In Within Heaven and Hell (1996), Ellen Cantor’s voice-over tells the story of a doomed love affair while the video footage toggles back and forth between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Sound of Music (1965) – between bursts of blood and bursts of song, between a sadist on a rampage and the fantasy of family, between dream and nightmare – which is to say: the footage tells the story of a love affair, too.
Cantor’s voice – at once curious and chewy, deeply matter-of-fact – describes the time she fucked her lover in a hotel room when she was on her period. Her blood was smeared across both their bodies, three red handprints went up her back like she was a ladder getting climbed to safety. She and her lover said to each other, ‘It’s just like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ which plays on the screen as she narrates the memory: Leatherface lunges across dusty floorboards, a girl in cut-off shorts rises from a porch swing to walk toward the back door of a farmhouse. Don’t do it! we want to shout during horror films, whenever characters walk toward closed doors. Don’t do it! we want to shout during the ordinary days of our lives, whenever friends walk toward selfish lovers.
But we also get it. We get the curiosity of the girl and we get the way she compels us. We get the grotesque pleasure of watching her get bloody, the pleasure of getting bloody ourselves, getting tangled up with the bodies of others and getting marked by someone else bleeding: lust as bloodbath. The narration of a bloody scene between lovers nicely inverts the blood logic on screen: instead of a man getting a woman bloody, a woman is getting a man bloody. It’s still the woman’s blood, but it’s not from a wound – it’s not a sign of what’s been done to her, or taken from her.
If hell is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then heaven is The Sound of Music. We move between their respective visions of extremity – love as senseless peril and love as salvation fantasy – while Cantor’s own story unfolds: Boy-Meets-Girl-They- Cum-It-Ends. They meet in London. He doesn’t like her. She likes him. His life force, she tells him, is the first one she’s encountered that’s as strong as her own. They fuck. She goes home to New York. She comes back. He spurns her at first. (‘It was painful,’ she says, while the screen shows Pam getting hung on a meathook.) But then he changes his mind. ‘You’re obsessive and too heavy,’ he tells her, ‘and I like it.’
They go hiking. They search for a lake but find a deer instead. They fuck like rabbits. While we hear about them fucking, we see the von Trapp children with Maria on screen, the nun-lover who exists first and foremost as a surrogate mother. We hear about Cantor and her lover going to a wedding in a castle. They dance! Then he tells her he’s engaged to someone else. Straight-up soap, right? Avec chainsaw.
All the while, the visuals blink between dream and nightmare: a woman in a white wedding dress; a woman shoved into a white freezer; a puppet show with marionette goats and a wizened old ghoul slumped in a chair; a girl running toward a gazebo and a girl shattering a window as she hurls her body through it. ‘The hills are alive with the sound of muuuuusic!’ we hear, as Leatherhead stumbles senseless through the gloaming with his merciless instrument rumbling in his hands. It’s ridiculous and hilarious, just as it’s ridiculous and hilarious to grant an ordinary botched affair this kind of cinematic sweep and scale. It’s ridiculous and hilarious to compare an ambivalent lover to a homicidal sadist whose goal is maximising an innocent girl’s pain.
But, I mean. Kind of. Also. Right? I can’t help feeling we’ve all felt toward our ambivalent lovers, for some furtive, indulgent moment: You are a sadist whose goal is maximising my pain.
The whole premise of Cantor’s piece plays with the texture of spectacle and the implicit accusation of melodrama; the hubris that lies latent in association. Its juxtapositions are obscene and outlandish. Its shifts in scale are adamant. As Sally screams at one end of a dining room table – bound and gagged, served dinner by Leatherface in drag – Cantor describes thinking about her parents and their marriage, her lover’s parents and their marriage; thinking about rape, thinking about war. ‘Fucking hell,’ she wonders. ‘Is there no way out of this?’
No way out of what? Political violence? Sexual violence? The tyranny of domestic fantasy? The trauma of emotional disconnection? The leather-faced maniac’s dining room?
Part of the discomfort of Cantor’s art, a discomfort it purposefully courts, is the way it brings together dissonant scales: the scale of political consciousness and historical trauma and the smaller scale of private emotional experience. It can seem absurd, hubristic, or self-pitying to juxtapose these scales (which she does) and flatout wrong-footed to conflate them (which she never does). Her work understands the personal as political, but it’s also invested in making us uncomfortable about accepting the equation as self-evident: personal experience might carry attachments to political structures, but it doesn’t offer ready-made political argument.
On its most basic level, Within Heaven and Hell shows Janus-faced Love at its most dramatic: the blissful fantasy of a happy union, all puppet shows and stolen kisses, juxtaposed against the danger and vulnerability and brutality of how things often play out – in misunderstanding and wreckage, in the psychic bloodbath of a broken heart. But the visual schizophrenia ends up feeling uncomfortably porous, as if each side of the binary holds its opposite tucked in its grip. The hills are alive with a restless menace, and there’s something seductive about a girl covered in blood. Even Leatherface is fuelled by some inscrutable yearning behind his mask.
