from Philosophical Toys: forthcoming 2014.
Most people inherit a nebulous jumble of experiences from their parents. Exquisite skills, useful traits, then a considerable amount of unwanted stuff. Some people inherit fear from their parents, an erratic insecurity follows them like a curse. Some people inherit carelessness. I inherited the riddle of a word, fetish, a paradox, fetishism.
Fetish: a word loaded with unconscious radiance?
There was a time when the word 'amulet" the word 'charm', the word 'talisman' were invested with a similar aura. Words age and lose in luminosity. The word 'fetish' still has a raw quality to it, it still speaks of the untamed, perhaps of the untamable, at a time when domestication can be seen as a curse, perhaps a necessary curse sometimes, but a necessity that speaks of loss, of compromise. An untamed, an untamable re-packaged now through consumerism. But ... hadn't that connection been there for quite a while now? Untamed? Untamable? It was probably the other way round. A real fetish tamed people into compulsion. A real fetish was simply another kind of compromise, a rare compromise. Or at least, that's what I found out when I tried to spawn some writing for the gallery on my mother's exquisite shoes, Nina Chiavelli's shoes. To begin with though, I gazed entranced for a few days at a white sheet of paper, a strenuous exercise that required long breaks every twenty minutes and put me in touch with my unlimited capacity for reverie.
During that intense white sheet staring phase, my neighbour, Pearl, a big girly woman whom I had nodded to in the lift, knocked on my door. She invited me round to her place for a cuppa tea. She was big at the top, but her legs were quite long and thin, as her tartan miniskirt revealed. Her hands were covered by gigantic rings, like gold finger asteroids: Pearl was undoubtedly a precursor of bling. I went to her place, just ten minutes, I told myself. It was impeccable. It was always impeccable, which led me to diagnose some kind of intractable neurosis. She had a collection of pigs, pigs everywhere, reclining pigs, a pig doing a headstand, a dancing pig, a sleeping pig, a pig in the Buddha position and another one doing a somersault. Also, a few exotic plants which she confided to me her ex-husband had nicked from Kenwood House, in Hampstead Heath. She was epileptic, that's how she got her council fiat, the epilepsy had disappeared now, just like that, out of the blue, maybe it was the divorce, no comments, it was so difficult to find somebody at her age, it was like becoming a virgin again, thirty-five, she was. Thirty-five wasn't that old!, I said. She was into clubbing, maybe we could go clubbing together? I wasn't into clubbing, definitely I wasn't. She started rolling a joint. I said maybe another day, maybe later, I had to get on with some work.
I went back to my fiat and stared at my mother's high heels, focusing on her absurd deep-throated shoes with a seven-inch heel. I thought about Pearl's collection of pigs and then, about her gigantic rings. I couldn't concentrate. I ended up the following day at the local library, walls of knowledge, enthusiastic students, the unemployed and angelic souls. Then I went to Queen Mary's library, made photocopies and borrowed a few books. My world became a world of printed matter rather than a world of atoms. I started reading about fetishism. I soon became acquainted with Sigmund F:s theory and soon dismissed it as nonsense, a peculiar delirium from what must have been a troubled mind. But it was the main point of departure for writers talking about this subject. Sigmund E claimed that initially all male infants believed their mother had a penis exactly like them. They all desired their mother, saw their father as a rival. One day they saw their mother naked and were shocked at discovering that she had an inverted triangle of hair but no penis. They panicked, they were terrified by the sight. It must have been cut off, their father must have done it, they were next on the list for desiring their mother so much. Their father was going to cripple them. Then, when the fear subsided, those who couldn't give up their belief in the female penis found a solution: the fetish, a high heel shoe. The high heel endowed the woman with the penis she didn't have. It became a substitute for something that didn't exist: the maternal penis. It became a memorial to castration anxiety as well as a magical protection against such fate. And the girls? Women fetishists? Well, according to Sigmund F., girls simply didn't have genitals. Puzzled, I stared at a white sheet of paper for a few hours.
