Apparent Retrograde Motion: A Way Forward

José Esteban Muñoz finds a way forward through cruising: the gay subcultural practice of seeking sexual encounters in public places or online.

“I know little of my sexuality,” thinks the time traveler. “Catholicism got in there and fucked my shit up years ago – hence these sexless days and nights.”

Is that a thought to be made public or kept private? Fear not, dear readers. Have I any decency? Yes I do.

“Aspects of Love’s Body have been occulted, occluded, hidden from consciousness,” thinks the time traveler. “So, too, have years prior. Trance-scripts of years past have gone unpublished. They appear to me now as I sit here reading them like repressed memories manifesting as pages of old journals – and thus times to which I can journey. Hence the trance-scripts ahead.”

Tuesday May 25, 2021

While Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone works wonderfully on its own terms as an historical romance, it can also be read and enjoyed as a kind of postmodernist metafiction. In her role as artist, the book’s protagonist serves as an allegorical double or doppelgänger of sorts both for the author herself, and for all who take pleasure in the reading and writing of romance novels. For the ungenerous interpretation of the book’s protagonist is that her attempt to profit from her sexuality — by which I mean that which happens to her in response to the sight of the nude duke in the book’s opening pages — makes her a “pornographer.” The character stumbles upon the duke: quite literally steps upon him. “A kind of god,” she thinks, “passed out nude in an alleyway.” The divine enters our lives here, as Philip K. Dick said, “at the level of the trash stratum.” This flash of the spirit in the form of the male nude is then a thing the character paints, and the painting is then a thing that she sells. Hence the “pornography” complaint — a trumped-up charge that, to those who read romance novels, can only seem hypocritical and absurd, baldly demonstrating the Victorian era’s patriarchal double-standard. Pulpit-riders and other anti-sex moralists have been wielding such rhetoric to police women’s agency since day one. The charge itself is thus an easy one to dismiss, as the novel itself makes clear. In no way, it insists, should Eros be cause for shame. The sale of nude art matters in the novel — draws it up short for a time, places its characters in a bind — only in the sense that, given an unjust climate, such exchange places both the protagonist and the duke in danger. If word of the protagonist’s painting were to reach her superiors, for instance, she could be expelled from the Royal Academy. Much the same is true for the duke. If word of his scandalous behavior were made public, it would interfere with the terms of his inheritance. Both characters, in other words, stand for a time on the brink of ruin. Yet as stars in a romance, both are in luck. For romance interrupts realism’s tragic bent, its anti-utopian fixation on comeuppance, allowing love to enter life as a kind of grace.

Sunday February 21, 2021

Rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the parent in me wants instantly to refute it. I want for my daughter something other than the Oedipus complex. I imagine a succession of heroines and goddesses. Why among all the characters of mythology does Freud opt for Oedipus and Electra? The latter, of course, has been reinvented in our time as a Marvel superhero. No longer daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, she wields a pair of sai. Electras loom large in the minds of at least two hideous men: Freud and Frank Miller. What if instead we imagine Oedipa Mass, the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49? While imagining Oedipa, imagine too the women in “Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“Embroided Earth’s Mantle”),” the Remedios Varo painting (middle part of a triptych, in fact) viewed by Oedipa at a key point in the novel.

The figures in each case are all still figures trapped in another’s tapestry. “Such a captive maiden,” writes Pynchon, “having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” This, too, is the dilemma faced by Melba Zuzzo, the heroine of Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. Next thing I know, I’m sending myself “Playing the Post Card: On Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 while scanning my shelves for H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. Having seen the Varo painting in an exhibit a year prior to writing the novel, Pynchon recalls it from memory. Oedipa sees in the painting what Pynchon wants her to see. If she’d looked closely, she’d have seen “La Huida (The Escape),” the third part of the triptych, where the girl and her lover flee to the mountains.

And at the center of the triptych, reading from a spell book and stirring a cauldron, a sorceress. Such figures of power and liberation are occulted by Pynchon’s imagining of a feminized Oedipus — a character “hailed,” “interpellated” as Althusser would say, in the novel’s opening sentence when named executor of the estate of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity. Principle among the items of Pierce’s estate is a stamp collection. LSD is a plot point in Pynchon’s novel. Perhaps we could read Pierce’s stamp collection as the equivalent of “blotter art.” It’s described as containing “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” and is delivered to Oedipa by “somebody named Metzger.” Readers might be forgiven for confusing “Metzger” with “Metzner,” as in the logic of a dream. As in “Ralph Metzner,” editor of Psychedelic Review and co-author, along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, of The Psychedelic Experience.