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Metamorphosis of a Cockroach

Listen to Jim Carroll Read "Tiny Tortures" (from Praying Mantis)

In 1962, at the age of 12, Jim Carroll began keeping diaries. Born and raised in New York City, Carroll spent his adolescence as a star basketball player, street punk, heroin addict, and hustler; The Basketball Diaries, which he first published in 1978, records these experiences from about 1962-65. By 1965, Carroll had discovered he was a poet, and so he began attending the St. Mark's Poetry Project, where he developed his art under the tutelage of poets Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, artist Larry Rivers, and others--but he was still living the life of a junky. By 1970 he was Anne Waldman's assistant at St. Mark's, and also working for Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol, but he was becoming disillusioned with the New York art scene--at least partly because its members seemed to enjoy watching him self-destruct via drug abuse; they found his "decadent artist" image romantic. In a later interview, Carroll said, "People were living vicariously off my street life, their attitude saying, 'I admire you for this, the fact that you have the balls to live out the image of the drugged-out poet" (Milward 172). He had to cut loose, and he did so by leaving New York in 1974, detoxing in California, and beginning a new career as a rock star in 1980.

His first album, Catholic Boy, was an immediate success; however, fortunately (or unfortunately), its release coincided with a new edition of The Basketball Diaries. Probably because of that, Carroll's "street punk" image again returned to haunt him: media attention centered upon his heroin addiction, again idolizing him as a romantic "drugged-out artist." Best illustrating this, Playboy printed a cartoon which says, "Since the advent of Jim Carroll, 'I'm a Catholic junkie poet'" is "hipper than 'what's your sign?'." However, the success of Catholic Boy also prompted a book contract for a sequel to The Basketball Diaries. Thus Carroll wrote Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973 and seized an opportunity to write himself out of the trap of his "street punk" identity.

"Tiny Tortures," a five-page diary from Forced Entries (which Carroll also reads on the spoken-word album Praying Mantis) beautifully illustrates the tension between Carroll's desire to transcend and transform his adolescent experience and the "street punk" persona he created in The Basketball Diaries, versus his undeniable connection to his past and his need to maintain contact with the street world upon which his art is based.

The narrator of Forced Entries is the art-scene initiate Jim Carroll of the early 1970s, and in "Tiny Tortures," prompted by his disillusionment with poetry readings and performance art events at St. Mark's Church, he recalls his experience as "performance artist . . . for a day" at age seventeen. The performance "event called for about twenty painters, musicians and poets to each do a 'piece' no longer than three minutes." On the afternoon of the event, Carroll wakes up at Headquarters, and, while puking in the toilet, spots a "hearty sized cockroach" in his bathtub. He bags it, grabs a can of Raid from under the kitchen counter, and is off to perform his piece, "Tiny Tortures," before a crowd of upper-class art patrons (60). While waiting for his turn, he comments upon the action and the audience: "Some of the events were clever, others made the allotted time seem endless," he writes; "an art critic and mediocre poet covered the windows of the place with long strips of black tape, forming x's. Some pompous geek behind me was hailing the wonderful statement it made. 'It has a lovely negative capability,' he informed his girlfriend. I began laughing so hard people surrounded me, thinking I was doing my performance" (61). Carroll then gives his performance, which consists of dumping the cockroach out of the paper bag onto the floor then blasting it "in one long barrage" followed by "a well-timed strategic pattern of quick bursts" (62). The roach is "rallied by the applause of the crowd, whose mood and gestures had suddenly shifted from that of hip supporters of the arts into crazed rednecks in the heat of a cockfight" (62-63). As Carroll puts it, "The audience loved it. / The following week, in both The East Village Other and The Village Voice, I was singled out as a stone rave in their reviews of the show. One referred to the 'keen, trenchant commentary which the piece made on urban decay.' The other called it 'a non-verbal demonstration on the horrors of Vietnam." Carroll concludes, "I agree. All that was exactly what flashed through my mind as I bagged the insect in Headquarters' bathroom that morning. And, I might add, there was a large dose of negative capability as well. . . . Fact is, the only point I was making is the point you get . . . then as now" (63).

