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BY FRED VERMOREL
Lurking on the Dark Side of Biography
Village Voice Literary Supplement, November 2001
Like everything else today, biography is about celebrity. Creating it, celebrating it, knocking it. We have little time or taste anymore for that forgotten genre of modest reckoning, where "nonentities" could find publishers and publics for nothing more or less than life lived—a few lessons learned. For example, M. Vivian Hughes's A London Family, 1870-1900 is so reserved, so populated by the humdrum and homely, that when the one big event happens—the death of her father—we are as devastated as she means us to be. Today, you need a line to fame or power to make you sexy: J. Edgar Hoover's lieutenant or Diana's ex-bodyguard or ex-boyfriend.
Two things intervened to change the face of biography: the celebrity industry and popularized psychoanalysis. Both are offshoots of the Romantic movement, which, as one American scholar put it, is the big bang of modern culture.
The Romantics invented modern celebrity. Byron and Napoleon were exemplary Romantics with a flair for news value and "human interest" stories: revolutionary, volcanic, excessive, restless, sexually voracious with "unusual" tastes, hovering between lunacy and inspiration—the emperor riding to battle with Young Werther in his saddlebag; the poet dead in a quest to liberate Greece (decked out in Michael Jackson generalissimo camp). Byron was a showman and self-publicist who knew how to blend his biography with his art into a seductive mystique in which—and this is crucial to Romanticism and to contemporary celebrity—deeds become synonymous with the "work," the personality inextricable from the individual, the individual rooted in the legend.
The foundational Romantic text was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions. Rousseau began with the assertion that here, for the first time ever, was an autobiography that gave it all away, told it all. The killer ingredient, which sold the book for over two centuries on a whisper and a nod, was Rousseau's confession of sexual masochism and his recollection of the childhood spankings that provoked it. Aside from this, Confessions is 600 or so pages of dissimulation, self-contradiction, treachery, special pleading, innuendo, raving, revenge, and lies. But what gushes out is the overwhelming "presence" of Rousseau himself: the paranoiac, the plaintiff, the pervert. The scandalous incoherence of precisely this person, no better, after all, than he should be, behaving badly, just like us in fact: real, really here.
It wasn't long before behavior itself became considered an artwork—think of Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, the Beats, Kurt Cobain, and innumerable rock stars, or most modern artists since Duchamp. Think of the way van Gogh's slashed ear has become as much an artifact of his oeuvre as Sunflowers. Such genius-type behavior was a script to follow to whatever bittersweet closure: despairing suicide, or sudden death in pursuit of the ineffable. There's some debate about which of these INXS singer Michael Hutchence achieved, but, discovered dangling from a hotel door with a stiffie, he was an instructive illustration of that key Romantic invention, the full-time genius, who, as Sartre quipped, is a genius all the time, even in the morning while cracking open a boiled egg.
Cue Freud. Psychoanalysis is an intensely Romantic psychology, especially in its crowning fable, the unconscious—code for yet another Romantic sublime that can only, with caution, great delicacy, and $X an hour, be approached by trained and sanctioned specialists with access to privileged knowledge. The record shows that psychoanalysis was eagerly seized on from the start, and became fused with popular culture from around 1915. Hidden motives, repression, fantasy, and catharsis were the hot topics from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams to Rodgers & Hammerstein, which then transferred to Hollywood and screens worldwide.
Psychoanalysis equally became the paradigm for biography, which began to seek out the youthful traumas that haunt adult destinies, courted childhood, dwelt on the novelties of sexual repression and frustration, and narrated itself increasingly as the peeling away of layers of self-deception all the way down to an "inner" truth or self—down to those unconscious desires and dirty secrets even saints entertain. It was Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians which in 1918 started that now ubiquitous trend of dishing the dirt on the great and the good, trashing Florence Nightingale among others, with "a sudden revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined." Lytton's brother, James, was the British translator and editor of Freud.
