Null and Void

A feminist filmmaker’s novel makes the case for negativity.

Chris Kraus
Author Chris Kraus.

Photo by John Kelsey

In a piece of flash fiction titled “Negative Emotions,” Lydia Davis makes an eloquent case for negativity. In the story, a teacher inspired by Buddhist doctrine urges his colleagues to alleviate their negative feelings by identifying “emotion as an emotion” and practicing “mindful breathing” and other feel-good platitudes. His audience is skeptical. “Far from being troubled by their negative emotions,” Davis writes, the teacher’s peers “liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message.” A mere 282 words, “Negative Emotions” is deliciously defiant, a powerful defense of anger and distaste. At a time when new age philosophers and trendy TED-talkers proselytize from every corner of the Internet, insisting on emotional stability in even the most destabilizing circumstances, there’s something to be said for a healthy dose of doom and gloom. Nothing grates like gratuitous cheerfulness. There is, after all, so much to hate.

Feminist writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus’ novel Torpor, originally published in 2006, is not the festival of negativity we deserved but the festival of negativity we needed in those—and these—artificially untroubled times. As fresh today as it was when it first came out, Torpor joins Twitter personalities like Nein Quarterly and So Sad Today to resist the cult of relentless positivity, cultivating a much-needed counter-aesthetics of despair.

Depressing to a fault, the book follows would-be experimental filmmaker Sylvie and her French-Jewish husband, Jerome, a Columbia University professor and celebrity intellectual incapable of producing any new material. While Sylvie writes unsuccessful grant proposals and ruminates on her failures as an artist, Jerome obsesses over his father’s murder in a concentration camp and plans a book, to be titled The Anthropology of Unhappiness, that he never manages to write. Jerome is lazy, passive, and underachieving, but his fixation on all things morbid has made him something of a curiosity to the academic establishment. As Sylvie’s hard work goes unappreciated in the art world and the academy alike, Jerome hobnobs with the likes of French theorist Félix Guattari and receives fellowships to complete projects he won’t as much as begin. Sylvie resents Jerome’s undeserved success, and Jerome resents Sylvie’s demands on his attention and affections.

After much wallowing—“Jerome and Sylvie had both memorized whole parts of Nausea at age 13,” and the couple observes “the deepest weltschmerz” in their pet dog’s “rheumy eyes”—they decide to travel to Romania, where Sylvie hopes to salvage their marriage by adopting one of the disintegrating country’s many orphans. Jerome, who has always trivialized Sylvie’s desire for a child, humors her grudgingly, and the couple drives from Berlin to Romania, stopping at major destinations along the way. Half the time, they find Eastern Europe suitably bleak and uncomfortable. The other half, it frustrates their savior complex by proving unexpectedly quaint. “There was hardly any misery at all. Prague had turned out a disaster,” Kraus writes of Jerome and Sylvie’s short detour to the Czech capital, adding wryly that “when Jerome and Sylvie drive through Prague’s well-restored medieval walls, they’re amazed to see the city teeming with well-dressed attractive people. … Brown University seems to be especially well represented.” But much like The Anthropology of Unhappiness, Jerome and Sylvie’s poorly planned adopt-an-orphan project ends before it really begins, and they return to America empty-handed. This time, they’re unable to even appeal to the comforting illusion of a brighter future brimming with adoptive children and finished manuscripts.

A pastiche of newspaper clippings and narrative, Torpor integrates history and invention: Real-life figures like Guatarri and Georges Perec make appearances throughout, and we’re treated to a series of depressing newspaper clippings about the disintegration of various Soviet satellite states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The aim is to diagnose an ailment that we’ve yet to treat: an insistence on happiness when happiness isn’t warranted, a panicked intolerance of anything or anyone unpleasant or sad, a civilization bent on excluding its discontents. In defiance of therapists and well-adjusted friends, Sylvie and Jerome pursue a revolutionary contrarianism, nursing their malaise and taking perverse pride in operating under the pessimistic principle articulated by Guattari and his acolytes. Change, they maintain, “would always happen for the worse.”

