Art un-stuck

In 1915, pretentious art was taken to its peak by Kasimir Malevitch with his Suprematist Manifesto. There was plenty of abstract, far-too-clever art before Malevitch’s Black Square, and there was plenty more afterwards – but it was Malevitch who articulated the whole concept of abstract art in a way that was more meaningful and general than most other purveyors of blank canvases, random shapes and pure colour before or since.

Malevitch’s manifesto is concerned with Suprematism, which was the first movement to really push the idea of non-representational art (or non-objective art as Malevitch called it) – that is, art which is not concerned with replicating, on a canvas, things which the artist sees or experiences. The reason why the Suprematist Manifesto is so far-reaching is that the rejection of purely representational art (including classic nudes and landscapes) is common to all art movements that are regarded as `abstract’, `contemporary’ or `pretentious’ by critics and the general public.

As a proponent of wanky art, Malevitch looked down on any form of representation as being primitive and savage:

The principle of the savage is to aim to create art that repeats the real forms of nature. In intending to transmit the living form, they transmitted the corpse in the picture. The living was turned into a motionless, dead state. Everything was taken alive and pinned quivering to the canvas, just as insects are pinned in a collection.

An example of art that departs from the classic tradition is Cubism, in which the subject of the painting is obscured by geometric shapes and distortions of figure, stripping away as much of the visual representation as possible while still retaining the identity of the subject. Similarly, Abstract Expressionism obscures the representation in accordance with the internal state of the artist. This was taken to extremes by artists like Piet Mondrian; he would look at the subject and then paint straight black lines and blocks of pure colour that represented his own internal emotional state on viewing the subject.

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Both of the above examples show how a departure from representational art leads to more abstract and wankier art. However, in both the examples there was still some notion of a subject, namely the basic object that the artist was trying to convey through all of the added distortion. It was Malevitch who elevated non-representational art to its logical extreme with his notion of Suprematism. The idea was to stop trying to represent things that already existed in nature, and to create something on canvas that was wholly new:

Distortion was driven by the most talented to the point of disappearence, but it did not go outside the bounds of zero. But I have transformed myself in the zero of form and through zero have reached creation, that is, Suprematism, the new painterly realism – non-objective creation.

It is difficult to imagine what sort of painting can be regarded as an act of pure creation, not tied directly to any corporeal subject. Malevitch provides the answer with works such as his infamous Black Square, a canvas painted entirely black. Ironically condemned as “a sermon on nothingness and destruction”, Malevitch himself regarded it as “a living, regal infant. The first step of pure creation in art.”

However profound Suprematism may have been as a concept, pictures of abstract shapes and canvases left blank (or painted white) quickly wore thin with the general public and became symbols of the absurdity of modern art pushed to its extremes. It is interesting that subsequent art movements strongly influenced by Suprematism, such as Constructivism, Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, had to return in some way or another to the representation of subjects. There seemed to be no way forward from Suprematism – it was the absolute limit of abstraction in painting.

Black Square Together with this return to slightly more representational forms of art, there was a corresponding reaction against wanky art initiated by the Stuckist group (whose art was said to be “stuck” in old traditions) and built upon by Remodernism and Classical Realism, all of whom advocated a return to the techniques of the old masters in painting real subjects from nature.

But there is something lacking in the raison d’etre of the Stuckists and similar movements, at least as far as their own philosophies go. In the Stuckist manifesto, the authors rail against “conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist”, calling Post-Modernism “an adolescent attempt to ape the clever and witty in Modern art” resulting in a “cul-de-sac of idiocy”. The post-modern group they refer to in particular are the Young British Artists (YBA’s), known for such artistic stunts as Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years, consisting of a rotting cow’s head in a glass case, complete with maggots and flies; or Marc Quinn’s Self, a frozen cast of his own head made from 4.5 litres of his own blood.

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While it is easy to decry such extravagances as nothing more than pretentious posing and shameless commercialism (not helped by their close ties with rich advertising magnate Charles Saatchi), there is a clear sense in which the YBA’s are a logical continuation of Malevitch’s Suprematism, and to denounce them based on nothing more than “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists” is to turn one’s back on the deep philosophical insights that led to such abstraction from painting in the first place. To ignore such insights is to doom art history to repeat itself.