Carroll ends with what appears to be a simple statement. However, one might well ask, when is "then"? when is "now"? and who is the "I" making the point? Fact is, the text of "Tiny Tortures" presents at least three distinct historical "selves": Carroll circa 1967 as performance artist for a day; Carroll circa 1971 as narrator of the diary; and Carroll circa 1981-86, the author, now famous as a rock star, writing Forced Entries under a book contract. Carroll's reading of "Tiny Tortures" at St. Mark's Church in 1990 for the spoken-word album Praying Mantis adds yet another historically-specific "self" to the catalogue. Each of these personas lives within specific material circumstances and has a distinct relationship to the New York art scene. Together with Carroll's views of his art in relation to what is going on around him at any given time, each distinct set of circumstances affects Carroll's attitude toward that scene, performance art, poetry readings, art critics, and the audiences who attend performances, as well as the reader's perception of what "the point" might be.

The 1967 Carroll, "performance artist for a day," is the Jim Carroll promised by the last entry of The Basketball Diaries: he is still frequenting Headquarters, addicted to heroin, probably still hustling. Put another way, his life is a part of reality that "respectable society" does not want to acknowledge exists. But Carroll refuses to be invisible; he wants to be seen and knows the only way to be seen is to win his way into the elite society of artists that denies his existence. The art scene is alluring and enchanting to him: it gives him a chance for "purity" by allowing him to display his talent and wit as an artist. He is aware of the hypocrisy of the art scene, but just as he proved himself on the basketball court in spite of the corrupt institutions and coaches he played for in The Basketball Diaries, Carroll is trying to prove his worth as an artist in spite of the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the art scene--by showing "presence." It is like his Fall '63 Riverdale game all over again. Suddenly the elite society which normally looks down its nose at him is cheering for him, and he, normally a "cockroach," is judged as a serious (performance) artist.

But what is the nature of the art Carroll offers to this crowd? A cockroach and a can of Raid? In one sense, the cockroach he kidnaps from Headquarters' bathtub is an emblem of his material circumstances and his life experiences. Literally, in 1967, Carroll was living at Headquarters, a hangout for junkies and delinquents, which he says, in The Basketball Diaries, has "so many roaches climbing the walls that if they all opened their mouths in unison I believe it would sound like the barking of Irish wolfhounds" (184). Cockroaches are part of everyday reality for Carroll, and this everyday reality is the subject of his art. His artistic achievement is that he presents a "cockroach-infested" reality we don't want to admit exists; in fact, he makes us want to see it and like it. We join Carroll in his world, see that world in a new light, and "vermin" is transformed into art.

The 1980s author of Forced Entries has honed his art to such an extent that Catholic Boy's lowlife street imagery is often surprisingly beautiful. He is the Jim Carroll who has made it inside the art scene, escaped as inconspicuously as possible, detoxed (in more ways than one), and found a way to embrace his past (and transform it again) in rock music. However, when the spotlight lands on him, he is still defined as the same decadent street punk who bagged a bug from his bathtub; his audience is drawn to his street punk past while his artistic transformation of that past goes unnoticed. Where in 1967, as a performance artist for a day, he was a "cockroach" judged as a serious (performance) artist, now he is a serious artist judged as a cockroach. He is being judged only by his Basketball Diaries persona so that his transformation of his past in Catholic Boy is ignored, and as if it didn't matter that he had conquered his heroin addiction and reformed himself completely. Significantly, the 1980s writer has found a way to embrace and transform his past to suit his "becoming" self, and it is he who constructs the 1970s narrator in his own image to reify his "present," 1980s self.

