Chris Kraus

The Future Anterior - Berlin

When Gerhard Falkner and Sascha Anderson were in their early teens, their lives were changed forever by a book called Acid. They didn't know each other at the time. Falkner was in the West, and Anderson was in the East. Neither of them had yet to try hallucinatory drugs, but when they read these first translations of the Beats, they felt the walls of guilt and archaic culture that separated the two Berlins from the real world crumble. They and all their friends ­ the entire post-war generation ­ realized then that being young was more significant than being German.

Twenty years later, Anderson and Falkner were both poets. They were friends, they liked each other's work, and with some other friends they'd started up a press to bring the former-east and west together. When they heard Jerome was visiting Berlin that summer, they thought the three of them could work together. They'd read Jerome's magazines, heard about the legendary cultural events he'd organized in New York City. With his participation, they could produce another Acid, and influence the new post-wall generation. Who were the successors to the Beats? They did not exactly know, but they trusted that Jerome could point them where the scene was. They'd call the book AmLit, they could do a tour together.

For the past 18 months, Sylvie has been editing a fiction series for Jerome's press. No one exactly knows she's doing this, because his name appears right next to hers up on the masthead. He's doing this to "lend his name" and give the books legitimacy. They fight about this constantly. Sylvie thinks that since they're married and Jerome is known and she is not, her name, when next to his, becomes negated. She's certain everyone who thinks about this (which must be 15 people, tops) perceives it as a further proof of Jerome's power. That is: Instead of merely thanking her in the acknowledgements where wives belong, he'd placed her name alongside his, giving her co-credit. What a feminist. Still, she sees this as a chance to help out some of her East Village friends: girls whose work is much too weird to be mainstream, but too female to be read as "countercultural." And most of these girls are pleased to have Jerome's name on the masthead.

After six or seven days of hanging around Jerome's apartment in Berlin, Sylvie accompanies him to Sascha Anderson's apartment for an AmLit planning meeting. Their aging long-haired dachshund, Lily, stays at home and guards the house; she mostly can't keep up with them on their fast walks around the city. Sascha lives in Prenzlauerberg, which is like the Kreuzberg of the former-east, though still a lot less gentrified. He has a cavernous set of rooms there that he shares with an indeterminate group of friends and girlfriends, wives and children. Sascha is small and mobile and alert. Jerome naturally takes him for a Jew. One year later he'll be scathingly described as debrouillard by Janet Kramer in a long New Yorker article. As everybody knows, the word is practically synonymous in French with "Jew": It means small and shifty hustler.

Falkner, who is obviously "of the west," is definitely the front man of the operation. He has movie-star good looks. His reputation spans the gap between the academic dinosaurs of German lit, and people his own age in German media. His trim blonde wife stays just long enough to say hello, then disappears in a terrific '66 Mercedes with their two blonde children.

Still, Sascha's the one who seems to have the money, and contrary to the appearance of the apartment, quite a lot of it, it seems. His poetry is less accessible than Gerhard Falkner's. It's abstract, clumps of words describing things that don't belong together, but delivered as a threat ­ as if nonsense was itself an anarchist polemic. The only reason Anderson will come within Janet Kramer's scope is, he'll be outed as a former Stasi spy by his enemy, Wolf Biermann. This will be treated as a shocking revelation, the idea that Sascha could recite his poems in dive-bars and then phone in a list of names to his superiors in the same evening. As if half the East German population had not been charged, for twenty years, with spying on the other. Kramer will meticulously describe his short red beard, his darting, rat-like eyes, his ironic, arrogant demeanor.

And so it might have been that AmLit was one of the Stasi's final projects. At the time, Jerome and Sylvie did not know anything about it, and would it matter if they did? In their eyes it was debatable whether the Stasi was worse or better than Der Spiegel.

