“busy shopping centre… middle of the throng… staring into space… mouth half-open as usual”

"Not I . . . is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience.”


Two reviews of Samuel Beckett’s Not I

Edith Oliver, The New Yorker 2 December 1972, p. 124:

The nearest I can come to describing ‘Not I’ is to say that it is an aural mosaic of words, which come pell-mell but not always helter-skelter, and that once it is over, a life, emotions, and a state of mind have been made manifest, with a literally stunning impact upon the audience. Even then, much of the play remains, and should remain, mysterious and shadowy. It opens in total darkness. A woman’s voice is heard (but so quietly that it almost mingles with the rattling of programs out front) whispering and crying and laughing and then speaking in a brogue, but so quickly that one can barely distinguish the words. Then a spotlight picks out a mouth moving; that is all the lighting there is, from beginning to end. The words never stop coming, and their speed never slackens; they are, we finally realize, the pent-up words of a lifetime, and they are more than the woman can control. She refers to her own ‘raving’ and ‘flickering brain,’ and to her ‘lips, cheeks, jaws, tongue, never still a second.’ Yet something of great power and vividness— tatters of incidents and feelings, not a story but something—comes through from a dementia that is compounded of grief and confusion. We hear of a sexual episode that took place on an early April morning long ago, when she was meant to be having pleasure and was having none. There is talk of punishment for her sins, and of being godforsaken, with no love of any kind. She is obsessed with the idea of punishment. There was a trial of some kind, when all that was required of her was to say ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty,’ and she stood there, her mouth half open, struck dumb. Since then (or maybe not since then), she has been unable to speak, except for once or twice a year, when she rushes out and talks to strangers—in the market, in public lavatoriesonly to see their stares and almost die of shame. She has ‘lived on and on to be seventy.’ The light slowly fades, the gabble slides off to whispers and to silence. All the while, a man in monk’s garb has been standing in the shadows, listening and occasionally bowing his head. Miss Tandy gives an accomplished performance in what must be an extremely difficult role. Henderson Forsythe is the listener. This production of ‘Not I’ (I have no idea what the title means) lasts around fifteen minutes. They are about as densely packed as any fifteen minutes I can remember.

Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 26 January 1973, pp. 135–6:

When I was a boy, in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most famous sights of the West Kent countryside was a woman in a rough brown smock with string round her waist, body bent forwards, arms working like pistons as she bustled towards Tunbridge Wells station. There she was planning to meet her husband, who had been killed in the first world war. In time, her walk lost its fever and became a sort of doleful trudge, and she disappeared from the roads. I don’t know if she may conceivably still be found in some geriatric ward, staring out of the window and wondering when the war will end; but I do know that her image came forcefully back to me when I saw ‘Not I’. If the spot that lit up the speaker’s mouth, and that only, had spread to reveal the whole of her body, I would have expected to see much the same hump and rags: if the old woman of Kent had spoken, I daresay much the same anguished gabble would have poured from her. All Beckett’ s plays may be seen as threnodies to wasted lives; but ‘Not I’ is more concrete in its characterisation than most, and as starkly visual as any in its evocation of the all-but-invisible piece of human driftwood whose monologue it is. It is also unusually painful—tearing into you like a grappling iron and dragging you after it, with or without your leave.

The mouth belongs to Billie Whitelaw; and, for some 15 minutes, she pants and gasps out the tale of the character to whom it belongs, her broken phrases jostling each other in their desperation to be expressed. It is a performance of sustained intensity, all sweat, clenched muscle and foaming larynx, and one which finds its variety only upwards: a frantic cackle at the idea that there might be a merciful God; a scream of suffering designed to appease this uncertain deity. But it must be admitted that the breathless pace combines with the incoherence of the character’s thoughts to make the piece hard to follow: which is why I’d suggest either that it be played twice a session (though this might prove too much even for Miss Whitelaw’s athletic throat), or that spectators should first buy and con the script, which Faber is publishing this week at 40p. After all, one of the many assumptions which Beckett’s work challenges is that a play should necessarily strip and show its all (or even much of itself) at first encounter. Like good music, ‘Not I’ demands familiarity, and is, I suspect, capable of giving growing satisfaction with each hearing. Meanwhile, let me piece together a crib for those too poor or proud to get the score proper.

‘Mouth’, as Beckett calls her, was born a bastard, deserted by her parents, brought up in a loveless, heavily religious orphanage. She became a lonely, frightened, half-moronic adult, forever trudging round the countryside and avoiding others.

busy shopping centre…supermart…just hand in the list…with the bag…old black shopping bag… then stand there waiting…any length of time… middle of the throng…motionless…staring into space…mouth half-open as usual…till it was back in her hand… the bag back in her hand…then pay and go…not as much as goodbye.

