an aesthetic approach
If we judge a book on how it makes us feel, then what are we to make of Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac?
The story is propelled along in Lucien’s diary entries, most of which are written shortly after the events described in the entries, in haste and riding the crest of the complex series of satieties he pursues. (I see a crumble of graveyard dirt on the page.) He is a practicing ghoul and we go along with him to the graveyard, a voyeur, his familiar. His energy is not so much Pietro Pajetta’s Der Hass–
but more like Renfield’s energy in this screengrab from the 1931 Dracula–
He’s a 40-something antiques dealer, a trade so utterly fitting a necrophile, a layer of style so well chosen that we do not think twice about it. He acquires these antiques in old dead cities, where graveyards lie in the misty outskirts. He acquires his loves in cemeteries, each having its own singular, distinct features, traits, experiences, much like the people with the paraphiliac fetish for living people also experience. Whereas we, the ghouls who watch Lucien, retch as he pores over his acquisition, examining the corpse, and when ensuing contretemps make us want to shut the diary we are assailed by a sensuous, feminine line of prose so poetic we keep on reading by his side.
The sexual drive and the corpse were superimposed on one another when Lucien was eight-years-old, partly into the period of Freudian latency as dormant sexual feelings blink open their feral eyes, and everything surveyed is imprinted into the marrow, and all is a long blur of intrigue and curiosity–in a scene described in a juxtaposition of complex sense stimulations: Lucien is in a closet discovering his rigid body as his mother, ailing and tenuous, lies in a deathbed with family hovering over her, ushering her into the dark. The closet opens and Lucien’s grandmother extracts him in a flurry of lamentations, his open pants unnoticed, and brings him to mourn his mother’s fresh passing. So we have the meeting of two significant drives–death and sex–an alteration of the Freudian “death drive” or todestrieb where rather than being driven toward our own destruction, we are driven to others death and destruction–and libido, eros, sexual energy–to which a third is added to the mix, the strongest of all sense memories: the sense of smell–his aunt presses him against his mother’s body, a quasi warmth still coloring her skin,–
Pressed against mother’s shoulder, I felt a delicious commotion as I poured out my heart for the first time.
–her limp hair exudes a scent, an odor which he has connected in his mind of the odor of the bombyx, a common moth from the silkworm (more on that later). This particular scent activates in him through his roused synapses and the roiling of memory, an imprint on this event at such at time where everything is one big raw nerve, and this is his birth, not eight years before, but here in death’s parlour where he is alive and now driven by the impulse in his newly-animated senses. This theme recurs in Gabrielle Wittkop’s work: the marriage of sex and death–eros and thanatos–(I hear Freud rolling around in his mouldering Viennese grave)–
November 2, 19…
Festival of the dead. Lucky day. Montparnasse Cemetery was admirably grey this morning. The immense crowd of mourners squeezed into its walkways among the glorious chrysanthemums, and the air had a bitter, intoxicating taste of love. Eros and Thanatos. All these sexes under the earth, does anyone ever think of them?
There we have the dark, effulgent birth of Lucien, his origins, and an all out triumph of design by Gabrielle Wittkop.
bombyx as symbol
First seen on page 8, “bombyx” is used another nine times throughout the book, its repetitions becoming a verbal tag that triggers us just as the scent of the bombyx triggers Lucien. We hear it and know the blood is racing in our necrophile. I had never encountered it before and thought it strange, a visual enigma with a yx suffix. Gabrielle wrote in German but it didn’t look like a German word. The second usage is found during Lucien’s “transformation (birth)” (mentioned above), much like a moth from a caccoon:
I placed my lips on her waxen face; I squeezed her shoulders in my little arms; I breathed in her intoxicating odour. It was that of the bombyx that the natural history professor had passed out at school and that I had brought up in a cardboard box. That fine, dry, musky odour of leaves, larvae, and stones was leaving mother’s lips; it was already seeping out into her hair like perfume.