If we are to really put the absurdities of post-modernism behind us, as the Stuckists intend, we must first put Suprematism and the YBA’s in their place, and understand how a return to representational art is a continuation of artistic thought and not a retreat to a bygone era of history whose ideas are outdated. The first step down this road is to supersede Suprematism.

It is curious that Malevitch was concerned with paint as the medium for pure creation. There is nothing in the core philosophy of Suprematism (as a move towards non-objectivity) that prevents the artist from abandoning paint altogether. In fact, Suprematism is closely tied to other movements that aim to unite art with life, and break down the distinction between creating art and experiencing life. Similar movements along these lines were the Futurists (precursors to Suprematism), the Vienna Actionists, and performance art in general. If we consider the artist to be a creator within nature and not a reproducer of nature, then the ideal artist is nothing more than a person who is involved in living their life to the fullest. The YBA’s embody this principle by exploring themes of personal life through the physical building of installations and interacting with the world – such as Tracy Emin’s My Bed, consisting of the artist’s own bed from the same morning, complete with dirty clothes and used condoms.

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This seems to leave us nowhere further to go. But what use is the living of life if you cannot communicate it to people? The works of the YBA’s seem to be selfish in their highly personal and inaccessible nature – acts performed by the artists for their own amusement, as part of their own lives. To take the next step, we must re-open the lines of communication between the artist and the audience, and this requires a common ground. But common ground needs a common subject, and thus a return to representational art. After all, if art is concerned with life, then the creation of artworks is concerned with the telling of one’s life stories through painting or other media, and storytelling is fundamentally representational (just try telling a story without subjects or settings)!

If we’re back to representational art, then what was the point of Suprematism and abstraction in post-modern art? The point was to free us of the dogma of tradition that previously restricted artists in ways not demanded by the simple representation of life and nature. Freed of these boundaries, we can much better consider what it is we would like to represent with our art. As the Stuckists put it:

To be challenging in art today presents no challenge at all. To be revolutionary in art today is to be a reactionary. To be unconventional is to conform. All the barriers that need to be broken have been broken already. The need today is to find out and affirm what is valuable, in the face of contempt.

After all, the most contemptuous thing you could do in today’s climate of Modernism is to paint a still life employing accurate light and shadow. Yet this is what artists like Claire Stening as well as schools teaching the Atelier method are doing. Such efforts lead us to wonder: are clever concepts and gimmicks really the way forward, or is it in fact the tools of the old masters that will lead us to uncover “the face of the new art”?

Claire Stening

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Getting festive

The Duchess is holidaying in Far North Queensland. Innisfail, the land flowing with 80c a kilo bananas. Grandparents, siblings, crazy cats and tropical fruits abound. Also cakes and board games.

Between reading novels, lazing on the beach, perusing artist manifestos and giggling through happy hours, we also tore up the Atherton Tablelands to swim under waterfalls and trek through rainforest in pluggers, trying to avoid prickly vines and stinging plants.

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The way I am

It is comforting that the world changes as we change, and that those that have inspired us continue to grow as we grow. People have series of books with which they grew up, whose characters matured as they did, whose themes reflected the dominant ideas and fears of their times, and returning to them is a way to reflect on one’s own journey and to relive that part of a broader history, to position oneself within a broader consciousness.

Music accompanies us in this way as well. At fourteen, I found myself overwhelmed by two strong impulses: Christianity and guitars. The two had to converge, and this is where I ‘met’ Jennifer Knapp. She was, and certainly is now, what people might mockingly consider a walking contradiction: a Christian rock musician. To me, she was simply a brutally honest person with a guitar, who happened to love God.

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When I brought home her CD, The way I am, I listened to it cover to cover on my little boom box. Then I picked up a guitar and learned to play my first song, a scathing self-assessment that changed my outlook for two intense years:

It’s better off this way, to be deaf, dumb and lame, than to be the way I am.

Kill this tongue, for I am hung by this wicked notion.