Once she appeared in court on some unnamed charge, and couldn’t speak; once and only once, she wept; occasionally, ‘always winter for some reason’, she was seen standing in the public lavatory, mouthing distorted vowels. But otherwise ‘nothing of note’ apparently happened until a mysterious experience at the age of 70. The morning sky went dark, a ray of light played in front of her. Her reaction (‘very foolish but so like her’) was that she was about to be punished for her sins, and she tried to scream. Yet neither did she feel pain, nor could she make a sound; nor hear anything, except a dull buzzing in the head. Then, suddenly, her mouth began to pour out words, so many and fast that her brain couldn’t grasp them, though she sensed that some revelation, some discovery, was at hand. And ‘feeling was coming back… imagine… feeling coming back’—to her mouth, lips and cheeks, if not yet to her numb heart. It is that feeling, those words, which we are presumably hearing in the theatre; that mouth, bulging and writhing in its spotlight like some blubbery sea-creature on the hook, which isnow virtually all that is left alive of the speaker after decades of dereliction.

Or could it be, as some suspect, that the mouth is talking, not of itself, but of someone else? I don’t think so. True, the story is told entirely in the third person, and the play is baldly called ‘Not I’. But Beckett helpfully provides a stage direction which seems to explain that. At key moments, the speaker repeats with rising horror, ‘What? Who? No SHE’ : which is, we’re told, a vehement refusal to relinquish third person’. In other words, she can’t bring herself to utter the word ‘I’, and that, I’d suggest, is because she dare not admit that this wilderness of a life is hers and hers alone. Whenever she gets near the admission, we get instead that cry of ‘no’ and howl of ‘she’, as if she was denying any possibility so awful. Things like that happen to other people: they cannot happen to ‘me’. Again, she seems to show symptoms of what psychiatrists call ‘depersonalisation’, the condition in which the sufferer has lost nearly all capacity for emotion and is left with the sensation, not only of not being himself, but of scarcely being human at all. Thus she thinks of herself in the third person and, on two occasions, talks of her body as a ‘machine’, disconnected from sense and speech. But it is, of course, quite inadequate to argue that Beckett is offering a clinical study of a schizophrenic: her predicament is much more representative. Which of us doesn’t shut his eyes to his failures, and who wouldn’t rather say ‘he or ‘she’ of much of his own irrecoverable life? Who isn’t guilty of both evasion and waste?

The play’s resonance is typical. Beckett commonly takes a particular character, pares it down to the moral skeleton, and leaves us with the pattern, the archetype: he refines individuals into metaphors in which we can all, if we’re honest, see bits of ourselves. What distinguishes ‘Not I’ from most of his work is the extent to which ‘mouth’ is individualised and the relative straightforwardness of its implications. Once the code is cracked, the stream of consciousness channelled, it isn’t a hard play, nor is it as stunningly pessimistic as some critics believe. In ‘Endgame’, for instance, Hamm’s room is Hamm’s room, a dying man’s skull, the family hearth, society and the planet Earth, forcing the spectator to spread his poor, bewildered wits over four or five levels at once; ‘Not I‘s’ stage is a barrenly furnished human mind, and that only. Again, I can think of few gloomier plays than ‘Happy Days’, which equates happiness with gross stupidity, or the one-minute ‘Breath’, which defines life as two faint cries and the world as a rubbish- heap. Invocations of God notwithstanding, ‘Not I’ has nothing definite to say about the society, world or universe in which ‘mouth’ spins out her existence. It could be that some self-fulfilment is possible there for those who don’t evade life by crying ‘not I’: that might be the revelation that tantalises but eludes her. Unlikely, knowing Beckett; but conceivable. We should seize hopefully on the slightest chink in such a man’s determinism, the barest scratch on the dark glasses through which he surveys us all.

It’s an entirely self-sufficient play, but not without echoes from earlier ones: the omnipresence of irrational guilt; the idea that love causes only suffering; and a shapeand tone that owes something to ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’which is presumably why that piece is also on the programme, with Albert Finney poised over the recording machine, spooling his way through yet another null past. Finney proves a bit cavalier with the stage directions, but achieves a good deal with a voice that markedly thickens and coarsens over the years, and with a face that scarcely has to move to suggest fear, bewilderment, a sudden raddled tenderness. I would recommend the production; but its ‘Not I’ that lingers in my mind, not because it’s more exquisitely written, but because it is, I think, even more deeply felt. At any rate, the old woman’s predicament strikes me as more moving than the old man’s. Perhaps this is because he is cleverer, and she more fragile and vulnerable, and less responsible for her failures; perhaps not. Whatever the reason, it is hard not to identify with the bent, cowled figure Beckett calls the ‘auditor’, who stands half- invisible in the murk of the stage watching the mouth and, finally, raising his arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’. Compassion is indeed and exactly what ‘Not I’ provokes, and more powerfully than anything I’ve yet seen by Beckett.

—from L. Graver and R. Federman, editors, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1979, pp. 368-373.

“in a universe whose size is beyond human imagining… men have grown inconceivably lonely”

". . . the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.”

