Rants, Feelings & Opinions

How Reading “I Love Dick” Made me feel less Tragic about Being Vulnerable

May 15, 2017

Chris Kraus’s famous novel I Love Dick, about her psycho-sexual obsession with an unattainable man, has now been made into a TV series. Here’s how reading the book changed the way I thought about romantic vulnerability. By Kristen Cochrane. 

What you’re about to read might tarnish my any shred of “cool intellectual girl” cred I could have accrued over the years. Ready? It was only this year that I read Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. The epistolary novel that is both scary and exciting to read on public transit is now 20 years old, and it has just been adapted into an addictive Amazon series by Transparent creator and director, Jill Soloway. The story isn’t about loving literal dick, but rather about loving Dick, as in Richard. And wherever you are on the spectrum of sexual orientation, you’ve probably had a Dick in your life. Or, more importantly, you’ve probably been a Chris in your life—vulnerable and romantically obsessed with someone you can’t have (but, like, in a self-aware way, which makes it less tragic?).

Despite a comically misleading title, I Love Dick is not a woman’s version of Bukowski’s fictional semi-autobiographical novel Women. Dick is a real guy, also known as Dick Hebdige, an IRL English media theorist and sociologist who lives in California. Author Chris Kraus writes in the first person, using her real first name and last name, as well as her real-life husband’s name, Sylvère Lotringer. This makes the book all the more disturbing, or schadenfreude-esque, or both, depending on what kind of psyche you have.

My life has been marked by having predominantly read works by straight white men (a sin, even if you didn’t have the cultural capital to have access to many female and POC writers, or your high school curricula was all straight white men). In terms of reading about love, desire, and sexuality, it was Roland Barthes and Charles Bukowski who have mostly guided me through heartbreak (Barthes) and casual sexual encounters that become semi-sad brief relationships ‘cause why not (Bukowski). My university career has also been marked by reading foundational theoretical works, which, with some exceptions (including Laura Mulvey’s work – who coined the  “male gaze”), has been male-dominated. When I read I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, I was relieved to find a book that made my past romantic stumbles feel less embarrassing and tragique.

Reading I Love Dick is an entirely new experience of literary voyeurism. It makes you feel like a pervert encroaching on someone’s inner life (or on their therapy sessions). Unlike Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M., for example, Kraus goes on about the feelings and behavior we attempt to eviscerate from our memory—most notably, the creep-level stalker behavior that often emerges when we have an obsessive crush on someone. Where Catherine Millet almost sounds boastful with her tales of bacchanalian orgies, Chris Kraus has shown us something that you might not even reveal to the most intimate of friends.

In other words, Chris Kraus is an emotional exhibitionist—a trait that is manifested in the book’s format. The novel consists primarily of a series of letters written by Chris and her husband Sylvère to Dick, with whom Chris has developed an insatiable obsession. It’s unsettling that Sylvère is in on the whole thing, until you realize that Sylvère is a former beloved dom (think Christian Grey—sorry), whose exploits are memorialized in letters he has from ex-lovers. You eventually realize that Sylvère is not being made into an un-consensual emotional sub, but that he’s actually deriving pleasure from  being an active participant in his own cuckolding. As a result of the co-letter writing, Chris and Sylvère finally started having sex again after a long hiatus. In one of her best descriptions, Chris calls sexual arousal via intellectual stimulation a “conceptual fuck.” Like conceptual art, a conceptual fuck is when you make love, have sex, or fuck with the abstractions (or ideas) of your mind. It’s akin to that feeling when you meet someone who just “gets it,” but your perception of them “getting it” is that they like (or hate) many of the same things that you like; films, paintings, books, music the same hatred of something, and diction that you appreciate. Conceptual fucking can be innocent, like a merging of minds without wanting to actually be naked with the person (or people). A conceptual fuck doesn’t have to be sexual, at least in the way I see it. It can be platonic, or without sexual motives.

But what happens when you conceptually fuck someone who you also want to bang? This can  be good, and this can often lead to a stimulating relationship, especially if your neuroses are compatible with their neuroses. If it’s unidirectional (read: unrequited), however, chaos can ensue. By chaos, I mean constant ruminations about that person, a.k.a. obsession. Over the twenty years since its original publication, I Love Dick has been seen as a treatise on obsession, and as poet Eileen Myles describes in the foreword, “female abjection.” Abjection can be characterized as being depressed, disappointed, or suffering a loss. As Chris writes letters to Dick, she already knows that she is setting herself up for disappointment, consciously and unconsciously. She knows that her desire for Dick is like Jacques Lacan’s notion of petit objet a, that object we can never obtain, whether it’s material or immaterial. When Lacan said “il n’y a pas de relation sexuel / “there is no sexual relation,” he meant that sex is always incomplete. Its persistent state of incompleteness is not assuaged by the orgasm. If it was, we would stop having sex.

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“Dick” and “Chris” in the new Amazon series

Once Chris finally sleeps with Dick, he is callous to the point of cruel. “I’ll be in town ‘til Tuesday and I was wondering if you think we should see each other again,” Chris says, which, as someone who has projected fantasies onto others, leaves me with a sense of unease. Dick mocks her, and takes advantage of her vulnerability. I’ve been in a similar situation—that moment when you have decided someone is the right one for you, only to be rejected by said “Right One”. I’ve seen friends in this situation, who, in vain, change their former lover’s contact name in their phone to “NO” or “DO NOT ANSWER.” And yet, they keep responding to DO NOT ANSWER’s texts. Jacques Lacan may be controversial (and myopic when it comes to women—where Julia Kristeva intervened), but he was onto something with objet petit a, the object we try to reach but never can.

There are many passages in I Love Dick that are sure to trigger forgotten experiences or  traumas, like begging a past lover to keep you in their life. I Love Dick is moving because these vulnerable feelings are often buried in the depths of our repressed memories. It’s that special brand of longing that makes us feel dirty, humiliated, and tragic.

The notion of exhibitionism implies a unidirectional pleasure, wherein the exhibitionist is the only one who derives pleasure. I see it in the criticism against Thinkpiece Culture. Look at this emotional exhibitionist, crying for attention in the exposé on their own life. But what drives these thinkpieces to be accepted by editors? It’s the eyes who read them, who share them, and who relate to them, experiencing recognition, and subsequently, relief.

I Love Dick is a treatise on tragedy. It’s not easy to curb the attempts at concealing our vulnerability. We are vulnerable, even as physical bodies with time limits, and emotionally, with psyches that remain susceptible to crisis. Chris Kraus exposes these vulnerabilities. And whether we appreciate these vulnerabilities or not, they will eternally remain.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.  

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