The Emetic Life
Charles Bukowski can usefully be described as a Californian writer; more specifically an LA one, and anybody who has seen Marco Ferreri's very fine adaptation of Bukowski's work, Tales of Ordinary Madness, will have a better sense of the city than that offered by many an American filmmaker, those who set their films in the city of angels and who insists the prosperity and dreamlife become evident. For many directors, LA is a city of prosperity, from Pretty Woman to City of Angels. Bukowski worked for a decade or so for the Los Angeles Post Office, and wrote about the experience. In Post Office, the central character, Henri Chinaski says, "I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure." It seems like a dream job in the dream city; on his first day he isn't pushed too hard and also the customers seem kind of nice so nice sometimes they tell you how lonely they are and you get to sleep with them while their husband is away. But soon enough, Chinaski comes up against a sadist boss who wants him to kiss ass.
But if Bukowski's relationship with LA suggests constant difficulties and almost no interest in ambition, it is partly because success wouldn't have allowed for the persona Bukowski cultivated. A little like Henry Miller, Bukowski was a late economic developer, someone, like Miller, who was waiting for the times to catch up with his vulgarity. He wanted to reduce life to its barest formula: eating, drinking, and fucking. By setting his work in a city that prided itself on the opposite, on pure ego, Bukowski had a milieu to react against and also many a lowlife to share a drink or a bed with. If in numerous towns the gap between success and failure is evident, it needn't be pronounced. The guy propping up the bar in a modest Mid-Western city probably didn't expect to be an executive of Ford or Chrysler; didn't expect to become town mayor or newspaper owner. Yet one wouldn't be surprised to come across constant, thwarted ambition in a city many would move to in the pursuit of their dream. In a city predicated on enormous success, there will inevitably be many examples of immense failure. Yet it's as if part of Bukowski's purpose isn't to show the LA underbelly as a nightmare but where failure is an existential resistance. It becomes the baseline for human understanding, not the non-presence of an underclass best ignored but of an unusual presencing.
One way of looking at this is to see Los Angeles and especially Hollywood as the semiotic city exemplified. Bukowski wrote a book called, simply, Hollywood, and says in it: "I didn't like parties. I didn't know how to dance and people frightened me, especially people at parties. They attempted to be sexy and gay and witty and although they hoped they were good at it, they weren't. They were bad at it. Their trying so hard only made it worse." But here Bukowski might be missing a point to make a point: that it was made worse only for him because he didn't understand, or didn't care to understand, that Los Angeles, and Hollywood especially, isn't there for people to be real with each other but to manipulate the codified system of which they are a part. There is an amusing story producer John Calley tells when Sean Connery was paid a million dollars to appear in a Bond film at the beginning of the seventies. Supposedly, Connery "had a million dollars in sterling put on a table in a vault at Barclay's Bank in London and brought his family down from Scotland to actually see a million dollars [worth more than $6.5m dollars today.]" (Projections 10) Calley tells this anecdote to give some idea of how abstract Hollywood can be and how the sums of money can be exorbitant but unreal. Calley also says that once someone came up to him at a party and asked "are you John Calley?" Calley replied with no sense of irony that "I was" and realised that he had even become abstract to himself, capable of seeing himself in the third person.
Bukowski's works to undermine abstractions, to see instead that the body is the site and source for pain and anguish, purpose and rest. Story after story concerns a man lugging his tired, often sick, and frequently unsettled body around. In Life in a Texas Whorehouse, he opens by telling us that "I got off the bus in this place in Texas and it was cold and I was constipated." Two or three days later he finally manages a bowel movement: "I went back to the hotel, got hold of a pint of whiskey and 5 or 6 quarts of beer, and I finally shit what a joyful act!" In another story, the central character is in a very bad way, vomiting up blood. "Blood that comes from the inside is not the bright red color that comes say, from a cut on the finger. The blood from inside is dark, a purple, almost black, and it stinks, it stinks worse than shit." ('Life and Death in the Charity Ward') A being is made up of blood and shit and why pretend otherwise? Such a simple question demands a complicated answer and we can find it in an atypical Bukowski story, The Gut-Wringing Machine, a piece of semi-science-fiction. Here an agency gut-wrings workers, finding people who will be pliant and useful for companies. At one moment before the gut-wringing, a prospective employee says his heroes are "Cleaver, Dillinger, Che, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Jersey Joe Walcott, Grandma Baker...Van Gogh." This isn't any good. They are all deemed losers. Later after three times through the wringer, his heroes are now "George Washington, Bob Hope, Mae West, Richard Nixon...Frank Sinatra, The Green Berets." If it doesn't feel much like a Bukowski story, it's not just the S/F aspects, it is that we don't expect Bukowski to name drop quite so often, even if in 'Six Inches' and '卐', there is also the nominally specific as Bukowski also offers names that signify strongly.