Darwin saw clearly that the succession of life on this planet was not a formal pattern imposed from without, or moving exclusively in one direction. Whatever else life might be, it was adjustable and not fixed. It worked its way through difficult environments. It modified and then, if necessary, it modified again, along roads which would never be retraced. Every creature alive is the product of a unique history. The statistical probability of its precise reduplication on another planet is so small as to be meaningless. Life, even cellular life, may exist out yonder in the dark. But high or low in nature, it will not wear the shape of man. That shape is the evolutionary product of a strange, long wandering through the attics of the forest roof, and so great are the chances of failure, that nothing precisely and identically human is likely ever to come that way again.

[. . .]

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet—perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe—the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

Loren Eiseley, “Little Men and Flying Saucers”

gore vidal’s emma/emile bovary: “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.”

The opening lines of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in my garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for "why or "because." Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

Myra’s mission:

The destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.

Myra targets the handsome male student in her acting class, Rusty, and rapes him with a prosthetic penis:

. . . only through traumatic shook, through terrifying & humiliating him, could I hope to change his view of what is proper masculine behavior . . .

"In any case, if I had wanted you to–as you put it–‘ball me,’ it’s very plain that you couldn’t. As a stud, you’re a disaster."

He flushed at the insult but said nothing. I was now ready for my master stroke.

"However, as a lesson, I shall ball you."

He was entirely at sea. "Ball me? How?"

"Put out your hands." He did so and I bound them together with surgical gauze. Not for nothing had I once been a nurses’ aide.

"What’re you doing that for?" Alarm growing.

With a forefinger, I flicked the scrotal sac, making him cry out from shock. "No questions, my boy." When the hands were firmly secured, I lowered the examination table until it was just two feet from the floor. "Lie down," I ordered. "On your stomach."

Mystified, he did as he was told. I then tied his bound hands to the top of the metal table. He was, as they say, entirely in my power. If I had wanted, I could have killed him. But my fantasies have never involved murder or even physical suffering for I have a horror of blood, preferring to inflict pain in more subtle ways, destroying totally, for instance, a man’s idea of himself in relation to the triumphant sex.

"Now then, up on your knees."

"But…" A hard slap across the buttocks put an end to all objections. He pulled himself up on his knees, legs tight together and buttocks clenched shut. He resembled a pyramid whose base was his head and white-socked feet, and whose apex was his rectum. I was now ready for the final rite.

"Legs wide apart," I commanded. Reluctantly, he moved his knees apart so that they lined up with the exact edges of the table. I was now afforded my favorite view of the male, the heavy rosy scrotum dangling from the groin above which the tiny sphincter shyly twinkled in the light. Carefully I applied lubricant to the mystery that even Mary-Ann has never seen, much less violated.

"What’re you doing?" The voice was light as a child’s True terror had begun.

"Now remember the secret is to relax entirely. Otherwise you could be seriously hurt."

I then pulled up my skirt to reveal, strapped to my groin, Clem’s dildo which I borrowed yesterday on the pretext that I wanted it copied for a lamp base. Clem had been most amused.

Rusty cried out with alarm. "Oh, no! For God’s sake, don’t."

"Now you will find out what it is the girl feels when you play the man with her."

"Jesus, you’ll split me!" The voice was treble with fear. As I approached him, dildo in front of me like the god Priapus personified, he tried to wrench free of his bonds, but failed. Then he did the next best thing, and brought his knees together in an attempt to deny me entrance. But it was no use. I spread him wide and put my battering ram to the gate.

For a moment I wondered if he might not be right about the splitting: the opening was the size of a dime while the dildo was over two inches wide at the head and nearly a foot long. But then I recalled how Myron used to have no trouble in accommodating objects this size or larger, and what the fragile Myron could do so could the inexperienced but sturdy Rusty.

I pushed. The pink lips opened. The tip of the head entered and stopped.

"I can’t," Rusty moaned. "Honestly I can’t. It’s too big."

"Just relax, and you’ll stretch. Don’t worry."

He made whatever effort was necessary and the pursed lips became a grin allowing the head to enter, but not without a gasp of pain and shock.

Once inside, I savored my triumph. I had avenged Myron. A lifetime of being penetrated had brought him only misery. Now, in the person of Rusty, I was able, as Woman Triumphant, to destroy the adored destroyer.

Holding tight to Rusty’s slippery hips, I plunged deeper. He cried out with pain.

But I was inexorable. I pushed even farther into him, triggering the prostate gland, for when I felt between his legs, I discovered that the erection he had not been able to present me with had now, inadvertently, occurred. The size was most respectable, and hard as metal.

But when I plunged deeper, the penis went soft with pain, and he cried out again, begged me to stop, but now I was like a woman possessed, riding, riding, riding my sweating stallion into forbidden country, shouting with joy as I experienced my own sort of orgasm, oblivious to his staccato shrieks as I delved and spanned that innocent flesh. Oh, it was a holy moment! I was one with the Bacchae, with all the priestesses of the dark bloody cults, with the great goddess herself for whom Attis unmanned himself. I was the eternal feminine made flesh, the source of life and its destroyer, dealing with man as incidental toy, whose blood as well as semen is needed to make me whole!