Everything comes together at the close, as the film flicks back and forth between two dinner party scenes: Sally is strapped to a wooden chair, screaming at the ghoulish grandfather seated across from her, while the von Trapp children play a trick on Maria – a pine cone on her seat! – and everyone giggles around the table. It’s a kind of genre whiplash, and it creates hilarious enjambments: the psychopath inches down the table toward his victim and then, a beat later, a row of white-frocked, well-coiffed children look absolutely aghast. We see Liesl looking gravely concerned, as if Leatherface has come all the way to the Swiss Alps just to fuck with her dessert course. For a second, as the film moves between these scenes, you can see a bleed between frames – a superimposing of Sally’s terrified body onto The Sound of Music, the residue of horror ghost-grafted onto an elegant dining room: the spectral figure of a frightened woman, writhing in agony, like an uninvited guest at the von Trapp party – or a spirit conjured by a séance.
A woman’s voice narrating the story of a love affair gone wrong is the kind of thing that usually gets called confessional without a second thought – knee-jerk genre taxonomy – but the blood and saccharine of these visuals, their fierce playfulness and deft weave – it all fucks with any easy notion of how the confessional genre operates. It’s Cantor confessing by way of showing things that have nothing to do with her life. It’s oblique confession, a kind of ventriloquism; everything twisted and deployed instead of just getting exposed. Her life emerges as a tool, just another kind of footage in her archive. ‘In reality, I am painstakingly exacting in my work,’ Cantor said. ‘It’s true it is emotionally charged, but it’s not random or quickly executed… I spend a lot of time organising, measuring, changing, shifting, searching, slowly developing the work… like alchemy or a mathematical equation.’
Her confessional story ends in yet another hotel, which feels right. It’s a transient love affair, stubbornly unstable – moving between hotel rooms, between resident visuals, between moods, between genres. Cantor describes going down to the lobby to tell the front desk clerk she needs to change rooms. She has just had a fight with her boyfriend, she explains to the clerk, and she might kill herself if she has to stay in the same room where they fought. The clerk gives her the key to room 51. ‘Don’t worry,’ she tells Cantor, while on screen a woman jumps straight through a window and flees across the grass. ‘The darkest hour is always just before dawn.’
I saw Cantor’s work in Stuttgart, at a little gallery called Künstlerhaus. It was spargel season in Baden-Württemberg, the late-spring days of white asparagus, and everything was spargel, spargel, spargel: white asparagus soup and white asparagus salad, white asparagus tarts and white asparagus pizza. Stuttgart was clearly a car town, full of wide roads and famously home to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, whose named arenas hosted aging American pop stars. It was like the rich man’s version of Detroit, where Cantor herself was from.
Cantor said growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s gave her an education in tragedy: the memory of the Holocaust was recent in the Detroit Jewish community, and Ford had ties to the Nazis. Cantor’s entire synagogue watched her rabbi, Morris Adler, get murdered by a congregant one Saturday in 1966. But her Detroit childhood also gave her the ‘counter-memory of a utopian outlook, the architecture and river, the lakes and natural beauty I grew up with’. She grew up in heaven and hell, or at least trained in the possibility of their coexistence. The hills of Michigan and the crumbling giants of urban industry were alive with the force and possibility of counter-memory itself.
I’d come to give a talk at Künstlerhaus. I was going to present an essay I’d written four years earlier called ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, a title I’d meant as somewhat tongue-in-cheek which was often received in earnest by people who liked the piece and certainly, especially by people who didn’t. The essay was about how to represent female pain without essentialising or mythologising it, without recapitulating a logic that reduced female identity to a state of perpetual victimhood, and it included a catalogue of my own sundry and fairly insubstantial traumas. People often told me they admired my willingness to ‘make myself vulnerable’ in writing about my own experiences. It was a formulation I’d grown wary of. It felt like assumption. How did they know if I felt vulnerable or not? Asserting my vulnerability as a fact felt oddly aggressive, and seemed to perpetually risk misunderstanding craft as sheer exposure. In reality, I am painstakingly exacting in my work. It’s true it is emotionally charged, but it’s not random or quickly executed.
I worried that ‘vulnerability’, especially when it was applied to a woman or her art, threatened to conflate mode and content, artist and work; that it threatened to ignore the artistry and intention and intellectual investigations that drove a certain deployment of personal material – that it suggested you were simply willing to go naked in public. I liked the part of the novel I LOVE DICK when Chris Kraus asked: ‘Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?’ I liked that question the same way I liked Cantor asking ‘Is there no way out of this?’ while she gave her love affair some props: a chainsaw and a puppet show. Cantor wasn’t enacting the role of victimised woman in her film, she was scrutinising it – in her own autobiographical narratives, and in the narratives she had consumed and grown to love. She was handling vulnerability at some remove.
One afternoon in Stuttgart I met the gallery assistant, Johanna, near Schlossplatz, the city’s main plaza, which I told her I found lovely, and she told me she found ugly. We visited the new de Chirico exhibit at the Staatsgalerie: his paintings cluttered with geometric shapes and rulers and soldiers in armour, their faces like broad metallic ants; his Great Metaphysician like a hastily-assembled toolkit towering over an open plaza.