As they walk towards Sascha Anderson's from a U-Bahn station that still bears Karl Marx' name, Sylvie wakes up a little from the torpor she's sunk into since arriving in Berlin. Unlike Jerome's other Berlin friends, Sascha and Falkner are her contemporaries, they aren't older 60's guys. She thinks they'll have a lot to talk about. But when they arrive at the apartment, the scene seems very weird, as if it's 1962. A few of Sascha's friends, all guys, are hanging on the couches drinking beer. Their girlfriends, wives, and hippie-kids are all together in the kitchen. Because the girlfriends don't speak English, Sylvie sits beside Jerome with all the guys. There is a painting right above her head of a pair of cunt-lips sprouting fangs. It's part of an entire series, actually, of works presumably inspired by de Kooning's women.

The German guys are curious what the scene is in New York: Who's peaked? Who's important? Why did William Burroughs leave and move to Kansas? What about the "poetry wars" of the mid-80s? The language poets? The St. Marks school? Are the neo-objectivists really over? Jerome hasn't got a clue. Since arriving in New York, he's stayed away from poets, with their righteous poverty and pointless petty feuds. At least the things the Soho art-world fights about are material and tangible.

Sylvie, on the other hand, knows lots of poets. The poets were her friends, before she met Jerome and left her rat-hole in the East Village. She thinks about the poet-bands who bravely sealed their own obscurity, adopting names that reference cultural histories no one knows or cares about: the V-Effect, the Avant Squares, and Lulu. There is a willful amateurism within the poet-world Sylvie finds appealing. It's deeply punk. It is a kind of freedom. Unlike the artists, the poets in New York she knows mostly share her and Jerome's background. They grew up Jewish lower-middle class, dropped out of crappy colleges and taught themselves. They sit on dirty mattresses and recite the 17th century mettaphysical poems of Robert Herrick. Their self-taught erudition is a secret more sublime than any tawdry recognition. Each time she argues with Jerome about her credit on the series, he tells her that it doesn't really count: She's not a writer, she's a filmmaker. Still, as she listens to the men exchange ideas around the table she thinks, I'm 36 years old. Everything I do now has to matter.

As the afternoon wears on, they start to make a list of men, all white. The possible contributors. There aren't any women on the list. She says this. From past experience, she knows that there are never any women on the list unless someone consciously decides to put them there. In the world they move around in, the names spring to mind as edgy, solid, credible, are almost always men's, except for the odd woman who is seen to be "exceptional." And yet ­ almost all the writers Sylvie knows and likes are female. "Umm, what about ­", and she reels off a long list of people no one in the room has ever heard of. Most of them are dykes. The rest look like they might be. Bernadette and Gail, Susie, Ann and Alice have written poetry for years that is amazingly complex, literate, informed, but still direct ­ and female. The men just gape. Jerome is terribly embarrassed. "What about", he ventures, "Kathy Acker"?

Sylvie presses her lips together tight and glares at him. At this moment, Acker is in London at the peak of a fame and notoriety that only certain men who write enjoy, on par with actresses and rock stars. She's accomplished this, in part, by distancing herself from all the women Sylvie's just suggested. Acker understands that in order to succeed she has to be a myth. Unlike the beats, female myths don't run in groups, they're singular. The image she's concocted for herself is as radical and striking as her writing: shaved head, red pouting ruby lips and muscles. Sometimes she shows off her tattoos in vintage lingerie; other times she's seen in muscle-shirt and boots, astride a Honda Shadow. Her picture's everywhere you look, and a book of hers has recently been banned in Germany as child pornography.

Of course, thinks Sylvie, if there has to be a woman, she would be it. Her books seduce and challenge heterosexual men; her photos just seduce them. Once, Sylvie'd seen Karen Finlay play the Paramount. Wearing a black satin corset and spike heels, Finlay performed her now-set piece with yams to the cheers of Bridge and Tunnel frat boys in the audience. Was it a coincidence that she and Kathy Acker were the only female artists in their world to get anywhere near the mainstream? Was sex still the only passport to success if you were straight and female?

Acker's name was added to the list. It was an excellent idea. They'd have her on the tour, she'd be the headliner.

Across the globe in 1991, wars were being fought for meaning which five years later would seem quaint, and five years later still, unfathomable.

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