1. can’t find a better man2
A feminist hitchhiker/hijacker on/of the rock and roll culture bandwagon, I grab the wheel and direct a critical detour from the wild and wooly trail mapped out by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces. I track his assumption that rock culture — the stars of whom have replaced both heroes and cinema icons — provides a useful, crucial set of metaphors for thinking about contemporary high-culture, and extend the route with my conviction that both high culture writers and theorists are canonized within and beyond academe in ways that mimic the vagaries of rock and roll “fame.”3 Marcus notes in his earlier work, Mystery Train, that rock music is not so much an object of interpretation as an interpretive enabler for our own particular situation — a hermeneutic which “acts upon” the listener/viewer and which produces different meanings at different moments (Street on Marcus, 157). So, I will use one man to get another; I leave Marcus I and turn on Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, whom I turn into an apparatus rather than a mere object (although he is this also) in order to shed light upon the work of Roland Barthes and Peter Handke. It is also apropos; Barthes repeatedly expressed his admiration for such underground masculine icons as professional wrestlers (one wonders what he would have made of grunge), while Handke has frequently cited rock lyrics in his most seemingly neo-classical works, as in the pastoral poem Beyond the Villages (Über die Dörfer), which is prefaced by a quote from Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I would like Barthes and Handke to meet (and jam) on Eddie Vedder’s stage for several reasons. First, I bewail their relegation to the esoteric heights of high literary endeavor; they have become so “important” that no one knows who they are, as opposed to Vedder who is so unimportant that everyone knows about him. Like the critically acclaimed art films that no one sees and that can’t be found on video, and the avant-garde art exhibitions which no one goes to, Barthes and Handke are writers that no one reads, because their work can’t be located at Super Crown or at B. Dalton. No one, meaning, regular people; no one meaning everyone who isn’t an intellectual. Second, I distrust the fact that they have consistently been written about in such complete accordance with the stereotypes about French and German language and culture which have functioned for at least 200 years (i.e. since the Enlightenment). Third, I suspect that Eddie Vedder is indeed “important,” in spite of himself. Fourth, in my fem-fan capacity, I want to introduce questions of gender, sexuality, desire, and pleasure/pain to the mix of rock and roll, cultural studies, postmodern writing and see how they play, for play they must. Will their (my) presence wreck the party which is postmodernism/ity? Maybe, or maybe their presence make any party more interesting, as Leslie Gore once tearfully implied. Joni Mitchell, Simone de Beauvoir, Bjork, Desree, and Avital Ronell second that emotion — that it is necessary for girls to deconstruct boys who deconstruct.
Clear nationalist biases are at work in the general understanding of Barthes and Handke, and these transparently “obvious,” genetic differences between the French and the German — between a wry ironic pederasty and an ascetic, parzival-like heterosexuality — are tempting, for they look very neat; Barthes and Handke become, according to such orientations, mere inverted mirrors of each other, and on the surface (if only there) this binary holds. The French one moved from semiotic criticism to a writing which increasingly proclaimed itself to be personal, eccentric, and unscientific — a creative writing which made the essay into a kind of internal theater, a critical strip-tease which resembled the disreputable joints Barthes frequented on the night he was killed. Not surprisingly, the written words about Barthes mimic the perception of him; they spill over the pages in a testimonial to bliss, they break the rules, they invoke photography and cinema, erotica and pornography. Barthes’ work is so idolized, particularly in the United States, that over 500 essays have appeared on him in the past 10 years, and Greg Ulmer asks a highly pertinent question when he muses “what interests me about Barthes, is why I am interested in him” (219). What Ulmer uncovers but does not discuss is the degree to which puritanical American academe looks with awe at European (particularly French) high theory, and projects upon it its unspoken desires/fears, as D.H.Lawrence already noticed a frighteningly long time ago.
It is consequently not at all surprising that much less has been written on Peter Handke, who has made a writerly move which looks directly opposite to that of Barthes’. Handke has more or less abandoned the theatrical and novelistic works which made him famous, and has oriented himself toward the essay, towards essays about essays (as in Versuch über die Jukebox), and towards fragments such as Noch einmal für Thucydides. In Handke’s case critics speak in hushed tones about pain, about language as torture, about aesthetics, romanticism, the German tradition, a hard, cold sort of beauty, about the theories of Benjamin, of Lacan, of a poststructuralism which is deadly serious, and of course, inevitably, a little about fascism.
Feminine France versus the masculine Vaterland: manly, wounded, spiritual German; effeminate, decadent, self-indulgent French. The legacy of WW II — the German soldiers marching under the Arc de Triomphe on one hand, and on the other, actress Arletty condemned to death for sleeping with the enemy (she responded that her heart belonged to France but that her ass belonged to the world) as infantile America looks on like Freud’s child at the primal scene?