Tame the beast, release the noose I’ve woven

O, wasted tears dripping from my tongue

I’m hung.

I consulted with my dad over this concept of ‘Christian rock.’ He was happy enough to be a Christian, and happy enough to listen to rock music, but opined that never ought the twain meet—keep the holy holy and the sinful sinful. I supposed this was defendable, but seemed nonetheless unreasonable given Jennifer Knapp simply wrote music that bared her soul, and couldn’t help that her soul was engaged in a fierce spiritual struggle. Never did she say that God was somehow deficient in power or spitefully forsaking her—what she said was that she felt abandoned because she was fallible and human. ‘When I’m down, I search every mistake, I’m looking for new regret, sometimes I forget that his grace is sufficient for me, that it’s deeper and wider than I can conceive.’

Mysteriously, and without warning, Jennifer Knapp disappeared. She skipped out on the rest of her recording contract with Gotee Records with no explanation. I speculated that, since she had been fiercely atheist until the age of eighteen, she might have abandoned God and reverted to her old ways in secret, hoping no one would discover her godly rock star past.

Eight years later, Jennifer resurfaced with a bold revelation: she is a lesbian. She still loves God, and remains convinced of God’s love for her. And she’s ready to make some more music.

And—she has been living under a rock all this time: Australia. No one will ever find you here.

Jennifer’s blog deals with the question of whether her sexuality is really anyone’s business. ‘I am who I am. I love who I love. What difference does it make whether or not people know?’ She concludes, ‘the difference maker was one of personal integrity.’ In television interviews, she bravely and articulately responds to flippant and near accusatory questions with honesty and dignity. She points no fingers. She agrees that people will ‘eat her alive’ and refuse to listen to a gay musician and feel betrayed by a sinful fellow being. But she simply holds her head up and continues to ruminate about her struggles in a candid and thoughtful way. She never claimed to be anybody’s role model, or God on earth. Jennifer Knapp wrote about her fears and doubts and joys, and people respected her integrity.

Along the way of living we accumulate the joys and sorrows of our individual experience that grow into ‘our story’. We learn by listening to others. We learn in the telling of our own journey. We wound, heal, divide and unite, over and over again.

Jennifer’s revelation comes at a time when Australia, her adopted home, makes some important political shifts towards accepting gay marriage. The Labour Party is poised to open the church doors to gay couples, allowing them to express their love in the same way as a heterosexual couple. Younger generations see no need to isolate their gay friends and family, to deny them a simple human gesture.

Christians, the champions of Faith, Charity and Love, continue to call gay people diseased, unnatural, sinful, disgusting, and to have knee-jerk reactions to gay sex as a hideous crime, a fiendish desire that ought to be suppressed. But what does this mean for someone who is gay? Are they really to take up their cross and deny themselves? Are they to live dishonestly? Are they to reject the being that God created? Or are they barred from having faith? Are they denied religion? Must they live celibate, or in guilt? Assuming that gay people are not depraved Sodomites looking for trouble, intentionally inciting the wrath of God, assuming they are regular people, working, paying their bills, studying, playing music, going to the beach, buying thoughtful Christmas presents for their grandmothers, are they really committing hideous crimes? Will Christians let them experience loving relationships? Will Christians let them love God? Will Christians let God love them?

Christianity is an old religion. It preached things like ‘no sex before marriage,’ because people would catch diseases, or impregnate each other, in uncertain times when cures were not available and when children needed the security of a father’s income. At its heart, Christianity claims to be founded on love, to have as it’s backbone the motto, ‘God is love,’ to proclaim to the corners of the earth that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ Now, I know about Lot hanging in Sodom and Gomorrah, and all the depravity and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt because she dared look back longingly at her town, but how does this fit with the gospel preached by one Jesus, friend to prostitutes and tax collectors? I’m sure there’s plenty of rules in the old testament about not being buds with prostitutes, but Jesus came ready to accept the very real tears of prostitutes anointing his feet. I don’t consider gay people to be prostitutes. What I consider them to be is real people, full of loves and fears and hopes and dreams like anyone else, cruelly marginalised for their sexual practices.

