How Many Dominatrixes Can Dance on the Head of a Heraclitical Pin (memories of fin de siècle New York)

2010 April 2
by Carl Watson

The following story is  a reminiscence of old New York, the pre-Guiliani/Bloomburg city that was a magnet for the mad, the weird, the eccentric, the self-hating, the self-deluded, a city of ecstasy seekers, drug users, a city of sex in all its dark manifestations, back when crack whores lined the shadows of Wythe avenue, and tourists mingled with true believers at the dungeons and Times Square raunch houses and downtown lap dance clubs. Indeed it was not so odd to see a guy pleasuring himself on the sidewalk next to another guy shooting up. The internet wasn’t around so people had to get their kicks with real people and real dope.  I had my own rituals.  I used to drink in Al’s Bar on the Bowery every Good Friday.  It was my 3 o’clock stop.  Where I went after that was anyone’s guess.  This story is true, only the names have been changed.  It is a Good Friday story.    

They say that what we believe to be true is what the mind projects, an order upon chaos.  In other words truth is a movie for each individual, plotted out of our desires.  Thus movies become our excuses to get out and do things, dictating our lives through a sort of retro-appropriation process.  One day, I up and moved to New York. I believe it was in the Easter season, spring time, when the sap runs and new life begins: a Dylan Thomas kind of time.  In fact it was Good Friday when I arrived at the bus station with my bags and my big ideas.  The movie that first made me want to move here was Midnight Cowboy, especially that scene in the Times Square cafeteria, of some woman running a plastic rat up and down a boy’s body.  Debates continue in film-crit circles as to whether this was a son or a lover with whom this pleasure was shared.

When I arrived I did the Y for a week or two, then a cheap hotel, and finally a rooming house on 9th ave—$18. a week.  The guys that lived there had handcuffs and whips hanging on their walls and all night they used to shout, “Punish me for not being the man I should have been.”  Actually they were only playing cards, but they were the kind of guys who had to slip some innuendo into gestures that were just fine without it.   One night I went out on the town with them.  It was inevitable. I had a few drinks and must have said something dubious, as I ended up surrounded by a circle of goons who decided my face would look just fine as a blood-donut.

            Fifteen years passed.  I met a woman named Marge at a party.  (Not Marge Simpson so get that image out of your head.)  Hoping to impress her, I told her the story of the goons and donuts.  I was wrong. She was bored.  Struggling to keep the conversation alive, and taking a clue from her goth outfit, I told her that I considered cellars the psychic boneyards of our mutant families.  (This was back in the days when everyone was talking about their dysfunctional families as a means of establishing an excuse for being dysfunctional people.)  Marge must have seen the question mark hovering over my head, however, as she blew smoke rings into the starless sky. She cracked a boisterous outer borough laugh, then added:  “All youse guys just wanna get back inside, youse guys are all afraid.”  And perhaps fear did dictate my architectural fetishes, but it was no excuse for a put-on accent I thought to myself.

Me and Marge were at a party on a roof in the East Village where everyone seemed to be wearing leather jackets.  I mused on our location as a scaffold for my threatened masculinity.  I had, after all, a certain amount of theoretical history behind me, because, in the collective mind at leas, that attics and rooftops are considered masculine ‘rational’ places, while cellars are feminine ‘irrational’ places.  Freud himself associates the cave (cellar, grotto, the place of ritual) with mother earth, the womb.  But then Freudian symbolism equates the shoe with female genitalia too, something which I hadn’t thought of before.  But of course it’s obvious now, having been said. And then if the foot is also the subconscious mind, a weird picture develops of kicking or walking on your mom or trying to fit into her metonymically with your mind/foot/brain/ tongue, etc.  It can be brutal or it can be lewd, but it isn’t so far from the truth if the truth is simply what you believe, or need—your movie.

Anyway the increasing popularity of this mode of thinking seemed to be a hot fin de siècle trend.  I found that even old pals were into it, people who’s egos were once so well oiled, insults generally slid right off their cheeks like eggs off a greased skillet. It’s difficult for them to feel pain unless it’s strong pain, and physical to boot. And I suppose everyday there are more people like this around.  There is some debate however whether it is a fad or a renaissance, a requirement or an aberration of the spiritual process.  Geraldo and Oprah have not been able to touch base on this.  Anderson Cooper has also weighed in, but without affect.  But the house of S&M, B&D, D&S, etc., has always been a requisite visit for the inner tourist in every intellectual bon vivant, as well as for the swarming grey-haired old folks in the public subconscious, who pile off the bus and into any foreign culture at the drop of a dollar. This, of course, includes many New Yorkers today.

