Tragic Beauty of Decadence

Elizabeth Bachner on the tragic pursuit of fantasy and beauty

“Odds are I’m alive. /Odds are, like a jockey gone to slop,/ There’s skip and nimble in me yet, /There’s a length of neck to stake, and there’s cunning, /And there’s an animal under me running, /Which, if I can hold on, will not stop.” I’m waiting for the A train, reading Osip Mandelstam on the hot platform. I left the city last weekend, and stayed at my friend’s place up north for a few days. There were big parties with firebreathers and fireworks, and visible stars, and beers with dangerous-sounding names — Homewrecker. Outrage. In the woods the light was patchy and dappled, I kept thinking that New York City looked like that once, with old-growth trees everywhere. I felt strange when I got home, putting my key into the lock that lets me into my Manhattan box of space, and keeps out all of the other people who live in other boxes past other locks, or who sleep in the pee-filled park nearby, with piles of newspapers and stained blankets and dirty clothes on the sidewalk underneath them. I had a feeling of homesickness right then. I get it a lot. Not a sickness for some home, but for the smell of the T-shirt of a man I lost or never had, or for a place that used to exist or a place that never existed, or for an Osip Mandelstam poem, or maybe for a poem I haven’t read yet.

The A train is slow, it’s Sunday. I start reading another poem: “Your girlish shoulders are for blushing, for blushing under whips…” People on the platform are watching me. I’m watching them.

Now that I’m at home, I’m reading about cosmetic surgery nightmares. A woman whose eyes are sewn open day and night. Painful deaths from leaking butt implants and exploding fake breasts. Michael Taussig, in his new book Beauty and the Beast, calls this “cosmic surgery.” He writes, “For have not women’s bodies become a type of agribusiness, along with monocropping, artificial fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, and irrigation? And has not nature struck back…? That woman in the dark, hot room, in a coma after a lipo, the woman who can’t close her eyes, the woman breathing like a cat, those double mastectomies and liters of pus drained from each buttock.” It’s a kind of fairy-tale unreality, all horror and transformation.

“A breach of reality,” Taussig calls it, but then what is reality? I’m also reading lots of books about psychiatric disorders I (probably?) don’t have. They’re oddly soothing, full of gentle statements about the way the brain does things, like the brain is a separate entity from the person. If your brain is sick, you just take a pill and your brain is tamed. In the now-outdated Listening to Prozac, there’s the idea of “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” taking drugs for problems like “rejection sensitivity” or low-grade discontent.

“Is beauty destined to end in tragedy?” asks Michael Taussig. And I don’t know what I believe about destiny, or endings. The question makes me think about an image in “The Holocaust as Culture,” Imre Kertesz’s 1992 lecture on Jean Amery: “We live in the context of a culture, and in this context the dead body of Jean Amery is to be found in the monument — still under construction — to the Holocaust, where he himself laid it down, like a blood-soaked flower.”

Beauty, destiny, tragedy — it seems like an old-fashioned question, a question not for after-Auschwitz, but maybe not. Jean Amery wrote once that the Auschwitz number tattooed on his left arm gave more information than the Talmud or the Pentateuch. But also: somehow Osip Mandelstam’s poems, some of them, have reached me all these years after he died in the Gulag Archipelago in 1938. Everyone alive today is living after everything that’s happened so far. We’re still murdering and torturing each other, imitating each other and fondling each other and doing the human things we’ve always done. Sometimes we write, even though who are we to write. Sometimes I read the insides of my naked, wordless arms.

In the mail, I get a book about hyenas, and, accidentally, two copies of an annotated anthology called Decadence. The cover of Decadence is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 1888 painting, The Roses of Heliogabulus, a lush scene of rosy, garland-wearing youths rolling around in the pink rose petals that an emperor has dropped from the ceiling to smother them. Inside the book, there are excerpts from Suetonius’s lives of Tiberius and Caligula and Nero. Nero engaged in incest with his mother, “as the stains on his clothes showed.” He thought there was no use for riches and money other than “to squander them away profusely.” He “wallowed in every kind of filth, defiling every part of his body with some unclean perversion. Then he invented a new amusement, which was to be released from a den in the arena, covered with the skin of a wild beast, and then to attack the private parts of men and women who were bound to stakes.” Nero had a giant house overlaid with gold and crusted with gold, with a lake the size of the ocean. It makes me think of the Columbian druglords Michael Taussig describes in Beauty and the Beast, with their scary new faces and knifed-off fingerprints, killing people by the dozens and getting their toilet paper monogrammed with real gold.

Sometimes I think about life in a world before and during and after genocide. Sometimes I think about what it means to write or to read in that world, but mostly I don’t think about it. Mostly, I read poems and stories and books as if they’ve reached me easily, as if no one struggled to write them in a prison, as if writing has never been dangerous.

Osip Mandelstam wrote: “I want to spit in the face of every writer who obtains permission and then writes.”

“In the real world,” says Imre Kertesz, “one sees… indifferent masses, cynical ideologies, amnesia, massacres, chaos and confusion. But significant events are not always captured clearly in the mirror of the realities of the present moment.”

“I realized quite early on that if I wanted to be a writer and write what I wanted, not what was wanted of writers, then I shouldn’t let anyone know what I was writing, shouldn’t let anyone know that some guy named Imre Kertesz was sitting in his apartment working on a novel,” Kertesz tells Thomas Cooper. “I didn’t want to be a part of the literary scene, you know, a writer submits the manuscript of a novella, then waits patiently to hear from the publisher.” In the ’70s, he sent his novel about the camps, Fatelessness, to a press headed by a high-ranking party functionary. When he asked the chief editor what they’d thought of it, “He said he hadn’t read it but I remember him asking, ‘Isn’t it a bit bitter?’”