This practice is nowadays de rigueur. Witness Albert Goldman's Elvis, a nerd's revenge, or a biography of the sculptor Eric Gill a few years back that "exposed" him as an incestuous sexual monster and drew calls for his works to be removed from public places, or recent biographical revelations of Michel Foucault's gay sadomasochism, which certainly put a new twist on Discipline and Punish.
From Rousseau's buttocks to Freud's couch to the tumbling chairs of Jerry Springer . . .
After the war, the explosive growth of mass media accelerated and amplified celebrity, improving on Romantic devices in a number of ways. Take spontaneity, which dissimulates the distance between an artwork and the experiences it provokes. A Romantic artwork is really only there as provocation and ruse to catapult our "selves" out of humdrum states and reach greater heights, or depths, or whatever else seems weird, dizzying, and naughty. Equally with those Romantic artworks we call celebrities: We annihilate distances—geographic, cultural, pecuniary—in a sleight that brings these alien and inaccessible beings "into our lives." Hence the production techniques (camera closeups, mikes, and F/X that capture every breath and tongue tremor) that "produce" such audiovisual hallucinations as Madonna or Michael Jackson and allow us to gaze into the very eyes, to get right inside: up to the very eyelashes and pores, checking the backs of their hands for sweating as a sign that they might be lying, assessing their trembling buttock cheeks for beads of tumescence. This "persona production" renders every inkling and breath of presence up front, here and now, in your head, in your bed: Madonna's voice, throat, tits . . .
They are so real, these intimate strangers, so unbearably, overwhelmingly familiar. We are inducted into their lives, lured into their houses, enticed by their opinions; we meet their kids, learn all about their sex lives and their ailments and favorite colors and favorite songs.
How does celebrity exert such fascination? If you jettison the childish explanation of talent and the mystical one of charisma, and focus, as I did with Judy Vermorel in our 1985 book, Starlust, on the other side of the equation, if you talk in depth to the consumers of celebrity, if you consider music fans, for example, as consumers in a consumer environment consuming products that happen to be music stars, and map their desires in their own terms, you realize that celebrities are blank screens onto which we all project our fantasies.
This is what celebrities are really rewarded for. A celebrity's "act" readily spills from "real life" to "screen life" because there is no distinction to be made here between private and public spheres. In fact, a celebrity's raison d'être is to erase such distinction. Celebrities are made-up creatures, fictions from the very start and to the very end. We own them.
Sometimes I pressed my ear to the door and heard distant comings and goings. The gist of events and conversations, uncertain threads and emissions of her and her brother's lives. Explosions of hoohas, pounded stairs, slammed doors, flushing cisterns, music. It was as if they were putting it on to fascinate and tease me. Listen here, Fred! What is this noise here? And that one?
The most interesting bios weave the writer-as-obsessive into the text until the biographer and the obsession become part of the story. Sartre's psychobiographies took this over the top, from Tintoretto (the most convincing and shortest) to St. Genet. Genet was apparently so stunned by Sartre's biographical avalanche that he never wrote another word and was ungrateful enough to call his biographer a con ("cunt").
Less flamboyant are Walter Kaufman's Hegel: A Reinterpretation, which lovingly settles scores and guides us through a labyrinth of receptions and misunderstandings to make Hegel's project comprehensible, and Greil Marcus on Elvis Presley (Mystery Train and Dead Elvis), which certainly tells us more about Greil than Elvis, but then the writer has more to say than the singer.
The irruption of the author into the picture occurs equally with biographical novelizations like In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer's Marilyn (but Mailer is such an all-male schmuck he loses the plot whenever Monroe needs to become "female" and can't even understand why, to his chagrin, she'd prefer a Clark Kent like Arthur Miller to a Superman like Mailer), and, more recently, Gary Indiana's book on Versace-killer Andrew Cunanan, Three Month Fever. Such "factions" force us to confront the artifice of the biographical project and the fragility of its "facts."