The 1970s narrator has made his way inside the art scene, at least marginally, but he has discovered that it is as hollow and rotten at the core as the basketball leagues and other institutions he enters in The Basketball Diaries. By 1971 Carroll is Anne Waldman's assistant, is working for Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers, and has published many poems and diaries in small literary magazines as well as Poetry and Paris Review (nearly half of Living at the Movies is in print), Waldman has included his work in her World anthologies, he is involved in John Giorno's "Dial-a-Poem" project, and he has won the Random House Young Writer's Award for 1970. Clearly he has begun to establish himself as an artist. But as in The Basketball Diaries, once he has made his way inside an elite order, its magic is gone. "Poetry readings don't cut it for me the way they used to" (58), he says, and part of the problem is that what was once a challenge and a thrill has now become work: "My enjoyment, or lack of it, is academic at this point. . . . The fact is, I work here now," he says; "So I'm pretty much held captive, a prisoner of mumblings, poor phrasing, elision and the caustic whinings of our 'guests' every Wednesday, week after week" (59). Adding to his disillusionment is the fact that now he is able to assess each poet's skill from the inside perspective of an artist. Many poets, he feels, butcher their work while reading them: "You can almost see the words dropping in front of the podium onto the liturgical red carpet, squirming in circles like fumigated bugs, before ever reaching the audience" (58-59).

His disenchantment also extends to performance art: as he puts it, "Some of them [performance artists] are ingenious, enlightening and entertaining as well. Some of them are quite funny actually, though often that is not their intention. Then again, many of them are wrapped in so many layers of pretense that it would be a performance piece in itself to strip them all away" (59). While he seems to be condemning performance art, it is important to note that, because he was a performance artist for a day, he implicates himself as well: the 1970s narrator recognizes the tightrope he is walking between presenting his art authentically and becoming the sort of pretentious, boring "artist" he despises. The problem is that, while he wants to be recognized as a serious artist, especially as a poet, he knows that what keeps him authentic, rooted in reality, is his connection to the streets. He also feels that his unpretentious, unpremeditated act of bagging a bug in Headquarters' bathroom makes his art more real than that of the artists he denounces. Yet the 1970s narrator does not want to be the Jim Carroll who lives at Headquarters; he wants to "put a lid on the seamier side of the double life I've continued to lead" (113).

Thus a major question for the 1970s narrator is how he can best use his past and the reality of his existence (represented in the roach): will his art serve merely as sadistic entertainment for his 1970s "audience," or can he transform it into something else? As a result, the cockroach performance, for the 1970s narrator, encompasses the 1967 performer's goal of transformation of vermin (impurity) into art (purity), and it is both an extermination of his own impurity and entertainment for a sadistic crowd. But more important to the 1970s narrator (as well as the 1980s author), looking back on his day as a performance artist is a reminder of the value of his unique artistic vision--it is an affirmation of his street punk sensibility and an extermination of the pretentiousness of his fellow artists, whose words "[squirm] in circles like fumigated bugs." For both the 1970s narrator and the 1980s author, the "Tiny Tortures" performance encapsulates a moment in which Carroll demonstrated that he could participate in a corrupt milieu yet retain his own artistic integrity. In addition, to the 1980s author, "Tiny Tortures" attests to the value of his street-based artistic vision, which he has continued to explore even after leaving the streets.

"Tiny Tortures" demonstrates, on a small scale, a paradox in Carroll's "identity" running through all of his work. That is, Carroll is constantly rewriting and redefining himself and his life, thereby producing multiple concrete, internally-consistent "selves." But these "selves" also comment upon, redefine, and transform each other, so no one self-representation is complete in itself, nor can any one stand alone as the final, "real" Jim Carroll. Furthermore, the cockroach of Carroll's performance piece serves as a metaphor to show how the "point" of both the "Tiny Tortures" performance and the "Tiny Tortures" diary changes with each persona. The result is that "Tiny Tortures" undercuts the possibility of authoritative subjectivity and precludes permanent definition of Carroll and his work.


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