In the winter of 1989 I had finished my first semester of graduate studies in English at Penn State University and received, in my campus mailbox, the comments from my professors for the “Introduction to Graduate Studies” class. I remember I earned a “B,” which is not too good. Akin to a “C” in undergrad classes, I was told. The typed comments about my performance were kind, but blunt. In essence, it said: Nicholas seems like a nice gentleman and a tenacious worker, but he is completely lacking in theory, probably because he comes to us from Bowling Green State University. He has potential, but he has a lot of catching up to do in terms of theory.
I was reluctant to share the evaluation with my wife for a while, and told her I had received “A’s’ in my other two seminars (which I had) and that I was not alone in earning a “B” in the Intro. class. Although I understood my professors were right (the course was team taught by a good cop and bad cop; I’m convinced that the good cop made sure my grade was not lower and basically saved my rear for long enough that I could prove myself) I didn’t understand what they meant about theory. Theory of what?
I found out the next semester—winter term 1989—and I want to say that that’s when I fell in love with Julia Kristeva’s words. But first I fell in love with her face, or what I thought was her face. That’s more precise. I fell in love with the face on the cover a book of theory called Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, by Julia Kristeva, translated by Leon S. Roudiez. For no where in the book does it say just who is the woman on the cover. This was in 1989, pre-Web, and I was too interested in preserving the mystery of Kristeva to track down print images of her to compare to the cover. The book was—to say the least—intimidating, especially to a kid from BGSU in northwest Ohio (just like the bad cop said) and it had sentences like this:
“The figure of speech known as metaphor merely actuates, within the synchronic handling of discourse, the process that, genetically and diachronically, makes up one signifying unit out of at least two (sound and sight) components.”
Reader, I loved that sentence, although I didn’t understand it. I puzzled over it, laughing at its absurdity like a Midwestern boy. I hid the book away and then found it again. Reading too much Kristeva I found that my own spoken words became, for a short time, garbled as if in translation. When I became lost in the thicket of Kristeva’s words, which was practically all the time, I turned to the cover, to her face staring past the camera, contemplating escape, I thought. Her eyes have just glanced something too beautiful and terrible for forget. Hell, perhaps. She is about to speak. Or else she has just spoken. Or else she is waiting, interminably, for an answer that will not satisfy her.
No matter if this was the actual face of Kristeva or not. For me, it was. And it was more than a face. It was the doorway into her words, her language, there on the page in plain sight, undisguised but still hidden. The abject, Kristeva wrote, was “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject.” Years later, reading Tracy Letts’s play Bug I would think about abjection, and fragility, and the law, and those who believe themselves to be saviors:
PETER: People can do things to you, things you don’t even know about.
AGNES: What kind of things?
PETER: They try to control you. They try to force you to act a certain way. They can drive you crazy, too. (The air conditioner cuts off.) I shouldn’t talk about it. I don’t know if it’s safe or not.
AGNES: I think we’re safe.
PETER: No, not really. You’re never really safe. One time, maybe, a long time ago, people were safe, but that’s all over. Not any more, not on this planet. We’ll never really be safe again. We can’t be, not with all the technology, and the chemicals, and the information.
AGNES: I don’t even like to think about it.
PETER: Sometimes, though, when you’re lying in bed at night, you can feel it. All the machines, people working their machines, their works, humming. I don’t like to go on about it, ‘cause it freaks people out. I wish I didn’t think about it, either, but they don’t let you forget. They want you to know they’re there.
AGNES: What’s there, the . . . machines?
PETER: Nothing makes them happier than knowing that people are aware the machines are up and running.
AGNES: That’s some pretty wild shit.
* * *
You’re never really safe.
They try to control you.
I don’t even like to think about it.
Out of order, scrambled, these lines from Bug mean something, too, but what? It seemed to me, back then during that first year of grad school, that Kristeva was staring out of the book and into the world, into the present-day world that existed as I was holding the book at that very moment. Or (and this was more terrifying) she was staring past and through the veils of this world, into the hyper-realistic, paranoid, hellish future, the future of Bug. In the winter of 1989 we lived on the second floor of an apartment complex on Waupelani Drive in State College, Pennsylvania, our tiny balcony overlooking a snowed-over tennis court and, in the distance with its yellow roof, Weis Markets, where a man missing several fingers served as butcher. The Kristeva book was like a hot coal. It burned through desks and tables and the seats of chairs. It singed the carpeting. It glowed at night in a regurgitated blood orange. It misplaced itself. It flipped itself over in the dark like a fish. I had to put a brick on it to keep it still.
