New York

Steve Fagin, “Virtual Play”

Her face adorns the cover of a book. She wears a direct gaze, adamantly askew hair, and a full, welcoming mouth, all of which are framed by a fur collar. The book is The Freud Journal of Lou Andreas-Salomé and it is she who covers it. The blurb beneath the title reads, “A fascinating glimpse at Freud and his circle in the early years of the twentieth century.” So Lou Andreas-Salomé is the one who glimpses, who (according to Webster’s definition) gives us faint, passing appearances or inklings. The glimpse is that which shines unsteadily; the intermittent glow and not the beacon. The glimpse is never anthematic like a fixation and lacks the insistence of a stare or the lasciviousness of an ogle. It carries the interrupted enlightenment of a distant source. So it is not surprising that when Friedrich Nietzsche met Lou Salomé he asked, “From what stars have we fallen to meet here?” On the radio the appropriately named Madonna bleats “you are my shining star” to a lover who, in the next installment, makes her feel “like a virgin,” makes her feel unsoiled by sex—“shiny and new”; to Madonna’s old-fashioned-girl riff Lou Andreas-Salomé plays the intellectual and sexual adventuress. She privileged the “erotic hour” and women’s ability to allow for physical affection. The psychoanalytic writing of the last third of her life ranged from papers on feminine sexuality and on anality and sexuality to her most celebrated work, “The Dual Orientation of Narcissism.” She seemed intent on mixing intellectual activity with the enjoyments and disappointments of daily life, or, better still, to see these not as separate arenas but as pieces of a single cloth. But history provides us with a more lopsided reading of her life, recording less about the weight or lightness of her intellectual work and more about her role as muse and desired object to a generation of “great” and not so “great” men. She seemed to be their locus of exchange, a charming conduit and, of course, a great listener who dispensed “feminine intuition” with a kind of juicy grace. She broke Nietzche’s heart, was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “older woman” and Freud’s confidante.

This description of Lou Andreas-Salomé as the focus of a particular type of male attention brings us to Virtual Play: The Double Monkey Wrench in Black’s Machinery, 1984, a videotape by Steve Fagin. It is about Andreas-Salomé in that it places itself in various positions around her figure. These can be read as segments—viewings that vary from truncated soap operas to touristic slide shows to lessons on how to cook a chicken and build a dollhouse (just to name a few). The images are blanketed with a sound track that jumps from speech to song and forms a generally rich kind of ruckus. Rather than constructing a rigid chronological narrative, Fagin’s surrounding views range far and wide and join the eloquences of the tableau with the elementary clarity of the comic strip. Two hats bob atop some chair backs and we realize that we are watching and hearing Lou (Jeanne Wolf Berstein) and Anna Freud (Jutta Collins) recount stories about Freud’s pet dogs and a narcissistic cat. We see Lou cozying up with the young Rilke, and, in one of the most effective segments, we watch her engage in an astutely zany bilingual conversational duet with Elizabeth Nietzsche (Ingrid Edgers). This scene, like many of the others, focuses on language and how it asserts or effaces notions of fact and fiction, clarity and confusion. Other moments offer lectures on the early uses of photography. Tales of terror emanate from telephone answering machines, and a semiotician and an anthropologist puzzle over the reaction of a group of “natives” to a film.

Fagin has concocted a “creative” conglamouration of psychoanalytic theories, biographical snippets, Sybergian expositions, and calculated child’s play. Although things sometimes collapse into a self-congratulatory and needlessly protracted parade of visual fluencies, Fagin fortunately avoids the rigid dictations and blind pomposities of theoretical illustration. The richness of the work allows it to offer viewings and readings on a number of levels, from pleasurable visual dexterity to gossipy verbal admission to the decoding of rebuslike textual formations.

But Virtual Play could also be called a congregation of quotations and effects. And perhaps the word “congregation” is an unfortunately apt one since an air of religiosity seems to pervade the entire affair (or affairs). Fagin approaches the woman he believes to be Lou Andreas-Salomé with a rote determination: she becomes muselike, literally the veiled Salomé, a richly segmented and constructed object which he articulates with the finesse of the fetishist. Virtual Play is around and about Lou Andreas-Salomé but she is really beside the point. The tape’s subject is actually Steve Fagin and the exchange her figure activates between him and the other men who have gazed at her picture, whose words have fallen on her lovely ears, whose hands have touched the adamantly askew hair that floats above her fur collar.

Barbara Kruger