..Hello all! I am excited to participate in the conversation here at Big Other. Thanks to John Madera & crew for inviting me. ~tim…
Recently, I wrote a tiny reflection for my local activist rag AREA Chicago on the work of Dennis Cooper and (what I believe to be) its relevance for social justice activists. Because this article was directed toward an audience of folks involved in social justice movements, I addressed more collective ramifications of Dennis’s writing. Now I would like to talk more about my personal connection w/ Dennis’s work, why I find it so compelling.
The simplest way of saying this is: I am very afraid of sex.
What am I afraid of?
If somebody disturbed by the graphic violence in Dennis’s fiction asks me what I see in him, my safest response is to say, “I identify with his ‘passive’ (I mean passive re: their role in sexual encounters, not re: narrative arc. Even re: sex, ‘passive’ is not quite accurate, but I am using it for want of a more nuanced term) characters. I can absolutely imagine placing myself, like Ziggy, the protag of Try, in harm’s way in order to be the focus of others’ intense emotions – “A huge part of… sexual, abuse, at least for him, is how he loves being a target for such intense feelings, especially from someone who knows him, and isn’t just stupidly thinking he’s cute or whatever” (185).
…But Dennis’s work isn’t safe. He asks us to identify not only w/ his “victims” (again, using this word for want of something more nuanced, as I think his work evades such reductive labels), but also with his lucid, hyper-rational “predators,” who tirelessly dissect their own desires to perpetrate violence. The most frequently-cited example of this is from Frisk – the reader is understood as implicated in the text’s violence via whatever vicarious pleasure they take from reading about said violence’s execution. But I think a more interesting and less discussed example can be found in Guide. Guide’s narrator identifies himself as a writer named Dennis. As the novel begins, he announces his intention, through the text he is writing, the text we are reading, to protect a character named Luke, no matter the cost. We breathe a sigh of relief. After the carnage of Closer, Frisk and Try, we can rest easy knowing Luke will be okay. Luke is a sweetheart. Luke fancies himself a mystic. Luke likes dance music. Isn’t that adorable? Never mind that Luke’s salvation requires others’ sacrifice… like an unfortunate fellow named Chris. Chris has it coming. Chris is a heroin addict. Chris fantasizes about death. So long, Chris.
…Wait… what? Who decided Chris’s life was less valuable than Luke’s? And moreover, what system of logic determined Luke’s survival necessitates Chris’s murder? On this point, we realize, we have accepted our narrator’s authority. Through Dennis the narrator, Dennis the writer has constructed a structure akin to Hollywood thrillers, in which the good guy’s triumph is ensured by the deaths of numerous and often morally “suspect” peripherals. As readers, drawing comfort from a promised outcome, we are made culpable.
Chris’s demise is a great example of something else Dennis does well – trouble our notions of “consent.” Chris wants to die, fantasizes about death, has a death fetish. So he finds somebody to do the deed. On the surface, his murder appears to be a consensual encounter. Yet something feels deeply, deeply fucked. Where do we locate that “something”?
Of his “predator” characters, Dennis has said (in a 2001 interview w/ 3:AM Magazine):
“The problem is, they’re not really interested in the individual boys. They’re only interested in the power that a particular brand of cute boy has over them, so the boys themselves are just specimens and examples.”
Dennis’s fiction challenges me to consider, if a violation has indeed occurred, that the violation is located not in the actual scene of a sexual encounter, but much earlier, during the first moment when the violator saw the violated not as an individual, but rather as an aesthetic abstraction. Do our seeing the objects of our desire as “types,” as narrated by whatever script our fantasies have written for them, create the conditions that allow violence to occur? …but… isn’t this what we do every time we fantasize? And aren’t the bulk of our desires formed by the fantasies we project onto others’ bodies? I cannot say whether it is Dennis’s intent I ask these questions, but they are indicative of the type of ethical quandary his work pushes me to confront.
When I was in high school, my mother expressed to me her belief that any time we look at a picture of somebody while masturbating, we have transformed that person into an object, have in some way violated their humanity. I remain haunted by this conversation… Because while I as a Queer activist I support acceptance of diverse fetishes, open/accessible/public discussion of taboo topics, the destabilization of any and all notions of “normal” sexuality and families (and concurrent shame-based hierarchies), the abolition of laws that criminalize victimless sex acts (ie sex in public, or in certain cases, consensual sex with adolescents), I have never been able to completely dismiss her argument.
This is why I’m terrified of sex: I’m terrified I will fail to *see* another person as themselves, and in so doing, will perpetrate violence or otherwise harm them. I am terrified somebody will fail to *see* me, and I will feel violated or traumatized. Yet this very same loss of control is what appeals to me. …Not knowing how others will see me, what desires they will enact upon my body, what new possibilities this will awaken, how I will feel transformed by the encounter… this is what thrills me about sex. What to do?
Dennis has said that as an anarchist, he does not taken any moral directives for granted, but instead seeks to work out for himself, often through his writing, the ramifications of his desires and actions. For me, this makes him an admirable ethicist. Would that all of us were more willing to face frightening shit so unflinchingly – I believe this world would be more livable. That he does so through language and narrative (for me, being myself someone who writes) makes him all the more valuable. His sentences are taut and unforgettable. His voice engages, whether he is writing as an outsider youth or a creepy aesthete. His formal innovations create structures that implicate readers in his narratives in unexpected ways. I like his writing quite a lot.