It is because of this reception that I would like to speculate as to what would happen if we read Handke and Barthes together — one with the other — against Vedder, who is, as we shall see, the infantile American boy turned inside out. What if we used Eddie Vedder to ask the same questions of both barthian and handkesque textual corpuses? I look forward hopefully to these provisional answers: the one, obvious — that both Barthes and Handke are enriched, problematized, foregrounded not only as eccentric individuals who write against the grain, but as compelling exponents (with, rather than instead of Vedder) of the episteme which we call the late 20th Century, postmodernity, the end of the millennium; the other perhaps less so — that textual pleasure can be found sometimes in very unexpected places. This/my act of “conjoining seemingly isolated forms” (Polan, 57) is, of course, itself a pleasure, a political practice, and an (intellectual ?) attempt to understand this particular cultural moment.
When placed against Vedder on the stage/screen of rock, Barthes and Handke’s dichotomous identities make a more resonant kind of sense. Roland Barthes retains his Frenchness but may now be considered, arguably, the David Bowie of écriture (a metaphor that would have no doubt pleased him) — glamorous, androgynous, slick, smart in both senses, constantly undergoing theoretical/stylistic ch-ch-changes; Barthes was a beautiful surface in love with surfaces, an author whose gestures in The Lover’s Discourse approach in many ways those of the composer-performer of “Modern Love.” Like Bowie, Barthes was one of the first to pose/perform such questions — to “. . . play games with gender [which] were genuine challenges to existing assumptions” (Street, 173). Adulated in the late 60’s, Handke, for his part, resembles a literary Neil Young who shone too brilliantly in the Woodstock years, and now as a still skinny middle-aged rocker appears strident, unappealing, and disturbing in some unfathomable way — a brilliant, but unpredictable talk-show guest.4 Men of too much critical substance, Handke and Young produce vaguely satirical, understatedly ironic works which point to a multivalent critique of our culture and society that cannot be reduced or thematized. “A man needs a maid” and The Goalie’s Anxiety.
2. “Son” she said, “i’ve a little story for you.”
In the autobiographical rock hit by Pearl Jam, entitled Alive, an agonized angry male singer relates the traumatic encounter with his mother, where she tells him that his real father died when he was thirteen. It is an imperfect memory, badly mangled, but filled with conflicting emotions, and as a mnemonic shard, it cuts into the singer, whose voice vibrates with pain. In “Alive” that currently notorious, hysterically unauthentic lyricist-performer Eddie Vedder conjures up a well-known specter — the specter of the mother, speaking. She is a complete cipher, as mothers of the Western tradition generally are, her motivations for telling are unfathomable (guilt, cruelty, warning?), although they resonate with distant meaning. The person known only as “she” uses a historically embedded, mysterious language that he does not appreciate and cannot understand to tell a story — what else? — a bad story about the father. She carelessly narrates the father’s death, and thereby asserts through that information — which like that of Jocasta is told to the adult son too late, and when it is least expected — her own subversive primacy in the patriarchal family. This apparently triumphant telling, performed before the adult son in his bedroom is an outrage, charged with a sexual resonance familiar to other bedroom encounters between mothers and sons — Oedipus, Hamlet, Proust’s Marcel. But, the real outrage, the son hints, occurs much earlier. The scandal consists in the mother’s absence — in fact that the boy was alone at home when the father died; the mother was not there with him. And where was she? We never know. At the end of the song, the son disclaims the mother’s power; she cannot authorize his existence as the father could; he is, it seems, alive in spite of rather than because of her.
In this manner, the son of Eddie Vedder’s song/poem compensates for paternal absence by an erasure of the overweening maternal presence, and this act of compensation takes the form of a scrambled portraiture which fragments speech, and silences the sybill-like powerful mother, the mother who belatedly tells the truth about the father, and the son uses his own narrative power to delay and defer what her presence connotes about the father: it testifies to his insufficiency, to his lack, and more threateningly perhaps, to the possibility that he may not matter so much after all, and that consequently the son — the future father — may not matter so much either. But the son pays the price for such an exchange; his own language — the language with which he usurps the mother’s story about the father — is literally broken English, so greatly impoverished that it cannot complete the sentences it tries to formulate, and it can just barely make sense. The filial act of remembrance which dismembers the mother ricochets on the son; he retroactively silences her but she, in turn, withers his grammar. The son’s speech is language made poor, a linguistic economy pared down to the subsistence level of rage, and this rage has spoken volumes to millions who have heard Alive and who have purchased Pearl Jam’s first album. Does not this rage conceal a longing? What is really being spoken here?
3. Wounds in the mirror waved
In his essay “Parabiography” (Georgia Review, 1980), Ihab Hassan aptly suggested that there was something unprecedented about the challenge posed by autobiography to the late 20th Century West:
Autobiography has become . . . the form that the contemporary imagination seeks to recover. . . Yet . . . autobiography is abject unless, in the words of Michel Leiris, it exposes itself to the “bull’s horn.” For writing about ourselves we risk cowardice and mendacity; and more, we risk changing ourselves by that writing into whatever an autobiographer pretends to be.