A friend of Johanna’s from the art academy worked at Staatsgalerie, giving tours to children, and she gave us a tour as well, pointing out which details the kids noticed in the paintings, and telling us the stories they imagined, and the questions they asked – questions I was grateful for, because they were often my own.
For example, the kids often wanted to know why the same red building shows up in so many of de Chirico’s paintings. It was the Castello Estense – a moated medieval castle in Ferrara, the town where de Chirico had been sent during World War I – and it was true that we could see it everywhere. In his paintings, its red bulk is framed by windows and lurking at the edges of plazas, looming large behind his Disquieting Muses in the famous painting named for them: one statue with her head shaped like a hot air balloon, the other with her head shaped like a chess pawn, both of them lonely and exposed, baking in the strange forever sun that casts long shadows over their unbroken brick plaza. Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, stands facing away from us, with her staff discarded by her side; and Thalia, the muse of comedy, sits with her arms crossed over her chest – each stone woman is guarding her art while Apollo, god of art and prophecy, stands behind them in the shadows.
We were told the kids liked to make up stories about the Castello Estense: it was a prison for women who needed rescuing; or else it was a repository for bad guys who needed fighting; or else it was the home for a treasure that needed claiming. It was always implicated in a mission. It was comforting to see it over and over again, in de Chirico’s world of shapes and angles, where there were so few people — or if there were people, they were made of shapes and angles themselves.
I actually found de Chirico’s figures tender and awkward, as if they weren’t entirely comfortable with their almost-human forms. It looked like they were getting poked by the odd angles of their own bodies. There was something about them that seemed poignant – somehow stiff and aspirational. The one time I thought I saw an actual human person, not a mannequin or a geometric composition, it turned out I was looking at a ghost. His torso revealed itself as a white column further down. Like all the others, he eventually dissolved into form.
As for Pittura Metafisica, the philosophical underpinning of de Chirico’s aesthetic – invested in impossible linear perspectives, paradoxical lighting and shading, arrangements of objects that conveyed a sense of mysterious but opaque meaning, and summoning, always, an eerie stillness – I can only tell you this: I was moved by the places in his work where objects touched each other. A man and wife, both made of shapes, lean their foreheads together; or a blue stick balances against a curved red column in a still life.
What moved me about the way shapes touched each other in his work? It was something about proximity and disjunction – the way two people made of shapes might jut into each other with the sharp triangles of their bodies, but still find an easy angle of closeness, a kind of shelter, in leaning their faces together. I found something moving in the contrast between cluttered spaces and empty ones – the vast, sun-struck territory around a factory, for example, in a painting within a painting, its stark vastness framed and nestled inside a room cluttered with objects without names. Something moved me in that precarious balance of blue stick and red column, something in its infinite duration – the immortality of being trapped in a painting together, like the forever proximity of two stone muses who don’t seem to have much to say to each other anymore.
If Ellen Cantor had a Castello Estense, a structure that kept recurring in her work, it was the figure of a woman in pain. Or else her Castello was the figure of a woman in power. Or perhaps the structure that kept reappearing was the insistence that these figures were not – for her – ultimately separable. I saw them both everywhere in Cantor’s work, the woman in pain and the woman in power, proof that neither state excluded the other – that in fact, they could be mutually constitutive; just as the muses of tragedy and comedy might be brought into collaboration.
In WITHIN HEAVEN AND HELL, Cantor describes getting angry after her lover told her he was engaged to someone else. ‘I really love when you get worked up like this,’ he told her, when she got upset. ‘You’re so powerful.’
Right next to that screen, in the same dark room, another screen played a video called EVOKATION OF MY DEMON SISTER (2002). Created as a tribute to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, EVOKATION uses footage from Brian de Palma’s CARRIE (1976): a shy girl at prom covered in blood from a prank by her classmates, her vulnerability weaponised by this public shaming, her humiliation channelled into telekinetic power. She starts punishing everyone who hurt her. I really love when you get worked up like this. Getting spurned is also a way of getting worked up, and getting worked up – in these pieces – is about so much more than appearing desirable to a lover: It’s also about getting the work up, making something from lived experience. We hear a female voice say: ‘Look at me,’ and we see – in the bloody and punishing figure of CARRIE – the expression of a deep rage at not being seen. We see the video itself as yet another claim on vision: look at me.
EVOKATION was the only piece in the Künstlerhaus installation in which Cantor’s body or voice wasn’t explicitly visible – and yet, there she was. The video shows glowing rivers of lava and fire juxtaposed with the footage from CARRIE, a bloody girl moving the objects of the world with every flick of her gaze – a constellation of bloody visions. These rivers summon a vision of bleeding that is also a vision of force and power.
In PINOCHET PORN, the unfinished feature-length film that Cantor was working on when she died of cancer in 2013, the question that keeps recurring, another kind of red castle across the film’s frames, is a question about the relationship between pain and agency: Is tragedy a choice?
