The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart
Like Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Belgian-born conceptual artist Filip Noterdaeme’s The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart combines reflections on art with anecdotes about artists—some serious, some not. Where Stein appears mostly to celebrate the decades (even the war years) during which she and a cohort of now world-famous artists came to prominence, Noterdaeme’s book strikes a more complicated tone between éloge and elegy, offering praise for a range of figures working in various media as well as cutting words for the more careerist and business-minded among the many artists, cabaret performers, curators, gallerists, and museum directors with whom he has come into contact since arriving in New York over 25 years ago.
In the early 1990s when Noterdaeme was studying at Hunter College, he invented a character for himself, Marcellus Wasbending-Ttum, whom he described as a “Homoplagiarist,” a playful term that seems to combine homosexuality with an illicit form of writing. The single word, “homoplagiarist,” represents something of a key to reading The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, for the book is somewhat concerned with sex and with homosexuality, but ultimately much more invested in what it means to plagiarize the “homo,” possibly homosexual, but perhaps more provocatively “the same.” What does it mean to say the same thing, and is it ever really possible? A related question would be: in what way is the Paris of Stein’s epoch both like and most unlike the New York of the last couple decades, i.e., not the same at all?
One could do worse than to define “modernity” as the moment in which writers begin to question their belatedness (consider, in this regard, William Blake’s statement in Jerusalem: “I must create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s”), that is, to question whether they may be said to possess any originality or might only be plagiarists of one sort or another. One source of anxiety over originality has to do with every writer’s awareness of not having invented the language which he or she is nevertheless attempting to appropriate. Such a concern might have prompted Gertrude Stein to write in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “Sentences not only words but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s life long passion.” Even the rarest words defy authorship and belong to no one, whereas sentences make an author’s style and become the source of any possible “originality.” I would note, in Stein’s remark, the triple repetition of the word “sentences.” Somewhat like Filip Noterdaeme, her style, too, is famously about the repetition of “the same”—even within the same phrase—a curious form of “auto-homoplagiarism.”
But what to make of the style of one who explicitly refers to himself as a plagiarist?
In order to understand Filip Noterdaeme’s peculiar brand of “homoplagiarism,” I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart back to back, noting the passages from the latter that seemed somehow built upon the former. While I don’t think every reader of Noterdaeme must do this, I have to say I enjoyed it, for I felt as if I were being let in on the author’s compositional technique. And, more importantly, I found that reading between the two brought an extra layer of meaning and humor to numerous passages from both works.
To give an example, of the many extraordinary artists who make an appearance within Stein’s text (Picasso, Matisse, Satie, etc.), she reserves a special admiration for Guillaume Apollinaire, of whom she writes:
Guillaume was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.
About his friend, Shuki Cohen, Noterdaeme writes:
Shuki was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.
Here, the repetition is extended and explicit, but despite the appearance of the same language, the effect is dramatically different. Everyone knows Guillaume Apollinaire and may have even read one of his poems. But who is Shuki Cohen? There is something a little too grand, perhaps, about the transference of such high praise from the French poet to this other, lesser known person. Does this mean the praise is insincere? I don’t think so, but I have to wonder and, having once spotted this passage from Stein in Noterdaeme, I know to keep my guard up when reading this incorrigible ironist for whom nothing is ever simple or straightforward.
As soon as one doubts the absolute sincerity of the praise for Shuki Cohen, however, one ought to take a second look at the praise for Apollonaire. What is the meaning of the strange final clause, “and oddly enough generally correctly”? With that final emendation, is Stein not admitting that Apollinaire was not only brilliant but that he occasionally went too far in his elaborations and said things that were “incorrect”? Is this a subtle dig at the poet? Noterdaeme’s “exact repetition” of Stein’s language in a remote context helps to bring out hidden features of the original, making the earlier text strangely a product of the latter (a rhetorical figure known as “metalepsis,” or the reversal of cause and effect).
More often, Noterdaeme’s appropriations are much more modest, as when his narrator, Daniel Isengart, states:
The most pleasant catering company to work for was Glorious Food. It was owned by Sean Driscoll who had worked and worked and worked and as they say had re-written the book on how to do catering in New York. But what a great book the real story of what goes on behind the scenes in the catering world would be.
This passage recalls Stein’s remark about Hemingway: “What a book would be the real story of Hemingway, not those he writes but the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway.” While the resemblance between the two passages is not as great as in the earlier example, the joke is nevertheless quite precise, for, like a magician, Noterdaeme has transformed the author of A Moveable Feast, himself, into a movable feast.