The image invented by Leiris and invoked by Hassan combines the masculine spectacle of the matador with an equally masculine writing practice which risks something like castration — as though the writer were reliving in his text the masculine tragedy of The Sun Also Rises. The writer of autobiography is at once Odysseus, Hemingway, and Freud — a modern, epic hero and the psychoanalytic author/subject; he must negotiate perils, he must analyze himself, he must resist all outside pressure; he must display himself and still remain manly. He must avoid abjectness — an interesting word connoting a dangerously feminine state of passivity as well as a moral and social state of utter inferiority. Like Bunyan’s Christian, he must steer between the pitfalls of cowardice and falsehood (Thou shalt not bear false witness about thyself) but there is also something of a pagan striptease at work here — one thinks of the lithe, undressed bull-dancers from the walls of Knossos courting danger as they vault over the stylized bull. And Hassan’s bull? What might it signify? The bull here seems to signify at once the genre of autobiography, the practice of writing, and the problem of language as a whole — one which the human sciences have eloquently agonized over again and again during the course of our century in their own matadorian performance of Angst. Hassan implies that the beast of literary language threatens the contemporary writer’s project not just to invalidate it, but — much more theatrically — to tear it, to punch holes in its argument, and then to bring it down (the literal meaning of abject [past tense of the Latin abicere], to lay it low, to unman it before the roar of the crowd — the jeering spectators. And yet without the horn and without the danger of the horn there can be no writing, there can be no audience, there can be no pleasure in the spectatorship of this spectacle of pain. There is then also in Hassan’s formulation the suggestion that aesthetic pleasure is generated by the pageantry of individual pain, at least at far as autobiography is concerned.
Even a casual observer of contemporary rock culture cannot help but think of the ambiguous polysemous spectacle presented by Eddie Vedder and consider how well it fits this paradoxical description of the postmodern autobiographer. Vedder’s songs are usually at once frankly and fraudulently autobiographical: either based on his “real” life experiences referred to obliquely in the media releases about him or sucked out of people whom he ostensibly knows and whom he chooses to impersonate. He performs their narrative half-lives for them, employing a deep and powerful vocal instrument to give voice precisely to voices which cannot possibly sound anything like his; his impersonations are frequently feminine, juvenile or both ranging from physically abused little girls, mentally abused boys, young girls forcibly committed to insane asylums, a lonely old woman in a small town, a young woman trying unsuccessfully to leave her lover, to small animals; he is never a practitioner of but almost always the victim of violent aggression, an avid sexual desirer with a gun “buried under his nose,” an angrily prone body stretched out (suggestively) at the feet of a disembodied “you” characterized only by a “crown.” He is the passive, hysterical other waiting for the lover to arrive (“you’re finally here and I’m a mess”), the quintessential “nothing” man, read a man who isn’t, a man whose masculinity is zero.
Vedder’s Gestalt is similarly complicated. His name connotes both the insincere, boyish, and sexually dubious trouble-maker of “Leave it to Beaver” and the sinister powers of Darth Vader; its spelling also connotes Edie Sedgwick — Warhol’s ill-starred debutante. He is long haired, diminutive, dressed childishly in a pastiche of ill-fitting masculine gear — the 60’s flannel shirt (lumberjacks, hippies), over the t-shirt (manual laborer), over too large shorts. He hunches over the microphone in an almost disappearing act (in a clear stylistic rejection of the histrionics of Mick Jagger and Jagger’s heavy-metal male descendants) and yet at the same time he remains elusive, satiric, false, gymnastic.5 He self-consciously performs an unwillingness to perform (at the 1993 MTV video awards he walked up to the podium with a Camcorder pointed at the t.v. camera) and then throws himself off the top of the stage for good measure, allowing himself — perhaps — to be caught and borne up by his audience.6 Vedder’s performances are so immensely popular, because he would appear to expose himself to Hassan’s bull’s-horn on a regular basis. He mimes being gored, but the performance contains a whiff of “real” danger; he is an autobiographical tight-rope walker limping on the wire with a broken leg whom “we” — mostly young white men, but also, increasingly, young women, and now, a literary critic — watch with fascination, wondering if he will fall like Kurt Cobain — his nihilistic and now deceased grunge Doppelgänger, rock culture’s current Schiller to Vedder’s survivalist version of Goethe. Together they form the pop culture masculine monument of our moment — a space where cultural myth and spectacle enter into conflict (Polan, 56).