Seeing Jennifer Knapp emerge from the New South Wales coast, boldly declaring her homosexuality to the Christian community is a surprising twist in my avid following of her career. It gives me new material in my own journey, having myself turned my back on Christianity, when I had far less against me within the church than she did. I trace her journey with interest and admiration, because I know she is a person of integrity, and I hope she paves the way for others in her predicament, caught in the hateful web of the religion founded on ‘love.’

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Reality and Nudity

Today I tried out walking around the house naked. It felt strange at first – then I could almost forget that I had no clothes. I wrote, read, played guitar. Then I got a bit cold so I put my clothes back on.

It’s funny how everything is an anticlimax. Even things that aren’t, are. You think I’m being obtuse, but what I mean is that even when something is amazing and excellent, everything you hoped and dreamed, the actual experience of it is always somehow lessened by its own reality.

When you conceive of it in your mind, you conceive of the act in a pure form, just it, nothing else. When you experience the event, reality imposes on you a myriad of other secondary experiences, little things that you wouldn’t have imagined, things that don’t add to the event but are just there, detracting from the event by distracting from it. Reality is not a single experience but a compound one, and we do not experience a single idea in pure form, but the whole reality of it, the idea dressed in the dirty clothes of practical existence.

Then, long afterwards, our memories lose grip on those unimportant details and preserve only the relevant thing, being the pure event, and we are back to viewing it as an ideal form, although now it is better because it actually happened. A dream makes an event possible, then the event is realized, which makes it ugly, but then it is dressed up again for posterity, by our memories, dressed up in the beautifying shroud of time, like makeup on a corpse.

Oops – isn’t that too morbid a metaphor? No, I’m going to leave it there. Aren’t memories corpses after all? The dream of the event is like the dream of a child in a mother’s mind. The life not yet lived is a pure, ideal, beautiful life. The event itself, experienced in the present moment, is ugly and rough. It happens however it happens. The world accommodates a life, the living of it is approximate to the dream, closer to a comedy of errors, striving to touch perfection but always having the perfect edges splintered off by the restrictions of the truth. Then when time is up, the event shifts into memory, no longer able to exist and change and be imperfect, but preserved in a cloudy amber that becomes more cloudy with time, softening the errors and the splinters until the vague image left in the mind is the same as that which would have been left by the perfect event, and we choose to remember it as such.

Perfection is death, because death is the returning of imperfect life to the void from which it came, and the void is nothing, and nothing is perfect. I thought it would be great to be naked. I got naked, and it was okay, but a bit cold, so I put my clothes on. Now I remember the event with fondness, as a great experience. I recommend it to all of you.

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Africa travel diary: a week of madness

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, I say it passes quickly when there’s flies, and you’re in the sun with a gun. That was our first week on Derichsveldt, henceforth known as The Farm.

Ricki is a patient man. He has to be, to be the caretaker of a massive cattle farm in Namibia. When he’s not helping the vet lady get her arm halfway up a cow’s arse to see if it has babies, he’s running around in the trees with a .300 or better yet, a 60 pound hunting bow, looking to pop a kudu for his dinner. Actually, that’s a lie. Ricki only eats meat three times a week, and his family are mostly vegetarian. He takes out trophy hunters for a price, but mostly he hunts to farm meat to sell to the butcher.

Trophy hunting and professional farming are different stories. Trophy hunters can take three kills in a day and call it a success. They’ll have blasted away most of the good meat using bullets of too-high calibre, and the butcher wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole. Nobody likes finding tiny pieces of lead in their steak. No, when Ricki goes meat farming, he takes a pro hunter with him and together they ring in 50 odd kills per week, all clean head-shots. Dwell on that for a second; getting a proper head-shot means hitting a spot the size of a tennis ball at one hundred metres. Maybe you have a high-powered scope, but deer are moving targets and don’t stand still for long, nor do they bother to strike a pose with their brain spot exposed. No sir. So when we met Ricki, my brother Bren and I, we quickly learned to respect the man.

I mentioned kudu because they are big impressive creatures with spiralling-upwards antlers that could skewer an elephant, but the sad truth is that rabies has decimated the kudu population in recent times and Derichsveldt now hunted only oryx, hartebeest, wild boar and eland if you could find them.

