Crimes of Art + Terror

“Following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center two years ago, no statement caused more anger than composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s description of it as ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’…Duke University’s husband-and-wife team Lentricchia and McAuliffe contend that Stockhausen’s pronouncements addressed, however ill-advisedly, connections among art, spectacle, transgression and the Western imagination that many are now eager to sweep under the rug. Moving through Stockhausen to a wide range of material, they ask the difficult question: is Western art’s post-Romantic veneration of the destructive, alienated outsider—from Oedipus to Travis Bickle—in any way answerable for the real destruction our culture brings into being?…The book’s accessible combination of conceptual daring and moral seriousness places it well above the common run of lit crit.”—Publishers Weekly

“As the planet moves, with a grim relentless urgency, toward destruction brought on by our own follies, I can think of no better place to begin understanding our bleak situation than by reading this timely study by Jody McAuliffe and Frank Lentricchia. Working by association, linking the real with the imagined, upsetting the usual order of criticism by their disruptive readings, McAuliffe and Lentricchia bring us into the new century with a fresh and original work that dissolves the familiar boundaries between art and criticism, between life and critiques of life. The pressure of their strong, unruly imaginations can be felt on every page. Crimes of Art and Terror should become a classic of contemporary literature, a way into a new, unbridled form of critical thought.”—Jay Parini

“Noting nature’s example, destruction to produce room for creation, may not be the worst preparation for considering the risk of making one’s way through the harrowing occasions selected by the authors to converge upon the thesis of this book: we kill to live. You will not find any flinching in the felons Lentricchia and McAuliffe. Fancy affiliations aside, this pair of outliers are out for blood, and thank goodness for it. High time, say I, that the evidence of the way we are were brought into court. Let us applaud McAuliffe and Lentricchia for what? For judicial surmise, or come on, for leering advocacy from the bench? That a husband and wife—and parents, parents!—could collaborate on such a project proves the excitement of the intellect when it engages—audaciously! maybe even a little recklessly!—with events at the limit.”—Gordon Lish

An interview with
Frank Lentricchia + Jody McAuliffe
authors of Crimes of Art + Terror

Question: Where did the idea for the book come from? What is the relationship between its genesis and the terrorist attacks on 9/11—specifically the controversial remarks by Karlheinz Stockhausen about the attack on the World Trade Center that begin the book?

Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe.  Photo by Les Todd, Duke University PhotographyFrank Lentricchia + Jody McAuliffe: One night we were watching John Cassavetes’ film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The film is about an artist named Cosmo, who, hopelessly beset by the corrupting demands of the Mob and its ever-present accountant, must commit crimes in order to continue to do his artistic work. Jody commented that this film is an allegory of the serious artist in America—a prime example being Cassavetes himself, who did commercial Hollywood movies in order to fund his personal artistic filmmaking. Cosmo loves only the imagination, so he loves and nourishes his club, the Crazy Horse West, imagination’s local grungy habitat. But in order to keep the club viable, he must deal in the world, whose heart belongs to business: inevitable dealing that will inevitably destroy him. The artist in America is hopelessly beset by the corrupting demands of the commercial institutions that drive society. Beneath the sensuous lowlife texture of the film, there’s an allegorical structure of opposing ideas, of good and evil: an allegorical structure implying a classic modernist narrative of the end of serious art. The serious artist is a casualty of the war for art, a victim of the crimes he is forced by a commercial society to commit in order to keep his art alive. In effect, the serious artist kills himself. Cassavetes, who violates Hollywood’s rules of the game, succeeds in making a marginal film, but, in the tale that he tells, artistic transgression does not touch the imperative of Business. Death, not art, will grant Cosmo deliverance from the American labyrinth—the grip of capital. Frank said that Jody should write about it, that people would be interested, and then asked if we could write it jointly. So we did.

After 9/11 Jody was directing a production of her adaptation of DeLillo’s Mao II. Frank was the dramaturg. Scott Lindroth, the composer, e-mailed Jody the text of Stockhausen’s remarks and she showed them to Frank (who doesn’t do e-mail). We had been looking for some material that would work for an introduction and Frank was inspired by the Stockhausen material—by Stockhausen’s plain envy of the ability of the 9/11 terrorists to capture and reshape consciousness. Envy that was not psychotic but rooted in the romantic tradition of the artist as Satan—rebellious and anarchical, the bearer of transgression against all that oppresses. The Stockhausen material became chapter 1.

The book begins with Mohammed Atta and Yeats and ends with Atta and Heinrich von Kleist. The figure of Mohamed Atta was particularly compelling for us because of his transformation from educated member of comfortable class provenance to violent actor. The idea for pairing Atta with Kleist (whose act of murder-suicide we call the first performance art) in a dialogue (the two bookend figures as it were) came out of a conversation Jody had with Andrew DuBois about Wallace Stevens and his phrase “desire without an object of desire,” which we thought was crucial to the psychology of the artist-suicide and the suicide pilot. The impulse to create transgressive art and the impulse to commit violence lie perilously close to each other.