Hassan’s complex and powerful description of autobiography projected upon the spectral video image of Eddie Vedder marks out a space where the Christian and the Pagan interlock, where the classical tradition runs into late capitalism, where Hemingway meets Augustine meets the Odyssey meets the Rat-Man and they all meet the Beatles. It is perhaps for this reason that there is something arch about the anxious cluster of images displayed in “Alive.” The absent father, a present mother made absent, a longing for her which hides behind a longing for him, the shifting of negative emotion onto her problematic ontology and psychology, and the problem of language — these “issues” re-rehearse the simultaneously hysterical and mundanely familiar symptoms of a masculine crisis of (artistic) self-representation which has been discussed by just about everybody in the United States — by such cultural critics as Katja Silverman and by Iron John author Robert Bly; it has become a common subject on talk-shows, as the popularity of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus testifies.7
Vedder, Barthes, and Handke are important in this regard, not because they are doing something essentially “different” from mainstream culture, but because they have upped the ante in the crisis of masculinity. They undertake a frantic, frenetic, deeply ironic and highly self-critical series of performative attempts to revise the genre called autobiography at the same time as they struggle to complete, kill off, and have done with the modern. Using Vedder’s example, we can see that Barthes and Handke share a surabundance of common interests of which the most important (for this essay) are: a regard for spectacle, an obsession with the photograph, a fixation on the dead mother, and a love-hate relationship with language. Unabashed narcissists, they have taken Montaigne’s caveat to the nth degree and beyond (Park, 392) — “je suis moi-même la matiere de mon livre” (“I am the [feminine] matter of my book”) — but, Barthes and Handke, just like Eddie, dismantle the matiere/stoff of autobiography toward the imagining of a new textual body, one that does not confront but rather submits itself de facto to the bull’s horn; the goring is in fact the pre-text, and the text which follows is constituted around the wound, around and because of the tear. It is the very failure of the autobiographer which constitutes the textual spectacularity of Barthes and Handke and the pleasure in pain which might open up new possibilities for writing. Like Vedder, Barthes and Handke go as far as boys can; owners of the phallus, they enact the vaginal wound in their go arounds with mother and with the mother tongue (language); they court abjection for our wonder, and dream of a freedom which must always fail.
4. The picture kept will remind me
Barthes has already insisted on the aesthetic possibilities offered by failure in Degree zero of literature, and this notion of failure is connected to another problem, tantalizingly expressed (but when isn’t Barthes tantalizing?) in The Pleasure of the text:
No object is in a constant relationship with pleasure . . . . For the writer, however this object exists; its not the language [le langage], it is the mother tongue[la langue maternelle]. The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body . . . in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take to the limit of what can be known about the body. . . .(The Pleasure of the Text, “Langue/Tongue” 37)
Earlier in this work in a section called “Babil/Prattle”, Barthes discusses boredom in terms of a writing which is infantile, which indiscriminately adheres not to la lange but to le langage, which — in a wonderful gender-bender — he makes into a masculine wet nurse, the mother’s impossible, false surrogate. Here in the passage just quoted he affirms the Oedipal pleasure of language; his play is with la langue maternelle — his mother’s tongue (feminine speech versus masculine writing) and the native language, and perhaps by analogy that feminine organ which resides in another, forbidden, unspeakable mouth — the truly (re)productive one. This act performs an erotic game with the speaking body of the mother, to see what there is of her that the son/writer can recognize in himself. For Barthes, the advantages of reorienting the conception of language as a carnal, feminine, sexual, fertile, and physically vocal presence are many. Through this play, the pederast son recaptures and improves upon the lost infantile primal intimacy with the mother, described by Theresa Brennan as the language of the flesh, the primal code which circulates between/in the mother-unborn child, and which persists in the mother/baby dyad. To play with the body of the mother is to at once refuse the notion of language as patriarchal law (à la Lacan) and to assert a different kind of imperative and a different kind of unity — not the murderous adulation of father and son — the middle man in the Oedipal triangle has been so to speak eliminated, as he was in Barthes’ own life — but the prior pleasure where son and mother are one. Thus, Barthes’ gesture reasserts the power of language — not in its capacity as phallic authority but in its maternal (w)holenesss. The play of language can be “foreplay” in its most literal sense, the first play, that which precedes the other, secondary, and implicitly inferior play — namely that of heterosexual coitus — where the mother must submit to a fatherly penetration.
But in this passage Barthes’ play is also afterplay, a reversed funeral rite in which the enraged bacchante, Barthes, tears asunder the body of the goddess, the Dionysian mother, in an attempt to consume her power — desire become appetite become bloodlust — as body of the mother disintegrates into pieces. Desire and rage, glorification and disembowelment, celebration and mourning, the pleasure of pain — these animate and radiate the body of Barthes’ mother within the body of Barthes’ own texts (think, for example, of the reading of Phèdre in On Racine).
