A Small Boy and Others
Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol
By Michael Moon
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
A Small Boy and Others: Sexual Disorientation in Henry James, Kenneth Anger, and David Lynch
In this chapter I am concerned with a group of texts that have been produced over the past century: chiefly, Henry James's "The Pupil" (1891), Kenneth Anger's film Scorpio Rising (1963), and David Lynch's Blue Veluet (1986). Each of these texts draws much of its considerable uncanny energies from representing heavily ritualized performances of some substantial part of the whole round of "perverse" desires and fantasies, autoerotic, homoerotic, voyeuristic, exhibitionistic, incestuous, fetishistic, and sadomasochistic. Particularly striking are the ways in which all these texts foreground the mimed and ventriloquized qualities of the performances of ritual induction and initiation into "perverse circles," which they represent, rather than attempting to de-emphasize the mimetic secondariness of these representations, as realist texts and ordinary pornography both commonly do. Since René Girard launched his influential critique of the object-theory of desire twenty-five years ago, his argument that it is not the putative object of desire but mimesis that is primary in the formation of desire has been usefully elaborated by a number of theorists. Of these, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen's recent rereading of Girard's hypothesis "against" some similarly fundamental hypotheses of Freud's has been highly suggestive for my own current project. "[D]esire is mimetic before it is anything else," Borch-Jacobsen writes. Rather than focusing on simple triangulations of desire among persons, as he criticizes Girard for doing, he attempts to theorize the thoroughly disorienting effects mimesis has on desire ("[D]esire is not oriented by pleasure, it is (dis)oriented by mimesis ..." ).
In the texts I am looking at, I want to consider some of the ways in which sexuality is not so much oriented by its object, by the perceived gender or age, race, social class, body type, style of dress, and so on, of its object, as it is disoriented by mimesis. There are many more people who respond strongly(whether or not they recognize or acknowledge any positive component to their response) to images of male-male sadomasochism, for example, than there are people who identify themselves as gay-male sadomasochists—this at least became clear in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the Corcoran Gallery's cancellation of its projected exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. The reason for this strong response is not simply because these images induce the viewer at least momentarily to violate (painfully and/or pleasurably, depending on one's point of view) the general interdiction of sadomasochistic object-choice among males in our society, for just such object-choices flourish in many institutional settings; relations of inflicting and receiving psychological and physical pain, with the sexual element of this interchange suppressed or not, are considered not shocking aberrations but ordinary and even necessary practice in the military, prisons, many corporate organizations, athletic teams, and schools of all levels. It is the domestication of many of these procedures into "discipline," the daily practice of institutional "law and order," with only those interchanges that are most flagrantly sexually enacted isolated and stigmatized as "sexual perversion," that conduces most of us to disavow our insiders' knowledge of sadomasochistic pleasures most of the time.
As with other kinds of largely disavowed knowledges, the knowledge of ostensibly minority pleasures like sadomasochism plays constantly around the margins of perception of the "normal" majority—that most audacious of theoretical fictions. If in an important sense no desire is our own—that is, originates with us; if desire is indeed primarily induced by imitation, mimed and ventriloquized, then it is impossible to maintain our ordinary "orienting" notions of which desires we are at home with and which ones we are not. Powerful images of ostensibly perverse desires and fantasies disorient our currently prevailing assumptions—symmetrical and pluralistic—about our own and other people's sexual orientations by bringing home to us the shapes of desires and fantasies that we ordinarily disavow as our own. In forcing us to recognize at least liminally our own familiarity or "at-homeness" with these desires these images produce unheimlich—uncanny—effects. In the texts I am discussing, the process of inducing uncanny effects is inseparable from the related process of inducing effects of what I am calling sexual disorientation, to denote the position of reader-or viewer-subjects at least temporarily dislocated from what they consider their "home" sexual orientation and "disorientingly" circulated through a number of different positions on the wheel of "perversions," positions that render moot or irrelevant our current basic "orienting" distinction, homo/heterosexual. I am interested in doing this not in order to try to efface this distinction, which on the gay side has been so murderously enforced over the past century, never more so than it is today, but to the contrary to extend our thinking about the dependence of both so-called high and popular culture during the same period on the sexually "perverse" for their energies and often for their representational programs.
Roy Orbison's 1963 song "In Dreams" figures importantly in Blue Velvet. It begins, "A candy-colored clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night, / Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper, 'Go to sleep, everything is all right.'" Orbison's "candy-colored clown they call the sandman" has commonly been taken to mean—as so much figurative writing in pop music of the 1960s and after has been—simply "drugs," in this case "downs" or "sleepers." Without discounting this entirely, I want to press on the intertextual relation of the "sandman" of Orbison's and Lynch's texts with that of E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1816 story "The Sandman" and Freud's 1919 essay "The Uncanny," which takes Hoffman's story as its model literary text.