Another factor to contend with was the weather. When city people talk about the weather, it’s because nothing else is going on. Farmers, on the other hand, take weather as a very serious topic. A long enough drought can drive a farmer to suicide – such was the fate that befell the old proprietor of the neighbouring farm, who recently shot himself. Even too much rain, as was the case when we arrived in Derichsveldt, can cause troubles.

“Hunting is a different story now, with the rains” Ricki said. “You can’t predict the animals anymore. Used to be, you could just wait out near the kudu dam and they’d have to turn up to drink. Now they just roam anywhere, following the wind. And the wind itself keeps changing. You have to stalk on foot, keeping upwind, playing a game of cat and mouse. It’s not easy anymore.”

So when I went hunting with Ricki, that’s what we did. And it was painful. Nothing like stalking a pack of oryx for an hour, watching the mums and kids pass through your scope because you can’t shoot them (farm rules, Ricki says to maintain the population), waiting for the big daddy to get his ass out from behind a bush so you can put some buckshot into it, and then the wind turns traitor and blows from the other direction, spreading your stink of man-sweat and sunscreen all over the herd, making them turn tail and run in terror (as they should) leaving Ricki saying things in German that I bet he wouldn’t repeat in front of the kids. We had no luck on the second day either. I had a square shot at an oryx, but the bullet misfired. My family didn’t believe me at first – they thought I’d chickened out and Ricki was covering up for me. But we showed them the bullet, with a clear puncture mark where the hammer had struck. “Maybe I was never meant to kill animals” I conjectured cheerfully.

The truth was, I cared little at first whether I bagged a beast or not. I was starting to enjoy the quiet walks in the bush, stalking animals, just drinking in the wind and the sun and the smell of the African bush. The flies didn’t bother me, and the thorns seemed almost friendly after a while. The actual act of killing an animal seemed brutal and unpleasant. Given my own meat eating tendencies and those of others, I felt that it was necessary to make my peace with the process, but that didn’t mean I had to enjoy it.

The first time I saw a freshly killed oryx, it was a shock. The blood was thick like pea soup, and such a bright red that it didn’t look real against the dry yellow grass. There was something obscene about the creature’s half open lips and its square yellow teeth, it’s glazed-over amber eye staring unblinking at the sun, even as flies danced directly on it. As we dragged it by the legs and tail up the ramp into the back of the jeep, it’s head lolling at a bad angle leaving bits of its brain behind, it leaked urine into a puddle that grew steadily during the ride back to the farm. The dog (a cute mixed-breed named Pumba) turned out to have a penchant for eating the shit of the freshly deceased, sticking her nose up to her whiskers in the thing’s rectum. It struck me as undignified.

I stayed to watch the skinning and gutting. Strangely, that seemed more proper – the corpse was hauled up on hooks, drawing it to its full height and restoring some of its grandeur, and even though the servants cut off every part, snapped its bones and peeled its skin, they did so under a constant wash of water to keep off the blood, with a precision and care that comes from years of practise, and with a certain respect given to those things that sustain and nourish you. They would be given the entrails to eat (I watched the small children with their shiny eyes and sharp knives slitting the stomach and turning it inside out) and the skin and bones to make furniture for their homes. I felt better about the whole thing, then. Pumba came to lick my hand and I shooed her away.

It was only after Bren bagged a hartebeest on just his second outing that I started to get competitive. No way was I going to let him be the only one who proved himself a killer on this trip. I dreamed of silently staring down animals far larger than me, with my glass monocle, fixating my crucifix crosshair on them and nailing them there with a bullet. I had done enough target practice to know I could give them a quick death at 110 metres with three seconds grace for aiming. That was not bad for a rookie. Bren had hit his a little off centre, but felled it like a sapling nonetheless. Only Dad had had an accident the day before, hitting his oryx with a terrible gut shot – partly because it moved, and partly because his knowledge of European hunting told him to aim at the edge of the leg line, which is wrong for African game. If Ricki hadn’t tracked that thing with supernatural precision and cut it down with a needling behind-the-horn brain shot from his own rifle, the doomed creature would have lived for days slowly oozing gut juices into its body cavity until it vrekked and got eaten by jackals.