Most of the time, Bukowski is more likely to drop a turd than a name and we offer the vulgar to capture the tone of a body of work where the body matters more than the work. If semiotics is a system of signs that Bukowski resists, while living in a city that is all about signs, which he usually ignores, then it rests on Bukowski wishing to create an un-semiotised LA, an impossible task of course but a worthy endeavour. It gives to Bukowski's vulgarity a noble intention; a purpose that might at first seem no more than a desire to shock but contains within it a desire to desire fundamentally. After all, semiotics is the science of signs, from semeion, sign, and needn't only concern an examination of language but includes too the study of...human bodily communication (...proxemics), and became vital to a structuralist approach that led "towards a displacement of the subject." (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) This can lead to complicated notions of lack, to Lacanian ideas about the impossibility of fulfilling desire as we are entangled in a web of signifiers and thus, Malcom Bowie notes, "desire has its origin in this non-adequation between need and the demand for love, and in the equally grave discrepancy between the demand itself and the addressee's ability to deliver." (Lacan) But it leads also to Derridaian notions of differance, where meanings occupy a relative place, "that signs don't have meaning in and of themselves, but by virtue of their occupying a distinctive place within the systematic network of contrasts and differences which make up any given language." Christopher Norris adds "that, in Derrida's view... meaning is nowhere punctually present in language, that it is always subject to a kind of semantic slippage (or deferral) which prevents the sign from ever (so to speak) coinciding with itself in a perfect remainderless gap." (Derrida) Yet while Lacan and Derrida's work offer important insights into how the self we think we are and the language we use are in some ways external to us, some writers make us more aware of this than others, and indeed metafiction and postmodern fiction emphasise the importance of the signs over what they signify. As William Gass put it in a symposium on fiction, with Walker Percy, Donald Barthelme, and Grace Paley: "...I don't want the reader filling in anything behind the language." Bukowski would probably be inclined to agree with Paley who (opposing Gass's position throughout) insists that "You know how women and men live in this world, by God, or how they don't and how hard it is."
Bukowski needs a clear sense of what he thinks is the real world to oppose it with the artificial one he sees around him. One way of looking at this is to see Los Angeles as a deferential and a deferring city: a town where everybody knows their place and defers to those superior to them, and where deferral, putting things off, is the general modus operandi. Martin Amis puts it amusingly when he quotes a filmmaker saying to him that for the studio execs "the only films they make...are the films they can't get out of making." (Screen Violence). This is why Hollywood buys up numerous novel rights and then fails to turn them into films. Bukowski describes such a process in 'The Day We Talked About James Thurber'. Here Burroughs says he sold the rights to The Naked Lunch for $500 when drunk but luckily Hollywood was so slow in moving towards making the film that the "option ran out and he had the five hundred dollars." This is Hollywood at its best from a writer's point of view: it buys up rights for a film it never makes; the writer gets to pocket the money off the back of a film that never goes into production and can sell the rights all over again. No doubt Bukowski was a man happy to put things off but his deferrals weren't semiotic as we're choosing to couch it. Bukowski's characters may lie in the sack and fail to turn up for work but that is the pleasure of a warm bed rather than an anxious fret over how they are perceived.
If Bukowski insists on presenting himself as a character who tells it straight, whose alter ego Henri Chinaski, is 'alter' without too much altering and with very little ego, it rests on resisting a system of signs that incorporates oneself at the centre of this system. Nowhere is this altered ego as a made and hyperinflated thing more evident than in Hollywood, which is why Calley could refer to himself in the third person without irony. If status matters, then what would any sense of interior or bodily self be next to the status conferred? People aren't only deferential to others in the city, they are deferential even to the alter-ego of the status that they hold. "The soul has no skin; the soul only has insides that want to sing, finally, can't you hear it, brothers? softly, can't you hear it, brothers? a hot piece of ass and a new Cadillac ain't going to solve a god-damned thing" Bukowski offers this in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, as if writing from the pavement of a Beverly Hills boulevard while an exec passes in his car. In 'The Birth, Life and Death of an Underground Newspaper', Bukowski says of someone: "He was a bit gray and distinguished, if you know the type of distinguished I mean. Never pulled beets out of the ground with a bunch of wetbacks or been in the drunktank fifteen or twenty times Or picked lemons at 6 a.m...Only the poor knew the meaning of life; the rich and the safe had to guess."