As a child, when Cantor visited the Detroit Institute of Art with her father, they always visited ‘the same five pieces with the same commentary… our routine never varied.’ They kept returning to the same works; just as her own work, years later, kept returning to certain sites of fascination – pain, blood, bodies, suffering, fire – the red castles of her psychic horizon line.
In the drawings that make up CINDERELLA SYNDROME, a sequence of her sketches framed on the wall in the gallery’s final room, I found these preoccupations playing out as a kind of stick-figure soap opera. The sketches look like diary entries, all big feelings and messy lines: the narrative of an emotionally abusive marriage and a vision of domesticity curdled past saving. The installation takes its name from Colette Dowling’s early-eighties notion of the ‘Cinderella Complex’, the unconscious female fear of independence and ingrained cultural fantasy of being saved by a man: ‘Women are brought up to depend on a man and to feel naked and frightened without one,’ Dowling wrote. ‘We have been taught to believe that as females we cannot stand alone, that we are too fragile, too delicate, too needful of protection.’ Cantor’s drawings aren’t an endorsement or a wholesale shaming of the desire to be taken care of; but they admit wrestling with this desire and its consequences.
In one drawing, a huge man – a grotesque vision of a husband – yells: ‘YOU ARE AN IRRESPONSIBLE SELFISH BITCH!’ from a messy oval mouth sketched in red and black, his eyes maniacal and bloodshot, his scribbled hand clutching the neck of a wife whose body has been drawn barely larger than his face, with two circles for boobs and a smile on her lips. Her speech bubble says simply: ‘I’m sorry.’
The drawings insist that this terrible marriage is someone’s vision of Happily-Ever-After. One drawing shows two parents saying ‘WE ARE SO HAPPY ALL* ARE (sic) CHILDREN ARE MARRIED. (*EVEN OUR AWFUL STUPID UGLY DAUGHTER.)’ But from the beginning of the series, the stupid ugly daughter is unwilling to submit herself entirely. The glass slipper of fairy tale never fits right. Her interior life – and her allegiance to that life – is a source of ongoing anxiety to her husband: ‘Wot is she dreaming?’ he wonders, leaning over her sleeping body. When he gets angry, their cats have her back: ‘Leave her alone!’ one says. The caption below them proudly declares: ‘Led by Athena, the cats loved me.’
A few drawings later, the wife spends a summer at an artist’s residency. This feels like freedom, leaving to make her art, but her husband isn’t happy about it. He gets angry when she returns, and this time the cats take his side. They felt betrayed by her departure too. As he throttles her, they cheer: ‘Go Mike!’ The cats are like the comedic subplot in a Shakespearean tragedy, Thalia saying her piece. They are also surrogates for the children Cantor never had. They were the ones she protected and sustained, or didn’t. They were the ones she guiltily abandoned for the artistic life that sustained her.
When I saw messily-sketched Mike throttling his wife – Go Mike! – I thought of Pam writhing on her meat hook. I thought of Sally begging for her life: ‘You can stop him!’ she yells to Leatherface’s brother. I thought of Cantor’s lover saying: you’re so obsessive and too heavy, and I like it – the way a woman’s intensity can be the source of her appeal, can make you want to have her, but it can also make it impossible to have her fully. Wot is she dreaming? I pictured that nightmare of a prom queen, playing just upstairs, dripping in blood. She was dreaming that.
When Cantor shifted away from large-scale paintings to work on ‘small secret diary stories’ in 1993, she didn’t initially consider them artwork. She only displayed them after people ‘strongly related to these intimate experiences’, and convinced her to exhibit them. They were ‘contextualised within the framework of feminism, that the personal is political’, though she still ‘feared that the work was also feminine in that it was discreet and diminutive’.
But facing these drawings in a gallery – drawings that felt raw, though I also felt their rawness as a deliberately crafted effect, their messy sketch-work framed behind glass – also made me aware of them as anything but diminutive. They insisted on finding a visual language for a painful marriage and a confined creative impulse, and they insisted that this representation was political, that the emotional life of an individual woman was also the site of multiple and powerful cultural forces converging: the pressure to be a certain kind of wife, the pressure to be a caregiver, the pressure to be available and legible in familiar ways, to refrain from dreaming too opaquely.
Instead, Cantor made herself legible in unfamiliar ways: as a set of spliced film clips and a set of cartoon drawings, a nun-bride and a slasher-film corpse-in-waiting. The woman in the CINDERELLA SYNDROME drawings was inscrutable and conflicted and deeply committed to her art, but she also refused to conform to heavy-handed feminist dogma. She wanted a partner and suffered under his influence. She also apologised to him, from fear or internalised guilt, and these feelings, desire and apology, were allowed into the frame as well. The woman in these drawings refused a kind of feminist narrative that might have wanted her not to want the man who treated her in these ways, never to tell him she was sorry.