Note to the reader: in Afrikaans, there are different words meaning `to die’ for humans and animals. `Vrek’ is for when an animal dies.

But let us not talk about that. The only reason that Dad was hunting that first day was because Bren and I insisted we needed more rifle practice with the 300, which was true, and it paid off in the end. I got my oryx.

I hit it a little high in the shoulder, but it was a quick shot, taken in the two or three heartbeats that Ricki bought me by making an animal call to distract the wandering beast, and it was low enough to blast a tunnel the size of a fifty-cent coin through its lungs (all internal of course, the entry hole looks barely bigger than a pea) and chip off part of its spine. It fell like thunder, I saw it shudder in my scope with the muscles under its grey and brown coat rippling like clouds reflected in a pool into which I’d just dropped a rock. But it kept rising, writhing and thrashing around in the tall grass in a most unnatural manner. Ricki made me stay well back because, he explained calmly, if you get close to an oryx with a spinal injury and it sees you it might get up and run another hundred metres before collapsing again, or better yet thrash around and hook you with it’s viciously long horns. So we waited and watched it wring itself out, the pink candy-floss of lung matter forcing its way out of the wound like a wet plastic bag, until it finally lay still. Eerily, a moment or two later, it’s hair began to stand on end. It was dead.

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Death kit

Susan Sontag’s Death Kit (1967) is a bit of a mind-bender. Likeable, hateable, excruciatingly average Dalton ‘Diddy’ Harron dreams about wolf-boys, lives in the shadow of his thoughtless, successful brother Paul and is effortlessly good at his mind-numbing microscope sales job.

We meet Diddy the Good on a business trip. He takes the train from New York, meets a lovely blind—in contrast to his business of seeing acutely—girl, Hester, and bludgeons a workman to death in a tunnel—he believes, somewhat shakily, from self-defence—but Hester, his only witness and confidante, refuses to believe he left their train compartment to commit such an atrocity.

Sontag trips a fine line between the agonising boredom of a perfectly normal life and a brutal, violent, nauseating one, suggesting a causal link between the two. She has woven an immensely sensory work with constant references to nausea and hunger and scent and sight and blindness. Diddy is suffering a more intense existential crisis than the nausea of Jean-Paul Sartre. Diddy is dying.

‘Meaning, seriously, to kill himself, Diddy swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills one evening; after walking the dog, who sprawls (now) before the fireplace in the living room. It’s twelve-thirty; in his bedroom, door closed, Diddy lies back and shuts his eyes. Begins to float down, softly, peaceably. Followed by an interval of undetermined length: some dark time, in which it’s hard to breathe’ (p. 6).

What follows is an intricate narrative of events taking place on a business trip, peppered with dreams and memories, and always the nausea, always ‘riding out the tide of nausea’ (p. 8). It’s explained that Diddy woke up. He hit his head, smelled something putrid by his bed, glimpsed a nurse, was carried away to hospital—‘reprieved from death … reprieved either by his own vitality or by the merest accident. … A posthumous person has certain new resources, new strengths’ (p. 7).

Hester is this new resource. Hester is Diddy’s vitality. Hester cannot see the ugliness of the world, and because she lives in darkness, she can bear to live. Blinded by her mother as a teenager, Hester experiences the world in a better dimension, and Diddy comes to idolise her sightlessness, a purifying trait that he tries to mimic by shutting himself away in darkness.

It is not that Diddy meets a healing character; rather, he descends into a strange internal world on the cusp of death and meets a new, stronger part of himself that wants to live. He speculates that Hester, this stronger part of himself, has gained some new wisdom and is now too intelligent to suffer. ‘Doesn’t the capacity to suffer depend on a kind of superior stupidity? So thinks Diddy. With his eyes closed, becoming drowsier’ (p. 207). Aching for this wisdom that will allow him to rise above his suffering, Diddy knows that Hester’s teaching him is his only hope.