People in Hollywood protect themselves from this reality, as though reducing life to a sign system they can read but needn't interact with. As the director Mike Figgis says, "...I believe that the car does allow people a degree of protection within their culture that is unique an incredible comfortable existence, completely sheltered from poverty or cultural deprivation or whatever." Figgis even says "the car on the freeway gives an experience very much akin to the way a film is projected we have a wonderful sound system, we have a widescreen windshield..." (Projections 10) Jean Baudrillard, famous for his notion of the simulacrum and hyperreality, of the triumph of the sign, says when writing about the US and Los Angeles in particular: "if you get out of your car in this centrifugal metropolis, you immediately become a delinquent; as soon as you start walking, you are a threat to public order, like a dog wandering on the road." (America) Bukowski's work is like a dog wandering on the road, Chinaski (or Bukowski when he can't be bothered hiding under his alter ego) is the sort of person drivers would beep at, yell across to, half run over. Bukowski's protagonists are often seen in vehicles: driven around in Women, in the back of a pick-up, riding in an ambulance in 'Life and Death in the Charity Ward', riding a bus in 'Life in a Texas Whorehouse' and sometimes even having a car of their own. But a car for Bukowski is a functional vehicle, often driven by a dysfunctional man, frequently drunk. If a car is a necessary convenience for many in a city so difficult to walk around, for Bukowski's characters it is usually an inconvenience. A heavy drinker who drives either cannot drink as often as he would like, or drive as often as he might wish. The characters frequently resolve the problem by drink-driving but they also sometimes just walk the few blocks home. The point however is that the vehicle isn't a fetish object in Bukowski's work but then nothing is in commodity terms. Passing through LA in Women, he is more interested in his health than the consumer items: "In the morning, Dee Dee drove me to the Sunset Strip for breakfast. The Mercedes was black and shone in the sun. We drove past the billboards and the nightclubs and the fancy restaurants. I slouched low in my seat, coughing over my cigarette."
Fetishes for Bukowski are personalised, a product of preoccupation and longing that cannot be resolved by a general semiotics, a sign system of material consumption. In 'A White Pussy', the narrator says, "I'm a freak: I like young women who pretend they are old, old women who pretend they are young. I like garter belts, high heels, thin pink panties, all that ribald trapping." It is the sort of sexual caboodle to be found in a pick 'n' mix basket at a low-price clothing store; the dregs of sexual materialism. It is as though his fiction cannot be understood within the sort of paradigms that allow for a semiotic consistency because of a contrarian mindset allied to a body that has needs and desires but which have nothing to do with capitalist expectations. This doesn't make Bukowski politically of the left but someone resistant to the political, as if it is just another big sign system that creates complications when what a human being should want is nothing more than to fornicate, masturbate, masticate and defecate - and of course get drunk. 'Politics is like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass' is the title of one Bukowski story, with the line near the end that says "now if you'll forgive me dear readers, I'll get back to the whores and the horses and the booze." In 'A Lovely Love Affair', the narrator admits that of the five Bukowskian reasons for living, food is of the least interest. "I'd heard of people's love for food. But food only bored me. Liquid was o.k. but bulk was a dragdown. I liked to shit, I liked turds but it was such terrible work creating them."
The constant references to the crapper and shitting in Bukowski's fiction might seem like a childish desire to provoke but it seems more elemental than that: a way of being in touch with one's body, with excrement what is inside us leaving us. When In 'Life in a Texas Whorehouse' Bukowski says " I finally shit what a joyful act!", it is the pleasurable act money can't buy, or would be at least a little embarrassed to sell. Try putting that on a billboard, Bukowski might say. Though Bukowski's work isn't political, it is resistant, and he shares with Henry Miller an interest in saying what matters is the body as the site of pleasure and pain; any attempt to signify a broader meaning to these states is a secondary condition that can be left to others who have time on their hands and little going on in their bodies. "...And now we will have the headshrinkers, the thinkers, the panels, the appointed, presidential boards," Bukowski says, "trying to figure out what's wrong with us, who's mad, who's glad, who's sad, who's right, who's wrong." (Notes of a Dirty Old Man) It isn't the left or right we need worry about but any system that wants to turn our concrete matter into abstraction.