There is something charming about Sylvie and Jerome’s stylized gloom. Like Edward Gorey, they are the purveyors of a tongue-in-cheek melancholia that is anything but humorless. They are dour to the point of caricature, and they know it better than anyone. But behind their more sensationalized agonies is a reserve of quieter pain, and we get the sobering sense that Sylvie and Jerome have transformed their unhappiness into a source of amusement out of necessity, to make it bearable. Beneath Sylvie’s tired appreciation for “Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic ur-text of depression” and eminently predictable love of the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen,” featuring the refrain “no future,” is a “deeper and more ancient sadness.” She “sees her marriage to Jerome as a love story that could be summed up in just three lines. There was an emptiness. It frightened her. She tried to fill it. She guesses it’s no better or no worse than any other.”

This is one of many moments of real poignancy in Torpor—one of many moments reminding us that Sylvie and Jerome’s misery is as serious as it is cartoonish. The pair understands that their suffering is absurd, inconsequential in the face of the material deprivation that characterizes much of the world—but this understanding isn’t comforting. It only adds guilt to estrangement, insult to injury. The whole mess is a joke on the one hand and a tragedy on the other, as Kraus suggests in a passage at the beginning of the book: “It is 1989 or 1990. George Herbert Bush is President of the United States and the Gulf War has just begun in Saudi Arabia.” She continues:

“Collateral damage,” a military term coined to describe the accidental wasting of civilian populations, is just beginning to cross over into self-help therapeutic terminology. Somewhere in the Persian Gulf, civilians cower in the rubble while in New York, Sylvie’s friends discuss the “collateral damage” of their break-ups. Everywhere, there is this yearning for simplicity.

Sylvie and Jerome’s exaggerated despair boils down to this same yearning, this same desire for a relationship uncomplicated by global politics and the accompanying imperative for guilt. While Jerome and Sylvie’s friends respond to the chaos with a “tremulous sincerity,” becoming invested in their own lives, in which “cards like Marriage, Family and Career are played close to the heart, and small decisions matter,” Jerome and Sylvie find it increasingly difficult to go to the trouble of caring. How can they justify bemoaning the comfortable, first world collateral damage of their disintegrating marriage when the collateral damage of their consumptive habits has impoverished so much of the world? (In Romania, “about 35% of the population lives … below the poverty line,” according to one of the newspaper clippings Kraus includes in the text.) If the world order is really so flimsy, if all change is really for the worse, what alternative is there to the wretched status quo? “No future” indeed.

Paralyzed by their awareness of pervasive injustice and their inability to alleviate it, Jerome and Sylvie fantasize about achieving apolitical purity. When Jerome touches Sylvie, she’s no longer in the early ’90s, in a milieu where her art is dismissed by virtue of her gender: Instead she becomes immaterial, “impossible to locate.” “When he makes her come,” Kraus writes, “all this fucked-up gender stuff dissolves and she feels her body spinning backwards towards itself as different ages, 14, 11, once she went as far back as 5.”

But Jerome and Sylvie’s attempt at transcendence fails spectacularly. Not only is their marriage heavily reliant on a traditional gender dynamic—Sylvie’s “always been quite cynical about the signs of female heterosexuality, but with Jerome she feels protected, small”—but Jerome is actively dismissive of Sylvie as a thinker and artist. Though Sylvie edits a series of books by female authors published by Jerome’s press, “no one … recognizes these as Sylvie Green’s ideas because his name appears before hers on the masthead. Though he hasn’t had the time to read these women’s books, the press, he reasons, is his art work. What’s more, his name gives their work an added credibility.”

And so, unable to escape from politics but unable to meaningfully engage with them, Sylvie and Jerome ricochet back and forth, at times succumbing to their inert hopelessness, at times spurred to take fruitless action. Kraus presents few satisfactory solutions. She ends, fittingly, on an ambivalent note: Sylvie, abandoning New York for L.A. and emotional sex with Jerome for casual encounters with strangers, opts for an existence with “no ancient tribal feuds, no wounds, no blood.” Unable to transform her suffering into anything constructive, she chooses to stop caring. Meanwhile, Jerome writes in his therapy notebook, “I have to keep bleeding … this ‘bleeding heart’ is a heart, and is all that I have.” Sylvie’s new life, we are told, is “less absolute, perhaps, but better.” While Jerome wallows in the eponymous torpor, Sylvie manages to trade in her overblown negativity for anodyne resignation. Kraus leaves us to choose: Anguished negativity or bloodless contentment? L.A. or New York ? “Mindful breathing” or negative emotions?

Torpor by Chris Kraus. MIT Press.

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