(from The Sad Passions)
Penelope, Blinker, rockypoint, twin time, sad passions
The puppets are made to bend over. Life-sized, most are adolescent girls. And they twist and they turn in a manner which is disturbing; their young and largely naked female bodies angling in ways which look unsettling, painful, though they are meant to be enticing too, if on the fringes of the seductive, its outer edges. Still, there is an uncanniness, a sick dread which arises from the pit of your being while viewing these photographs, a dread produced by the lifelike presence of the dolls in the photos, so close to what real girls are, their pubescent girl size, their long pretty hair, though it be clumped and messy, eyes blank and unseeing, mouths slightly agape. Haggard girl puppets. Fatigued child poupée. Their sultry tangled hair. The dolls are the image of a grotesque childhood. They pose for the camera with props, sometimes, as girls can tend to do, a flower or hat, a shawl and a mirror perhaps, but their exhausted child eyes stare out; though they are unyielding. Glass eyes. The vacant blank eyes of the disturbed, of the demented ... or those of death, the look of death; their eyes carry the blankness of the morally defunct.
They twist and they turn, these girls who are puppets. They pivot and bend. They are made of wood and wax with long flaxen hair; and they can be made to do ungodly things. They are not living, have never been alive, we must remind ourselves, are not real girls at all, so does it matter that he makes them twist about like that, that he gives them such soft looking round bellies and large breasts in the form of buttocks and such pronounced genitalia? Does it matter that he dismembers them, sometimes, removes a limb, disfigures and maims, which we imagine might only serve to make them more alluring to the sexually demented? They are mangled child and woman both, in their size and proportion, though they are neither, of course. And they are made to look sensual, provocative, as they pose in their lace, comely in their panties and mantillas, their artificial flowers, their wigs of real hair, mussed up, though adorned in fancy ribbons. They are mechanical girls, a sick sex robotic, completely nude, sometimes, except for those bows in their hair. Thoughthey are most arousing when partially dressed, even if there be something wrong in the clothing, even if the hose are sagging, one shoe off, the mary-janes scuffed and unbuckled, the bobby-sox, though of a chaste white, stained and unevenly folded over.
It seems important to repeat, for some reason, that there is often a painful looking bend to the waist, or a missing leg, that the body is most often naked. More disturbingly, perhaps, there are sometimes additional limbs, two pairs of legs, a second set jutting up from the torso where the shoulders ought to be, so that there are two vaginas, now, twice as much fun, for in the end, in a surrealist dream, who needs a head?
These are bodies doing what a body cannot.... What a body should not.... What a body must not ever be asked to do.
Hans Bellmer and his puppets stood in protest to Fascist ideals, we are told. They were a negation of Nazi perfection, it is amended. The puppets were, at least in part, a standing up, a saying no. But did Bellmer accomplish his task of firm protest? For Bellmer was portraying the disfigurement of the female body, a disfigurement which the Nazis were in actuality enacting. On all bodies. Disfigure them all. So was Bellmer’s a protest, or an illustration? Because, too, most accounts will tell us, the work was also an enactment of the love he felt for his forbidden young cousin. Hers was a body denied him through various taboos, and so in place of that actual body he wanted "to construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities... capable of recreating the heights of passion, even to inventing new desires."
So was it a protest or an enactment, his art? And could it, perhaps, have been both?
In a beret and sagging hose, that doll with missing limbs stands with the translucent Bellmer beside her; he is double exposed in this shot, and so he is ghost-like. His spectral blurry image stands next to his doll illustrating and proclaiming, protesting even, the break-down of the normal, of the acceptable, of the humane, though it is his sexual desire as well which has constructed this substitute girl, this puppet who stands so firm and still, if falling fully apart—having been pulled asunder and so now partial and decomposing—next to his ghostly countenance, her creator. In his wry smile we see that he delights in her, though he has maimed her, his doll. In her he exposes his dark desire, as he brings ours forth too, his most true double exposure.
And amongst all of his work, it is in this photo, especially, that we are reminded that there is often a disfiguring ghost-father in the lives of disturbed and dismembered girls, demented girls, sick and dirty girls.... There is often a father who bends and twists and contorts, and even crushes with his strong will, a broken daughter on the other side of that powerful paternal determination. She a filial catastrophe in his reverberating wake. In another photo—this one set outdoors and so perhaps we can read it as a dark bucolic, a crazed unhinged bucolic—a girl with limbs on both sides of her torso, no head at all, hangs from a tree, the noose around one set of her four legs; to the left and in the background of this photograph stands a dark male figure in a long black coat, mostly hidden behind another tree. His face is certainly obscured. Is this Bellmer himself, we ask ourselves, a partial self-portrait, that long black coat representing the artist? And is this a murder or a suicide? And can it, sometimes, be both?