There is also a sensuous and flirtatious aspect to biographical research: breaking seals and confidences, untying ribbons from bundles of documents, raising the dust of strangers' lives, dealing and unpacking other people's intimacies, deciphering their photos . . .
All games I played while researching The Secret History of Kate Bush, an absurdist experiment to see how far the rock bio could be stretched without snapping. I adopted the persona of a mad professor so obsessed that he traces Kate Bush's genealogy back to the Vikings. And I also stalked the woman, as a phenomenological acting out of that uneasy and twisted boundary between fascination and obsession. Oddly (or perhaps not), the book became the bestselling bio of that singer. But what most struck me was how straight were the readings people made of this text. I still find discussions on the Internet debating whether "I" was "really" obsessed with Kate Bush, as well as allegations I not only had an affair with her, but that while researching her life I ran over her cat.
Far from running over her cat, I seduced both her cats, Zoodle and Pywacket. I'd watch her let them out the door at night and coo them over to my hiding place, where I'd stroke their grumbling fur. Her cats were my Trojan horses to carry the smell of the hand I caressed them with back into her house, into her very lap.
Relevant here is the work of performance artists like Sophie Calle. Calle is known for randomly following people in cities, examining the sleeping habits of strangers she invites into her bed, or posing as a chambermaid and scrutinizing the property and lives of hotel guests. Calle's work is interesting, though it may be a cop-out that she protects her intentions behind avant-garde rhetoric and trades in high art rather than commercial discourses—which would be a more dangerous strategy. More suggestive, because more troubling and tentative and unsupervised, are the explorations of Oreet Ashery, a Jewish female performance artist who disguises herself as Marcus Fisher, a male orthodox Jew, and penetrates Orthodox Jewish communities and other milieus in that persona (www.sexmutant.com).
The cutting edge of such work today, the agenda that biography needs to address, is the phenomenon of the stalker. This is where the contradictions and fantasies of identity and desire are most tested and exposed. The stalker refuses to be intimidated by the "celebritariat" and its massive security apparatus, disrupting the celebrity economy by voicing the unspeakable and demanding the impossible (the impossible which is, however, promised over and over). There is an accelerating momentum here, from John Lennon, who conspicuously threw every shred of his soul on the market and was duly "consumed" by a fan, to the awesome global presence and mass-produced intimacy of Madonna. Madonna, who had the effrontery to play the little-woman card while having the stalker Bobby Hoskins jailed, and refused until forced by threat of imprisonment to attend court because she would thereby fulfill Hoskins's fantasy of contact with her. "We have made his fantasies come true," she complained. "How? By sitting in front of him." Madonna "felt incredibly violated": "That day I looked into his eyes he became even more real to me." What a delicious subversion of celebrity.The morning John Lennon was shot I woke suddenly around 4:15. Numbers were flashing through my head: a phone number. I jotted it down on a pad. Turned over but still couldn't sleep. Around seven I turned on the radio and heard the news. A few days later, out of curiosity I rang the number. Kate Bush answered.
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
(Savoy Records, 1987)
Even if you never hear it, another catastrophic shockwave travelling through the body pop. True, this is fanatical obscenity, a record you could probably be prosecuted for owning, even. Hip hop at its most impacted crosses HM stalactite chords and guitar-abuse solos. Be startled by the disappearance of the beat: it propagates until there is a stentorian thunder, mistracking-stylus mode. It reaches an idiot-hyper-sexuality. Innuendo, rock's usual figleaf, is bypassed. So much sexual message is broadcast that 'sex' burns out, is exhausted in an outrage of artlessness and celebration of the sexual drives that pop usually polices or orders. Absurdly apocalyptic, it calls itself "the last Rock'n'Roll record made in England", wants to be the last moment, pop's supernova. It spirals into scam, claims to be the collaboration by PJ Proby and Madonna. I listened to it twice and turned to a pillar of salt.