Pearl knocked on my door the following evening or the one after and I answered it hoping that it wouldn't become a habit on her part. My flat was a pigsty. Paperwork everywhere. I tried to vanish the mess by saying that it was the rightful place for her collection of pigs. I said that I was working, that's why the flat was in such a mess. Fancy a smoke? she said. She sat on the sofa covered by photocopies. Hadn't she heard me? I was working!
Okay, I said.
It was pretty strong, the stuff she smoked. What are you working on? Never mind, I said. I said that I was going to have a show, that she was invited, but she replied that art wasn't her kind of thing. Then I said that I was working on fetishism. Oh, kinky stuff, she said, while rolling another joint, I've done a lot of that, not for a while now though. Are you into kinky stuff?, she asked. I said that I had this boyfriend with a fetish for minimalist pubic hair and I loved shaving it, just leaving a minimal line. I know what you mean, she giggled. Then I said that I was just reading about a hushed cabinet at the British Museum replete with penises from public statues, quite a few knocked off by scandalised Victorian puritans. There were a lot of missing cocks in the world, so many neutered statues. Perhaps there were hushed cabinets replete with penises from statues hidden in the back rooms of museums all over the world! She giggled again and while she giggled I thought that perhaps there was one in sickly sweet Vienna, that perhaps Sigmund F. saw this cabinet, that that one was his internal cabinet. What's this stuff, I said, it's pretty strong. I don't know, skunk, my dealer gives me the strongest. Shall I get you some? I said that I didn't smoke usually, that I was going to bed. Pearl left a chunk of skunk on the table, even though I repeatedly told her to take it with her, then giggled again and left.
A palpable state of altered consciousness floated around the flat, lingering on the chaos of clothes, photocopies and ashtrays. I cleared the living room hoping that that would de-clutter my own neural networks. I went back to the photocopies and flicked through them, wondering whether my father felt somewhere in his head that my mother's stilettos were a memorial for the penis that she didn't have. I tried to imagine him in such a scenario, but my father had no father to be afraid of, he was illegitimate, that was his mother's scandal. The sighting of his mother's inverted triangle of hair was also hypothetical ...
I rang Mary Jane. She hadn't started on the writing for the gallery, that was aeons away and she didn't know what to say anyway, she was going to get Sam to do it for her. Maybe you can talk about post-modern puerility? That will go down well, I said. We talked about this and that, about my new neighbour. Then I told her about Sigmund F.'s theory. She could understand castration anxiety in guilty adults, she said. With the Pennsylvanian guy, she had definitely felt like chopping off his balls. And she was sure that her voodoo intonation when she last talked to him had fully conveyed her curse. Wolves deserved it. Guilty men deserved it. But castration anxiety in children? As a universal experience? She then talked about baby toys, fluffy toys, teddy bears, the realm of the sexually muted. Then, later, we were introduced to gendered toys, toys whose differences are inscribed everywhere but in their pudenda, she said. Children then become all too aware of the distinctions, as embodied by saying mum and dad, as embodied by women's breasts, long hair, signs of femininity the father lacked, she said. Wouldn't a boy wonder at his father's lack of breasts? Wouldn't a boy wonder at his mother's lack of beard stubble, her smooth cheeks? What about gay fetishists? How could their fetish stand in for a penis if their object of desire was already furnished with one? And how did humankind manage to reproduce itself for thousands of years if the sight of pussy was so traumatic for men? That's a good question, it's usually the opposite, isn't it? I said. Definitely, she said.
For about three weeks, I didn't write anything, but the penis nightmare had begun, the penis virus, the largest cabinet in the world replete with mutilated genitalia. I could never quite believe that Sigmund F's assertion that all men suffered from castration anxiety could be taken seriously by so many writers. And that's what he related fetishism to. Sigmund F.'s strange theory was a seminal slip of the pen, an orgy of serial violence that had generated volumes and volumes on the subject. I browsed through the books that I had borrowed. How could a man born almost a hundred and fifty years ago be taken so seriously when so many things had happened since? I agreed that his theory was bizarre. But then I thought that I didn't know about children, I wasn't a psychoanalyst, if so many writers were taking it seriously, perhaps there was something that justified their endeavours. I became more and more disconcerted at not finding alternatives to it. I wanted to write something good about Nina Chiavelli's shoes, my father's sentimental museum. But Sigmund FJs theory was what most writers writing about fetishism wrote about, especially those entertaining castration worries. Many of them referred to it unflinchingly as if it was a fact, others fiercely criticised it, altered it, extended it, but none of them came up with something radically different. Many took castration anxiety as a universal foundation of human subjectivity, others reversed it to say that it was the mother who was feared as a castrator. Undoubtedly, all of them were rehearsing their own psychodramas.
