Let’s Face It
Jan 21 2013
“It isn’t enough to refuse the Legion of Honor. The important thing is never to have deserved it.” (Erik Satie or Edgar Varese, I’m not sure which.)
This has nothing to do with anything. But: absolutely nothing happens in The Idiot. Roghozin murders Nastasya Filippovna, but we don’t see that, and in any case the book tells us this is going to happen in the first 20 pages. For the six or seven hundred pages following, people speculate aloud about what kind of people they are. Nastasya Filippovna throws the money in the fireplace to see if Ganya has the strength of character to let it burn.
Everything is a kind of ink blot. Am I a scoundrel? Do I believe in God? A character finds his missing wallet and leaves it where another character looking for it is certain to find it, to learn whether that person will steal it.
I sometimes think that, apart from Prince Myshkin, the important figure in The Idiot is Hyppolite, the nihilist, who tries to shoot himself and discovers that the gun isn’t loaded. The others accuse him of cowardice, and he protests indignantly that he simply forgot to load it in his haste to kill himself to prove that he would kill himself.
It is unlucky to bedazzle people. There are innocent, nutty fixés that simply make people who have them look ridiculous, and then, a few yards away, there’s Mark David Chapman.
Writers are more fortunate than other well-known people because they are usually not celebrities. Their faces aren’t what people know about them. They’re usually shy, awkward, troubled. They spend an unhealthy amount of time alone. I don’t know what to do with my face when a friend pays me a compliment, much less someone I don’t know. I always think: “Oh god, if you actually knew me.”
But I did have one delirious fan. He kept me on the telephone for hours every night, during a period when I was snorting heroin to cure my insomnia. He terrorized me with idolatry. According to him, I was the only writer in the world worth reading, “or at least in the United States,” all others were hacks. No one had ever written a novel as good as Resentment, or Horse Crazy, no one had ever before had my insight, my honesty, my—“language brilliance,” was the phrase I think he used.
I stayed on the phone because I was nodding off from heroin, but also because I had the feeling if I hung up he would come to my apartment and hack me to death with a meat cleaver. He became so hazardous to my mental equilibrium that I pretended to leave the country for several months. I hoped his admiration would migrate elsewhere. Like most airborne viruses, it did. When I returned from Manchuria, he was deeply obsessed with a staff critic at The New Yorker, who may or may not have been grateful for the attention.
Unlike most writers, Susan Sontag was a celebrity. She was famous, of course, which is a different thing. But her hair was a celebrity. Strangers could pick her out in a crowd, though they didn’t really have to; her whole manner of self-presentation insisted on the celebrity treatment, which she shrewdly disparaged, in any celebrity limelight, as lacking “seriousness.”
Like all but the most unwilling celebrities, she cultivated sycophants. She encouraged their slavish awe. They were useful. They were willing to wax her floors, courier her manuscripts, type her correspondence. They gladly would have walked 20 miles to fetch her a can of Bustelo, if she’d asked.
In troubled moments, Susan solicited comfort for various disappointments, then berated those who offered it for being too stupid to understand what was really bothering her. Why why why, she demanded to know, did she have to be surrounded by idiots? She didn’t care what she did with her face; she always had a spare. She could do an impressive save after one of these tirades by sprinkling a little flattery on someone she had just called an idiot. But when she reminded acolytes once too often of their idiotic insignificance, they turned against her. Nobody shot her outside the Dakota, thank god, but having met some of her ex-admirers over the years, I’m surprised no one tried.
She confused friends with adorers, with predictably negative consequences. Copping amphetamines for her for several years probably encouraged her delusion that I was “on call.” I had to remind her at times that I hung out with her because it was fun to know someone who’d read more books than I had, to go to the movies with, go dancing, take drugs—I didn’t want “career help.” I didn’t want to go to literary parties, I didn’t want to publish in The New York Review of Books, I didn’t want to meet her Nobel Prize-winning friends, or sit on panels, or glean any of the dubious perks that dawdling in the shadow of her fame had to offer.
She had so many acolytes eager to fawn over her, that sometimes she forgot where people had marked their boundaries. There was the famous fire when she lived on King Street, that Sigrid Nunez writes about in Siempre Susan: a fireplace in the next building burned through the party wall and coated the lower floor of Susan’s duplex with soot. Like Nunez, I was summoned in the expectation that I would “volunteer” to clean this sooty film off Susan’s several thousand books. Unlike Nunez, who had more reasons to feel conflicted about that sort of thing than I did, I declined. Susan had her stupid side, like everybody else. This soot invasion didn’t look like the traumatic catastrophe she made it out to be. She could easily have cleaned it up herself. She considered that beneath her. If it was beneath her, I reckoned, it was also beneath me. I suggested she call up some of her walkers—there were always a few—who would be thrilled to feather-dust her library. She took this surprisingly well, contenting herself with the bitter observation that if Jasper Johns had a fire, he could check into a five-star hotel and hire slaves to clean up the damage.