I was aware that these ‘secret diary stories’ were not diminutive insofar as they felt deeply connected to the rest of the installation. I could hear the sounds of a video from the other side of a white gallery wall, and I thought Cantor would be pleased by that. She once said she loved the way sound from one installation could spill over into your experience of the artwork nearby. I could feel that happening – could feel these drawn scenes linked to the larger collage I found myself inside of, could feel their geometries in contact. Their presence refused the idea of the personal as only that, as sequestered.
I kept returning to the same red castle: a woman in pain, a woman on fire, those rivers of molten lava in EVOKATION OF MY DEMON SISTER. These women were hurting and making at once. They’d been wounded by love but they still believed in it. They didn’t think the exclusion of pain was a prerequisite for the claiming of power. ‘My Perversion is the Belief in True Love’ is what Cantor called the only exhibit of video art she curated while she was still alive. Her work resisted bromides about love as a salvation story or a fairy tale, but it also refused to dismiss her desires just because they risked charges of naiveté or disempowerment.
Is tragedy a choice? The choice wasn’t just about experience itself but about the genres in which experience might be recounted. And for Cantor, the question of genre was always a question of objects touching inside the frame she had built for them. When I watched her splice together footage of dream and nightmare, it summoned something like the emotional charge of objects touching in de Chirico – a blue rod and a red curve, or the forehead of a soldier and his wife, the juxtaposition of a smooth surface and a ragged one, the tension between a cluttered room and an open plaza. There was a kinship in the intensities she and de Chirico courted, though her intensities suggested narrative and his were based in geometries. But both were about unlike objects – or genres, or emotional states, or textures of paint – coming into contract. Cantor insisted on juxtaposing multiple moods in her vision of a broken heart. She insisted on bringing together the massacre and the music. She sought the pointy surfaces of disjunctive genres, their prick and sting – like shapes that didn’t quite fit, like figures made of triangles still trying to embrace. Her own body in her work is something deeply crafted, never exposed; like another de Chirico body turning to pillar, ultimately revealing itself as form.
Cantor wanted to describe her love affair by showing a man with a chainsaw and a puppet show of goats, and I wanted to describe Cantor’s ‘vulnerability’ as if it were some kind of Castello Estense, something I kept glimpsing in pieces and angled portions, through windows, incomplete and unavoidable – as if it were something I couldn’t escape, and didn’t want to. I really love when you get worked up like this. You’re so powerful. The worked-up woman – a figure of farce and condescending desire, a descendant of hysterics. The worked-up woman – who got her work up, in the end.
On a Tuesday night, I read my essay about female pain in the corner of Künstlerhaus where the CINDERELLA SYNDROME drawings hung: drawings of Cantor’s stick-figure marriage, drawings of a woman getting throttled by her neck, drawings of a wife who was not one thing but many things (wife, daughter, artist, woman, dreamer, cat- owner) and who felt not one thing but many things (apologetic, inspired, wounded, resolute, powerful). The first question, once I finished reading, was not a question at all.
‘I must confess that I have a lot of problems with the whole talk,’ said a woman in the front row – tall and strongly built, with blond hair and black slacks. I knew from the way she had smiled before she spoke that something bad was going to come out of her mouth. It wasn’t a smile of pity, or regret. It was more tight-lipped. It held distaste.
She identified herself as a feminist immediately. She was in her mid-fifties, perhaps – old enough to be my young mother. She said she was tired of all these narratives of female suffering. ‘When a middle-class woman kind of re-performs the suffering,’ she said, ‘I think that’s a very risky way to deal with that topic, I must say.’
I must say. It was like she’d found a dead mouse behind her stove, partly rotted, and had picked it up by its tail. She was trying to figure out how to throw it away. ‘I would really claim,’ she said, ‘that people like you doing things like that – that kind of performance – is for me a bigger problem.’
People like you: I felt myself blushing. I felt myself start to sweat.
The German Feminist said that instead of simply offering more narratives of pain, I might want to ask why we found ourselves consuming these narratives or participating in them. She said, in fact, that she wasn’t interested in narrative at all. She was interested in anti-narrative. I nodded, trying to seem un-wounded and engaged, trying to seem razor-sharp. I had no idea what anti-narrative meant, or what she meant by it.
When it came to cutting, she said – she drew her fingers across her wrists, her expression full of disdain – perhaps I should think about why there ‘is a specific moment in the patriarchy when people do that’.
I felt aware of the faint lines on my ankle – the internalisation of a patriarchy that had ostensibly made me feel inadequate or silenced enough to harm myself – and here was a woman’s voice, doing the same thing, making me feel I shouldn’t have spoken at all. It was as if describing pain – to her – was the same thing as saying there couldn’t be anything other than pain. Talking about pain would always just mean re-performing it.
I waited quietly until she was done, or at least until she had paused. I said: ‘I think your resistance is not actually in opposition to so many of the questions that the piece is after.’ By which I meant: her anger was exactly what i’d been writing about.
I said I wanted to find a way to represent pain that didn’t buy into familiar archetypes of suffering women.
‘That’s exactly my problem,’ she said. ‘That’s exactly what always was… one image that is presented again and again, women that suffer. I don’t want a slightly new version of that. I think there must be many more possibilities.’
