Kick in the eye
by Laura Roberts
Working in a library is, essentially, a job where one is being paid to read. While ostensibly it is your job to check out books and attend to library patrons, front desk clerks often spend a lot of time waiting for patrons to appear before them, which leaves quite a lot of time for the age-old art of reading. Luckily, this pastime--something normally frowned upon by other, "normal" jobs--is encouraged, and one can spend a great deal of time tearing through the stacks in search of satori (a spiritual "kick in the eye," as described by Jack Kerouac in his book Satori in Paris).
Sometimes, this kick in the eye comes in book form. Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless is one of those books, because it crushes the reader like an asteroid. Acker's depiction of a post-apocalyptic Paris--where family members rape one another and everyone seems intent on destroying a world that is little more than a burnt-out shell--is truly terrifying. Halfway through the book, one might calmly close its covers and return it to the library shelf from whence it came, wondering what on earth to say about it in an online review. It wouldn't even be unusual for a library employee to suddenly think that he or she could "accidentally" misplace this volume forever, thereby preventing future library patrons from warping their minds with such filth. In the end, however, freedom of speech is more important than censorship of something we may disapprove of profoundly, but just barely.
Indeed, Acker's work is intended to provoke and to inspire censorial rage, despite the fact that readers may have read much worse. If you've read about the sickening practices of slaughterhouses in the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Ruth Ozeki or Upton Sinclair, waded through the quasi-pornographic sex-with-machines novel Crash, or even willingly submitted yourself to the suicidally depressingly works of Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, you are already well-versed in provocative and gut-wrenching literature. Despite all this, Kathy Acker--a punk nihilist with a penchant for plagiarism--may still do a number on your sense of what is valuable, noble and true in the world of literature.
Can Acker's writings be considered literature, or even art? While they certainly jolt one out of what Heidegger termed "average everydayness," with the mark of the authentic soul--one who strives for a clearer understanding of the world and seeks the truth--it is also true that Acker takes huge liberties with modern copyright law. She is clearly not one to toe the line, shut her mouth or simply accept things at face value. Instead, she shows us the boundaries, the lines that people have decided not to cross, and takes a flying leap to the other side. Good taste, common sense, human decency, rights and morals—what are these things, and why do we believe that they carry any weight? Acker brushes them aside like pesky mosquitoes, and the distress we feel upon her doing so is just one more bit of our world that we must examine, not so much for her sake, but for our own.
While you may not experience satori after reading Empire of the Senseless, and may instead feel betrayed, confused and overwhelmed, it's also possible that you may come to a distant version of appreciation for Kathy Acker. You might pick up a copy of My Mother: Demonology or Blood and Guts in High School or maybe even Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream, determined to understand what all the fuss is about. Indeed there is no shortage of information available on Acker's life and writings, and your first stop will likely be her Wikipedia entry. Just remember that although this literary terrorist may be dead, she's certainly not gone.
Photo: © Steve Pyke