Connecting the scent of these larval silkworms, that he had “brought up in a cardboard box” like a guardian, that smell like earth and leaves and stones, a smell that couches his later loves, the bodies he raises up in a box smelling of stones and leaves, and become his charge, he their guardian. Looking at a picture of larval bombyx one cannot escape the similitude of the larvae that inherit us in the grave, where, in the words of Paul Valery, “Grubs thread their way where tears were once composed.” Another conscious choice of style, Ms. Wittkop caresses the page and offers us a complex, beautiful melange of sense memory, history, images, and style. She offers us a richly repulsive mess of emotions, we recoil, we stay, we love, we retch. Looking at the adult, post-emergence bombyx we see a pale, hoary ghost of a moth, cartoon villain eyebrows, which I see helplessly flapping against the lamps above him in the dark streets as he, heartsick, seeks the fresh grave.
necrophilia as sexual orientation
Though The Necrophiliac is fiction, it does raise some interesting questions about orientation. (Is interesting too strong a word?) He is not only interested in gender, and draws no boundary before age, pre-death mobility, appearance; his interests are for the body. He does like some bodies more than others, sometimes locking himself in his apartment in the antique shop with them well into the stages of entropy, but this seems to be in response to other stimulus, usually because there is some kind of emotional connection swollen in his brain (as in the case of Suzanne, I direct the reader of this blog to the text, love ya). This sense of not being attracted to the person, to the gender, has the roots in an orientation all of its own, and without so much as flipping through the pages of a DSM-V, I sought an answer in the text that would speak to this thought of the interest not in the world of seduction, not courtship and attraction, as one does in the “normative” sense–
Yesterday, one of my clients, a young and charming pianist, tried to seduce me. We were having tea, seated on the little Empire sofa in the library, a piece of furniture that’s not very big. I gathered together in mine the two beautiful hands wandering hands and I gave them back to their owner smiling, as if refusing a pair of birds.
“Oh…Lucien. So you’re not into boys? I thought that…”
“But of course I like boys. And even girls too.”
Not really able to tell him, “I would love you eyes sunken in, your lips silenced, your sex frozen, if only you were dead; unfortunately, you have the bad taste to be alive,” I hypocritically added, “But I am not single, and I wouldn’t want to give occasion for any complications.” Too bad.
He believed with much kindness.
I can’t see a pretty woman or a handsome man without immediately wishing he or she were dead.
(pages 47 and 26, respectively, but there are sundry more)
Though I am new to Gabrielle Wittkop’s glorious oeuvre, I have a keen sense of the woman, and have found in her a kindred spirit. As I glean various facts from articles and books, I now, with incomplete knowledge of her, summon up a golem composed of her various parts stitched together with various dead ideas, under a cloud of entropy and incantation. In 2002, aged 82, Ms Wittkop, committed suicide in defense of an oncoming illness. Much of her life centered around death–her lifetime companion, Justus Wittkop–committed suicide ‘neath her curious, ambivalent watch–her books, many of which I have yet to bury myself in, concern death. I know, as only the kindred know, that death hovered in the centers of her mind, and she foresaw her own, fantasized, played with and enumerated it, and in fact I have found her doing such inside The Necrophiliac: Lucien’s neighbor girl is three or four, with an illness–Morella’s disease–and she excites such strange, panic of emotions that he fantasizes the ways in which she will be struck down–in his detailed imaginings, frenetic fantasy, there are candles, deathbed flowers, his special odour–then he notices that she has a cut on her lip, leading him to the truisim that she is suicidal, and he flings himself into his dark, mind’s-eye boudoir at such an excitation. The neighbor girl’s name is Gabrielle, and to become the object of a man such a Lucien in a role that breaks all taboo for the living, Ms Wittkop is making herself the supreme in his mind, the icon of her beliefs, supple, infantile, along with having him see the suicidality at such a young age–a wish she herself had, having someone notice this prostrate death she held within, even then, to assuage her, to desire her above all the norms of human law–this is power and sensuality, the proto sex-and-death paradigm. But the section of Lucien’s fantasy concludes with, “But Gabrielle left town; I ended up forgetting her, and the image of that had caused me so much joy was eventually worn out in time.” Gabrielle Wittkop has one of the most unique psyche’s of all the dead I have unearthed. To examine her is to see a lasting legacy, to feel what she brings you are required to be able to withstand sulphurous emotions. If you are prone to aversion it will not take effect, which is fine enough, these are tales meant for macabrists and those with hidden paraphiliacs, or sit perusing strange books as a replacement for dreams, like I do, as I sit in the parlour with a moth fluttering out of my ribcage.