There was blood at the end. And once my passion had spent itself, I was saddened and repelled. I had not meant actually to tear the tender flesh but apparently I had, and the withdrawing of my weapon brought with it bright blood. He did not stir as I washed him clean (like a loving mother), applying medicine to the small cut, inserting gauze (how often had I done this for Myron!). Then l unbound him.

Shakily, he stood up, rubbing tears from his swollen face. In silence he dressed while I removed the harness of the dildo and put it away in the attaché case.

Not until he was finally dressed did he speak. "Can I go now?"

"Yes. You can go now." I sat down at the surgical table and took out this notebook. He was at the door when I said, "Aren’t you going to thank me for the trouble I’ve taken?"

He looked at me, face perfectly blank. Then, tonelessly, he murmured, "Thank you, ma’am," and went.

And so it was that Myra Breckinridge achieved one of the great victories for her sex. But one which is not yet entirely complete even though, alone of all women, I know what it is like to be a goddess enthroned, and all-powerful.


writing advice from doctor chekhov


“it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.”



“Witness, Don’t Judge”


Letter to Alexei Suvorin, Sumy, May 30, 1888


In my opinion, it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc. The job of the artist is only to record who under which circumstances said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness. I overhear two Russians carry on a muddled, inconclusive discussion on pessimism; I am duty bound to transmit this conversation exactly as I heard it. Evaluating it is a job for the jury, that is, for the reader. My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language. Shcheglov-Leontyev criticizes me for ending one of my stories with the sentence, “You can’t really explain why things happen in this world.” In his opinion, the writer who is a psychologist must explain, otherwise he has no right to call himself a psychologist. I disagree. It is high time for writers—and especially for true artists—to admit that it is impossible to explain anything. Socrates acknowledged this long ago, as did Voltaire. Only the crowd thinks it knows and understands everything there is to know and understand. And the more stupid it is, the more open-minded it thinks itself to be. But if an artist whom the crowd trusts admits that he understands nothing of what he sees, this fact alone will make a great contribution to the realm of thought and will mark a great step forward.



—from How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work. Edited and introduced by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek; translated from the Russian and Italian by Lena Lencek. 1st Da Capo Press edition, 2008.




the squirm-inducing prose of j.g. ballard—and others

"When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes?"

Explained to a friend today that J.G. Ballard’s Crash is one of the few books I’ve read with scenes that made me physically squeamish; indeed, discomfiture to the point where I thought I might vomit (the scene of the anal rape of the male acting student in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge had a similar effect on me. Then again, so did the section on contract in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).



A young, blond-haired doctor with a callous face examined the wounds on my chest. The skin was broken around the lower edge of the sternum, where the horn boss had been driven upwards by the collapsing engine compartment. A semi-circular bruise marked my chest, a marbled rainbow running from one nipple to the other. During the next week this rainbow moved through a sequence of tone changes Mice the colour spectrum of automobile varnishes. As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the pattern of my wounds. The layout of the instrument panel, like the profile of the steering wheel bruised into my chest, was inset on my knees and shin-bones. The impact of the second collision between my body and the interior compartment of the car was denned in these wounds, like the contours of a woman’s body remembered in the responding pressure of one’s own skin for a few hours after a sexual act.

On the fourth day, for no evident reason, the anaesthetics were withdrawn. All morning I vomited into the enamel pail which a nurse held under my face. She stared at me with good-humoured but unmoved eyes. The cold rim of the kidney pail pressed against my cheek. Its porcelain surface was marked by a small thread of blood from some nameless previous user.

I leaned my forehead against the nurse’s strong thigh as I vomited. Beside my bruised mouth her worn fingers contrasted strangely with her youthful skin. I found myself thinking of her natal cleft. When had she last washed this moist gulley? During my recovery, questions like this one obsessed me as I talked to the doctors and nurses. When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes? I let a few threads of green bile leak into the pail, aware of the warm contours of the young woman’s thighs. A seam of her gingham frock had been repaired with a few loops of black cotton. I stared at the loosening coils lying against the round surface of her left buttock. Their curvatures seemed as arbitrary and as meaningful as the wounds on my chest and legs.

This obsession with the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash. I imagined the ward filled with convalescing air-disaster victims, each of their minds a brothel of images. The crash between our two cars was a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union. The injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia of accessible dreams . . .




"I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess."                                                  

Stock Photo

 "When philosophy paints its grey on grey it 
  then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s
  grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only
  understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings
  only with the falling of dusk."


But the big thing about Ballard is how he takes Freudian depth psychology as uses it as an engine to generate psychological horror: in Ballard-land it’s as if Freud opened a Pandora’s Box of the very worst of human impulses and Ballard—or his narrators, at least—revel in showing how the ploymorphous perverse rules all—and to the degree that even if we could close the lid on that proverbial Pandoran box, none of us would want to . . .

