Diamanda Galás: The Politics of Disquiet

Isolation and the Artist's Responsibility

EDWARD BATCHELDER: You’ve connected this sense of isolation…I was thinking about that quote that you sent me about your experience of being in the hospital…

DIAMANDA GALÁS: That experience was analogous to this. I talked to you earlier about being in the hospital with hepatitis C after a certain operation that I had and having no nurses come in to see me because it said on the door “Warning: Blood Disease blah, blah, blah.” All they were supposed to do was give me a glass of water and leave it on my nightstand. But they would leave the water near the door and I was not able to get up and get this water. And they wouldn’t give me the medicine that I asked for, sleeping medicine, so I was only on morphine. So, I was up all night. I couldn’t sleep. I was up all night in this complete state of isolation. I would ask people to help me by pressing a buzzer, and there would come down from the ceiling a loud voice saying, “What do you want?” I had just been stitched up, so I couldn’t scream at the ceiling for them to hear me. I’d say something, and they’d say, “Say that again!” It was as if I was a person locked up in a box. It was impossible for me to communicate with anyone, and no one wanted to communicate with me. I think it’s very difficult to understand unless a person had experienced it in one way or another.

But that experience reminded me again of the subjects that I constantly deal with in my work, because when you can’t sleep, and you’re in a position of isolation, then this means that you’re open to everything, but you’re in a situation that is completely closed. So your mind keeps racing, but you can’t escape. It’s like an animal clawing at the inside of a box trying to get out. You’re not stationary. They put you on these kinds of medicines so that you can’t move. Like in mental hospitals they use a drug called Haldol, or something, where the patient looks stationary—they call them patient management drugs. So they say, “The patient looks alright, the patient looks alright.” The patient is, perhaps, unable to form the words to articulate what he or she needs. But it’s fine, because to the nurses the patient looks alright. Everything’s fine, and nobody’s running down the halls or anything. And this is the horror that people like Dalton Trumbo have addressed, and so many other writers have addressed—soldiers who have had their limbs shot off and they’re keeping them alive, it’s this kind of horror. And I return to it clearly because it’s something that I understand on a deep level. So, this is the thread throughout this work and all my other work.

EDWARD BATCHELDER: In some ways what you’re saying is that you’re attempting, out of your own experience of isolation, to articulate the experience and give voice to all the people who didn’t have the possibility of speaking?

DIAMANDA GALÁS: People have said that. I don’t think it’s my right to say that or to even assume it. If people say that, it’s a compliment. That’s a very nice thing to say, but I’m not a folk singer and I don’t make those pretensions. I just do the work that I think is good, and if people relate to it, that’s wonderful because every performer wants an audience. Without an audience, I’d be in that chamber of isolation, just doing this all alone, all the time. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, which would really put me in isolation—I could live in some homeless place. I do support myself doing this stuff.

So, everybody needs an audience. But I never make any presumptions about who gets it. When I was doing Plague Mass years ago, I got a lot of flak for that: AIDS lady, diva of disease, and all this crap. Even in ’84 people were saying, “There’s no art about AIDS. You can’t do art about AIDS.” And I said, what aspect of the epidemic are you saying that I can’t do art about? Because, as with anything, when we talk about exhausting the materials and resources about AIDS, about this epidemic, there are many millions of subjects, many concerns about it. When, if you’ve started something like this, would you feel that you’re qualified to stop writing about it? When would you feel that you had exhausted all of the variables? I’ve only touched a small place about the epidemic, just a small thing, you know. That’s how I think about it.

EDWARD BATCHELDER: That actually sets up my next question, which is, do you have any sense of responsibility to those people that you might be speaking for? Which, obviously you’re saying, that because you don’t take on the burden of speaking for them…

DIAMANDA GALÁS: No, I don’t…

EDWARD BATCHELDER: Do you feel the sense that, “Well, I really should be doing music that they might like, or I should be doing something that they might recognize themselves in?”

DIAMANDA GALÁS: No, because a person who thinks like that is taking a thermometer and putting it up the ass of their audience, thinking that they can take their IQ. You can’t. You can’t know how smart someone is in the audience. You can’t know where they’re coming from, what their tastes are, what they’re going to like. People will say, “Well, the sick people who are very, very sick are not going to want to listen to the kind of stuff you’re doing.” Incorrect. I’ve had so many people come up to me who are very, very sick, or who came to Vena Cava over and over again because they were very sick, and because they were sick of hearing AIDS songs as a kind of tokenistic gesture towards them—”I care about you, and I got one song on my million-selling CD about you”—so they would come to some of my shows and I would be talking about the state of dementia or the state of depression that is similar to dementia, and they would enjoy it because they could relate to it.

So at first, when I received the criticisms about the work being too harsh to a lot of people, it did hurt me because I thought one day that I saw someone, a boy sitting with his mother at one of my shows, who looked really sick, and I thought, how can I do this music? He looks so sick, and how can I do this harsh music? Is there nothing comforting about my music? It really, really bothered me a lot. And then I thought, if I’m interested in doing therapy, then I should be a therapist. And if I want to be doing that, it’s a separate profession. As a matter of fact, I did do it as a separate profession. I did go into hospitals with groups of people that I knew. We would visit people and sing really pretty songs that they would request. I took requests from my fake book and everybody would sing while I played piano, everything from “Blue Moon” or “Bali Hai” to whatever… you know, everything. But that’s a separate gig, you see. And I’ll do that. I can play any fake book song—I played those gigs with my father—but I know the difference between therapeutic music and what it is that I actually do. One should know the difference. One could do both. You could do both… But I’m not here to lie to people either, oh yeah, I’ll tell you what some comfort is. What’s the comfort, you know? What’s the comfort?