“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.

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“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

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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.