Apart from Crash, the next weirdest thing Ballard did was a short story, written in the form of a psychiatric evaluation, entitled "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," which some pranksters photocopied and handed out at the 1980 Republican Convention, claiming it to be a psychological case study why Reagan should receive the nomination instead of George Bush.


. . . SEXUAL FANTASIES IN CONNECTION WITH RONALD REAGAN. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child-victim of sexual assault. In 89 percent of the cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.




Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.




REAGAN’S HAIRSTYLE. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender’s hairstyle. 65% of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.




Slow-motion film of Reagan’s speeches produced a marked erotic effect in an audience of spastic children.



Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82% of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed fecal matter and rectal haemorrhages…

…It is hoped to construct a rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto-disaster of maximised audience arousal.



“nature’s verdict” on the self and the other in jerzy kosinski’s steps: step number 6

@page { size: 21.59cm 27.94cm; margin: 2cm }
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"One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love-making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again."

Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve
of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.

They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.

I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love-making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.

It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of will—as though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erection, it would reduce the act of making love to something very mechanical and ordinary.


See also: 

"I perceive, said the Countess, "Philosophy is now become very Mechanical." "So mechanical, said I, "that I fear we shall quickly be ashamed of it they will have the World to be in great what a watch is in little; which is very regular, and depends only upon the just disposing of the several parts of the movement. But pray tell me, Madam, had you not formerly a more sublime Idea of the Universe?"

from Bernard de Fontenelle, Plurality of Worlds (1686)

Illustration from Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds
(Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes


jerzy kosinski’s steps: a sartrean turn in step number five

"I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self."

Bookseller Photo 

I went to the zoo to see an octopus I had read about. It was housed in an aquarium and fed on live crabs, fish, mussels — and on itself. It nibbled at its own tentacles, consuming them one after another.

Obviously the octopus was slowly killing itself. One attendant explained that in the part of the world where it had been caught, an octopus was believed to be a god of war, prophesying defeat when it looked landward and victory when it loooked seaward; this particular specimen, the natives had claimed, had only looked landward when captured. A man jokingly remarked that by eating itself it was presumably acknowledging its own defeat.

Each time the octopus bit into itself, some of the spectators shuddered as if they felt it eating their own flesh. Others were impassive. Just as I was about to leave, I noticed a young woman staring at the octopus without any apparent reaction, her lips relaxed. There was a serenity about her that went beyond unconcern.

I approached and engaged her in conversation. She turned out to be the wife of a well-known public official whose family lived in the city. Before the afternoon was over she invited me to a dinner party she was giving at her home.

It was an imposing household, and the dinner party flawless. The hostess behaved very naturally, attending equally to her family and guests, and yet somehow she seemed quite remote. I thought she had glanced at me with a suggestion of intimate interest, and I wanted proof of this. I planned to leave the city the next day. This would be my only opportunity.

She had just turned away from a departing couple, and stood, drink in hand, near one of the library bookcases. With an assumed casualness I told her I wished to see her alone, for I couldn’t freemyself from the images she excited in me.

I proposed a meeting. I suggested the capital of the neighboring country to which I was going the next day. She was just about to answer when several guests approached us. She turned toward them but first handed me her glass as though it had been mine, quietly stating the name of the hotel where she would join me.

During the next few days I thought of her constantly, recalling every moment I had spent near her. I speculated about the other men at the party, about which of them might have been her lovers, and about various situations in which she had made love. The more I meditated about her, the more concerned I became about our first encounter.

. . . . We were both naked. There was nothing I wanted so much as to be at ease with her. But the very thought of what she might expect from me made me less aroused. It was almost as though my thinking had to subside before my body could perform.

Yet I could not conceal my inadequacy, for in her mind, it seemed, my desire was reflected only in one part of me, a part suddenly grown very small. She blamed herself for what she insisted was her lack of finesse in gratifying me. She became increasingly frustrated and upset. I dressed and left her, walking the streets and trying to understand what had happened. I tried to decide how, in the future, I would explain my predicament to her; I was afraid she might reject any discussion as merely an excuse for a second futile attempt at physical intimacy.

On the street I approached a woman: her face was thickly painted and the shape of her figure lost in an ill-fitting dress. After some talk, she agreed to accompany me.

In the room she helped me to undress and then, still clothed herself, she began to caress me. There was a familiarity to her touch, as though her hands were guided over my skin by the current she felt pulsing underneath it; had I desired to use my own hands on my body, I would have guided them along the same path.

I looked again at her dress and suddenly realized my partner was a man. My mood altered abruptly. I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self.

from steps, by jerzy kosinski: step number four

"The chosen girl now sat alone in the circle. I scrutinized the men’s faces; they seemed curious whether the girl would prove too frail and weak to survive her ordeal."