I read. And read. And read. I would turn a page carefully, and then there they would be, all these mutilated testicles and cocks and inexistent vaginas jumping out at me, all these vagina and penis snatchers brandishing their swords, all these blood and guts sanitised by the use of psychoanalytical jargon. After reading pages and pages of the same stuff, I realised what I already knew, what everybody already knew: there was little that could justify castration anxiety as universal. Only, Sigmund F'.s eagerness to fill in the gaps of his Oedipal complex, to put a Jewish father at the centre of creation, a circumcising father, to make of his trauma a myth of origins.
Of course the theory was of its time, everything is of its time. Of course it was a gem of bizarre misanthropy to claim that women's genitals didn't exist because they folded in rather than hanging out. Sigmund F:s theory was completely embedded in his time, the history of his time, the culture of his time. But not only that, he was consistently insulting, his words betrayed hatred, contempt, triumphant contempt towards women. In the name of what he wished to be science, in the name of what he wished to be fact, he repeatedly spat out insults to women in an orgy of ritualised violence. Where did this triumphant contempt come from? Had he won a war? After the deed, triumphant contempt. Sigmund E mutilated half the planet.
An intellectual fiend bent on the extermination of female genitalia!
An army of angry young women had retaliated. But there was a sixty-year delay. Female Assignment: counter-offensive. As if shooting at a dead adversary was a way of avenging half the planet from a hundred million years of male domination! But of course, how could that not be? When women had been completely absent from all the theories of the modern state, from the social contract to most cultural practices for millions of years? When a phantom history had rendered visible all the abominable debris? Women had been gagged for a long long time, the gag had begun to hurt. It was a monumental mutilation of history, of life, of personal stories, personal loss for centuries, for everybody. The absence of women from history gleamed with the ghostly energy of the return of the repressed, a spectre had attained a critical mass. It had created an immense female phantom limb, a phantom muzzle had appeared on the threshold of the twentieth century, ripe with time, so dense in its invisibility that it exuded all the shattering energy of a personal vendetta, a long gestated vendetta that extended to the end of the twentieth century.
I spent days and days trying to unravel those writings, strange days.
Thinking that all the articles that I was reading were part of this female vendetta, one of those strange days I smoked some of the skunk that Pearl had left on my table and then went to the British Library. I wondered whether it showed that I was out of orbit but everybody was immersed in an atmosphere of sheer concentration. I ordered a few of these vicious and arid books populated by the Sisters of the Feminist Liberation Army and savoured all these female wrestlers engaged in a duel that perpetuated on the page a spree of atrocities. In the mist of the battle, I noticed machetes lurking between the volumes that went on upwards to infinity. The female penis! I laughed out aloud, receiving a few sideways glances from other readers. The image of a dominatrix with a strap-on penis flashed through my mind. I started giggling mentally at Sigmund F's universal concept of castration anxiety. I began to like the way it sounded. The way it compacted sex, violence and fear in a couple of words like a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, a great horror movie title. The way it condensed feared brutality and implied vulnerability. I thought of the elation that he must have experienced when conceiving the term. It was the kind of term that would seduce speculative minds. The term stretched itself in so many directions. It pointed to the fear of mutilation, the fear of loss of body integrity, a fear experienced in a minute way by anyone while cutting a difficult vegetable with a beautifully sharp knife. I should think that that fear must be universal, the fear of your body being brutally cut. Except for those who are into self-mutilation. Or those cultures where mutilation is part of belonging to a group, like circumcision. And then, if he must have felt elated about the way castration anxiety sounded, the theory that he built around it allowed him to sublimate his own sadism. But it wasn't supposed to be fiction he was writing. He wasn't Sade articulating dark games from a luxurious prison. He was a lucid and brilliant horror writer who wanted to sound like a scientist putting forward his mad vision as the founding principle of human subjectivity.