But the book’s words kept coming at me like muffled barks. Even to this day the book, when held, gently falls open to the same chapter, always the same chapter, “Something To Be Scared Of.” One night during the fevered-dream era of late 80s grad school I had the feeling that someone was following me as I crossed the campus from the Burrowes Building to the bus stop on Atherton. Or if not being followed then observed, as if from a window and there I was, for that moment, watching myself from that very window. That same week, or perhaps the week after or several weeks later, our friend Thomas Y., whose girlfriend wore bandages, screened several infamous short films by David Lynch in an empty classroom on a Saturday night. Thomas was secretary of the Graduate Student Association and used a chunk of the funds to rent the Lynch reel from Facets in Chicago. There was “The Alphabet” and “The Grandmother” and what I remember most is that my fingertips felt like they were burning, and that their orange tips might reveal my location to whomever was following me. Even though Blue Velvet had been released three years earlier, it seemed like it was decades old, from the 1940s, except in color, the sort of color that leaks in from the edges of history.
“Abjection,” Kristeva wrote, “is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you. . . .” Then you look at the cover again, and there she is. Her face hasn’t changed (it’s a photograph after all, not a moving image) or has it? You could have sworn that the last time you looked the strands of hair (now fallen and caught, perhaps, on her left eyebrow) were not curved so gently across her brow. Kristeva, of course, was not the one following me in the dark across campus, fading into the shadows of arches and doorways each time I looked behind me. Many years later (last year in fact, or the year before last) I came across a copy of Powers of Horror at a used book store in Ann Arbor. In truth, I was looking for a copy, a duplicate copy, to supplement the one I still owned from my Penn State days. I was curious about the cover photograph, I’m not ashamed to say. Might it reveal something that mine did not? Of course the photograph turned out the be exactly the same—maybe a little darker, but that was probably due to the printing of the book, although it did reveal something almost like freckles on her checks—and I bought the book, although not because of the cover. I bought the book because, inserted into its pages, was a beautiful drawing of colorful insects. I don’t mean a drawing but rather an illustration, taken from another book (an old encyclopedia or some sort of guide to insects?) and placed into this copy of Powers of Horror, perhaps as a book marker, although it seemed too large for that.
The beetles fighting within the parted green grass near the beginning of Blue Velvet, their mandibles crunching with a wall of sound ferocity. The name of a play, Bug, by Tracy Letts. And the drawing of insects, those black beetles near the bottom. “A wound with blood and puss,” Kristeva writes, “or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live.” The Technicolor bug drawing that fell out of Powers of Horror (“It’s only the bug man,” Dorothy tells the Yellow Man in Blue Velvet) reminded me of watching those Lynch short films back in 1989, and of Thomas Y.’s bandaged girlfriend, whom at the time we never imagined was being abused by him, the most enlightened and bohemian of our group, a true clove cigarette smoker. Although he never came out and said it, Thomas had insinuated that his girlfriend (I’m reluctant to give her name, or to give her a false name, so I’ll call her by her first initial, A.) had made the wounds beneath her bandages herself. A. was generally very quiet and, had this been the time of political turmoil or revolution, I might have suspected her of being an informer among us. I sat behind her that night near the 16 mm projector, the side of her face flickering in its light like a retro hologram, and I remember that she didn’t seem to be looking at the Lynch films at all, but rather past them. Absurd, I know. Only later would we discover that A. really was wounded beneath the bandages, and it was Thomas who had made those wounds.
I was only followed (as far as I know) once more, and it was in the early summer of that year, of 1989, in June. Classes were over and the professor of our Modern American Literature class had announced on the last day, with the windows open and the rain gusting in, that he would never again try “to teach Faulkner to northerners.” This was the man who was my mentor, and I immediately quit his tutelage. For all that summer I was in limbo, before I fell in love with the words of Charles Brockden Brown and became an early Americanist and, the following year, as Guest Associate Editor of an obscure early American journal would receive from a disgruntled scholar who had waited for over two years for the journal to publish his article a typewritten letter that ended with the line “Your journal, Sir, is an ass.” This time it was on a campus bus, past midnight, and I felt the eyes on me, and for the duration of that ride (which couldn’t have been more than minutes) I felt doomed in a sort of epic way. I was sure that if I turned around I would see her there, A., in the very last seat, red splotches slowly seeping through her bandages.
