There was recently a theft at a museum in Dresden. The heist took place in the Grünes Gewölbe, the Green Vault, which sounds like a stand of trees curving into a nave in the forest near Bassae, but is really a state museum with the treasures of the electors of Saxony, amongst other things. The thieves cut the power and the backup alarms, hoisted themselves through a tiny window, and are seen on camera in the vault, standing in front of the faintly gilded rocaille cases in the dark. The black and white marble floors shine in the scant light of their torches and they begin to pry at the glass meant to hold them back from the diamonds.
Heists like this aren’t usually for moving objects on the black market, since the jewel encrusted sword and the like are too singular to fence. They were grabbed for someone who wanted them, a Russian oligarch perhaps, who would secret them away in his basement den forever, perhaps for certain confidants and guests to see in an act of profligacy as much as intimidation.
The floors, those black and white floors, and the reflection off the glass, make the security footage look unreal, like the film Last Year At Marienbad. I tell myself what an awful thing this is, how this is not the desire that I have for art, the desire to secret it away in some orifice-lair like a great wyrm. Like Marienbad though, things are uncertain, time bulges and dilutes, and I can never be sure what is lying. This is eros, too, the hit of each sharp-tongued instrument until the pane pulls away like a net.
Updike, the failings of my body in the sharp light of his misogyny, and needing Updike anyway, is like robbing jewels. I take them as an act of eros, of profligacy, those paragraphs from The Centaur, secret them away in a locked room. Consider how Updike’s Venus describes the gods, cruel and imperfect:
“… Cheeks brow and throat flushed, she shouted toward Heaven, “Yes, Brother: blasphemy! Your gods, listen to them—a prating bluestocking, a filthy crone smelling of corn, a thieving tramp, a drunken queer, a despicable, sad, grimy, grizzled, crippled, cuckolded tinker—”
Consider the parasites that eat off the tongues of fishes, Cymothoa exigua, known sometimes as fish-louses. They swim into the gills, and then sever the major blood vessels at the root of the tongue, gnawing away at the flesh until they are the tongue to the fish. They live this way until the fish dies, eating scraps, being tongues. I latch onto the tongue of Theocritus sometimes. I’ve stolen Homer and Herodotus, too. I’m a bluestocking and broken and sometimes drunken and, yes, queer. I can hear Updike now, the words he saves for sagging female flesh, I say them to myself in the mirror. It’s no good though, I’ve already bitten off his tongue at the root and started to speak with it, stolen it like it was already mine, shadows playing on the empty vault of the mouth, the soft palate and jawing bone. I’ve stolen him and his words and I’ve grown my flesh to them in a graft I can’t undo for love or money either.
I’m a thief; a thousand hundred generations of starving Sicilian farmers indenturing their backs to some steep, rocky crag, a thousand hundred shtetl girls married off young. I’m from a flat hot suburb of a third-rate city near a swamp and the sea, I’m nothing from nowhere to you. I’ve seen the asphalt burble in the heat before a thunderstorm in the summer. Do you think that there are barbarians? That I am one? Well, barbar then. Nothing can scare me. I lived in the mouths of fishes. I lived between teeth. I ring my neck with them like the lost diamonds of Saxony as I eye Updike’s patrician nose in a photograph.
Updike’s homophobia was horrible, too, when he wrote of Alan Hollinghurst in 1999 in the New Yorker that his prose was good but could never be universal the way the real stuff was, the heterosexual generative family. My life, apparently, is not worthy of being universal; little louse of a life, swatted at. Hollinghurst won the Booker in 2005, the year I graduated high school. I sat on my school’s long sloping patio, on a little island between the bay and the sea. The seaside of the beach does sound like the Greek, Thalassa Tha-LAS-SA as bigger waves come crashing in, the surf hitting the sand tarmac of used needles and condoms we picked up for community service. The bay, though, slaps gently, lapping cups in the wind.
It was on the bay that I pined, reading, stealing glimpses of the girl who became the Nike of Samothrace, seeing the line of beauty in the curve of her back as I read the precious imported hardback, the assignations I would never have been brave enough for, in the gardens of Kensington and Notting Hill. Seagulls stole our sandwiches and small change with abandon. I screeched at them. I can still hear Updike’s prose though, too, his sentences now and then, faceted like gems. Some of them are perfect. Some of them are worth cracking an uncrackable glass vitrine in the shadows of a Dresden night.
Do you hate me now, Updike’s Shade? It’s okay, I’m a critic, I’m climbed into your mouth and eaten off your grey tongue. I speak your neat universals, your hard-bitten hags who used to be girls, your tired and valorous schlumps of men, I speak them for you now. I don’t need my tongue, I’ve stolen yours.
“… with her narrow woman’s mind she had cut through to the truth that would give the most hurt.”
I hope so. Did you know a scalpel is a gentle touch? My father taught me that. He cut open bodies. He, too, made the dead speak, counting their stab wounds and bullets for our Areopagus. A pathologist’s daughter grows up jostling death for room in the family car, has Thanatos over for sleepovers.
To the party in the Gentlemen’s Club, I wore a necklace with a silver straight razor, the blade ground down just enough that you could touch it, flip it about in your hands like a parlor trick. It could do so much less than a scalpel, know so much less, a blunt instrument like that. And yet they looked at it with fear in their eyes, the men who knew you, knew Theocritus and so many lines of Homer beaten into them in some august schoolroom. I laughed at them, stole the goddesses’ flashing eyes. Hermes is, too, a thief.
Last year at Marienbad. This year in London. No one will ever stalk me through manicured gardens, cultivating mirrors and doubt. I have purloined memory, I have secreted it away, across black and white diagonal tiles, out of a safe, all the way to Thalassa, the bay, the sea. Full of gaping fishes, shades of books that I could succor on forever, unsuspecting, made easy and neat. I am inside that fish right now. So are you. White teeth, black gaps. A very dangerous parquet! Critics and Criticism. Fish-louses at play on a chessboard.
That’s what the critical eros is too, a desire, even for the appalling but also lovely—your Heidegger, your Pound, your Brancusi birds so ovoid and sleek—to take it, clasp it, tap into the vessels of its blood and make it what you need to live, and if you’re lucky, speak.
We the Parasites is out next week with Sublunary Editions. You can order a copy here.
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A.V. Marraccini is a critic, essayist, and historian of art. Twitter: @saintsoftness