Question: Your book is about “the disturbing adjacency of literary creativity with violence and even political terror.” You discuss numerous writers and artists in the book, but is there one example you could give us that is emblematic of the relationship as you understand it?

Lentricchia + McAuliffe: The most emblematic example of the adjacency of literary creativity and violence would be Jack Henry Abbott. During Norman Mailer’s composition of The Executioner’s Song Abbott, a self-described expert on prison violence, contacted Mailer to offer insight into Gary Gilmore’s prison experience. (Gilmore was the subject of Mailer’s novel.) Mailer, no stranger to violence, had stabbed his second wife Adele Morales with a penknife after an all-night party, an act for which she did not press charges.

Abbott emerged from prison a model citizen, the only kind of citizen a totalitarian regime like the penal system could produce: a highly cultivated criminal. At the end of his sensational book In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison—all letters to Mailer—he predicted his inescapable fate: “I cannot imagine how I can be happy in American society…the odds are by now overwhelming that I may not be as other men.”

The dystopian community in state and federal penitentiaries, where Abbott grew up, prepared him first for the murder of an inmate and—after his early release at the urging of Mailer and Erroll McDonald, an ambitious editor at Random House—for his murder of an innocent waiter outside the Bini-Bon restaurant in New York City on July 18, 1981. Abbott knifed him in the chest in precisely the way he had so chillingly—and so rivetingly—described his method in his book. The murder of the inmate had helped him earn his artistic credentials, his reputation hinging on his ability to describe violence, in letters to Mailer, in an original, enraged voice, the voice of what Mailer called “an intellectual, a radical, a potential leader.” Prior to his murder of the waiter, critics applauded Abbott’s writing and his large stature, but after the murder the Los Angeles Times regarded him as a “painful curiosity,” not an artist. In the modernist tradition, often there is no difference. The journalists couldn’t tolerate the elliptical blur between his art and his violent life, when, after all, his art couldn’t exist without his life.

Question: Your recommendation to artists is to “relinquish all ambition for radical social change.” Of all those who use their professions to work for social change—among them writers, teachers, lawyers, community and union organizers, politicians—do you recommend this uniquely for artists, or would your recommendation extend to all? In other words, is there something unique about the artist's role in society?

Lentricchia + McAuliffe: Jean Genet found art incompatible with the urge to make social change. By insisting on the ambiguity and apolitical nature of his work, Genet refused to let his plays be turned into tracts to serve some political purpose. It is precisely the way in which the theatrical world is overtly signaled as being distinct from the actual world that makes transformation and revolution possible in it, since in Genet’s view the real world is not capable of this kind of transformation. On the stage, within aesthetic illusion, what isn’t possible? Reality is deceitful and inadequate; art and appearance are the only place to look for compensation.

Between 1961 and 1984, Genet wrote nothing substantial, but he was shifting his role from poet to political advocate—standing with the dispossessed of the Third World, the Palestinians in particular, and defending the Black Panthers. If the poet would become political, he must stop being an artist, as Genet did.

Question: Some critics and authors have said that the job of literature is to teach us what it means to be human. How do some of the examples in your book—Kleist, for instance—fit that model of thinking about literature?

Lentricchia + McAuliffe: The critics and writers who say that literature shopuld teach us to be human mean by “human” uplifting, capable of noble action, generosity, selflessness, and above all goodness. Our writers, on the contrary, teach us that to be human is also to resist, sometimes to the point of violence, what we humans consider oppressive and inhuman. (The inhumanity of the oppressors, of course, is quite human.) To be destructive, to be murderous, is also to be human. The impulse to destroy lies at the heart of an extreme romantic impulse that we see in evidence since the late eighteenth century, but the crimes of imaginative transgression are almost never punishable by incarceration—they are not really, therefore, crimes.

Question: You've written what has been described as a new form of literary criticism—one that draws broad connections, for example, rather than focusing on a single author or work. Is this the direction literary criticism should be taking? Is this any comment on traditional forms of literary criticism?

Lentricchia + McAuliffe: If what we’ve written seems new as a form of literary criticism, that is only because we do literary criticism and have not paid any attention to the unliterary paradigms in place: post-colonialism and cultural studies. Ours is the old way to be new, as Ezra Pound said in explanation of his own modernity. We think literature and art do something as literature and art. We do not use writers to illustrate a political thesis. Serious art is not illustration. Yes, we do follow the crazy course of the impulse to transgress through a variety of figures, but if that were all we were up to, then we’d have enough material only for a mid-sized article for Critical Inquiry. We’ve followed and lingered over what is excessive to our main idea, what is wayward vis-à-vis our main idea—all the better, we hope, to see the main idea in a variety of different contexts. The wonderful texts we respond to ultimately elude "big ideas"—including ours. Such thoughts as these, about art, are not entertained in the paradigms of professional literary study, wherein actual contact with art is but a distant rumor, at best. Our thoughts about art, it is worth repeating, are old, old thoughts, and we— not being especially professional—are probably guilty of being amateurs, in the root sense of the word.

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Frank Lentricchia + Jody McAuliffe
Crimes of Art + Terror
©2003, 200 pages
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-47205-1

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