The Cantor video playing on the other side of the white gallery wall had a moment of dialogue – I knew, because I’d heard it earlier that day – in which one woman said to another: ‘Everything is becoming easy, even overwhelming suffering.’
I responded, once again, by trying to agree with a woman determined to disagree with me: ‘I believe in many narratives of what women do,’ I told her, ‘many narratives of how women live, what female identity can be constituted by.’ I was like a woman who couldn’t understand that she’d been rejected. I still wanted to be friends. I felt narrative come off my tongue like a dirty, stupid word. I couldn’t help it.
As I spoke, the German Feminist started shaking her head. I kept going: I believed in multiplicity, I said, but I didn’t think that a call for multiplicity meant we couldn’t ever portray women’s suffering. ‘Perhaps that’s where we have a fairly strong ethical divergence,’ I said. But my voice trailed off and lilted up, into the needy swell of a question. I wasn’t even sure what I meant by ethical, only that she and I disagreed. I hated my perhaps, and the implicit question mark in my voice, but also knew that in some basic – perhaps un-rigorous way – I agreed with myself.
‘I’m not interested in identity at all, honestly,’ she said. ‘I’m really interested in something else.’
In my mind I pictured a blackboard. Narrative and Identity had been written in chalk, and then crossed off: Not allowed. There was so much this woman wasn’t interested in. I wondered what interested her.
‘I’m interested in being the split self in every moment,’ she said, ‘to try to unfold varieties. For example, a friend of mine told me that in giving birth she had the biggest orgasm of her life.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. I only knew I was overwhelmed by the force of this woman’s palpable disgust for me. It was like humidity in the air: her disgust for everything I’d come to represent for her over the course of an hour, my wound-mongering and wound-glorifying – the very things I’d wanted my essay to interrogate. When she looked at me – sitting in my knitted black dress, covered with knitted white skulls, the dress I’d worn to seem edgy, to poke fun at what it might mean to drape ourselves in damage, to wear it – all she saw was another woman beating the dead horse of hurting womanhood – re-performing it, like putting a half-eaten quiche back in the oven – damning us to such a thin slice of the representational pie.
I wanted to defend myself. But that isn’t what I did. I said: ‘I love that formulation of being a split self in every moment.’ I said: ‘I think that’s quite beautiful. That resonates a lot for me.’
Part of me wanted to win whatever public argument we were having. But another part of me just wanted to win her approval. I wanted to be seen and respected, to be enough. I kept thinking about Carrie covered in blood, in Cantor’s video, and the voice saying: Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. It felt vaguely pathetic, to sit up there and call this woman’s phrase beautiful while she dismissed every word coming out of my mouth. I remembered something Cantor had once said – I think my artworks can really be misconstrued – like fondling a talisman in my pocket.
In the German Feminist’s disdain, and in the force of her self-assurance, I felt her truth become my truth. This had happened to me before. I could feel so porous to another person’s appraisal of me. I could feel swallowed by it. Is tragedy a choice? I felt like I’d failed feminism by choosing the tragic. I felt myself throttled around the neck by huge hands, my speech bubble squeaking: ‘I’m sorry.’ The hands around my neck belonged to a woman, not a man, but this somehow only made it worse – as if she’d recreated some version of the power structures I’d come to associate with women pandering to men, with me pandering to men: the struggle to be good enough, speak well enough, acquit myself.
Near the end of the night, the gallery curator turned to me and asked: ‘Should we take any more questions?’ The German Feminist was the only person in the audience with her hand up, ready to speak again. The curator was giving me a choice: Was I willing to take more of it from her? I said: ‘Sure.’
That moment interests me, my sure. It was a kind of masochism – wanting the flagellation, wanting to know all the ways I was inadequate – in the eyes of a woman older than me, a woman more confrontational than me, a woman who had read more theory than me. I needed the fullest version of the ritual whipping. When I told her that her anger was precisely what my writing was about, I could hear how feeble my voice sounded, how conciliatory, as if I were kneeling in front of her, a supplicant, saying: See, look. I did what you told me to do, even if you think I failed at it. As if I were pleading my case: I didn’t want to fail your feminism, I promise.
She spoke three times in total – as if we were caught in some primal shaming ritual, three stones she would throw at me in the village square, an elder woman hazing a younger one. The last time she spoke, she listed all the theorists she thought I needed to read, like I’d been bad and she was telling me how many hail Marys I needed to recite. I imagined our encounter spliced with scenes from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: toggling back and forth between my evisceration and Pam dangling from a meat hook; between my pandering and Sally’s pleading at the dinner table: You can stop him!
There was something ridiculous and hilarious about how the German Feminist made me feel, about how much she made me feel – how outsized it felt, her disdain and my crumpling in response. It made me grateful for the work all around us, and how Cantor recognised the absurdity and hilarity and largeness of moving through the world as a feeling person – how she wasn’t ashamed to document the size of feeling, and the way it sought associations and attachments. She wasn’t ashamed of the hubris of juxtaposition. She wasn’t ashamed to make fun of how raw the nerves become when confronted by a face made of leather or indifference.