In Hoffmann's story, a young student named Nathanael believes that an old instrument-peddler who calls himself "Coppola" is the same man who, as the lawyer Coppelius, used to pay mysterious nocturnal visits to Nathanael's father, until the night the boy's father was killed by an explosion and fire in his study, from the scene of which Coppelius supposedly fled. During this time the child Nathanael had developed the fixed notion that old Coppelius was the nursery-fable figure "the Sandman" in the flesh—rather repellent flesh, little Nathanael thinks.
Freud interprets the story's uncanny effects as proceeding from castration anxieties, which it registers around the figure of Nathanael, who displaces his fear of castration by his father onto his father's evil and uncanny double, Coppelius. As is the case with so many of Freud's key formulations, we get only the "heterosexual plot" of the "sandman" narrative in his reading of it. Neither Freud nor any of the other readers who have published interpretations of the story has to my knowledge made anything of the narrative's continuous engagement with a thematics of male-male sadomasochism and pedophilia, as when Nathanael says that Coppelius had "mishandled" or "manhandled" him once when he caught the boy spying on him and his father, violently twisting his hands and feet and moving as if to pluck out his eyes. Later in the story Nathanael claims Coppelius "had entered him and possessed him" at the time he caught him spying (292). Nathanael's "madness" takes the form of a series of hysterical outbursts in which he keeps crying, "Whirl round, circle of fire! Merrily, merrily! Aha lovely wooden doll, whirl round!" (304, 308). It is possible to see how the hallucinatory contents of his delirium may derive from a premature and precocious induction into the "perverse" "circle of fire" he enters when as a child he spies on the mysterious nocturnal activities of his father with Coppelius. He keeps hysterically mistaking his relation to the "lovely wooden doll"; in the second half of the story he falls in love with the girl-automaton Olympia, a figure that is on one level of his confused thoughts an image of his physically invaded child self and on another an image of his infantile perception of the phallus of the father and/or Coppelius as a terrifying and powerful machine ("wooden doll, whirl round!"). Lacan speaks of one of the primary significations of the phallus as being its character as the visible sign of the sexual link or what he calls the "copula," and Nathanael's belief that Coppelius renamed himself "Coppola" after his attack on him and his alleged murder of his father underscores Coppelius's position as phallic terrorist in Nathanael's story.
Part of the uncanny power of Hoffmann's "The Sandman" no doubt derives from the undecidable relation of this "perverse" narrative to the familiar oedipal one about Nathanael's relation to his father and his female sweethearts that psychoanalytic theory has privileged. Hoffmann's text reveals with stunning force how thoroughly any given reader, including Freud and subsequent critics of "The Sandman," may be both "at home" and "not at home," simultaneously and in undecidable combination, with these powerful and "perverse" undercurrents. The film Blue Veluet, too, oscillates between a conventional, linear, oedipal plot and a circular, "perverse," and ritualistic one. The trajectory of the oedipal plot of Blue Veluet is also racist, sexist, ageist, and homophobic in the ways to which the oedipal so readily lends itself: a young man must negotiate what is represented as being the treacherous path between an older, ostensibly exotic, sexually "perverse" woman and a younger, racially "whiter," sexually "normal" one, and he must at the same time and as part of the same process negotiate an even more perilous series of interactions with the older woman's violent and murderous criminal lover and the younger woman's protective police-detective father. This heterosexual plot resolves itself in classic oedipal fashion: the young man Jeffrey destroys the demonic criminal "father" and rival Frank, rescues the older woman, Dorothy, from Frank's sadistic clutches, and then relinquishes her to her fate and marries the perky young daughter of the good cop.
But that is not the whole story of the film: there is an anarchic second plot that emerges intermittently but unmistakably in which subject positions and transferals of identities and desires are highly volatile. Young Jeffrey arrives at film's end at the object of his oedipal destination, the highschool student Sandy (notice how the name of even this character, the only principal one in the film supposedly located well outside the "perverse" circuits it traverses, links her with Orbison's and Hoffmann's uncanny "sandmen"), but he is frequently swept off course from this oedipal trajectory, not only by his attraction to and involvement with Dorothy, "the Blue Velvet Lady," but by his only marginally less intense "involvement" with her lover Frank and the other men who surround him. There are two moments in the film that I shall discuss at some length in which the supercharged valences of male-male desire are represented with particular graphic power. In these scenes, characters enact a whole series of uncanny relationships between males of different ages, social classes, and supposed sexual orientations—orientations that get thoroughly disoriented when they get swept near the flame of "perverse" desire that flows around the figures of the chief sadomasochistic pair, Frank and Dorothy.