For Noterdaeme a word, any word, is linked to a network of other words by way of both its sound and its meaning. So, on the level of meaning, “Hemingway” can be connected to “catering,” via the middle term “A Moveable Feast.” But “Hemingway” could also be connected, via sound, to “hammering away” or “hummingbird” among other possibilities. The ability to make such connections is an ancient source of wit as well as the essence of a certain form of psychoanalysis, one which emphasizes the “floating attention” of the analyst, his or her ability to make surprising connections among the signs (understood as both signifiers and signifieds) proffered by the analysand.
One gets the sense, reading Noterdaeme, that for him the entire history of art is an enormous dreamwork open to the “free” association of the analyst. In creating such objects as the “Egg on Schiele” (fake egg on a Schiele print) or the “Francis Bacon with Extra Bacon” (fake bacon on a Bacon print), Noterdaeme turns his “floating attention” into a form of creative listening, manufacturing something new from a small variation on “the same.”
Works based on puns enable Noterdaeme to combine the high and the low as well as to bring the rich and famous down a notch or two, as when he casually refers to a famous museum as the “Pottery Barnes Foundation.” His interest in puns owes something to the dada and surrealist artists of Stein’s era but is also related to the work of his real-life partner, Daniel Isengart, a witty and refined cabaret performer as well as a terrific chef. In describing how New York changed his sense of what is possible within cabaret performance, Isengart says: “Seeing Joey Arias perform for the first time was, as I always say, the beginning of my understanding of mixing the frivolous with the profound in cabaret.” Something in the manner of the celebrated cabaret singer Joey Arias, Noterdaeme’s punning intelligence also combines the frivolous and the profound.
One could say that Noterdaeme’s greatest “homoplagiarism” is to have stolen the life story of his partner, but that would be to underestimate the extent to which their work over the past 20 years has been a true collaboration or labor of love. About one of their earlier collaborations, Isengart says:
It was at about that time that Judy’s, a little Chelsea cabaret and the only downtown cabaret with a purple ruffled silk curtain, invited me to do a show. Filip Noterdaeme said, do the whole show in drag. I was hesitant. Let me direct you, he said, that way neither of us will know what we are doing and this is the only way to create something new.
I can think of no more beautiful sign of trust than to allow a self-confessed neophyte to become one’s director, and this trust is clearly at work across the collaborations of these two artists. In collaborating, the ownership of the work is put in suspension along with the notion of “homoplagiarism,” for it is impossible to steal what no one owns.
Underneath the jokes, puns, and good humor which make up Noterdaeme’s long career of “homoplagiarism,” one can easily detect in his writing, other, darker notes of sadness and anger directed towards an art world which seems largely to have forgone the pleasures of the intimate, the subtle, and the small. Perhaps no recent exhibition poses this dilemma more forcefully than Marina Abramovic’s blockbuster retrospective of a few years ago, “The Artist is Present.” By sitting in a chair every day for months and inviting visitors to sit opposite her, Abramovic generated a certain possibility for intimate, face-to-face, encounter. And yet, the mise-en-scène of her performance—cameras, bright lights, a long line of visitors waiting to sit in front of her and occasional celebrity drop ins—made the possibility of intimacy, of collaboration, almost non-existent.
It is a question for me whether Abramovic’s work is “about” the destruction of intimacy at the hands of such forces or whether it simply re-produces that destruction without much hesitation. There is in her facial expression something of the same inhumanity one finds in the mask-like visage of Gertrude Stein one encounters in the famous portrait by Picasso, although the latter seems more inviting for being dislocated, nearly broken in two. Noterdaeme saves some of his most stinging remarks for Abramovic, but it seems only fitting, not to quote his assessment of her performance but rather the words of his friend, Penny Arcade: “this show should be called The Artist is THERE. Marina is there alright but she is definitely not present.”
By contrast, Filip Noterdaeme is present, both in The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart and in his capacity as the director of the Homeless Museum (HOMU), a traveling micro-exhibition wherein Noterdaeme converses one-on-one with visitors to his museum, a set-up which allows him to practice, on the street, his “floating attention” and penchant for puns. In whatever medium he works, one senses Noterdaeme’s joy in appropriation, a joy which undoubtedly helps to connect and to sustain the artists around him. Noterdaeme, Isengart, Arias, and Arcade (as well as others in their circle) constitute something of a “League of Homoplagiarists,” each happily lifting each other’s lines if not lives. It’s a playful group and one of the few clubs of which I would be glad to be a member.