Obviously, this can be seen as the height of naivety but like Miller, Bukowski would see it as acknowledging the depth of depravity, and we can think of comments by two thinkers George Orwell, and, later, Julia Kristeva. Orwell reckons, "...Precisely because, in one sense, he is passive to experience, Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle...he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements." ('Inside the Whale')There is perhaps condescension in Orwell's remark towards the working classes but if that is so few writers more than Orwell went out of his way to understand the condition of the poor, from going down a mine when writing The Road to Wigan Pier, to becoming homeless for Down and Out in Paris and London. Bukowski's remark about only the poor knowing the meaning of life and the rich and the safe having to guess, didn't quite apply to the privately-educated Orwell: he may not have been born into poverty but he did at least experience it, albeit through choice. When Orwell says the poor person is, in one sense, passive to experience, that one sense might be couched in semiotic terms: that the person is passive to abstract existence. That may have changed with unionisation on the one hand and the consumer society on the other: making in the first instance the working class aware of their situation as they fought for shorter working weeks, better pay and better housing, education and health, and in the latter a class malleable to mass cultural influence, to advertising that would have them spend their money on endless commodities. The working class also became a consumer class as one form of abstraction competed with another. What we could call the consciousness of unionisation and the subconsciousness of subliminal messaging showed two forces competing for space in the post-modern worker's mind. Dan Shewan mentions Vance Packard's 1957 book, Hidden Persuadersas an early and important work: "The book detailed the results of a study conducted in the 1950s that claimed Coca-Cola had used subliminal advertising in movie theaters to drive sales of sodas and popcorn at concession stands. The study claimed that by splicing single frames of visual messages like "Buy Coca-Cola" and "Buy popcorn" into movie reels, sales of those products had increased by 57% and 18%, respectively." (WordStream) While a union in principle wants to make the worker more aware of their social conditions, capitalism wants the consumer to be unaware of the decisions they are making. If the customer is always right it seems a weak claim if the consumer is subliminally making those choices.
This might appear to be taking us too far away from Bukowski but returning to Orwell's remark, and thinking again of Miller, we might say that they are both writers who were resistant to the political, and resistant to materialism, because they were wary of the semiotics of a life that never quite felt lived but always mediated. Orwell says that he first met Miller when the English writer was passing through Paris on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War and Miller thought Orwell an idiot for going. "He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense of obligation was sheer stupidity." ('Inside the Whale') The war was an abstract concept, a fight between Fascists and Communists that Miller had no need to become embroiled in, and while history, as well as compassion, might suggest Orwell was more right than Miller (that this was a conflict that would concern not just Spain), Miller's point would be that one should live life as concretely as possible. It would be Bukowski's credo as well: "There is no political motivation in me. I don't want to save the world, I don't want to make it a better place. I just want to live in it and talk about what happens. I don't want the whales to be saved, I don't want the nuclear plants to be broken down and taken away. Whatever is here, I am with it. I may say I don't like it, but I don't want to change it." (Notes of a Dirty Old Man)
In one sense, as Orwell would say, he is passive to the political but, from another, one can see that Bukowski is sceptical about change that appears more abstract than he would care to entertain. Though semiotics is an ancient word, it makes sense that as a subject it would become a 20th-century preoccupation, and also why a number of its practitioners (like Roland Barthes, Christian Metz and Umberto Eco) would often focus on popular culture to analyse how signs are used. Central to Barthes' Mythologies was demythologizing culture, showing, with the aid of semiotics, that much that would pass for natural was merely cultural. As he says, "semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal." (Mythologies) While Barthes wants abstract semiotics to comprehend how reality is immersed in signs, Bukowski would prefer to ignore the signs as much as possible and get on with living. Both Barthes and Bukowski are interested in demystification but from opposite ends: Barthes towards understanding signs; Bukowski by trying to live outside their influence. In Bukowski's fiction, a car is usually a car; it might threaten to run you over or get you from one place to another but it is rarely a Lincoln, a Chevrolet or a Mustang, and if it is named it is usually because Bukowski has a point to make in a country where the car is worshipped and in LA close to a necessity. Near the beginning of Women, he says, "My '62 Mercury Comet had fallen apart, and I'd recently purchased a '67 Volks. I kept it shined and waxed." But any status it may have is weak next to what the neighbours might think when he pulls away from his lover Lydia's drive-way. She's been banging on the roof and against the windshield in her blue negligee and panties. In Bukowski's world, commodities are of little value and little valued: the characters are usually too messed-up, screwed up or ineptly screwing others over to build an existence that can be described as materialistic. Their lives are detrital rather than material, and so it makes sense that the character mentions his old car that fell apart within the context of his new car, while also talking of a relationship that is constantly falling apart too as neither party has much respect for social expectation. A few pages later his girlfriend throws a bottle through a love rival's window. "She hurled it with such velocity that it went straight through like a large bullet, not smashing the entire window but leaving just a round hole." (Women)