Anyone who watches Blue Velvet with "The Sandman" in mind may well be struck by how densely intertextual the film is with the story, not only in its repeated evocations of the figure of "the sandman," but also in its "perverse" plot: as in Hoffmann's "The Sandman," a young male gets unexpectedly initiated into a circle of sadomasochistic and fetishistic desires. Lynch's characters, like Hoffmann's, indulge in a round of spying and retributive and eroticized beating on each other, and of mimed and ventriloquized desire. Early in the film the young man Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's closet and spies on her. When she catches him, she forces him to strip at knifepoint and subsequently introduces him to sadomasochistic sex, as both direct participant and voyeur. When on one occasion later in the film Frank catches Jeffrey leaving Dorothy's apartment, he forces both of them to come with him for what he calls a "joyride," the first stop of which is at Ben's, where Jeffrey is preliminarily punched a time or two (by Frank and Ben) and Ben, looking heavily made-up, lip-synchs Roy Orbison's song about "the candy-colored clown they call the sandman," until he is interrupted by a grimacing Frank, who manically orders everyone present to get on with the "joyride."
The initiation ritual to which Frank is subjecting Jeffrey at this point in the film is extremely ambiguous: the younger man is being intimidated and frightened away from Frank and his circle of perversions at the same time as he is being forced and welcomed into it. The contradictions do not stop at the figure of Jeffrey; they extend to everyone present at the scene of initiation: in Frank's obvious pleasure and pain during Ben's lip-synching; in Ben's "suave" behavior toward Frank, as Frank calls it, and Ben's sadistic behavior toward Jeffrey (he hits him in the stomach), as well as in Ben's being both male and "made-up" (i.e., wearing cosmetics); in Dorothy's being brought to Ben's both to be terrorized and punished and to be allowed to see her small child, who is being held there; in the mixed atmosphere of Ben's place, which appears to be a whorehouse with a staff of mostly grandmotherly looking whores, several of whom are sitting around a coffee table, suburban-homestyle, chatting with Ben when Frank and his party arrive. Ben's lip-synching of "In Dreams" functions as both a kind of "tribute" to Frank and also as a kind of threat to Jeffrey that some uncanny figure called "the candy-colored clown" or "sandman" is going to "get him"—but, as one sees in the pain Frank registers in his face during the latter part of the lip-synch, this figure "gets" Frank, too; he seems almost on the verge of breaking down before he yanks the tape from the player and orders everyone to "hit the fuckin' road."
When Frank, Dorothy, Jeffrey, and the others make their next stop it is at a deserted spot far out in the country. Here Frank starts hyperventilating and playing sadistically with Dorothy's breasts. Unable to remain in the voyeuristic position in which he has been placed for the moment, Jeffrey first orders Frank to "leave [Dorothy] alone" and then leaps forward from the backseat of the car and punches Frank in the face. Frank orders Raymond and his other henchmen to pull the boy out of the car and to put the song "Candy-Colored Clown" ("In Dreams") on the car's tape player. The action between Frank and Jeffrey becomes most densely ritualistic at this point. Frank smears lipstick on his mouth and kisses it onto Jeffrey's lips, pleading with him to leave Dorothy alone (the same thing Jeffrey had ordered him to do a minute before), and threatening to send him "a love letter" if he does not, explaining to him that by "a love letter" he means "a bullet from a fuckin' gun." "If you get a love letter from me, you're fucked forever," Frank tells Jeffrey. He then starts speaking to Jeffrey the words of the song playing on the tape player: "In dreams I walk with you, / In dreams I talk to you; / In dreams you're mine, all of the time, / We're together in dreams." Frank then wipes the lipstick from the boy's lips with a swatch of blue velvet, instructs the other men to "hold him tight for me," and, to the crescendo of the song's chorus ("It's too bad that these things / Can only happen in my dreams"), begins to beat Jeffrey mercilessly. As Jeffrey presumably loses consciousness, the music and the scene fade out.
When Lynch has Frank mouth the words of the song a second time, this time directly to a Jeffrey whom he has ritually prepared for a beating by "kissing" lipstick onto his mouth and wiping it off with a piece of blue velvet, it is as though Lynch is both daring the viewer to recognize the two men's desire for each other that the newly discovered sadomasochistic bond that unites them induces them to feel and at the same time to recognize the perhaps more fearful knowledge that what most of us consider our deepest and strongest desires are not our own, that our dreams and fantasies are only copies, audio-and videotapes, of the desires of others and our utterances of them lip-synchings of these circulating, endlessly reproduced and reproducible desires. Lip-synching is the ideal form of enunciation for the ritualized and serious game of "playing with fire"—that is, with the game of inducing male homosexual panic and of making recognizable, at least in flashes, the strong S-M component of male-male violence—that Frank, Ben, and Jeffrey play: lip-synching a pop song allows Ben to "come on" to Frank, and Frank in turn to "come on" to Jeffrey, singing about how "In Dreams" they possess the man to whom they're singing—without doing so in any way that "counts" for more than the fantasmatic and mimicked moments the two pairs of men share. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Small Boy and Others by Michael Moon. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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