Diddy and Hester marry, with plans to move to a new place, to go for walks and for Diddy to describe the scenery, smell the air as she does, read to her. ‘Diddy knows a remedy. There’s something else, rather someone else, to think about. When the spectre looms up before his retrograde vision, she comes to caress his face and to kiss his eyes. To banish the workman, to heal Diddy. She never fails to come. But always after. The workman arrives first. Diddy driven and counter-driven’ (p. 80).

The struggle is fierce. Though we meet him on a train, going into a tunnel, on a swift, dark track to death, the train is halted and Diddy and Hester have their first heady encounter. Though their marriage is full of hope, a strong, unifying decision at last, they begin to sink. They move into Diddy’s old apartment, draw the blinds and live in a dark, stifling den. Diddy becomes dependent on Hester, who takes care of all the cooking, the dusting, clipping Diddy’s toenails. The apartment descends into chaos, as filthy as the original train, strewn with cigarette butts, LPs languishing without their covers, the windows grimy with the city’s pollution. Diddy thinks of the view as that from the train window, only motionless. Diddy is returning to the place where we met him.

‘“Darling, we have to talk,”’ Diddy confronts Hester (p. 276). He has struggled; he has made his choice. As long as Hester remained to look after him, ‘death had refused his hectic, inept petition. … Diddy was afraid to die’ (p7). But Diddy (now) afraid no longer. ‘“Help me, Hester!”’ is his last plea. “‘What are you afraid of?” “I guess….I guess, I’m afraid that I’ll have to do something, something I’m not doing”’ (pp. 279-80).

Diddy and Hester return to the tunnel. A gory scene takes place, in which Diddy again splits the skull of the workman, has one last violent encounter with Hester, whom he then leaves slumped the way he left the workman the first time. Hester is defeated, now Diddy is left to explore his impending demise, in a cavernous vault of carefully catalogued and preserved corpses. The nurse reappears, and the hideous smell.

A little online research suggests that Sontag was harshly criticised for Death Kit when it was first published. At best, it was reviewed as a Kafkaesque dreamscape. And this would not be incorrect, since the entire narrative takes place within a dream, a dream laced with memories, sensations and internal struggles. Sontag constantly reminds us that it is a long moment, a lingering instant—it is always (now). It is gritty and grotesque. But it seems that it was received literally, and that readers failed to interpret it as a whole.

Sontag had written a paper three years prior to Death Kit entitled Against Interpretation. In it, she argues, ‘What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.’ This she extends to literature, saying that modern literature and our expectation of what may be done within the literary form has become so uninspired that it is mostly undisguised news or information, or, if more loosely disguised, ‘it is still peculiarly visible.’

This is, of course, the easy to churn out pulp fiction, with characters who are simply colour-by-number cardboard cut-outs, designed for a purpose, mouths stuffed with one-liners, objects strewn like candlesticks in conservatories, lead pipes in billiard rooms, ready to be wielded for their scripted purpose. Rather than trying to be so obscure as to destroy meaning, or at the other extreme, becoming purely decorative in an effort to ‘elude the interpreters,’ Sontag proposes another way to inject meaning into work without the audience needing to reinterpret it in terms of Marxist-feminist-deconstructivist-postmodernism: ‘by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.’

And so she has presented us with a self-contained capsule of a work that we can swallow whole and meditate upon. It presents all its ideas, it relies on its strong internal imagery, it uses its own, specially crafted literary devices (now) with their own stipulated meanings. Certainly, you may need to read it again to appreciate the meanings woven throughout, which you had taken at face value at the outset, but you can trust it to be a complete, self-referencing, consistent work, with all the clues you need, should you search for them.

‘What is important now is to recover our senses,’ Sontag argues in the face of a swathe of books that dull our sensory experience. She has ‘selected lilacs for their scent’ (DK p. 65), and if at any time you are bewildered at the plot, you are riding a sensory rush so powerful it is hard to alight.

‘“Draw those curtains, Goldberg, will you? The light’s in my eyes,” said Reager irritably,’ (p. 83).

*Sontag, Susan. 2009 [1967]. Death Kit. Penguin Books: London.

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