It had to have been 1982 or 83 that, owing to my wretched diet, cigarettes, alcohol, amphetamine, or all four things, or something else entirely, toxins in my blood produced a hideous impacted lump on my right cheek.
I went to a dermatologist at NYU Medical Center who lanced and drained it many times. It would go flat for a day or two, scabbing and weeping little beads of blood, then swell up again, like a hideous little volcano on my face. He assured me that we would “root out the problem.” He squished out nauseating gouts of pus with his gloved fingers, then stuffed me with antibiotics. I was mortified to be seen in public, and yet that year I had to be out in public often, in several countries.
In Paris, as we left his apartment to go to the theater, Brion Gysin studied the fiery nodule on my cheek and declared with a louche sigh, “Let’s just cure that.” He slapped an inch-thick layer of foundation makeup on it. The next morning the cyst had sucked in the makeup and swelled to the size of a dinosaur egg.
Later that winter, Ulrike Ottinger cast me as some sort of demented Bavarian in her film Dorian Gray—partly, I think, because of the ungovernable cyst. It was a movie of freaks and deformities, and she didn’t need to waste money on a makeup artist to make me look like a grotesque.
The cyst raged on into spring. I forgot that I had ever looked nice. My friend Betsy urged me to see T--- Mc-, a tall, bearish, and, as later became obvious, embittered, envious alcoholic brother of the renowned underground playwright M--- Mc--. The lesser Mc--- had recently qualified as a plastic surgeon. Betsy knew him from her student days at Tulane.
Promising to restore me to a condition worthy of MGM, this maestro of the epidermis made drastic incisions in several parts of my face that left a hideous trench of scars that no camera could fail to render as a dire impersonation of Eddie Constantine. It was one of those many unpleasant moments in life when you are forced to realize nothing you can do will make an intolerable problem go away.
Jane Weinstock, the filmmaker, recommended a dermatologist. He was a blandly pleasant-looking man in his mid-30s named Alan, who told me that, despite recent alarmist stories about silicone, when used correctly it was perfectly safe, and really the only thing that would smooth out the kind of scars I had, unless I wanted to have it done with saline filler, every three months, for the rest of my life—a wildly expensive option. I told him to go ahead.
He did the injections in his office, using a huge magnifier trained on my cratered cheek. The pads of his fingers, moving delicately over the scars, inspired complete confidence.
We would need to wait for the swelling to go down to determine how many treatments I’d need. Alan was supremely reassuring. I liked him. He made a strange face when I asked if he thought I should sue T--- Mc- for malpractice. I thought nothing of it. A week later, Alan checked into a midtown hotel and blew his brains out.
Months later, I ran into Jane. She quizzed me about my skin. I still had some issues. She urged me to consult Alan’s widow, who was also a dermatologist.
“Oh God, Jane, that would be so fucking morbid.”
“No, really, I know it sounds weird after what happened, but she is really very good. And it’s so awful for her, a lot of their patients just abandoned her after the suicide.”
I did not know why Alan had killed himself. Neither did Jane. But I didn’t want to be petty-minded, like those feckless ex-patients. So I made an appointment.
On the first visit, Mrs. Alan (I’ve forgotten the last name) injected more silicone along the fault line. A few weeks later she finished the injections. Tossing the syringe, she fixed me with the kind of look people sometimes assume when they wish to appear brave.
“Would it bother you if I told you why Alan killed himself?”
“Well, no, of course not,” I said, thinking it would probably bother me quite a lot.
“It’s like this. He was being sued. He had these three patients—you see, it was all a big set-up by lawyers. These women all knew each other—Alan gave them treatments, and one of them read some nonsense in a magazine. They saw their golden opportunity, and hired a bunch of lawyers—”
The gist was, these disgruntled patients had filed a lawsuit claiming that little dribbles of silicone had migrated from where they’d been injected, to nerve endings in other parts of their bodies. Potentially causing tics, neuropathies, even brain damage. They won their case. The court awarded them several million dollars. Facing total ruin, Alan checked into the Times Square Hotel with a pistol he’d bought “at some horrible place in New Jersey.”
My thought was that the Times Square Hotel was a brothel for male hustlers and $20 hookers, a tawdry location to pick for the great disappearing act. But of course I didn’t say so.
Mrs. Alan explained more about the lawsuits and the “wild allegations” Alan’s patients had presented in court. Hearing this was not reassuring. She said Alan had abandoned her and their two small children, leaving her with enormous legal fees that would keep them in a miserable financial condition for years and years to come.
She revealed that, since Alan’s death, she had often contemplated suicide herself. Their joint income had made a privileged lifestyle she no longer enjoyed possible. Alan had been the great love of her life, and without him everything was meaningless.
“I’m still debating about it in my mind,” she said. “But, under the circumstances, I have to think about the children first.”
“Well, of course.”
She took a deep breath.
“Obviously, I’d have to kill them, too.”
After this revelation, literally and figuratively, I truly didn’t know what to do with my face. I supposed I would just have to live with it.
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