If there is no respect for the material and characters are usually living in the detrital, this becomes a sort of semiotic undermining, an insistent need to show that materialism is for people who live within a behavioural bandwidth that will respect private property and people's personal items. Bukowski's characters do not; they live within their bodies rather than within their homes and clothing, cars and other items of status and social circumstance are always secondary to the body one lugs around and struggles to live within. Thus the characters are, we have noted, often hungover, or horny, constipated, sleep-deprived, often vomiting, even coughing up blood or shitting it out. In 'A Drinking Partner', the central character says to his workmate "You got a hell of a hangover for yourself there, kid, and adds, "...a hangover is better than a madhouse." In Women, the narrator says "I was getting ready to puke and I did. This time I found a trash can and let it go." In 'The Life and Death in the Charity Ward', "...another vomiting spasm is coming on...the blood came up and I held it in my mouth...it smelled worse than beershit." In numerous stories shit and puke aren't metaphorical even if they have numerous other functions, so to speak. "I flew back to San Francisco with Liza. She had an apartment at the top of a steep hill. It was nice. The first thing I had to do was crap." (Women) Sometimes things are potentially very serious indeed. In Factotum, the narrator says: "The Yellow Cab Company in LA is located on the south side of Third Street. Rows and Rows of Yellow Cabs sit in the sun in the yards. It is near the American Cancer Society. I had visited the American Cancer Society earlier, as I had understood it to be free. I had lumps all over my body, dizzy spells. I was spitting blood...
We have, one hopes, made clear that Bukowski's characters live in an abject world and we offer this not just in its commonly utilised sense of degradation, filth and despair, but also as Julia Kristeva theorises it in Powers of Horror. Kristeva believes "There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated." That might sound very vague but central to Kristeva's notion is the subject versus the object: "When I am beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object." Kristeva's project is psychoanalytic and we can think of few writers more inclined to resist the 'headshrinkers' than Bukowski, even if the novelist's relationship with his bullying father (and which he writes so well about in Ham and Rye) would have Freudians paying attention. But what interests us is the semiotic resistance Kristeva sees in abjection; this idea that "turning away from perverse dodges, [someone] presents himself with his own body and ego as the most precious non-objects." We might not be fair to the intricacies of Kristeva's argument but what we want to take from it is the Bukowskian resistance to the material items in the world and insisting that the body is really all we have. It might seem especially perverse to use a writer like Bukowski as someone who is listening to his body, which is so often the language of health gurus, but Bukowski more than most attends to the specifics of it. How it feels when it wakes up in the morning, how it hauls itself along a street, how it feels when trying to enter another body, how it passes solids and liquids.
When Kristeva says, "one understands that abjection, and even more so abjection of self, is its only signified", this is the language of semiotics, of course, and a psychoanalytic variation of the sociology Barthes explores. While Barthes in Mythologies wished to offer an "ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called mass-culture," to see how so many elements of that culture are naturalised when they are really very manipulated indeed, Kristeva wants to muse psychoanalytically over what is behind the sort of desires that mass-culture exploits. "One always passes too quickly over this word, 'want'," Kristeva says, and today psychoanalysts are finally taking into account only its more or less fetishized product, the 'object of want.'" (Powers of Horror) What are these objects of want and does Bukowski suggest he wishes to break the semiotic chain between the fetishised objects of capitalism and the bodily desires that the more base he makes them the more they can escape the manipulations of abstract need (cars, houses, swimming pools, clothes) for more concrete ones (sex and drink most especially)? In 'A Lovely Love Affair', the narrator is searching the streets of New Orleans's French Quarter and notices: "I was walking down the street and the trouble with the French Quarter was that there just weren't any liquor stores around like in other decent parts of the world. Maybe it was deliberate. One had to guess that it helped those horrible shit holes on every corner that were called bars."
