Dance This Diss Around

Article excerpt

There would seem to be no reason in the world why readers of Artforum should want to hear about Professor Harish Chandra, chairman of the Literature Department of the University of Pataniganj - a small cantonment town, 350 dusty, derelict miles from Bombay, where the oranges are sweeter than almost anywhere in India. But the kind of "connectivity" that comes with the entanglements of E-mail turns us all into vernacular cosmopolitans, and it is unwise, anymore, to presume we know where the center lies and where the periphery falls. And there is another reason: like the U.S., the University of Pataniganj is involved in a culture war.

My electronic informant tells me that it all started, those many thousands of miles away, with a few lines from Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus":

Dying Is an art, like everything else. do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell. It's easy enough to do it and stay put. It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day

That knocks me out.

It is the theatrical display of suicide that knocks out Professor Chandra: "dying as an art," he argues, cannot be the subject of critical study. By working her suicide attempts into a poetic act, Plath violates the critic's most fundamental requirement of the poet, the "ideal of disinterestedness." That disinterestedness can only operate when the artist transcends the narcissism of self, when suffering, victimage, hurt, and historical or personal trauma are purified in the uplifting, injury-immolating fire of Spirit.

Some of Chandra's colleagues have suggested that Plath destroys any vestige of narcissism when she moves from her own suicide attempts to the historical trauma of unwilled mass death - to the Holocaust. This idea leaves Chandra cold and furious, for he believes that the individual sovereignty of the spirit should not be obscured by the trials of history, however urgent they may be. For him, Plath represents victim art. In the name of the autonomy of art and the freedom of criticism, he has decided that Plath's poem will not be taught in the Pataniganj Literature Department; out of respect for the dead, deeply ingrained in his form of Hinduism, he will remain forever silent on her work.

Despite technology's hot rush, news that comes over the Internet can easily turn into nothing more than an exotic turn-of-the-21st-century traveler's tale. Not this time: the debate on the art of dying that is playing itself out in the betel-juice-stained tea-shops of provincial Pataniganj quietly clarifies the afflatus set off in New York last December by Arlene Croce's now-celebrated New Yorkeressay, "Cussing the Undissable," sorry, "Discussing the Undiscussable."(1) Croce's succes de scandale, you'll remember, arose from her refusal to see Bill T. Jones' dance work Still/Here on the grounds that his use of HIV-positive dancers, and of video testimony by AIDS patients, turned the art of dance into "victim art," a "traveling medicine show." The scandale lay in the fact that her refusal to see the show didn't stop her from writing about it. What Susan Sontag has described as the "storm of mostly self-serving responses to Croce's 'non-review'" is now overflowing the proverbial tea cup, and every available empty vessel and shallow receptacle has been commissioned to catch the effluent.(2)

Pious pleas that Croce should have seen Still/Here before writing her piece entirely miss the radical point of her polemic. By creating a defiant hole at the very heart of her essay, in the space where, customarily, the experience or analysis of the work would have appeared, Croce makes it clear that hers is no simple act of critical interpretation and evaluation, nor even a meditation on those arts: it is a frankly ideological maneuver. If Still/Here, present in her argument only as the spectral subject of controversy, prepublicity, rumor, and report, is by any standard an example of what Croce deplores as the use of art "to meet this or that social need," she in turn uses the work to make this or that political argument. …