I got off the train at a small station. As it pulled out I was the only one eating in the station restaurant. I stopped the waiter and asked if there was anything of interest happening locally. He looked at me and said there was to be a private show that afternoon in a nearby village.

He intimated that the performance would be rather unusual and that if I were willing to pay the price, he could arrange for me to see it. I agreed, and we left the station. Half an hour later we reached a paddock with a large carriage house at one end. About fifty middle-aged peasants had gathered under the trees near the building, where they sauntered about, smoking and jesting.

A man dressed in city clothes came out of the carriage house and began collecting money from all of us. The price represented about two weeks of a peasant’s income, yet they all seemed willing to pay.

Then the organizer disappeared into the house, and we formed a circle screened by the trees. The peasants waited, whispering and laughing. A few minutes passed; the door of the carriage house opened and four women in colorful dresses walked into the circle. The organizer followed behind them leading a large animal. The peasants suddenly stopped talking. The women now stood next to each other, turning around so the men could see them, while the organizer paraded the animal.

The women seemed to represent particular types: one was very tall and powerfully built, another was a slender, fragile young girl whose appearance suggested she came from the city. All the women wore heavy makeup and tight short-skirted dresses. The peasants began discussing the women aloud, arguing excitedly. After a few minutes the organizer asked for quiet and explained that a vote would be taken to determine which woman would be chosen. As the women strolled around the arena, stretching, bending, and caressing their bodies, the crowd grew even more animated. The organizer called on them to vote for each woman in turn.

From the final count it became clear that the majority had elected the young girl. The three other women joined the audience, giggling and whispering with the men.

The chosen girl now sat alone in the circle. I scrutinized the men’s faces; they seemed curious whether the girl would prove too frail and weak to survive her ordeal.

The organizer led the animal into the center of the arena, prodding its slack parts with a stick. Two peasants ran up and grabbed at the animal to keep it still. The girl then stepped forward and began playing with the creature, embracing and hugging it, fondling its genitals. She slowly began to undress. The animal was now aroused and restless. It seemed inconceivable that the girl could accommodate it.

The men became frantic, urging her to undress completely and couple with the animal. The organizer tied several ribbons on the animal’s organ, each colored bow an inch apart. The girl approached the animal, rubbing oil into her thighs and abdomen and coaxing the animal to lick her body. Then, to shouts of encouragement, she lay down beneath the animal, clasping it with her legs. Raising up her belly and thrusting it forward, she forced an insertion up to the first bow. The organizer took control again, asking the audience to pay extra for each additional inch of the animal’s involvement. The price was raised for each consecutive bow removed. The peasants, still refusing to believe that the girl could survive her violation, eagerly paid again and again. Finally the girl began to scream. But I was not sure if she was actually suffering or was only playing up to the audience.

a homage to thomas mann in jerzy kosinski’s steps: step number three

"One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death."

Bookseller Photo  

I was employed as a skiing instructor and lived in a mountain resort where tubercular patients were sent for care. I occupied an apartment from which I could see the sanatorium and distinguish the pale faces of the new arrivals from the tanned faces of the long-term patients who sunned themselves on the terraces.


At the end of each afternoon my tired skiers would return to their hostels, and I to my solitary dinner. I spent most of my time alone. After supper the muffled sounds of the gong from the sanatorium would announce the night routine, and a few minutes later the lights would be extinguished, as if snatched from one window after the next.


A dog howled from a hut far up on the slopes. Then I caught sight of human figures struggling through the deep snow of a nearby field: the skiing instructors from neighboring hostels were moving in stealthily for their nocturnal encounters. From the massive blackness surrounding the sanatorium several figures hurried toward the men waiting below: female patients were sneaking out to meet their lovers. The silhouettes touched and merged as if they were the fragments of a shadow being mended. Each couple left separately. In the moonlight they looked like dwarfed mountain pines which had stepped down from the slopes to venture among the windless fields. Soon they were all gone. 


In the weeks that followed I became aware that some of the stronger patients were permitted to spend part of each day outdoors. They met at the café at the foot of the slopes, and many of them formed alliances with the tourists and members of the staff. Quite often, from the shelter provided by a copse of firs, I would watch them pairing off, noticing every now and then a change in partners and committing to memory those who wereespecially sought after and those who were neglected. Then, as the last vestiges of light faded and it suddenly grew chilly even in my sheltered lookout, I would turn and make my way back to my lodgings.


There was one woman I observed in particular. She had not been a serious case, and it was said that her recovery was excellent: she was to be discharged at the end of the month. Two men were competing for her—a young skiing instructor from a neighboring hotel, and a tourist who had often spoken of staying at the resort until the woman was discharged.


The woman divided her attention equally between the two men. Every afternoon the tourist hurried over from his hotel, while the instructor skied in after dismissing his class. The woman would sit in the café at the foot of the slopes. She could watch both her suitors making their various approaches. The instructor played upon his skills, skiing over at the highest possible speed and, when it seemed almost too late, turning violently away from the terrace rail and skidding in a spray of snow alongside the woman’s table. His rival, only a fair skier, would wander around at the foot of the slopes, forcing the instructor to slow up or pull away and usually disrupting the speed and deftness of his descent.