Why spend a fortune on a glass of wine when you can drink, far more directly, from a bottle you can pick up in a liquor store for half the price? But there will be a semiotics to the wine bar that there won't be to the liquor store: the person sipping a glass of red on a terrace in New Orleans is quite different from the person drinking a bottle out of a paper bag on a street corner. Bukowski's work leaves the burden of proof to the consumer at the bar. The object of want can be met much more cheaply than many in capitalism may wish, as though the object of desire is caught in a semiotic chain that creates numerous middlemen between the thirst for alcohol and its consumption. "The first thing I ever thought of when walking into one of those quaint French Quarter bars was vomiting. And I usually did, running back to some urine-stinking pisspot and letting go tons and tons of fried eggs and half-cooked greasy potatoes." ('A Lovely Love Affair') This is the food industry literally turned inside out: not the pleasure of fine dining as people put morsels into their mouths, but the consequence of poor dining where food is violently rejected. Barthes says "like wine, steak is in France a basic element, nationalized even more than socialized. It figures in all the surroundings of alimentary life...it is a part of all the rhythms, that of the comfortable bourgeois meal and that of the bachelor's bohemian snack." But for Bukowski, meat of any type can never be more than a soak-up job, something to put in your stomach that might not take it, as though food were a little like a drug that produces a bad reaction.
About the only thing you can assume will work its magic is booze, and if wine and steak are for Barthes mythically essential elements in the French imaginary, alcohol has always had an ambivalent status in the United States. Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920, and moved to the US in 1923, brought up in a country that had introduced prohibition between 1920 and 1933. A New York Times headline during the 2020 campaign stated: "Spirits may be low around the country, but don't expect them to be raised in the White House after the election; neither President Trump nor Joseph R. Biden Jr. partakes in alcohol." In contrast, "President Macron boasted he drank wine everyday, at lunch and at dinner. He seemed to be supporting the French wine sector." (Radio France International) Semiotically, an American president can choose sobriety; for a French president to do so might seem unpatriotic. It is as though Bukowski's relationship with alcohol is denigrative as well as degenerative; that it doesn't only destroy his body but takes apart the myth of America as a hard-working, God-fearing abstinent country. He proposes an abject America at odds with an object-oriented nation where everyone can make it, and where the American Dream would be to own everything and drink nothing, personified in the 2016-2020 president who insisted alcohol had never touched his lips. Bukowski is someone more inclined to own nothing and drink everything.
From a certain perspective, the alcoholism so central to Bukowski's work shouldn't be viewed as a disease, but as a certain type of (dis)solution. Better drunken consciousness than false consciousness. More percipient perhaps to go to a liquor store and buy a litre of wine than find yourself drip-fed a newsfeed. "False consciousness is a socially induced misperception and misunderstanding of social life." (Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology) Better, then, to be in contact with your body, its damaged liver and its raw nerves, its tired bones and its pock-marked skin. Few people must have known more the limits of the American Dream than Bukowski, whose teenage skin rebelled against its possibility. In Ham on Rye, a doctor says to the other physicians, as the young central character sits looking on, a 20th-century elephant man: "Acne Vulgaris. The worse case I've seen in all my years of practice." The physician says that earlier he had a young girl with acne who said that she was going to kill herself since her back was covered in spots, but now "...look at this fellow! If she could see him, she'd know that she really had nothing to complain about!" The doctor assumes the boy is asleep but he is hearing every word, and no amount of Beverly Hills designer shops is likely to impose itself upon a teenage boy whose ugliness is a source of fascination for the medical profession. The abject does indeed expel the object when the body so insistently announces its presence. It would be too psychoanalytically easy to say this is the source of Bukowski's work, even if, in the novels and the stories, it is often returned to as others cannot help but notice the scarring, and in no story more than one of Bukowski's finest pieces, 'The Most Beautiful Woman in Town'.