Yet, he was a good man, we are told. Bellmer was an antifascist, it is often adamantly added. And after fleeing Germany himself, he aided the French Resistance by making fake passports for those left behind; he had made it to Paris, but others had not and they needed to flee as well; and so he worked for the Resistance.... It helps us to know too, aids in our admiration and sympathy with Bellmer to know that he was no show-man, that he was a solitary artist, and would remain so all his life, even after being picked up by the surrealists, even after Breton championed his art, still so after Minotaur published his photographs.
Yet his dolls look out at us with a blank and unseeing eye. A glass eye. The eyes of the morally vacant.
Bellmer’s girlfriend, Unica Zern, was a poet and painter herself. The first poem in her book Anagram is entitled WE LOVE DEATH. Unica became Bellmer’s model, though it must be remembered she was his painting partner too, and was thus his firm equal; and she suffered from depression. She shared a psychologist with Antonin Artuad; so that in some way she and Artuad were indirectly involved in that internal dialogue, were guided in it by the same hand, that partial drawing out of the self. And then she killed herself. In 1970 she leapt from the window of the apartment she long shared with Bellmer. Five years later, missing her still, he would die himself. But, we must recall too that in his body of work there are countless images of disfigured girls, of girls hanging from doorways and trees. His body of work is largely made up of their bodies dismembered. WE LOVE DEATH, Unica’s first poem proclaims, and that foreshadowing makes us think more deeply about the subsequent act.
My grandfather, Claudia’s father, was a ghost-father, a spectral fact. He was a man whose daughter was disfigured and so her thoughts could disfigure; whose daughter was bent and misshapen and so her thoughts could bend and misshape; whose daughter was deformed and impaired and so she could deform and impair; and blighted; and so blight. She was a girl who would fight him at every turn; for he had left them. A girl who would not sit still, who never dressed right, who never stood in one place, who was never polite. She was a girl who had begged her father’s love and had gotten nowhere; it was impious her begging; it was too much for him. Her hair was a mess, her eyes naughty, her greedy hands. Hers was a body which would come to be torn apart, over which she had no ownership, a body which was too soon offered to anyone who’d take it, a body which was then completely torn asunder before being re-configured abstract by her own mind, by its illness. Her body was confused, legs where a head should be. My grandfather, her father, was a man whose daughter often looked out on the world with mouth agape, with stone blank eyes. Her father was a man for whom daughter figures could become contorted, whose daughter was warped and distorted. She was a girl who turned into a woman who would beg for more, who would not stop, who would push and push until things were not right, until she was not right, until there was nothing which was right. Her hair a tangled mess, her clothes torn, or to be torn off, her body wildly fluctuating in weight and thus shape, flinging itself and being flung. Her eyes blankly staring, her mouth, after those head shocks, dumb and drooling.
I do not really know my father. He is mostly a blank, a dark absence, and one feeds the other, I know: the absence the dark, the dark the absence.
I am afraid of ghosts.
I do not know my father. There is no clear figure there. And I know my own figure is not firm in his mind either; I am barely a presence, barely a form—and that blanking out is something I have always had to wrestle with. So that I have had to write myself. A re-figuring of the self.
I do not know much about my father, really. He is mostly a not there. And so I have had to write him as well. For my own sake. For I have been told we must write the father, write the mother, before we can write the self. And though this may not at all be true, may not in actuality be true, I do have a bit to go on, for I did see him a few times when he did not know that I was looking, when he had no idea that I knew who he was. He would come to play cards at my grandmother’s when I was quite little and then after I was older he came to play several times during one of my visits to Mexico City. I had already gone to live in the states with my Uncle David, and at the point when he entered my grandmother’s house I immediately thought I knew who he was. And so I watched him, and while I did so I recalled that he had occasionally sent gifts for me with M when I was quite young. This sealed it for me and I felt sure that I knew who he was then so that I looked more intently. He was tall and wore dark suits, nice ties. He came with two friends each time. He joked with my grandmother who seemed to like him a lot; she asked after his mother and sisters and aunts. He played cards. He was funny and smiled a lot and laughed; and at one point he picked up the guitar and sang. He may have been nervous; all that activity, all that moving around may have been nerves; and his friends, with a false and stiff cheeriness, anxiously followed his lead.
I watched him unblinkingly, though not at all blankly. For my eyes have not ever been cold, have not ever been blank. Though I do wish sometimes that they better hid what I feel. I do not know my father, though my aunt Sofia did know him a little and so, knowing she knew or had heard, I asked her about him. And she told me what she knew. Yes, he is your father, she said. And if she was right in what she then told, then maybe I know a little bit about my father. And maybe,trusting it was true, I have built upon that which she told in my mind. Have added details where there were none, whole stories at times; something we all maybe do with our fathers, add and amend, correct and distend.