Yet, Barthes’s radical and radically honest portrayal of the conflicting drives at work in the masculine play-practice on la langue maternelle fails drastically in his final work, Camera Lucida/La chambre claire — a work torn very literally between a study of the aesthetics of photography and a quest for the essence of Barthes’ dead mother.8 It is a strange book, self-consciously fragmented as is most of Barthes’ later work but dramatically lacking the sensual exuberance of the earlier writing. Further, in the account of his final days with his mother, Barthes falls back into very role of male nurse which he dismissed so contemptuously in The Pleasure of the Text for he himself becomes the male mother who infantilizes the mother back into a child, recuperating her into the patriarchal order — giving birth to her, so to speak, as a Zeus produced Athena, a product of head-sex parthenogenesis.
During her illness, I nursed her, held the bowl of tea she liked because it was easier to drink from than from a cup; she had become my little girl, uniting for me with that essential child she was in her first photograph.(72)
The fact that Barthes’ mother is only recognizable to him as a girl-child in the photograph at the Winter Garden suggests that his apparently unconditional adulation of his mother and his celebration of her power is not what it appears to be. Her relegation in memory to the softness of crepe de chine and the smell of rice-powder — a combination which reminds us of the technology of photo making (silver grains deposited on smooth paper) — suggests that Barthes can talk about his mother only in terms of the proustian project (Blau, 86), that is to say in terms of a fin-de-siecle sentimentality which glosses over the surface but which does not permit the other to speak. The autobiographer/critic senses this shift in tonal gears; he makes contradictory claims — proclaiming that he has found the truth of his mother and then admitting:
In front of the Winter Garden Photograph I am a bad dreamer who vainly holds out his arms toward the possession of the image; I am Golaud exclaiming “Misery of my life!” because he will never know Mélisande’s truth. (Mélisande does not conceal but she does not speak) . . .(100)
Unable to reconstruct, to give voice to, the mother, and by connection to the “langue maternelle,” the book on photography breaks down, returns to the surface linguistically and phenomenologically. The result is utter banality.
I know our critics: what! a whole book (even a short one) to discover something I know at first glance?(115)
And yet there is something suspect about this relentless sweep across the surface, about this intellectual abjection. Barthes tells us that he will not show the Winter garden photograph of his mother to his reader, so that in this book peppered with photos, the most important one is held back (Sarkonak, 48). Barthes insists that we will not see anything in it — it is too personal, and that it will mean nothing to us, but I think instead, that this very gesture itself is highly significant;9 it is the selfish maneuver of an overgrown child who can only pretend to share, and who can perhaps, only pretend to love, and as such displays the fallacy of his own “a la recherche d’une maman perdue,” because he doesn’t in the end want to find her, and he certainly doesn’t want us to. The critic Lawrence Kritzman anticipates this reading of Barthes when he notes that “like the abandoned child, the lover finds himself in a state of solitude, the consequences of which reveal the inability to complete separation because of a past which cannot be extricated from the present. . .” (“The Discourse of Desire,” 860).
Thus, the passionate postmodernist critic reverts to an elegant dandyism (J. Gerald Kennedy refers to Barthes’ “extravagant devotion,” 386) — to an impressionistic modernism and to a nineteenth century sentimentalism — when, as an autobiographer, he discusses his mother’s death. I will observe in passing how important it has been for a number of critics to defend Barthes on this particular point; although critics decry sentimentality everywhere else, it is — curiously — not only admissible but somehow crucial for Barthes when it comes to his mother (see Blau, Woodward, Hoft-March), as though she were the alibi both for his pederasty and for his postmodernity — at once maternity and modernity.
Oddly, Barthes reveals himself here to be much like Peter Pan, the alter-ego of the Victorian pederast J.M. Barrie; like the boy who would not grow up, Barthes prefers the prepubescent girl-mother who cannot threaten him and he will ship her out the moment she possesses even the glimmer of agency (especially sexual). He has indeed dismembered mama in the ostensible act of remembering her, in giving her presence he has ensured her absence, much as the dishonest Chevalier des Grieux erases the object of his desire even as he outlines compulsively how she has done him wrong (Hammer, 48). As is the case in that false confession written in 1732, Barthes uses the absence of the literal “matiere” of “moi-même” — what Domna Stanton calls the feminine “matter/mater” which constructed the “moi-Même” called Roland Barthes out of herself — to reveal the falsity of the autobiographical subject and to foreground the emptiness of the whole “I remember Mama” enterprise.
Yet, this self-conscious fissure (or what Anselm Haverkamp calls the exposed aporia, 259) is precisely one of the places where Barthes is terribly important to us, as Jane Gallop remarks:
Barthes and Proust . . . Male homosexuality and the mother, strange bedfellows, yet to be retheorized, in the wake of feminism(133).