Osip Mandelstam’s poems have reached me, this time vibrantly twisted into my language by a man from West Texas, a man who is careful to call them “versions” and not translations. Mandelstam’s 1933 poem “To the Translator” starts with the lines: “Forget it. Don’t tempt yourself with tongues/ Whose blood is not your own./ Better to bite a lightbulb…,” but then again Mandelstam was a brilliant reader of Homer, he didn’t so much translate him as eat him, and then again Mandelstam, born Jewish in Poland, had a father with “absolutely no language: his speech was tongue-tie and languagelessness… where normal words are intertwined with the ancient philosophical terms of Herder, Leibnitz, and Spinoza, the capricious syntax of a Talmudist, the artificial, not always finished sentence: it was anything in the world, but not a language…”

There’s my context, a homesick reader underneath an American city. There’s Osip Mandelstam’s context — a man who, according to Ilya Kaminsky, sat sipping milk in the bath of an expensive hotel while the city exploded all around him, a man who died in a transit camp, a man who (Joseph Brodsky wrote) had “perhaps the only sober response to the events which shook the world.” A poet full of contradictions, like other lyric poets, doing things with language that can’t be done with language.

Sometimes I think about texts and contexts, but usually I don’t think so much, usually I sit in the bath drinking milk. Metaphorically, I mean. Not in a grand hotel, not tonight, anyway, but in the decadent space of my tiny apartment. I sit here because I can. No one is stopping me. (The Boris Pasternak epitaph in the beginning of Osip Mandelstam’s poem, “Flat”: “Now you’ve got a flat you can write poetry.”) If I wanted to I could get my chin redone and get new breasts and wider eyes and a more pert bottom. I could install panels in the ceiling that would suffocate my guests with rose petals. I could pay for a psychiatrically-induced even temperament, a cure for my “rejection sensitivity” — and hope that the pills wouldn’t give me nausea and suicidal ideation and an inability to have a clitoral orgasm again, and hope that my eyes wouldn’t be permanently sewn open, and hope that my buttocks wouldn’t leak down my legs, and hope that I could still work. I could wipe my pert bottom with gold leaf toilet paper. I don’t do those things in my flat, but I could.

I settle in to read Hyena, by Mikita Brottman. When people see spotted hyenas in zoos, they think the animals are beautiful, until they find out what hyenas do, how hyenas live. “Disgust prevents the development of curiosity,” according to Brottman — we associate hyenas with corpse-eating. Most human beings, Brottman notes, “also feed on dead bodies, which, in order to transform them magically from their original condition, we refer to by such euphemistic terms as ‘ham’…” We scapegoat hyenas because it’s one of the things we do, scapegoating.

“We have always imagined the hyena to be involved with dead bodies, and, as a result, we have convinced ourselves that hyenas are vile, horrible creatures. In mythology and magic, they have been associated with putrefication and the macabre, with waste and disease… We think about hyenas this way because it is easy to do so, and because we need to have our villains, even in the animal world. But these imagined creatures, almost universally feared and reviled, are a product of human culture, not of nature. Real hyenas, unknown to most of us, are far more diverse and fascinating than the dull, one-dimensional creatures most people think of when they hear the word ‘hyena.’ Spotted hyenas are courageous and intelligent; striped hyenas are quiet and shy; brown hyenas are bold and sociable; aardwolves are gentle and small.”

What is a breach of reality? A real aardwolf, versus a twisted fantasy of an aardwolf. A real poem, versus a version of the poem. A real face versus a surgically-altered face, a real body versus a body in someone’s imagination. Of course reality can’t be breached, this is all reality, however liquid and chaotic it seems, however insane.

I’ve just finished reading Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, and I’m flipping through one of my pink copies of Decadence again. In the section headed “Diagnoses and Denunciations,” there’s a section of Max Nordau’s 1892 bestseller Degeneration:

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics,” Nordau writes, “they are often authors and artists. These, however, manifest the same mental characteristics, and for the most part the same somatic features, as the members of the above mentioned anthropological family, who satisfy their unhealthy impulses with the knife of the assassin or the bomb of the dynamiter, instead of with pen and pencil.” Nordau shows how the derangement of cells in “a degenerate or imbecilic individual” correspond to that of the decadent. Oscar Wilde cited this “science” when he wrote to the Home Secretary from prison, asking for freedom. And even a hundred years later, magically, like a fairy tale, like a lot of fairy tales, you can change your brain — curing homesickness, curing rejection sensitivity — and you can change your face — and you can make your work less bitter.

I’m looking at this picture of hyenas. They really are beautiful, not quite dogs and not cats. They have small faces and big, soft ears. I’m thinking of the first lines of the 1931 Osip Mandelstam poem, “A Toast”: “I drink to the tasseled shoulders of the tall top brass/ and the frigid rich wrapped in animal.” Odds are I’m alive, but right now I don’t know whether I’m wrapped in animal or riding one. Either way I don’t know which kind of animal it is, or whether I can hold on, and if I don’t hold on will it still keep running? Maybe I’m not a monument to anything. I’m looking at the inside of my unmarked forearm, my empty hand not holding a knife or a bomb, and not holding a pen either. Maybe it’s beautiful, maybe it’s tragic. All I see there is an unfinished sentence, anything in the world but not a language.

First appeared in Bookslut.

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