There are no guides with bullhorns however, no slim Michelin volumes, no cameras.  But for a hefty cover at your local McBondage emporium you can get a shoe shine from burlap-clad medieval bootlickers.  You can have the jam cleaned from your toes or take a ride on saddle-backed horsey boys.  The soundtrack is Gregorian Rock, or other serious gloom, punctuated by recorded whip cracks.  Fashion statements range from fantails of clothespins, to hot wax teddies, to studded birthday suits.  There is a boy scout’s catalogue of knots, dildos and other orifice plugs.  Bring your own and be prepared to network.  But be forewarned, it’s the kind of place where if you say, “So crucify me,” some bold so-and-so will probably want to take you up on it. 

And, as with all forms of anger, there’s a ‘New Age’ sensibility to the indulgence, involving archetypes, and getting in touch with various inner children and parents, pedophilia and hemophilia, healing and pleasure orientation, communication and transmigration.  Some say it’s therapeutic.  Others are simply gung-ho over the existential overtones. Phenomenologists wax adamant upon the fact that in the exchange of pain, the mind does not wander—as Walter Cronkite might say “You are there.”

Enter the leather clad spectre of astro-physics, where, in a basically lethargic universe composed of cold sludge and cosmic mucus, we as humans, are but an irritating anomaly, a small excess, an insignificant phenomenon.   Still, and this is increasingly true today, we would imitate the violent cores of the galaxies that surround us.  Our culture itself is just such an open reaction, forever drawing fresh pathology from consumerist yearnings.  Waste and chaos are not so much simple by-products of production as they are calculated means of avoiding inevitable thermodynamic doom.  To which end, one might well ask—What does pain have to do with it?

There is a festival in the city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia every year in which devotees pierce their flesh with spears, swords, and what resemble large hat pins.  They wear fruit attached to their birthday suits with fish hooks as they parade toward the sacred cave (read: womb) delivering the seed of their aestheticism to the birthplace of human anguish.  They are so overtaken with the spirit and the love of god that they neither feel pain nor do they bleed. Their ecstasy is what serves and protects them (just like the police are supposed to do).  And if you follow that train of thought, you might just say pleasure is a kind of Gestapo set up to fend off rampant genetic decay as evidenced by modern regimentation and the drone mentality.  But I risk sounding puritanical here, if not obscurantist.

 Given the gooney state of tantric religious practice, it is easy for the westerner to see ecstasy as a mere case of hysteria.  But then what people adamantly deny or accuse others of, is usually what is most true about themselves.  The doctrine of beatitude through suffering belies the libertine deep in every Christ-loving abstainer.  After all, the flagellants were nothing but open-air practitioners of masochism.  St Theresa one of its pontificate queens.  Jesus himself took a perverse pleasure in his abandonment by god, and in so doing provided the Tableau Vivant by which generations have vicariously done the same.  And furthermore, what about all those blonde, bleedy, wiggle-pictures of the ‘Sweet Lord Jesus’ in Times Square (again an 80s/90s reference) entreating the millions of wayfarers, if not precisely to ‘Get Hard’ then at least to ‘Get Humble’ before love’s highest power.

But let’s talk about DNA.  Deep in this twisted wreckage of chromosomal debris found at the heart of all human obsessions, the visual manifestation of the decay of instinct has come to look more like a smoking scene from some post-apocalyptic cinema experience.  Through this landscape trudge the barbarian heroes we reinvent in our dreams of submission—Swartzneggar in skins, van Damme, Rambo.  Denzel and Vigo (both in his Road and Passion of the Christ manifestations.  Gene theorists treat these fairy tales as literature, forcing linguistic technique on maligned and arcane DNA strands, until the epic-length helical passages of biochemical babble give up the ghost of narrative.

