“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, January 21, 2006

erotica

Philosophers ask absurd questions. Jonathan Bennett, in The name of Events, poses the following question: suppose I take a walk around the garden every day. Some day when I am indisposed for some reason, can someone else take my walk? The question is absurd because we live in a world where events – walkings and such – are subordinate to substances – the walkers. Someone can take my bicycle, but my walk is “owned” in quite a different way. I do it, I don’t have it. Yet, what if the walk does me? What tells us that the world’s order is so immutable that the first shall always be first, the last shall always be last, and substance shall always reign over events?

I am thinking about this because of two things I recently read.

V.S. Ramachandran’s book, Phantoms of the Brain, describes Ramachandran’s study of the phantom limb puzzle. Phantom limbs usually occur when an arm or a leg is amputated, and the amputee feels an arm or a leg still there. Ramachandran found that sometimes the phenomenon occurs even among people who are born without arms or legs. Phantom limbs can “grow” on these people.

The world of phantom limbs is an interesting one. A third of all phantom limbs are paralyzed, often in the highly awkward or painful postures they’d assumed right before the limb was injured. And phantom limbs are also locales of pain. Often, phantom arms are afflicted with a nervous syndrome in which the phantom hand cramps into a fist, digging its nails into the phantom flesh. Ramachandran did som amazing experiments to help people with these problems. For instance, he devised a box to “cure” phantom arm victims of certain problems. The box had no top, and had a vertical mirror placed in it, and two holes cut in the front. He tells of one victim whose arm was paralyzed, and who was being extremely irritated by it. He directed her to put her arms – the right real one and the left phantom one – through the holes in the box.

“Since the mirror is in the middle of the box, the right hand is now on the right side of the mirror and the phantom on the left. The patient is asked to view the reflection of her normal hand in the mirror and to move it around slightly until the reflection appears to be superimposed on the felt reflection of her phantom hand. She has thus created the illusion of observing two hands.”

Ramachandran then directed her to move her hands, doing things like imitating an orchestra conductor. The woman immediately started feeling her phantom limb move.

When she withdrew her arms, the phantom limb was again paralyzed. Yet after a few weeks of practice, it could move – it could gesture like mobile phantom limbs do. In fact, in one case a man who suffered severe pain in his phantom elbow “lost” his phantom limb using the mirror box – the first recorded case of phantom limb amputation.

Ramachandran has a neurological theory about the conflict between the seeing of the hand and the neural area feeling the arm that he claims explains these phenomena. But I would rather pass on to my second book, Herman Broch’s “The Sleepwalkers.”

Broch is, to my mind, the most erotic author I’ve ever read. Reflecting on events and phantom limbs, I think I understand why: Broch has an uncanny ability to tap into the world given to us by erotica, and in this world the last do come first. Substance, here, is secondary, while events ride mankind.

In the Sleepwalkers, an officer, Joachim von Passenow, finds himself unwillingly drawn to a Czech girl, Ruzena, a café prostitute. The description of the first day they spend together is too long to quote in its gorgeous entirety, but one feature of it may be enough. As they are out walking on this rainy Berlin day, Joachim dressed in khaki, Rozena stops him and, instead of kissing him on the lips, “bent over his hand, where it lay in hers, and kissed it before he could stop her.” They go to a park, the rain is drizzling down into the river there, and then they go out of the rain into an inn. Again, they don’t kiss at the table. ‘Whenever the landlady left the room, Rozena set down her cup, took his out of his hand, and seizing his head drew it quite close to hers, so close – and they had not yet kissed – that their glances melted together, and the tension was quite unendurable in its sweetness.” They leave the inn, they hail a droschke and enter into its shadowy interior as the drizzle continues to come down and then “… seeing nothing of the world save the coachman’s cape and two gray wet stripes of roadway through the opening on either side, and soon not even seeing that, then their faces bowed to each other, met, and melted together, dreaming and flowing like the river, lost irrecoverably, and ever found again, and again sank timelessly. It was a kiss that lasted for an hour and fourteen minutes.”

And this, I think, is why the erotic is daemonic, and why so few people can or really want to distinguish it from pornography, which is only superficially about cocks, pussies, and assholes, but is much more organized around the retaining of the order of things in which there are cocks, pussies and assholes as substances of humans doing things. Erotica is a matter of events, of a fundamental inversion of that order, and that is why it scares the shit out of me. Pornography is just part of the dominant spectrum, which includes the Disney parents kissing after “honey, I’m home.” The erotic is the moment when honey I’m home seizes the now anonymous couple in its talons and “coming home” is separated from the returning husband and the greeting wife and it subordinates them to its iron law, which makes a mockery of individuation and quantity; and one sees now how reluctantly, as if coming out of a dream that could be – for who knows the character of its edges? – death itself, Joachim and Ruzena become substance once again, an hour and fourteen minutes after they began their kiss.

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