Among its many emblems, our society wears that of the talking sex. The sex which one catches unawares and questions, and which, restrained and loquacious at the same time, endlessly replies.
Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge
When life begins, it must be fed, nurtured. New knowledge comes from all directions, waiting to be absorbed. Place is as important to this as any other aspect: its people and geography teach us about the world as well as developing who we are. And so the adult story of Nina in Philosophical Toys (Dalkey Archive, 2015) unfolds. A drifter and artist, she alights in London, a city that has always drawn the restless from other-tongued countries; even those who share the language. After all, to speak differently, no matter how little the variance, is to be set apart as different: I soon noticed that most people in this town, including me, spoke weird English. Everybody was from somewhere else. The city’s infinite variety has the whirlwind pleasure of a riding a carousel: colours, characters and the complexities of language absorbed in an ecstatic blur, as Nina shifts accents and experiences like a chameleon. She refers to it as a pliable linguistic ignorance, collected from lovers and bank managers, pop songs to punks. I didn’t even know I had acquired a Cockney accent. He unpygmalionised me in his own way. Learning the language becomes a constant pattern of blossoming-deflowering, depending on who becomes your teacher.
The stranger in another country who does this is often viewed as not genuine, as if there was a set accent to be fitted to a person on learning a new tongue. Homogeneity tends to be the marker of acceptance for those of a smaller worldview; the beauty of a true welcoming city is when it holds the opposite to be true. It understands that your native tongue is your heart, not something to be replaced, but complemented. Nina writes in Spanish secretly, savouring the musical words, her comforting linguistic identity. At art school, she blossoms once again: I developed a la-di-da accent when I became friends with Mary Jane. At least once in our lives comes a person who becomes an instant conspirator; alike in ideas, who teaches us to see things in the world that were previously only feelings, the one you spend hours with discovering, dissecting and creating. Often the result is akin to a candle burned at both ends — it is brilliant and bright, then inevitably burns out quickly, leaving only wisps of smoke to remember it by. She and Mary Jane explore the weird, the things that cast the world in a different light — an internal one, that drives actions and manifests itself through the material. The tradition of uncanny objects, of perversely sexualised objects. We were both fascinated by traumas, pathologies, compulsions, the blurring of boundaries, negative pleasures. The end result of all these projects and observations: sexual desire.
The object(s) of desire. What do we imbue these inanimate things with? Our wishes, longings, and beyond that, sometimes the object of desire is feared, sometimes desire with its boundless force is to be feared. Does it transpose a better or more depraved personality or even a completely new one onto us? Fetish starts as discovery, whether it is a slow awakening, or one that surprises in its immediacy. A fetish separates, categorises. But it also brings together its worshippers intimately. First noted in Portugal, explains Nina, synonymous with witches, one who transferred her demonic power to her amulets. Feitiço, to charm. From the Latin facticius, made by art. The sorcery of created desire, intense and consuming. If sex was not in its beginnings, it took root at some point and wrapped around it like a living thing, symbiotic. In Foucauldian terms, sex…also referred to an instinct which, through its peculiar development and according to the objects to which it could become attached, made it possible for perverse behaviour patterns to arise and made their genesis intelligible. Objects are toys, no matter how functional. Function fulfils needs, needs are desires. Whether we play is down to how we are connected to the internal, and then transmit it to the external.
The delight here is that the concept of fetish extends beyond objects, into words themselves. And why not? Words are not material, but they nevertheless create beautiful things and bewitch the senses for the ones who understand their power, both readers and writers. Worship the word, and the one who brings it alive with desire. Sex might now be inseparable from fetish, but it is also bound to memory, to senses. Nina’s nature is a sexual one from the beginning, as evidenced by her heightened response to sensory pleasures and philosophical musings rather than the more forthright references to the act itself: the idea of erotic survival, where boldness conquers insecurity, to devour rather than wither. The porcelain skins of British boys, a blue silk robe to write and think in, and most telling, her boyfriend’s scent. I developed an instantaneous attraction to Chris’ s smell. We followed each other’s scent. We live in a world that suppresses the idea of human scent as an attractor. Cover. Erase. Deny. But for anyone who has experienced and understood its power — the animal scent of a lover’s neck, the soft exposed place just under the ear — it is hypnotic. It draws us to stories as well as sex. I want to know you, says scent. Speak to me.
