Jun 302008


The 20th century’s answer to Sade is probably Jean Genet, a novelist and playwright who developed a strange kind of ascent through descent, finding a kind of apotheosis. If heroism is impossible, one distinguishes oneself through cultivating betrayal and abuse.

One of his plays was The Balcony (1956), a surreal exploration of fantasy and fetish.

Most of the scenes occur in the Balcony, a “house of illusions” or a brothel, depending on the mood of Irma, the house’s madam. Irma presides over the constantly shifting boundaries of fantasy and reality, dealing with clients who want to be Bishops and Generals, and may in reality be those things, a pimp who is actually a cowardly crossdresser and a whore who wants to be a saint. The Judge insists on hearing “true confessions” from a whore dressed as a criminal, who technically is a criminal, but the Judge shrinks from the thought that the woman actually committed any crimes.

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Aug 302006

First lesson in writing: the library is your friend.

I got a copy of Thomas Otway’s 1682 play Venice Preserved (incorrectly cited as “Venus Preserv’d” in Emily Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish) at the library today, and read it in the dull moments at my temping job.

Venice Preserved is a political allegory about England set in the republic of Venice. The kinky stuff comes in Act III, Scene i. Antonio, a lecherous and corrupt old senator, goes to the house of Aquilina, the Greek courtesan. Aquilina tries to turn him away, as she finds him repulsive, but he pushes his way in.

Antonio addresses Aquilina by childish nicknames (“Nacky, Nacky, Queen Nacky — come let’s to bed…”) and then as “Madonna.” He disregards her insults and brags about his “eloquence” which his actions equate with bribery. He overcomes her objects with money.

Aquil. No, sir, if you please I can know my distance and stand.

Anto. Stand: how? Nacky up and I down! Nay, then, let me exclaim with the poet,
Show me a case more pitiful who can,
A standing woman, and a falling man.
Hurry durry—not sit down—see this, ye gods—You won’t sit down?

Aquil. No, sir.

Anto. Then look you now, suppose me a bull, a basan-bull, the bull of bulls, or any bull. Thus up I get and with my brows thus bent—I broo, I say I broo, I broo, I broo. You won’t sit down, will you?—I broo—[Bellows like a bull, and drives her about.]

Aquil. Well, sir, I must endure this. Now your [she sits down] honour has been a bull, pray what beast will your worship please to be next?

Anto. Now I’ll be a Senator again, and thy lover, little Nicky Nacky! [He sits by her.] Ah toad, toad, toad, toad! spit in my face a little, Nacky—spit in my face prithee, spit in my face, never so little: spit but a little bit—spit, spit, spit, spit, when you are bid, I say; do prithee spit—now, now, now, spit: what, you won’t spit, will you? Then I’ll be a dog.

Aquil. A dog, my lord?

Anto. Ay, a dog—and I’ll give thee this t’other purse to let me be a dog—and to use me like a dog a little. Hurry durry— I will—here ’tis.

[Gives the purse.]

Aquil. Well, with all my heart. But let me beseech your dogship to play your tricks over as fast as you can, that you may come to stinking the sooner, and be turned out of doors as you deserve.

Anto. Ay, ay—no matter for that—that—[He gets under the table]—shan’t move me—Now, bow wow wow, bow wow …

[Barks like a dog.

Aquil. Hold, hold, hold, sir, I beseech you: what is’t you do? If curs bite, they must be kicked, sir. Do you see, kicked thus.

Anto. Ay, with all my heart: do kick. kick on, now I am under the table, kick again—kick harder—harder yet, bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od I’ll have a snap at thy shins—bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od she kicks bravely.—

Aquil. Nay, then I’ll go another way to work with you: and I think here’s an instrument fit for the purpose.

[Fetches a whip and bell.] What, bite your mistress, sirrah! out, out of doors, you dog, to kennel and be hanged—bite your mistress by the legs, you rogue—

[She whips him.]

Anto. Nay, prithee Nacky, now thou art too loving: Hurry durry, ’od I’ll be a dog no longer.

Aquil. Nay, none of your fawning and grinning: but be gone, or here’s the discipline: what, bite your mistress by the legs, you mongrel? out of doors—hout hout, to kennel, sirrah! go.

Anto. This is very barbarous usage, Nacky, very barbarous: look you, I will not go—I will not stir from the door, that I resolve—hurry durry, what, shut me out?

[She whips him out.]

Aquil. Ay, and if you come here any more to-night I’ll have my footmen lug you, you cur: what, bite your poor mistress Nacky, sirrah!

Enter Maid.

Maid. Heavens, madam! What’s the matter?

[He howls at the door like a dog.]

Aquil. Call my footmen hither presently.

Enter two Footmen.

Maid. They are here already, madam, the house is all alarmed with a strange noise, that nobody knows what to make of.

Aquil. Go all of you and turn that troublesome beast in the next room out of my house—If I ever see him within these walls again, without my leave for his admittance, you sneaking rogues, I’ll have you poisoned all, poisoned, like rats; every corner of the house shall stink of one of you; go, and learn hereafter to know my pleasure.

What’s interesting to me is the ambiguous relationship between client and dominatrix, in short, who exactly is on top here? Aquilina doesn’t like him or want him around, but he’s able to pay her to follow his script. She refuses part of the script, to spit on him, and then goes over his limit by whipping him and then kicking him out. There’s a constant push back and forth. It has a ring of truth to it, much as the flagellation scene in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, published in the middle of the next century.

Later in the play (Act V, scene ii), Aquilina threatens Antonio with a dagger as promised vengeance for the state execution of her beloved Pierre.

Aquil. Thou! think’st thou, thou art fit to meet my joys;
To bear the eager clasps of my embraces?
Give me my Pierre, or—

Anto. Why, he’s to be hang’d, little Nacky,
Trussed up for treason, and so forth, child.

Aquil. Thou liest: stop down thy throat that hellish sentence,
Or’ ’tis thy last: swear that my love shall live,
Or thou art dead.

Anto. Ah-h-h-h.

Aquil. Swear to recall his doom
Swear at my feet, and tremble at my fury.

Anto. I do. Now if she would but kick a little bit, one kick now.

Aquil. Swear, or—

Anto. I do, by these dear fragrant foots
And little toes, sweet as, e-e-e-e my Nacky Nacky Nacky.

Aquil. How!

Anto. Nothing but untie thy shoe-string a little, faith and troth,
That’s all, that’s all, as I hope to live, Nacky, that’s all.

Aquil. Ney, then—

Anto. Hold, hold, thy love, thy lord, thy hero Shall be preserv’d and safe.

Aquil. Or may this poniard
Rust in thy heart.

Anto. With all my soul.

Aquil. Farewell—

Even with Aquilina’s dagger at his throat, Antonio seems to be getting off on the situation, angling for more kicks or views of her feet. It’s unclear whether he’s enough of a drunk, a fool or a fetishist that he can’t see he’s in real danger. After her depature, Antonio lies down and pretends to be dead, and Aquilina is not heard from again.

According to Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish, the first scene was the basis for the animal roleplay scene in Emile Zola’s Nana, but I suspect both can be connected to the story of Phyllis coaxing Aristotle into playing the role of a horse for her, which IIRC goes back to the middle ages, though not classical times.