To his credit, Barthes explicitly exposes the uneasy connection between pederasty and mother-love in the book by juxtaposing the narrative about the mother’s missing picture with the display of the erotic Mapplethorpe self-portrait. Mapplethorpe as maternal stand-in — a beautiful young man grinning off-center at the camera — tells us, as much as anything does, what the book is really about. But the Maplethorpe self-portrait may also stand-in for Barthes himself. As his own autoerogenous object-author Barthes uses himself as a text and camera; he opens the autobiographical aperture and freezes himself in a series of positions doomed to insufficiency and incompleteness. So, even as Camera Lucida fails — unable to recover the happy sexuality which Barthes dreams of (“the breast which nourishes a sexuality devoid of difference” [Kritzman, 856–7, “The Discourse of Desire”]) — it also looks beyond itself to something unsayable — to a kind of knowledge of the mother, HIS mother which belongs only to love. As Kennedy notes in his essay, “RB, autobiography, and the end of writing,” this love is not reducible to linguistic formulation, as this passage and its failure to actually “say” what it wants to makes clear:
In the Mother, there was a radiant, irreducible core: my mother. It is always maintained that I should suffer more because I have spent my whole life with her; but my suffering proceeds from who she was; and it was because she was who she was that I lived with her . . . for this originality was the reflection of what was absolutely irreducible in her, and thereby lost forever . . . for what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.(Camera lucida #31, 75)
Barthes’s impossible book culminates with an impossible affirmation — that of the persistence of a love made rich by a suffering that was itself an aesthetic expression and which he could not dispense with — that cannot be reduced to a bloodless theory. Neither reduced nor resuscitated, Barthes’ mother is relegated to the uneasy ontology of the unseen photograph, the private, punctum that only the author can see.
5. I got bugs
One problem (at the very least) remains. That “she” is not more recuperable for pederast, mother-loving Barthes than she is for hysterically straight mother-hating Vedder speaks to the impossibility of situating mother within anything possessing even the vaguest resemblance to the standard masculine autobiographical project.10 Risking abjection is not enough.
6. When she couldn’t hold, she folded
The son’s ecstatic union with the mother who is and is not he, the playing with a permeable body in a way which is not intrusive but inclusive and at the same time the rage to tear the mother apart to take to the limit her body’s recognition, the mourning for her loss, the use of this entire complex for writing for the practice of langue, a remembrance of the mother which fails and which is tied to an investigation of aesthetics which also fails — how might this string be invoked for Peter Handke? There is no linguistic foreplay in Handke, only after play, for, it is to the disjunction from mother that Handke repeatedly returns — the alienation between Claire and Delta Benedictine in Short Letter, Long Farewell, the bicycling mother who dreams of going crazy as her toddler looks on dazed in Wings of Desire, the motherless Kaspar, a postmodern lost boy, the dead mother’s problematic legacy in Through the Villages — but of course nowhere more powerfully than in A Sorrow beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Ungluck), his self-proclaimedly failed attempt to document his mother’s life and suicide. Like Gertrude Stein on Alice B. Toklas, Handke decides to tell the story that the feminine other cannot or will not tell about herself, although the son is implicated in his mother’s story in ways that the female lovers are not. From the outset, Handke’s play with the barthian langue maternelle — in German, the feminine word die Muttersprache — is a both Oedipal and necrophiliac act of necessity; it is overtly about death and death is as, Camus — one of Handke’s most importance influences — has noted, a dirty and not always terribly interesting business. And perhaps it is Orphic too — Handke’s attempt to call his mother back from the dead, and from the living death that was her existence — not through the power of song, but through the clenched mundanities that he documents in his writing. He also writes about her perspective intermittently as “Man” (one/masculine) and as “sie” (she) signifying the gendered impossibility of talking about her — implicating us and himself, by necessity in our own mothers’ pain under the rule of that false universal “das ewig mannliche,” the eternal masculine.
And there is a great deal of pain here. Want, discomfort, disgust, and rage for and against his mother, for and against himself as her son and, as a man, as the accomplice in the society which victimized her — a society which reduced her existence into a village game called “Tired/exhausted/sick/dying/dead” (249). Handke is relentlessly unsentimental as regards the entire project (Jerry Varsava notes that Handke “strips Proust bare,” 122) — he criticizes his enunciations about her even as he speaks them:
. . . the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences — have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. . . I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character. . . She refuses to be isolated and remains unfathomable; my sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper.(264–5)
This mother cannot be so easily anatomized, as Rainer Nägele notes (399); she is protean, when fragmented she does not becomes surface but rather a morass which engulfs the son:
Now she imposed herself on me, took on body and reality, and her condition was so palpable that at some moments it became a part of me.(282–3)
Rather it is the son’s words that splinter about him in his attempt to make her congeal.