And so maybe I can say that I know he came from a strict and serious home, a decent family. Maybe I can say that he was thrilled when he met M. He was properly shocked, at first, but then thrilled by M’s bad-boy nature, his lack of a conscience, of a moral center, of a place from which to start, that same place which tells us when to stop. As a teenage boy M was always already in the middle, had always already started when the others had not, and was already in the midst, running and well on his way toward the edges.... And maybe my father was the one boy in his family who liked the thrill of that, who liked things a little dirty and ambiguous, a little bit unclean. Maybe he liked the thought of all that sex, all the sex M bragged about having, all the sex he imagined himself having alongside M, his new friend, a boy crush. Maybe my father was excited by the thought of fucking M’s girlfriends, how powerful the two of them felt together, prowling those Mexican streets, joking with the girls and prodding each other, teasing the girls, yelling out at them from their passing car, chasing a bit, catching up with those girls as they crossed them in the street, jumping out and then running up next to them, putting an arm around a waist, Hey Blanca? Blanquita... do you want to go for a ride? No? What are you doing later tonight? Come here... Come... Pulling her in and kissing at her cheek a bit while the other one watched. They never chased too much, never too much, for if they started and then stopped for a little, they learned, the girls would come chasing back; it should never be too much effort. Ignore them for a week, M told my father, and they will come begging back. They were handsome each, even more so together, the power of two, and they made the girls dream; it was never too hard. They could see it in their eyes. They made some of them openly stare. Those girls stared and were distorted. Those girls would come unhinged. And maybe my father soon found out that you don’t have to mean it when you say it, don’t have to mean it when you do it. When you sneak into her room, her into your room. Maybe you don’t have to mean a thing. And then maybe M and my father walked around smiling; maybe they smiled all the time, for they weren’t the sullen type, the dark and brooding type. They got so much attention, those two, there was nothing left to do but smile. They liked to sing and dance too, and often touched a breast or thigh right there, on a dance floor, before taking them home, those bodies, sneaking inside.
And maybe a bit later, after all those girls, all those easy to get girls, my father grew excited by the thought of fucking M’s wife. Maybe he thought he might like to have sex with his wife more than anything he’d done with M before, more than anything he’d even thought. She was smart and wild though she was serious, and she was sexy, the beautiful young wife of his best friend. She came from a good family too, but was perverted. He knew her sister and her mother but he’d heard she’d been perverted. By M, she herself would say. And maybe he knew that she needed what he had to offer, because maybe he knew he would be the first to speak sweetly to her. Maybe he knew she was miserable with M and was eager, so maybe he did speak gently to her, and did sing songs in a soft voice and recited long poems which he had memorized. Hadn’t he wanted to be a writer once? Llorca and Neruda, sometimes Octavio Paz. Maybe he did all those things, did all the things he knew to do, whether he meant them or not. Maybe he took her to a museum, once. Hadn’t his family often gone to such places? and he could pretend to know about art; there were two or three things he could say about art, look at the color there, the composition. Maybe he leant a sympathetic ear when Claudia complained about M, an easy way to let his aggression out toward his friend, for he did have some aggression. M was always playing leader, always pushing a bit further, always challenging his limits, and maybe my father had grown to resent. M’s wife offered a clear if indirect way to be angry at his prodding friend, at first solely by listening to her. But then maybe my father began to like knocking on her door when he thought no one was looking, sneaking in while M was out, and many delicious hours later sneaking his way out himself.
Maybe he was on his way to her apartment one day, maybe it was because of these visits that he smelled what was wrong. Maybe it was because of this that he smelled the gas leaking. Maybe it was because of one of these clandestine visits that he knocked down the door, because she did not open, he knocked and he knocked. He yelled. Maybe he sensed something was wrong first, but then maybe he smelled it, the leaking gas. Maybe I was already in her belly; maybe I was in there and so somehow I can recall it; maybe he’d already been coming around for a while then, for many many months.
When he stormed in she was standing near the stove, staring, eyes blank and unseeing: Should she leave it on? Should she go lie down in the room where Rocio was asleep, or should she stand right there so she’d be the first to fall?
Maybe it was when he yelled at her, asked her was she crazy, pulled her away crying, angry and crying, maybe it was on that night that she first looked at him with deep wet eyes. And then maybe after they’d both calmed down a little bit, though not fully, maybe it was then that he first fucked her with a violence. Violently, he did it, for he was scared and angry both. And he was rough with her as a result. And then maybe he was only a little bit shocked, only a little bit surprised when he discovered that she liked that; she liked it like that, an angry, violent, dismembering act, a disremembering act, a ghost father act.