One afternoon I arrived at the café before the skiing classes were over. The tourist was already there, apparently unwilling to continue his clumsy maneuvers on the slopes. The instructor had taken his pupils to the nursery slopes above and to one side of the café. As the sun began to sink, he dismissed the class, but did not push off from the top of the slope as was his habit when skiing down to the café. Instead, he began moving up along a snow-covered ridge. The ridge was always marked with danger flags, and was forbidden to all but the national medalists. People left their tables and crowded against the terrace rail to watch his slow ascent. The woman jumped up and ran out of the restaurant to the foot of the slope to wait for him. The tourist followed.


The instructor launched himself, at first swooping down in long, graceful curves, avoiding the shoulders of raw rock that broke through the snow and gave the trail its reputation for danger. He picked up speed continuously, skiing with the suppleness and precision of a master. I wondered whether he would stop at the post that marked the foot of the trail or end with a spectacular turn at the feet of the girl. Everyone was silent. The long, almost horizontal rays of the sun caught the woman and the tourist as they stood at the foot of the run.


The instructor swung into the last hundred yards, moving fast and straight. The girl shook off the tourist’s hand, which was resting on hers, and stepped forward, raising her arms and calling out the instructor’s name. The tourist lurched after her, grabbing her by the shoulder. In a second the instructor soared into the end of the run and gathered himself up as he might at the start of a jump, but instead of throwing himself forward and up, he seemed to thrust to the left in an unnaturally abrupt twist. No longer able either to turn or slow down, his skis lifted and he soared on, with the entire force and impetus that the long run had built up within him crashing suddenly with his shoulder into the man’s unprotected chest. Both bodies slid for some distance down the slope, finally coming to rest at the edge of the terrace. The crowd rushed to them; blood dripped from the tourist’s mouth and he was carried unconscious into the café. The instructor sat on the terrace steps for a few minutes, with his head in his hands, while the woman loosened his parka. Then the ambulance drove up, and the tourist, still unconscious, was strapped onto the stretcher. As the bearers picked him up I glanced toward the terrace steps. The instructor and the woman were no longer in sight.




I did not see the instructor again until much later. Then I saw him one evening with a woman.


They were sheltered in a recess in the stonework of the hotel wall. All around a storm raged, and the snow in the fields churned like water in a frenzied bay. Foaming drifts roared and formed, only to collapse like mounds of goose feathers into unfathomable clefts. Leaning against the wall and touched occasionally by the wavering light of the lantern that dangled above a footpath, the man stood below the woman and drew her close to him. The woman bent toward him, clinging to his chest, yielding and tender. Her arms clasped his shoulders. The whirlwind tugged at her coat, pulling it open. For a moment they looked as if they had both suddenly grown wings which would carry them away from that niche, from those powdery fields and out of my sight. I made up my mind.


The next afternoon I found a pretext to visit the sanatorium. Patients in brightly patterned pullovers and tight pants strolled about the corridors. Others slept huddled in blankets. Filmy shadows cut across the deserted deck chairs on the sunny terrace, and the canvas snapped in the sharp breezes that scattered down from the peaks.


I saw a woman reclining in a chair. Her shawl, casually thrown around her shoulders, exposed her long, suntanned neck. As I lingered, gazing, she glanced at me thoughtfully, and then smiled. My shadow fell across her when I introduced myself.


The visiting rules were very strict, and I was permitted to spend only two hours a day in her room. I couldn’t get too close to her: she would not let me. She was very ill and coughed continually. Often she brought up blood. She shivered, became feverish; her cheeks flushed. Her hands and feet would sweat.


During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I locked the door. After I had undressed she told me to look into the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.


But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror, and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.


Her life was measured and constantly checked by various instruments, recorded on negatives, charted and filed away by a succession of doctors and nurses, reinforced by needles piercing her chest and veins, breathed in from oxygen bottles and breathed out into tubes. My brief visits were interrupted more and more frequently by the intrusion of doctors, nurses, or attendants who came to change the oxygen cylinders or give new medicines.


One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death.


As time went on her condition visibly deteriorated. I sat in her room, staring at her pale face lit only by an occasional flush. The hands on the bedspread were thin, with a delicate network of bluish veins. Her frail shoulders heaving with every breath, she surreptitiously wiped off the perspiration which rose steadily on her forehead. I sat quietly and stared at the mirror while she slept; it reflected the cold, white rectangles of the walls and ceiling.


The nuns glided silently in and out of the room, but I succeeded in never meeting their eyes. They bent over the patient, wiping her forehead, moistening her lips with wads of cotton, whispering some secret language into her ears. Their clumsy dresses flapped like the wings of restless birds.