I wondered if the Kristeva book was some sort of evil beacon, like the one that lures the Nostromo to track down the transmission of “unknown origin” in Alien. This was an absurd and dangerous theory, yet for that summer it really pulled on my thoughts. I thought of the boy I saw with no arms who swam like a snake in the pool at the YMCA, and his courage. The bus moved through the dark parts of the town and I imagined A. creeping up behind me, steadying herself by holding onto the backs of empty seats (for we were the only ones on the bus that night) until she was close enough that I could smell her blood. The gashes in the dilapidated bus seats—the yellow Styrofoam pushing out—and the smears across the enormous flat windshield, and the screeching of the brakes, this all reminded me of something ancient, something too horrible to remember. For a moment I imagined myself in a knife-fight with A. in a red desert, as a pack of wild black dogs with oily fur bared their teeth and waited. It was that sort of night, when anything seemed possible, and I knew that too many more evenings like this would be dangerous, and that I had taken a phrase (“in the meantime, let others take their long march towards idols and truths of all kinds”) from the last page of Powers of Horror too much to heart.
It would take many years for Kristeva’s book to settle down and quit moving of its own will. It continued to fall off shelves, to flip over in the night, to disappear and reappear, to shift from a book of 219 pages to one of 233 pages, to change gradually from looking old and worn to crisp and new. Once, even, Kristeva’s cover photo transformed from black and white to color, the yellow sky behind her, her dress a deep blue with yellow flowers. Of course I wished that the book had taken on a life of its own like this, and, looking back, I sometimes imagine that it did. Today, the book just lies there, flat, no trouble at all, no hints of rebellion. And although I don’t claim to understand much of the book any better than I did back in 1989, the words no longer have the force of fear behind them.
There is one more incident, probably insignificant, and yet the more I think about it the larger it looms, like some dark storm cloud expanding at a science fictional rate. The last time I saw A., probably around 1991 or 1992, she was free of bandages and seemed happier than before. This was after she and Thomas had split up. Her hair was short, and dyed red, and she no longer wore her old hippie clothes. Riding my bicycle to campus, I saw her on the lawn in front of her apartment, selling most of her things. This was the last time I was to see her, and just like that I could almost feel her happiness, and not just because she was barefoot in the grass or because she called my name and waved to me on my bike, and not because as I approached her I saw that her eyes were wide open like I had never seen them before, and they were beautiful and I knew through those eyes she saw me as beautiful, too, because everything seen through those eyes must have been beautiful. I could feel her happiness and, in truth, I wanted to stay far away from it.
But of course I couldn’t and when I got off my bike she came over and threw her arms around me and held me for a moment, just long enough for some message to pass between her body and mine. I can’t say how long she embraced me, probably just for a few moments, though thinking about it just now it seems like it must have been much, much longer. Anyway, the last thing I needed was more books, but of course I immediately began to look through the stacks she was selling, laid out on a large piece of plywood on the grass. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Powers of Horror there, for we were all reading it in those days, and, come to think of it, perhaps that’s part of the reason everything was blood-colored back then. I noticed, at first glance, the difference between the cover of he book and mine, and I should have just gotten back on my bike and pedaled away right then. But of course I didn’t. Instead, I walked over to it and picked it up and there was the familiar face of Kristeva. But something was different. It took me a moment—the sort of moment in which you realize you are no longer the hunter but the hunted—for me to understand that, on the cover of A.’s book, Kristeva’s face had been reversed in some way so that she was gazing outward to the left, not the right.
Like I said, I should have walked away, although who knows, maybe things would have turned out even worse if I had followed that path into uncertain darkness. What I mean to say is that A., she was never really one of us, and as for her happiness on that day, I truly did want to stay away from it because it was a rotten, false happiness disguising something horrible, and I would have stayed away had it not been for the book with the weird, wrong-directed gaze of Kristeva, which threw everything off balance. I’ve thought a lot about how to say what I’m about to say next. There is no easy way to put it: it wasn’t A.’s book that had the “incorrect” flipped image, but mine. All of ours. In some strange way (and only the future will prove if I’m right or not) all of our book covers were mirror-reversals of A.’s, and not the other way around.
I’ll go so far as to say this: there was something evil in the revelation of the original/mirror image of Kristeva’s face that day, and the reason A. acted so bored on the night of the Lynch screening was because she had secretly seen those films already, and hell is the mirror-image of heaven and, despite her bandages, it wasn’t A. who was wounded, but all of us.