A chance viewing of a bad copy of Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid found in the family home in Spain is the start of what is to become the discovery of the story of her mother, but more so, an exploration of Nina herself. A pair of black ankle boots worn by Jeanne Moreau triggers a long buried memory. And then my mother, Nina Chiavelli, came back in full. I remember that way of walking… she walked slowly, majestically. And then those boots, they sparked off flashbacks… I was dizzy with memories. A memory is often a chance encounter. You trip across it, and like a maze of dominoes, one falls into another, and another, until you are surrounded by patterns of the past. Nina Chiavelli: body double and extra in Spaghetti Westerns (Almería’s landscape being peculiarly suited to the genre), beautiful alcoholic, mother. Dead when Nina was only six, and never spoken of by her father afterwards; a ghost recalled in fragments: trips to the circus and zoo, being taught Italian words, a feeling of sweetness shadowed by memories of afternoon disappearances, blues sung through a closed door, wine and cocktails throughout the day. Her short life distilled into a body coveted by strangers, a celluloid sex-image for hire, and a daily alcoholic celebration of nothingness all accompanied by the soundtrack of her high heels.
Haunted by the boots, she pages through a photo album, discovering a picture of her mother wearing what seems to be the identical pair; this conjures another hazy memory, one of seeing her father, asleep and clutching one of the boots, and then: in one of the dreams I remembered from my childhood that boot had become a book… a book that was not really a book but a boot. In Buñuel’s film, the old man dies clutching the black boot, his last thoughts his memories. Does Nina’s father bring Nina Chiavelli back to life in his sleep, his dreams? Hypnos and Thanatos, brother-gods of sleep and death, entwined around a simple boot: a book, a story. But why those — rather than a picture, a dress? Perhaps in her sad short life, heels represented her pride, the one thing that elevated her beyond the desires of others, her faults, that majestic walk creating a similar character in her head that she could escape into, if only briefly. Maybe that proud creature was the one brought back to life in his dreams, but this is often just the fancy of the living; heavily investing emotions and memory into objects of the desired dead. Nina Chiavelli becomes a fetish by proxy, fetish itself becomes Narcissus and Echo.
Another journey back home to memory, this time the slow loss of it in the form of her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, results in the resurrection yet again of her mother. The loft, that dusty time capsule common to all families, yields its mysterious treasure. Foucault talks about a story by Diderot, about a genie who finds a ring that makes the sexes tell their stories, hidden among ordinary things. Nina’s father dismisses the contents of the loft: he said it was all rubbish…What she finds are her mother’s shoes, ninety-five pairs, ninety-five different identities, ninety-five stories. Denied an existence by her father who is now cloistered in El Refugio, a community of gently disappearing memories drifting between past and present, the shoes begin their journey; back to London to be stacked in rooms and wondered at, the cacophony of stories and voices they must be. Each pair filled with the memory-character of someone almost unknown, in the hope of creating a whole person. Strapped to Nina’s back as she moves flats, crossing the city with her strange cargo. And then a surreal realisation: I was surrounded by all these shoeboxes which in turn were in a larger shoebox which in turn was inside a behemoth vertical shoebox made out of five shoeboxes per floor, each floor being in turn a huge shoebox. They become a travelling presence on their own, as the Leather-bound Stories exhibition, one woman’s shoes analysed from different perspectives, city by city. After all, a story is not one-dimensional; meaning changes constantly and all viewpoints become relevant.
