Decadence was brought about by . . . the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.
Chris Burden died last month, close to Caitlyn Jenner’s birth on Wikipedia. Timing is everything.
Burden gained world fame as a performance artist in the genre’s heyday. Self-wounding was integral to the act. Two years before Bruce Jenner won an Olympic Gold Medal, Burden starred in his own crucifixion. In 1976, he had himself nailed, Christ-like, to the back of a Volkswagon in a performance piece called Trans-Fixed.
His body was his canvas, body parts his material. Throughout the Seventies, he crawled on glass, suffered electric shocks, starved himself, arranged to be shot, kicked down stairs, dropped from heights, and almost drowned. No athlete endured more pain than Burden. He could easily have taken for himself Jenner’s own comment on the agonies of training for the decathlon: “I’ve got the rest of my life to recover. Who cares how much it hurts.”
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Call him Bruce or call him Caitlyn, you cannot deny the pathos of the man. At the end of the day, are there any of us who have not toyed with one fool’s paradise or another? His is more public and spectacular than most. Still, Jenner himself earns mainly pity. So does his ex-wife of twenty-four years, abandoned to a culture that mistakes support for acquiescence. Leave this melancholy pair to their mirage.
Save scorn—store it up in spades—for Vanity Fair, a fancy dress peep show for the bored and witless. It trumpets a troubled man’s delusional lust for self-mutilation as a heroic epiphany, part fashion statement, part civil rights coup. No matter the falsity. Curdled realities sell copy.
The 2015 ESPY Awards are hooked to the same pop culture drip feed. On the trot to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner, they have played a trick on themselves. They conjured away the screaming fact that the transsexed, sixty-five year old ex-athlete has more in common these days with Emma Bovary than Arthur Ashe. All Caitlyn shares with the gracious Arthur Ashe is a Y chromosome. But Flaubertian irony is lost at the party.
What fascinates me is the celebratory tenor of this parade into bedlam. Brass bands on the networks. Confetti everywhere. TV anchors appearing in full intellectual motley. They rear up like Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar to give us a sentimental education in pronoun protocol—inhaled, it seems, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s LBGT Resource Center:
You can’t always know what someone’s PGP [preferred gender pronoun] is by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s personal pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.
When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (or, often, all of the above.)
Such delicacy over grammar. It belies the ruthless surgical and pharmaceutical assault that sexual reassignment—aka sexual affirmation or confirmation entails. Procedures slice, pluck, and segment a person into an imitation of the opposite sex. Anyone with the stamina to withstand the violence to their anatomy and endocrine system, together with customary facial modifications, should be able to cope with mere pronouns.
Transwomen are yoked to a life-long regime of vaginal dilation. That strikes me as significantly more alienating than having to hear an occasional “him” instead of “her.” Besides, we used to have a rhyme that came in handy against irksome language: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” (That one little verse trumps years of sensitivity training.)
Christine Jorgensen went the full monty in the 1960s. He was castrated and vaginoplacticized. As far as I’ve heard—not exceedingly far—Caitlyn still has the family jewels. Mainstream media greeted the unveiling of breast-augmented, Adam’s-apple-and-jaw-reduced, depilated, and hormone-saturated Caitlyn Jenner as if he were a long-awaited work of art. Which, in truth, he is. Glamorous in the 1970s, the aging Jenner has made himself glamorous again in a vulgar, fifteen-minute sort of way. He has become the apogee of performance art.
How long the performance can last is anyone’s guess. Time and gravity are ineluctable.
Last thought: Once was a time young people read stories of mythical Amazons, warlike women who cut off a breast, better to draw a bow string in battle. Fearless, they conquered territories, founded cities, fought with Hercules. It was stirring stuff even for boys. Perhaps especially for boys. Today’s young read of—and are asked to applaud—men who maim themselves to seek their identity in pantyhose and synthetic cleavage.
Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, pioneered in sex-reassignment surgery in the 1960s and subsequently disavowed it. He wrote last year:
“Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.
Is this what happens when regard for the virtues of warrior culture whittles down, splinter by generational splinter, to a surfeit of regard—intoxication, really—for art and artifice? Subjectivity goes rancid. And culture decomposes on the cutting room floor in a fetid puddle of feelings.