At a certain point, as I was responding to her third and final monologue, the German Feminist turned away from me entirely, pointedly, so fully I could see her face in profile, the tendons taut in her neck. This only made me want to keep talking. Her dismissal only made me think that if I spoke enough, or spoke well enough, I could pull her gaze back to meet mine. This was before she told me to read Emmanuel Levinas, whose philosophy begins in the face-to-face encounter. ‘The face speaks to me,’ he wrote, ‘and thereby invites me to a relation.’ For Levinas, ethics comes back to regarding the other and the face is the primary site of that regard. The face is what makes us aware of our primal obligations to one another. Levinas describes the face in terms of its ‘upright exposure, without defence. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute.’
For years, I had hated the word vulnerability. For years, I had hated the presumption that my creative work was somehow predicated on exposure, and I’d hated the implication that I was asking for something – sympathy, commiseration, adulation, whatever – when I shared this work with the world.
For years, I had hated the word vulnerability. But once the German Feminist was done with me, I went into a German bathroom stall and cried.
Later that night, I told my husband about the German Feminist over Skype. I told him about everything she wasn’t interested in. I told him that her friend had experienced childbirth as the biggest orgasm of her life. When he said, ‘I don’t think her friend’s been having sex right,’ it made me laugh. It made me wish he’d been in the room to make his joke in front of everyone. It made me wish he’d been in the room to tell the German Feminist: That’s enough. You need to stop. I imagined him doing all the things I hadn’t been able to do. He would have told the woman she was being disrespectful, that she needed to stop talking, that her friend wouldn’t know an orgasm from a car accident.
If only he’d been there, I thought, to say the things I couldn’t. We have been taught to believe that as females we cannot stand alone, that we are too fragile, too delicate, too needful of protection. It was my own Cinderella Complex – needing him there, wishing he could have defended me the way I couldn’t defend myself.
After the German Feminist’s final monologue, a conceptual artist sitting beside her raised his hand. He didn’t have a question, either. But his question-without-a-question-mark was about the virtues of uncertainty. He said he appreciated the way my work proceeded from a place of unknowing. He kept using the word naiveté. I felt grateful and ashamed at once – grateful that he had felt there was something valuable about anything I’d said, ashamed that I needed his defence, and even more ashamed that I was being defended by a man who was praising my work for being naïve.
When I consider the Conceptual Artist’s defence, or what he meant to praise, I remember de Chirico’s interest in the minds of children. Many of his paintings reproduced views from the bedroom windows of his childhood, showing only those parts of a train that he could see from his short height. His 1916 painting ‘The Language of a Child’ frames a simple arrangement of objects – rolled-up papers and bread shaped like the X you might find on a treasure map – but its simplicity also feels carefully crafted to ask what might be useful and generative about seeing things as a child sees them – to bring together what others might not think belongs together, or matters enough to display. When I consider the Conceptual Artist’s defence, I think of James Baldwin, who once wrote: ‘The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.’
That night, I agreed with the Conceptual Artist about the generative virtues of uncertainty. But I didn’t want to defend myself as a child. I wanted to defend myself as a woman. I wanted to defend myself as a woman who insisted, as Cantor had insisted, that admitting pain didn’t preclude the possibility of claiming power. I felt her drawings in the room around us, felt her films playing above us, and I wanted to be saved by them, a desire that was perhaps somehow kin to the complex they were named for – too fragile, too delicate, too needful of protection. I thought of those two cats in the corner of one of her drawings, shouting: Leave her alone! I wanted to say that admitting pain doesn’t mean reducing yourself to it, that describing the pain of others doesn’t mean reducing them to it. I wanted to say that Cantor’s art – to me – felt like the perfect expression of a necessary simultaneity: pain and power at once. I found comfort and sustenance and generative possibility and even a weird kind of forgiveness in the recurring castles of her preoccupations: Is tragedy a choice? Everything is becoming easy, even overwhelming suffering. The woman on the meat hook. The bloody girl on stage. Fucking hell, is there no way out of this?
I wondered if every woman who had ever felt childbirth as something painful had somehow failed us all, by giving us a version of the pain story we’d already heard. I was interested in the woman who experienced giving birth as an orgasm, and I was also interested in the woman who didn’t. That also, more than anything, came to seem like the crucial difference between me and the German Feminist, but perhaps it’s self-serving to frame it that way, a flash of l’esprit d’escalier that keeps elbowing into view.
De Chirico’s figures were composed of many shapes, and I wanted to believe that a woman could be composed of many shapes as well – that this could be confessed without understanding any of these shapes as totalising truth. The self split in every moment. Was it cowardly or pandering to feel there were certain ways the German Feminist and I agreed? I felt that Cantor’s work made a case for the also of pain alongside other states of feeling, pain alongside various iterations of desire: lust, caregiving, and the impulse to create. her work made space for Thalia and Melpomene – the muses of tragedy and comedy, forever facing away from each other in de Chirico’s plaza – in its heartbreak and its bloodbaths and its peanut gallery of cats: Leave her alone! ‘My work is humorous,’ Cantor once said, ‘but also quite disturbing.’