Not surprisingly, the body of Handke’s mother appears not as cosmetic surface but as bodily fluid and as dirty anality. It is the malodorous spittle used to clean the children’s faces; tears wept in the toilet; it is an embarrassing fart during a mountain hike with Handke’s father — it is the hidden excrement in the underpants of the deceased — impure ejaculations, fetishized elements of a lost body that should not be seen thus, and whose viscosity continually contrasts with the photographs which Handke mentions at crucial moments in anironic, poignant counterpoint. It seems significant that Handke never worries about the “reality” of the photographs he discusses,and this is all he has to say about the matter in this particular work:
The fiction that photographs can “tell us” anything — . . . but isn’t all formulation, even of things that have really happened more or less a fiction? . . .(253)
So much for Barthes’ theory of photography.
And yet it is in Handke’s text about his mother, rather than in Barthes’, that we find a kind of ecstasy, that pleasure in the spectacle of pain heralded by Hassan — one that we are summoned and positioned to share, for Handke’s text is one of both of rage and celebration; his mother’s suicide speaks to him of a kind of courage which borders on a feminine and feminized notion of heroism:
Yes, I thought over and over again, carefully enunciating my thoughts to myself: THAT DOES IT, THAT DOES IT, THAT DOES IT, GOOD, GOOD GOOD. And throughout the flight I was beside myself with pride that she had committed suicide.(292)
It is here, and not in Barthes, that we run into the disruptive, unsettling nature of a “jouisaance” which, as Jane Gallop has argued, goes beyond “the pleasure principle”, not because it is beyond pleasure but because it is beyond principle (Gallop, 113), and which unites pleasure with emotion with fear, with disruption, with loss of control — jouissance qua catharsis qua abjection, in Kristeva’s rather than Hassan’s sense, that which unravels “identity, system, order” (Kristeva, 10)
Thus, it is not the child but the war veteran and the concentration camp victim whom Maria Handke resembles; she is not the writer-son’s mind-child but his hero, an Antigone/Anne Frank — a tragic victim of a tyrannical state. And as in the ancient tragedy, it is the moral implications of burial which motivates the entire story; at the end of this piece we discover that Handke is enraged by the depersonalizing effects of his mother’s funeral, that it is at the cemetery that he decides he must write about her. This rage is Maria Handke’s clearest legacy to her son, an emotion which grounds an aesthetic and an ethic which arguably informs all of Handke’s writing thereafter: a refusal to never not be angry, a hatred of authority and institution, a hatred of the father, a hatred of Austria — all this as a monument to the rage of his mother a way to let it speak, a way for the son to recall and use the silenced, outraged MUTTERSPRACHE. Katherine Woodward has argued that Barthes refuses normal mourning in La Chambre Claire, but this seems far truer for Handke, as a self-conscious practice, as an act of atonement. In this way, Handke sees through the Oedipal romance at the heart of his own narrative manoever and rejects it; realizing that his rage is his mother’s rage, that the two are intertwined and inextricable, Handke goes Eddie Vedder one better; he foregrounds and then refuses to tell the tale of the “bad” mother and pathetically victimized, neurotic son; he sees through the misogyny of that strategy and will not fall for it, although he clearly feels its power.
In this way Handke becomes both the avenging fury and fugitive son (Orestes) to the specter of his own mother’s death, or to use another classical analogy, if Barthes is a wannabe Zeus, Handke is a self-crippled Hephaestus, who throws himself down the father’s stairs for the sake of themother. Is it any wonder that — despite the bewildering array of first person narrators and writer-doubles who populate Handke’s work — that Handke himself is never to be found in any of them? Autobiography becomes for him the absence of the subject, especially himself, and this is perhaps his scriptible manner of atoning for the erasure which his mother underwent herself. I remember the dismembered Mama and I dismember myself, the body of my text, so that she may be protean, so that she may live in me. Handke’s literary transsexualism — his wanting so much not to be a man, and to be SHE.
7. All my pieces set me free11
In Barthes and Handke, the son plays with the corpse of the mother and together they give birth to writing where the problems of langue vs langage, of personal utterance versus societal formula, of pleasure, pain, of aesthetics, play themselves out on paper through the spectacle of the son’s remembrance of the dead mother and haunt us precisely because they do not succeed. In Barthes, we witness the death throes of the modern, the recapitulation of the high-style dandyism of Wilde, Proust, and the rupture of the Victorian mama’s boy (how I suffered with maman but I alone understood her) in the face of the photograph and the mass visual media which it portends; from this perspective one of the things being mourned in La chambre claire is certainly modernity itself. In Handke, we witness the postmodern acceptance of the photograph and of visual culture in general as artifacts of artifice, as well as a linguistic exuberance which operates in the very interstices of exhaustion12 — a quirky artistic masculine life which struggles from out and on behalf of the body of the mother. And in Vedder — against whose projected image this essay has played itself out? — where the other (tongue) is all but cut out, leaving a trail of body parts in her (its) wake — a hand, a breast, blood — consequently leaving the critic with little to “work” with? In Eddie Vedder’s self-obscuring spectacle and in grunge as a whole we can see both — the self-consciously doomed struggle of the “low” modernism of 60’s rock with its pomo double, Punk — Jim Morrison meeting Sigmund Freud and DEVO. But to this menage à trois we must add a fourth figure; for Eddie Vedder’s wounded masculinity travels through Morrison, Freud, and DEVO to a different, oddly indeterminate gender-destination. Looking at his performances, I am reminded of Janis Joplin reborn as a generation-X boy in shorts. Eddie Vedder, like Roland Barthes and Peter Handke, reverses the Pinocchio principle, and dreams of being a real girl. Do call me daughter.