Even I don’t know what that last paragraph was about, but I do know that if ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, then this assault of language (whether chemical or mathematical) is all too sharply mirrored in human society where dominant and submissive roles are perpetually in play, as if the end of every sentence were like the sting of a whip at a brutal cocktail party in the blood. Now, picture this party metaphorically as a graduate school or think-tank where the highly specialized can wallow in their uselessness.  Here theoreticians pursue their own quest for cultural dominance.  They take the whip’s tip to heart, creating dungeons and labyrinths of language that are a serious form of torture unto themselves while at the same time providing a structural mirror to the ‘fun’ of social relationships, commenting on the dubious hericlitical nature of power dynamics in party-on sentences like this:

“Hence in masochism a girl has no difficulty in assuming the role of son in relation to the beating mother who possesses the ideal Phallus and on whom rebirth depends. Similarly in sadism, it becomes possible for a boy to play the role of a girl in relation to the projection of the father.  We might say that the masochist is hermaphrodite and the sadist androgynous….” As I read (past tense) these lines, I could not help but feel an intense pain of unknowing; I was however in the relatively benign confines of my apartment when I felt this pain.  There were no cave paintings on the wall there, no spear-penis, wound-vulva sympathies to live up to.  So I turned on the TV.  But that didn’t work either.  Even though it was pain, it was the wrong kind of pain. 

Later that night, lonely and drunk, I called 1-900-MAKE ME BEG.  I got a screening lady first who said, good evening would I like to speak to the Uterine Mother or the Oral Mother tonight.  I chose the Uterine.  A perky voice then came on the line: “Hi, and how can I help you this evening you sniveling dog.”  But we’d barely got into it when the bill equaled twenty-five dollars so I hung up.  The clock tortured me more than the woman did.  Which gave me an insight into capitalism I haven’t the time to share here. But I will discuss the following paradox:  In the East, materialism is usually portrayed as the enemy of spirituality. In the West, technology is Materialism’s hope for a spiritual vehicle.  As TVs, computers and cell phones merge into one big brother, the philosophers of techno-enlightenment become the priests of a new onanistic occidental spirituality.  It’s both nontraumatic and you don’t have to pay for dinner either.

In the credo of the West, what we want is what we should have, and what I wanted for Christmas was one of those computer safe-sex games where the mouse moves a hand over a pixelated image of a male or female body which ‘oohhhs’ and ‘aahhhs’ appropriately according to what passion level you have it set at.  Pull down the menu, levels 1—5 are vanilla sex.  But double click on level 6 and suddenly you have a cat o’ nine tails in your hand and the image on the screen is all got up in bondage regalia.  A digital voice says, “Punish me for not loving you enough.”  Suddenly you realize you’ve entered a wild new corridor of sensuality.  I know insomniacs who buy fine wine, eat oysters and do cocaine, then stay up all night with the meter on ten.  The noise of rocking bed springs is replaced by the grind of the hard drive in the wee hours.  No one ever complains because at least they don’t have to listen to people really ‘doing it’ while they sit around in their own stale apartments smoking cigarettes.   

Okay, that was what I wanted.  But what I got was a detective game called Deja Vue, where you wake up in a toilet stall; you’ve got a gun, needle marks in your arm, a couple of dead bodies on the floor and major amnesia. The point of the game is to find out who you are.  I never get to the end because I always get eaten by the crocodile (read: potent penis) in the cellar or blown away by the wasted dude (read: impotent penis) in the alley, the alley that looked for a minute like an escape route away from the cellar (read: womb). I never know which way to go.   It may be dot matrix, but it’s still a mystery.

Thus when the libido attaches itself to a bozo face mask, where is the target of our violent affectations?  When a rubber skull on the verge of intellectual collapse induces orgasm, where is the empathy some say is the core experience of love?  When a dead dog in an alley constrains one’s breath, or the point of an ice pick makes the eyes bead with desire, then where is the soft focus of ecstasy to grace our greeting cards?  Nothing ever is what it seems to be.  The holy infuses the outcast substance. The base act communicates with the divine. The heel of the stiletto is really a phallus. The foot represents the subconscious mind. In my early groping for an object to which I might attach my own budding libido, I must have chosen a bowl of Fruit Loops. Colorful breakfast cereal shaped like Os is still one of my greatest pleasures. 

As Tiny Tim cried under the  heel,  “Good Friday to Everyone!”

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