I would step out onto the terrace, quickly closing the door behind me. The wind was ceaselessly driving the snow over the crusted fields, filling the deep footprints and diagonal tracks left from the previous day. I held the soft plump cushion of fresh snow from the frozen railings. For a moment it shimmered in my warm palm before turning into dripping slush.


More and more often I was denied access to her room, and I spent those hours alone in my apartment. Later, before going to sleep, I would pull out from the desk drawer several albums filled with my photographs of her, carefully enlarged and painstakingly pasted onto stiff cardboard. I would place these enlargements in a corner of my bedroom and sit in front of them, recalling the events of the hospital room and the images within the mirror. In some of the photographs she was naked; now I had them before me, for myself alone. I looked at these pictures as if they were mirrors in which I could see at any moment my own face floating ghostlike on her flesh.


Then I would step out on my balcony. Around the sanatorium the lights from the windows touched the snow, which no longer seemed fresh. I would gaze at the faint lights until they began to disappear. From beyond the breadth and width of the valleys and hills, streaked by wooded slopes, the moonlight lit up frozen peaks and streams of vaporous clouds being lured from the shadows of narrow defiles.


A door clanged shut; a car horn sounded in the distance. Suddenly figures appeared between the snowdrifts. They scrambled through the fields toward the sanatorium, now and then lost, as if straining against the stifling dust storm of a drought-stricken plain.

the conclusion of basil buntings autobiographical long poem, briggflatts

"Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone,

its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane

spider floss on my cheek; light from the zenith

spun when the slowworm lay in her lap

fifty years ago."







Drip—icicle’s gone.

Slur, ratio, tone,

chime dilute what’s done

as a flute clarifies song,

trembling phrase fading to pause

then glow. Solstice past,

years end crescendo.

Winter wrings pigment

from petal and slough

but thin light lays

white next red on sea-crow wing,

gruff sole cormorant

whose grief turns carnival.

Even a bangle of birds

to bind sleeve to wrist

as west wind waves to east

a just perceptible greeting—

sinews ripple the weave,

threads flex, slew, hues meeting,

parting in whey-blue haze.

Mist sets lace of frost

on rock for the tide to mangle.

Day is wreathed in what summer lost.

Conger skimped at the ebb, lobster,

neither will I take, nor troll

roe of its like for salmon.

Let bass sleep, gentles

brisk, skim-grey,

group a nosegay

jostling on cast flesh,

frisk and compose decay

to side shot with flame,

unresting bluebottle wing. Sing,

strewing the notes on the air

as ripples skip in a shallow. Go

bare, the shore is adorned

with pungent weed loudly

filtering sand and sea.

Silver blades of surf

fall crisp on rustling grit,

shaping the shore as a mason

fondles and shapes his stone.

Shepherds follow the links,

sweet turf studded with thrift;

fell-born men of precise instep

leading demure dogs

from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,

with hair combed back from the muzzle,

dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale

taught by Wilson or Telfer.

Their teeth are white as birch,

slow under black fringe

of silent, accurate lips.

The ewes are heavy with lamb.

Snow lies bright on Hedgehope

and tacky mud about Till

where the fells have stepped aside

and the river praises itself,

silence by silence sits

and Then is diffused in Now.

Light lifts from the water.

Frost has put rowan down,

a russet blotch of bracken

tousled about the trunk.

Bleached sky. Cirrus

reflects sun that has left

nothing to badger eyes.

Young flutes, harps touched by a breeze,

drums and horns escort

Aldebaran, low in the clear east,

beckoning boats to the fishing.

Capella floats from the north

with shields hung on his gunwale.

That is no dinghy’s lantern

occulted by the swell—Betelgeuse,

calling behind him to Rigel.

Starlight is almost flesh.

Great strings next the post of the harp

clang, the horn has majesty,

flutes flicker in the draft and flare.

Orion strides over Farne.

Seals shuffle and bark,

terns shift on their ledges,

watching Capella steer for the zenith,

and Procyon starts his climb.

Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,

each his own, the longer known the more alone,

wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.

Each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass,

yet in a sextant’s bubble present and firm

places a surveyor’s stone or steadies a tiller.

Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone,

its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane

spider floss on my cheek; light from the zenith

spun when the slowworm lay in her lap

fifty years ago.

The sheets are gathered and bound,

the volume indexed and shelved,

dust on its marbled leaves.

Lofty, an empty combe,

silent but for bees.

Finger tips touched and were still

fifty years ago.

Sirius is too young to remember.

Sirius glows in the wind. Sparks on ripples

mark his line, lures for spent fish.

Fifty years a letter unanswered;

a visit postponed for fifty years.

She has been with me fifty years.

Starlight quivers. I had day enough.

For love uninterrupted night.





A strong song tows

us, long earsick.

Blind, we follow

rain slant, spray flick

to fields we do not know.

Night, float us.

Offshore wind, shout,

ask the sea

what’s lost, what’s left,

what horn sunk,

what crown adrift.

Where we are who knows

of kings who sup

while day fails? Who,

swinging his axe

to fell kings, guesses

where we go?