Thus, in all three autobiographical practioners we see not just the crisis of masculinity but a struggle to rethink the masculine subject as feminine if not downright feminized, and it seems significant that this occurs in both the self-avowedly homosexual and in the determinedly heterosexual male texts which I have considered here. Many feminist critics have regarded this move with apprehension13 — an apprehension by which I am repelled and to which I am also attracted. On one hand, it is hard not to see the autobiographical gestures of Vedder, Barthes and Handke as important, for they take on and try to say something new about that most difficult of contemporary topics — love (as Eilene Hoft-March has noted in her essay on Barthes)— and they contemplate possibly the most difficult of western loves to talk about — difficult in the sense that it is controversial, notorious, theoretically and politically embedded and at the same time for feminism crucial to rethink and revise: the love between/of the son and/for the mother. Hopefully this essay has suggested that the tortured mechanics of this love are still everywhere in western culture — from Oedipus to rock and beyond.
8. she dreams in colors she dreams in red
Crucial, and yet . . . This piece on autobiography, on postmodernism/ity and on the woundedness of performing boys will not close without my own ambivalence, a personal variation on E. Ann Kaplan’s reservations about the postmodern versus the feminist (Kaplan, 38). What “we” — our postmodern culture — have yet to move beyond (where indeed no man has gone before) is that this love for/from mother, still, expresses itself best over mother’s dead body, around the edges of her missing photographs, over and against the linguistic traces which testify to and yet still seek to erase her actual presence. The failure of the aesthetic enterprise discussed here — the as far as a boy can go pomo prime directive — is one, then, which we should theorize, discuss, and even admire, but which we should not accept. For, even as I write, from around the margins of the photograph, from behind the performance of wounded masculine annihilation, and against the hateful image of Yoko Ono as rock and roll’s maternal black widow extraordinaire, an outrageous maternal body materializes before our very eyes. Clad in wings on the cover of Vanity Fair (June, 1995) or exposing a slightly rounded postpartum stomach and braless, t-shirted, imperfect breasts on the cover of Rolling Stone (August, 1995), she demands to be seen and heard, requires our attention, defies our judgment, makes money, achieves fame NOT as the safely silent feminine object of mourning, but as bad mom mourner who fronts the co-ed, sexually multivalent band, called, appropriately, Hole:
i want to be the girl with the most cakesomeday you will ache like i ache.(Courtney Love)
University of California - Riverside
1. In Wim Wenders’ quintessentially strange, overwrought male-bonding road movie, Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1975) the protagonist sings along with an old recording whose refrain is “just like Eddie.” For K, with Love. Also thanks for RG, JG, and in particular DD for staging a dress rehearsal of this gig at the UCR Comparative Literature Spring Colloquium in 1994.
2. All frame lyrics by Eddie Vedder.
3. I.e. the “coolness” of post-structuralism has been affirmed by a recent article in the computer-tech magazine Wired, (where, incidentally Roland Barthes is included as an important progenitor) in much the same way as Spin confirms the angst of Eddie Vedder (who is displayed on the cover).
4. For a more lengthy discussion of Handke’s reception in the 80’s and 90’s, see my essay “On the Bull’s Horn with Peter Handke” in Postmodern Culture, September 1993.
5. See for example, Vedder’s recent, deeply parodistic photographic self-portraits in Spin (January 1995).
6. In this way, Vedder skews and violates the standard rebellious, macho stances of male rock performance which are geared to reinforce masculine identity values in male viewers (See Toney and Weaver, 568 ff.).
7. I concur with Dana Polan’s caveat that popular culture is not “necessarily” free from the constraints of ideology (Kaplan, 52). Indeed what is interesting about Pearl Jam is precisely this performative tension between the ideological and the subversive.
8. Elissa Marder also argues persuasively that Camera Lucida may be read also as a revelation of the “essence” of contemporary history — that of cliché. See Works Cited.
9. Haverkamp falls for Barthes’ line (265).
10. Similarly, Maurice Berger notes “one of the greatest lessons implied in his writing was one he never fully understood: that men . . . should be able to ask form rather than demand, love.” (Berger, 122).
13. See in particular Carole-Anne Tyler’s brilliant essay “Boys Will be Girls: The Politics of Gay Drag.”