The British Library became a dissection room while I conjured up former lovers, one-night stands, it was a large but finite number, I conjured them up in search for castration anxiety, but found no such thing. Au contraire, I found a surplus of eagerness and a sudden monomaniacal intensity in their dogged gaze, as if all their being was possessed by a single thought. I couldn't remember some faces, the colour of some of my lovers' eyes, but I remembered the zeal, the occasional trembling, the humour, the gentle, rough movements, the orgasmic brutality, the unalloyed sensuality, the vertiginous dance. I then vaguely remembered an impotent guy who was having Lacanian therapy, but that was an exception. Perhaps some individuals did experience castration anxiety, but you could hardly hold it as a founding principle of human subjectivity. Separation anxiety would have sounded so limp in comparison. The devil always gets the best tunes. To speak of a memorial to separation was to speak of the mother, the all-powerful presence of mother. But girls had been deleted from the equation, after all they didn't have what it took. And that was what was at stake.
I noticed that bleeding penises and vaginas were appearing on the British Library walls, hanging from the blue and golden dome like stalactites in a macabre filmset. I decided to ignore the vision but then I noticed for the first time that the blue-eyed librarian had a plaster on his index finger, proof that he had been bitten by a vagina dentata. I stared at the books on my desk realising for the first time the profound ugliness to all this writing splattered with maimed genitalia. Real hatred, real violence coming from all sides, lavishly bespattered on the bookshelves. So much anger, I couldn't tune in with this type of anger. And yet, somewhere, I needed to solve this riddle, somewhere I'd become infected by this highly contagious virus. Penis. Penis. Penis. Phallocentric order. Phallicised women. Phallic envy. Penis envy. Phallic economy of fetishism. Phallic accessories. Phallic men. Phallic women. Women as castrators. Women as castrated. Fathers as castrators. Mothers as castrated. Castrating mothers. Castrating castration theories where everybody became part of a monstrous chain that resulted in an abominable world of crushed sexualities. I entered the casualties unit of psychoanalytical fetishism. I wanted to find ideas that didn't depart from a fundamental violence. I read. And read. And read. Every page contained the word 'penis' innumerable times, the word 'phallo' innumerable times. I started coughing, I became choked. Suffocated with so many penises. Undoubtedly, Sigmund F. had inoculated a virus into history, the penis virus. Undoubtedly, he had generated the longest deep throat in history. Subjugated sons and sisters to a seminal fellatio in the name of the lost father, the murdered father, a Jewish father who circumcised his sons. Sigmund F. had created a penis epidemic. I could see female snipers carrying sub-machine guns shooting from all angles, reaching climactic levels of apocalyptic heinousness. I read. And read. And read. There was only hatred in those sabre-cut pages, it was contagious this hatred. It was implacable. The problem wasn't so much the reality of castration anxiety and whether it was symbolic, whether the phallus was an emblem of a desire that could never be attained. The problem was that power was forever aligned with the almighty penis. The problem was with the words, the associations, those words to describe reality partly created it, perpetuated it.
