the death of language--and of the author--enacted over and over in Ackerís novels, is diametrically opposed to the actual language of death, the language that kills. The latter is the language of power, George Bushís language: "I, this countryís Supreme Dictator," Bush spoke clearly into his dictaphone, "otherwise known as only I, I the everlasting everblasting president all other names... I am talking about MYSELF" (180- 181). But the death of language, with its metamorphoses and its mortality, is the one thing that can (potentially) interrupt and humble the monumental, self-congratulatory, solipsistic Bush-language of power and death that dominates our public discourse today.
I miss Kathy Acker; I find myself still grieving over her death. I would have liked to see her at age seventy-five, still raging and sexing and texting; still transmuting language to the measure of her desperation, her wildness, and her desire. In situations of desperation, I believe in getting whom I want (35). And I am sure that nothing could have stopped her--aside from the death that actually did stop her. So that now only the texts remain behind; Iíd like to believe that their power of interruption rivals the destructive power of Bush, or of death itself. But probably this is only my idealization, my way of falling into piety and reverence, my foolish hope of outracing oblivion.
"A double oblivion..." Then my speech to the dead man turned on itself and ate itself up. Death itself isnít enough to obliterate: I knew that there was still only rubble, riot, that which now goes by the name society. I donít know what to do about all that I see and experience. I can only ask dream (215).