The purchase of a pair of the shoes by a collector — The Collector — touches on the idea that a fetish can transcend denial by the fetishist. The Museum of Relevant Moments is a shrine to Buñuel; the ‘relevant moments’ being objects of importance in his movies. The Collector dismisses the notion of ‘isms’, but he does so surrounded by the magical objects of created desire. Money now rears its devouring head; there is reference to the scent of money, the look of it, how it lures Nina with its possibility. For people like The Collector, money in amounts that vast is merely a concept which allows for the procurement of desire, which in turns allows him to view the world conceptually rather than materialistically. For Nina, the world is visually and materially enhanced once she briefly has it: Perhaps it was money that made me aware of the orgasmic green, that made me see everything as more luminous on my return. Acquisition in terms of money goes through stages, much like love; when you do not have it, in a way you long for it, regardless of whether your longings are lustful/material or pure/altruistic. Money is the ultimate fetish; it allows you to devour all your libidinal dreams, seductively encourages you to play with your new toys.
To be someone else’s words and thoughts, as Nina tries to do, ghostwriting the philosopher Lecour for The Collector’s Museum, is a task much like the question of the ship of Theseus: if you replace each word with one identical in tone and meaning of the other, is what is read the words of the original, or the one who tries to recreate? At first, it is a pleasurable exercise: I enjoyed that, inhabiting a different way of seeing. It allowed me to be somebody else, it allowed me to consciously incorporate somebody else’s vision into my own consciousness, devour it while being devoured by it. But slowly she comes to realise it can be nothing but farce: the hollowness of it will echo through. Material can be copied, not minds. There is nothing else that can be done but bleed, but bleeding is the truest form of influence: let the experiences of your life, your thoughts, seep into that other person’s words.
The Museum of Relevant Moments — surrounded later by a hazy accusation of being a temple to simulacra rather than genuine objects — sheds new light on Nina Chiavelli’s high heels. They become a sublime joke, when it becomes almost tantalisingly certain that they are an unknown original hidden amidst copies. The idea of the museum itself then becomes a mirage, the real and unreal shimmering like waves of heat. Does a copy become real in the mind of the beholder if enough belief is placed in it? This is an echo of something Mary Jane says early on to Nina in a Soho cafe with a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in it: place is the message. Surroundings invest an authenticity to an object that we are willing to then invest our beliefs in. If the real one hung in Soho, she argues, it would lose some of its lustre. Once this is understood, a strange game can be played: precisely the one The Collector has been playing. You believe, therefore it is. Your adoration, admiration is no less genuine for your lack of knowledge. When you look at the object of desire, what you see is the purity of emotion. A movie, a dream, a boot, a shoe: all are bound together with feeling. In the end, is that not the most important thing?
Often we passively wait for a story to be told, as if it were self-contained. But the truth is that we put much of ourselves into it, resulting in a more complex, sometimes more frustrating tale. The story of Nina Chiavelli’s shoes becomes the story of Nina; they weave together the longing for identity, our attractions to others and our delight in ascribing meaning to the things in the world. But for all that, it is frayed at its edges, without an ending. Closure is difficult; rarely the thing it claims to be. How can it? It is only the soothing of a beast. But how do you make peace with a finality that is restless in its half-answered questions? You simply go on. Turn the days likes pages, hoping, perhaps that as they go on, a certain memory will become more distant. Perhaps you will find yourself in a limbo, reckless choices or no choices at all, a temporary withdrawal from the world. Nina starts to emerge from her stasis, open herself once again to language, to sex, thoughts and the exploration of objects. Like Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, the toys are always there, waiting for our libidinal dreams to fill them and bring them back to life.
Susana Medina writes both in Spanish, her native language, and in English. She has been awarded several literary prizes. She is the author of Red Tales Cuentos Rojos, Souvenirs del Accidente and two short films: Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys and Leather-bound Stories (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne). Her writing has been featured in Best European Fiction. She also has curated international art shows, written art catalogues, exhibited at Tate Modern and collaborated with artists. @SusanaMedina_.
Tomoe Hill lives and writes in Kent. Her pieces have also been in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Open Pen, and LossLit. She is reviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.
Image: © CuriosoTheGreat