But what did all this have to do with my mother's shoes? I had become infected by the whole thing, the whole choking thing. If every experience transforms us, I abandoned all this reading with a fractured smile and a damaged head. In creating this laboratory virus, Sigmund F. was probably attempting to suffocate the emergence of a different immunological system, for he had always been interested in illness, not in health. Time, I had wasted so much. I crumpled all the sheets of paper with notes I had taken, left them on an empty desk and looked at them. There they were, all these useless jottings, crumpled into shapes that had no names as yet, shapes that were creased, folded, full of crevices and grooves coming from the hidden core. I looked at the play of light and shadow, looked at the crumpled sheets of paper realising that they embodied not only my anger and my ignorance, but also the end of a nightmare. I threw all the paper into the bin. It was difficult to move. The floor was covered with fallen penises and nonexistent vaginas, blood spilling out of every gash. I left the library's angelic souls, its blue-eyed librarian with a plaster on his index finger and the smell of warm human blood. As I went down, I noticed a few unburied penises rotting in the monumental staircase, flies buzzing over them. I went to Queen Mary's library and placed all the books I had been reading in the Horror section next to Lovecraft and the biography of Nilsen. I woke up from the nightmare at home and had an eternal shower while having lurid fantasies about the blue-eyed librarian. Then, once cleansed from all the bollocks I'd just read, I sat down nibbling at a chocolate bar and finally wrote a piece for the gallery.
Pearl knocked on my door that evening: fancy a smoke? Yeah, ok, I said. You looked so tired, she said. I'm knackered, today it's been a complete cock-up, I said. What was the cock-up about? Never mind, I said. I fetched two cans of beer that I had in the fridge and we drunk them while Pearl told me about her epilepsy, how it had been so bad, how she had so many seizures during college, she had to give it up. Then she giggled, went into her flat and came back with some cocaine. That's what she liked, to get really stoned out of her head, she said. I hadn't taken cocaine for years. I dreaded the prospect of her coming round every so often with an arsenal of drugs. I said that I didn't take anything, this was an exception, I had always liked cocaine, I said. Oh, I'm seeing my dealer tomorrow, I'm going to Paris this week, she said. Shall we go to the pub? she asked. I said I had been out and about all day, no way, I said. I'm a pig, she said, showing me one of her gold rings which was in the shape of a recumbent piglet: hardworking, gullible and obstinate.
Pearl left around 1:00 A.M. I stayed up all night. It was oh so quiet. As if I was the only human being awake in the whole world. Enveloped by an alien lucidity, I wrote a short story while the darkness outside acquired density. I wrote in English, in one go. It was strange writing in English. Maybe it was a sign that I was reconciling myself with the English language:
A tale about an extraordinary mind whose face is printed on Austrian bank notes Sigmund E, a nineteenth century Jewish man shell-shocked by circumcision. Perhaps he witnessed the terror in his sons' eyes when theyhad that little snip, when his relatives had it, he had forgotten the messiness of that little snip he himself had had, was rehearsing endlessly that trauma through writing, through transference, the female body a site for that traumatic transference. Or Sigmund E, a dysmorphic, perhaps an inverted dysmorphic by proxy. Dysmorphics, a problem related to body perception. Or Sigmund E, a sublimated part-time butcher. One morning, Sigmund F. opened a newspaper and saw the haunting picture of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato. It was 1922. The last castrato had died. He vividly recalled the headlines from when castration was banned back in 1903. Castration before puberty preserved a treble voice in men. The headlines had generated a general outrage at such practice, a sudden fear of loss of body integrity. And he had been strangely affected by this most brutal of acts. Apparently, the castrating practice had originated at the Vatican in the sixteenth century to compensate for the absence of women's voices from the choirs. Thus, castration and the absence of women from history were from the onset tragically linked. Sigmund F. had a record by Alessandro Moreschi. He played the record that morning. Disturbed by the castrato's voice, he stopped it halfway through. An angel passed. The female angel of history. But he was blind to certain angels. A few years later, in 1927, he wrote down his theory about fetishism. Consumed by the bliss of closure, the week Sigmund F. finished his perverse theory, he sat as usual at his desk covered with Egyptian and Greek figurines, his hands between his legs. Puzzled, he scribbled down: Why does woman resent man so deeply? Confused, he repeated it aloud: Why does woman resent man so deeply? That very same week Sigmund F. again had that nightmare he would forget as soon as he opened his eyes: he had become a foetus, a gigantic breast was loose on the streets threatening to invade the planet and a stuffed bird on the wall strangely reminded him his mother was not feeling quite right that day.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
|Previous Article:||from Selected Stories: forthcoming February 2014.|
|Next Article:||The Problems of the Near East.|