I thought of those muses – each stone woman rigidly defending her own art, neither one facing the other – and wondered what made them so disquieting. Perhaps it was their stiff posture, or their inscrutable bodies, their awkward lack of relation to one another; or perhaps it was that their heads had no faces, and the face is how we begin to understand what we owe each other. In ‘The Disquieting Muses’, Sylvia Plath writes of her ‘dismal-headed / Godmothers’, each one ‘Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head’, who stand their ‘vigils in gowns of stone, / Faces blank as the day I was born’.
I was born two years before THE CINDERELLA COMPLEX, a decade after THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and a decade before Cantor spliced it into her own kind of song. I was born into a culture that had already metabolised certain ideas about the suffering woman as an emblem of female disenfranchisement. When I felt taken to task by the German Feminist, I also felt taken to task by the ghosts of feminism(s) past – the ghosts of forces who had fought hard for women to be seen as more than weak, more than suffering figures who wanted or needed to be defended. The truth was, I did not understand myself as undermining their fight but extending it. Reckoning with her muses, Plath wrote: ‘This is the kingdom you bore me to, / Mother, mother, but no frown of mine / Will betray the company I keep.’
Plath felt she’d been born into the ranks of ‘stitched bald’ female heads, that she was expected to be a particular kind of woman, a particular kind of mother, a particular kind of wife – and that these expectations asked her, among other things, not to frown too much. When I betrayed nothing on stage, when I said sure, I’d take a little more abuse, I told myself this was strength. If I believed in dissecting vulnerability rather than enacting it, I needed to betray nothing. The stone-faced goddess has perpetuated certain myths of her own. I prefer a little more stoicism, a male critic had once said of my book, and all its wounds. When I said, sure, I’d take another question, I was trying to be stoic – trying to be the opposite of vulnerable.
I didn’t start crying until I closed the latch on the gallery bathroom stall, and when I passed the German Feminist in the gallery stairwell later, as we went our separate ways into the night, I felt my face deforming itself into a hopelessly ingratiating smile. I had no esprit d’escalier then. I felt how we wanted the same things, for ourselves and all our godmothers in the plaza, how we craved a certain suppleness and infinitude of consciousness, the split self at every moment – and also how we stood, with our arms crossed and our stone gowns, and couldn’t speak to one another right. I wanted to know where and when I’d learned to smile at the people I felt I’d failed, and where and when I’d learned to believe each one, how I’d learned to feel inadequate through their collective gaze.
It felt good to sit on a bare toilet in a locked bathroom stall – did the Germans believe in toilet lids? – and not say anything to anyone. I decided it would be more comfortable to be the muse of comedy than the muse of tragedy – in de Chirico’s everlasting vista – because at least Thalia got to sit down. Melpomene had to stand there in her rippled stone gown until the fucking end of time, with the sun never setting, the illumination never letting up.
That night, after the event was done, I went to dinner with an artist who carried his own wicker chair through the darkened streets of Stuttgart, all the way to Marienplatz, where four of us sat at a table that only had three chairs, and voilà. He had what we needed. This artist said de Chirico had written beautifully about the difference between seated and standing figures. I thought of Melpomene on guard; I thought of Thalia at rest. I thought of the strange hilarity of spilling your guts about a love affair – the critical language about female confessional work that always takes refuge in the body – while Leatherface spilled the guts of women on screen. I thought about why I’d always hated vulnerability, the way it confused craft with exposure, and whether I’d confirmed the German Feminist’s critique by crying in a bathroom stall after she’d levelled it at me, whether I’d revealed myself as little more than the leakage of tears arranged across a page, or performed in front of an audience.
I felt so disappointed in myself – not in the ideas I’d presented but in the ways I’d failed to defend them, the ways in which a woman’s dismissal had only compelled me more forcefully toward the imperative of proving myself to her. In wanting to prove myself to her, I also wanted to prove myself worthy of the space, and Cantor’s art inside the space. I wanted to believe that crying in a bathroom stall didn’t mean I’d replaced Cantor’s rigorous vision of vulnerability with something more predictable and retrograde, something obviously weak.
It was there with me in that stall, vulnerability, part of my experience even if I hadn’t wanted to claim it. Of course there was vulnerability in bringing any idea into the world, in saying anything you meant. Of course there was vulnerability in being made of something besides stone. Of course there was vulnerability in having faith in uncertainty and its generative potential. The question mark of uncertainty was more than just a convenient intellectual alibi; it could leave you feeling exposed in that empty plaza. It could bring you to a locked stall, sitting on a toilet, feeling yourself overwhelmed by the self you had become to another pair of eyes – the eyes that looked away, whose gaze you kept courting anyway.
Is tragedy a choice? Tragedy stands in her stone gown forever. She stands in the kingdom I was born to, but she doesn’t stand there alone. Wot is she dreaming? She dreams heaven and hell. She dreams them both. The face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation. Her face isn’t human, not in that plaza, but in the dream and in the nightmare I could hear her voice: Look at me. Look.