Here, beauty does meet the beast. The narrator first sees the titular character "at the West End bar several nights after her release from the convent. Being youngest, she was the last of the sisters to be released. She came in and sat next to me. I was probably the ugliest man in town and this might have had something to do with it." Cass possesses a self-destructive beauty while the narrator is living with an ugliness he may not have been responsible for but which he is happy to augment, assuming in this seven-page short story that the narrator is no different from almost all other Bukowski narrators. If Cass destroys a beauty that is her own, while the narrator acknowledges the ugliness that is his, it is an honest affair, unmediated by the beauty she could profit from and the ugliness that gives the narrator an odd power. Beauty is nothing, beauty won't stay. Why look after it? On first meeting, she dips into her handbag and pulls out a long hat pin and, "before I could stop her she had run this long hat pin through her nose, sideways, just above the nostrils." If the narrator chose to self-harm hardly anyone would notice; it would be like adding a dash of red to a black canvas; with Cass, it is like adding red to a white one. Perhaps Cass's determination to destroy her beauty is all the more painful in that the narrator possesses an ugliness only surgery could undermine, but one of the ironies of the story is that she is jealous of him. "You don't know how lucky you are to be ugly, because if people like you, you know it's for something else." Is this a little like the doctor who comments on his skin condition that is so bad it passes for a marvel of human disfigurement, and thus a moment of breathless insensitivity? Not at all there is an affinity between the two that achieves out of the aesthetically diametric, a shared sense of destruction. But what they are destroying? By the end of the story, Cass will have destroyed herself, taking her life, but before then the narrator will see that she is regularly trying to destroy her looks. After leaving town for six months he sees her again in the West End bar where they first met. Now she is wearing a high-necked dress, a new look it seems. Later, when they go back to his place, she takes off the dress as they get ready to make love and he sees an "ugly jagged scar across her throat. It was large and thick." He asks her what the hell she has done and she says: "I tried it with a broken bottle one night. Don't you like me anymore? Am I still beautiful?" Whatever the opposite of capitalising on one's beauty is, Cass represents it, and while of course, the story ends tragically as Cass dies, the tale contains within it a sense of human integrity within disintegration. This time she hasn't only scarred herself; she has unequivocally cut her throat: "Cass the most beautiful girl in town was dead at 20."
Cass may abuse herself but she doesn't abuse her beauty, in a Bukowskian sense, if we see in the writer a preoccupation with resisting any interest in success; in Cass's case, even survival. When Cass ask the narrator if she is pretty, he says "pretty isn't the word, it hardly does you fair." Here is a young woman we can assume could easily model for a living, but she also says in a manner that suggests this isn't just an insecure young woman trying to reassure herself "people are always accusing me of being pretty. Do you think I am pretty?" From a certain point of view, Bukowski hasn't only written a Beauty and the Beast story. He has also written a Cinderella one too the youngest and most beautiful of five sisters who lost their father to alcohol and whose mother ran away, "the convent had been an unhappy place. The girls were jealous of Cass and Cass fought most of them." They might not be the ugly stepsisters but then neither were Perrault's; they just happened to be a lot less beautiful and lot more arrogant than Cinderella. In Bukowski's story, the sisters accuse her of misusing her beauty, not using her mind enough, as if the mind's purpose is to manipulate others with the beauty one possesses. "Her sisters were jealous because she attracted their men, and they were angry because they felt she didn't make the best use of them." She refuses, it seems, to commodify her looks, to make them contribute to her pursuit of the American dream. Instead of seeing herself as an object of desire, she sees herself as an abject one, someone who may die by the end of the story but hasn't turned her looks into the means of her success. The narrator is clearly devastated by her death but one may wonder if Bukowski doesn't admire Cass's resistance: that her demise needn't only be seen as a horrible loss but an act of resistance. Nobody ruins Cass but herself: she isn't like so many women, the 'type' Bukowski describes in 'The White Beard', ones whose beauty is used by others as they try to use it for themselves: "in American, when there was something like that the rich boys took it and hid it until it spoiled or changed, then they let the rest of us have a run at it." Cass doesn't let anybody have a run at her, rich or poor, unless she chooses them first. It might not seem much of a victory but Bukowski was never much of an optimist. What he did show however was a semiotic reluctance, a detrital desire to see the body for what it is and not for how it could be utilised. "I was blessed with a crappy life", Bukowski once said, in another example, like Cass's comment on her accused beauty, of an ostensibly oxymoronic verb. If shit is a word that runs through his work, a sort of skid mark to match skid row, then Bukowski sees in it a beauty most would be inclined to hold their noses over. Yet for Bukowski the scatological passes for something close to a philosophy: a micturating, masturbating, defecating, emetic life that is suspicious of anything that hides such bodily realities.
© Tony McKibbin