Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Over the past year I’ve repeated that where there is a division, a membrane, a boundary, there is created a gradient: two sides that are different so that one side has what the other has not.  Sometimes the difference is relative prosperity, sometimes it is between genders, sometimes it is between kinds or intensity of sexual desire, sometimes it is between races, sometimes between occupations or national origins or ecologies or religions, or just the two sides of comparative grassiness where the field is divided by a fence. 

The metaphor is particularly vivid when one drives along a fenced highway -- one can often see that the borrow pit on the highway side is much more lush with tall grass than the side livestock can get at.  (Don’t think the livestock doesn’t notice!)  And if one drives far enough to cross the Rocky Mountains, the east side is grassy but the west side is timbered.  The same is true of crossing the Cascades from sagebrush to Doug fir.

Socially, our haves and have-nots imagine each other with fascination: what is it REALLY like to have so much/little money?  From my brief glimpses of both, they are more similar than they think.  Both are a little out of control, their fortunes handled by others, their lives dominated by caution, but also by boredom.  They never really know how their friends think of them, whether they will stick.  It’s hard to escape their circumstances.

We are all fascinated by sexual dimorphisms, partly because we’ve challenged it so hard.  How can I cross-dress when I wear men’s jeans with the zip in front and men’s workshirts that button in the opposite direction?  I began because I was too fat for women’s clothes and because men’s clothes are so much more durable and cheaper and because I was doing man’s work in Scriver Studio.  Now that I’ve dressed this way for fifty years it’s just natural.  Even working in the city I wore loose shirts with the tails out over bright skirts I made myself, and dangling earrings I also made myself.


The first thing I ever read by William T. Vollman was one of the first things he had published in The New Yorker, an account of a woman soldier in Afghanistan, a role that was exceptional and yet common enough to have a name, which I haven’t remembered.  It was a life dedication, not an occupation, rather like being a nun, and there were rules and conventions about the ways she would be apart and yet in solidarity with the male soldiers.  She would never marry nor have children.  NONE violated her as is so common in American bi-gender military forces.  Because either other soldiers or she herself would kill anyone who tried. 
Vollman as "Dolores"

William T. Vollman’s most recent book is “The Book of Dolores” in which he dresses up as a woman: wig, clothes, makeup -- and then photographs himself, something like the female artist Cindy Sherman whose photos are a constant shape-shifting of roles and genders.  Except that Vollman is ugly even when he’s male -- as a female he’s quite hopeless, even scary, and yet . . .  His immediate preparation for this has been Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater”, an exploration of a doubly forbidden world, based on deliberate artificial deformation and camouflage in the interest of eroticism. 
Vollman and Japanese actresses

Vollman is not a voyeur except from the inside -- he watches his thoughts.  But he is very much admired for the skill of both his photographed images and his writing.  A few complain that “The Book of Dolores” is too much about his technical photography and others 
(psychological Puritans) find Dolores a narcissism.  Deep at the heart of these criticisms is a doubleness: an awareness that doing this is socially forbidden and therefore deeply magnetic.  What is warned off only attracts us, even if we don’t go closer.  Those of us who are bold enough to open forbidden doors often find there’s nothing there.  It’s like “The Cranes Are Flying,” when the girl returns from work to find her building has been bombed.  She swings open the door to her apartment, but there is only space.

William T. Vollman

Vollman wins a lot of prizes and admiration, not for his daring so much (though he endures a lot of dangerous hardship) as for his writing skill.  Books about decomposing bodies are perfectly acceptable so long as they’re based on observation and result in fancy writing.  One can describe abject poverty or the horror of war or being hooked on drugs -- so long as the images are vivid and the sentences are balanced.  Hopefully there’s some sort of philosophical meaning, though the meaning may be that there IS no meaning.  Vollman has written truly gruesome material about transients killing each other by pouring Drano granules into open mouths.  But he has not written "porn".

Vollman as Dolores

Porn is a sequestered subject -- about sex -- that is not well-enough written to rise to the level of “literature” so if Vollman WERE writing about sexual acts, it would be categorized like the writing of Updike or Roth or Mailer.  A book like “Fifty Shades of Gray” is sort of on the boundary -- most of its readers don’t know that other writers have done the same thing far better.  Porn is sequestered to create a legally imposed boundary that preserves the monetary value of forbidden material.  But there’s less money than people think, esp. now that the social pressure is so much less.  And the boundary moves.

Writing across the boundary between white and Native American has also become blurred by changing culture.  Even the tribes themselves are having a tough time figuring out a way to sort people between in and out.  Writing across that boundary now means writing across a complex mine-field between this kind of tribal person (middle class family, low quantum, urban resident) and that kind of tribal person (full-blood college professor trying to live the anthopologically described culture at the time of first encounter).  And as every boundary crossing requires, it means figuring out who is writing: an enrolled tribal member with an old-time great-grannie or a second generation Italian immigrant who grew up in Massachusetts and just read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.”

Scott O'Hara

Doubling back, I just read the autobiography of Scott O’Hara, a porn star and basically a country guy who grew up in Southern Oregon.  “Autopornography” is described by those on his side of the boundary as realistic and brave, particularly since it addresses that strange period of time between the wild freedom of Seventies San Francisco and the terrifying plague that ended it and killed O’Hara.  It was not the judgment of a vengeful God: it was one consequence of breaking the boundary between species by occupying their territory -- the virus jumped from chimpanzees to humans the same as ten thousand years ago smallpox jumped from cows to humans and then about five hundred years ago from Euros to indigenous Americans.

O’Hara grew up in southern Oregon in a large trust-fund family that was conservative to the point of being rigid.  He didn’t make a fortune from being a porn star, he spent his own fortune surviving in a tough racket that was as time-limited as any athletic undertaking.  Somehow he kept a practical sanity, without bitterness, even as he died of AIDS-related lymphoma.  But one feels the loneliness.  As one reviewer, Ron Athey, says,  “Fearlessly, he investigates a few of his innermost dark thoughts, or unpleasant realities, and serves them up undiluted.  There is no cry for acceptance, no whitewashing of the facts.”

What if O’Hara could write like Vollman?  He’s literate, clear and readable, but hasn’t much "sensorium", metaphor, or ability to step outside himself.  He doesn’t describe helping others -- there’s nothing about taking casseroles to AIDS victims or helping boys who have been trafficked.  Maybe he just doesn’t talk about those things.  Maybe it’s enough to give us the truth about porn vids, which are made like sausages.  Across a boundary.

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