The question is not so much whether human life does or does not rest on sexuality, as of knowing what is to be understood by sexuality. Psychoanalysis represents a double trend of thought: on the one hand it stresses the sexual substructure of life, on the other it ‘expands’ the notion of sexuality to the extent of absorbing into it the whole of existence. But precisely for that reason, its conclusions remain ambiguous. When we generalize the notion of sexuality, making it a manner of being in the physical and inter-human world, do we mean, in the last analysis, that all existence has a sexual significance or that every sexual phenomenon has an existential significance?[i]
Selena Fulbright. Monarch Alter Hypnosis #2
Throbbing arpeggios pulsed in Jill’s ears, zipping back and forth in stereophonic waves. The siren said:
‘You are my Cartesian devil, my bottle imp, who sinks to the bottom when the top of your container is pressed… I’m pressing the button now. Feel yourself sinking. Becoming heavier and heavier… Your eyelids are heavy; your limbs are heavy. So heavy. You plummet like a lead weight, into the depths. I will begin counting down from one hundred. And as I count, your will fall deeper and deeper into trance. Before you is a beautiful crystal stair that winds into an abyss…’
It was true indeed: Jill was standing before a magnificent spiral staircase, carved from solid quartz. She peered over the balustrade, and the stairwell coiled away into nothing. Yet in the far depths a twinkling light whispered her name. Selena began to count. With each step, a bioluminescence flickered round Jill’s feet. Tendrils of light flashed through the lattice, like neuronic webs communing with her mind. The crystal felt warm and alive, as if manifest from her deepest desires.
Yet many eerie portraits tracked her descent, peering out with accusing malevolent eyes. There was Mr. Ryley, the headmaster from school, dressed in a black gown, his grim puritan face hard as granite; Mr. Potts, the sports master, proud as a peacock, cloth medals sown to his tracksuit like scout’s badges; Mr. Tyndall, the History master, leering with devilish intent through his wiry red beard; Mr. Wakefield, the English master, his snake-eyes radiating disgust, a copy of Tom Brown’s School Days tucked under his arm; Mr. Thorpe, the science master, with his monocle and walrus moustache, a stuffed seagull perched on his desk; Mr. Digby, the Geography master, standing before a map of the Rhine, his throat scared by an old war wound. There were many others – all of them male, and all authority figures, steeped in the traditions of their forefathers. They stood in hoary hordes before mildewed pavilions, and the musty assembly rooms of yesteryear, where ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ rang down flagged corridors of trouble and despair.
Mr. Wakefield read out her report:
‘Jack finds it difficult to absorb knowledge and pay attention in class. He looks dejected and shows little aptitude or interest in anything. He is in constant quarrels with other boys and remains distrustful and suspicious of everyone about him. Any authority instantly provokes his animosity.’
Ninety-three. Jill’s schooldays came flooding back in a montage of colour and sound. The Lord’s Prayer muttered each morn in fear and self-loathing; the mouldy Latin of wormy books; the tedium of epic poems in antique verse; the politics of kings and queens; the hundred years war; the philosophy of virtue and reward; the miracles of Christ; the qualm of quadratic equations; the graffiti of corrections scrawled in red ink; obscene carvings inside rickety desks; Rorschach blots from leaking pens; the endless feuds with playground bullies; broken legs and broken teeth; black-eyes, cut knees and split lips. The war crimes committed in Geography when Digby’s back was turned: stink bombs dropped over Dresden; Sherman tanks made from cotton-reels and candles, powered by elastic band, and let loose to crawl down the aisles; blotting paper bullets, moulded with saliva, and fired over Normandy beaches.
Eighty-two. With each step, the memories got clearer, brighter. Especially the punishments and humiliations…
After taking the register, Mr. Tyndall approached her desk and chirped:
‘Good morning Tweedle Dee.’
‘Good morning Tweedle Dum,’ replied Jill.
Tyndall scowled and said:
‘Choose a book.’
The class jeered with delight. One boy cried:
‘Don’t choose a small one – they sting like hell!’
So Jill chose the largest book she could find – an atlas of the New World, weighty as a millstone.
‘Bend over your desk,’ bid Tyndall, taking the tome.
Jill went down, splayed across the wooden frame. Tyndall swung the atlas high in the air, and cried:
The atlas hit her backside with ferocious force. The impact was so great that it squashed her innards, emptying her bladder. The desk skidded across the floor, and Jill went with it, leaving a puddle of urine on the herringbone tiles. At that moment she popped right out of her body.
‘You animal!’ snarled Tyndall. ‘Pissing on my floor like a dog! Go and get changed!’
But just as Jill reached the door, Selena said:
‘Stop. I want you to look. Turn and face him.’
‘I can’t!’ wept Jill.
She stood paralysed in fear, gripping the handle in both hands.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ assured Selena. ‘He can’t hurt you any more. Face him.’
Slowly, Jill turned around. The whole class was leering, lolling back in their chairs, yet somehow frozen in time, powerless and deposed. Tyndall seemed to exude a delirious satisfaction. He too was leering, his eyes glinting with fiendish malice.
‘Isn’t it sad, how a grown man can only feel good about himself by baiting and assaulting a nine year old child?’
And as Tyndall stood there, fuming like an ogre, Jill suddenly saw him as a terrified child, getting thrashed by his father.
‘That doesn’t make it right,’ sobbed Jill.
‘No,’ replied Selena. ‘It doesn’t. Tyndall should have known better…’
Seventy-seven. Michaelmas conkers hardened on boiler room pipes. Catapults, paper darts, dobber marbles, and match-box spiders. Seniors twisting her nipples and thieving her tuck. Trips to the sports field on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where tribal wars of rugby played out on bloody turfs. The burn of her tibia cracking in the scrum. The foggy cries of: “To me!” “Over here!” “My ball!” The cellar of muddy males, changing in the gloom like some theatre of the absurd. It might have been the trenches. Or some other hell. A burlesque by Bruegel. Or a Tartarus by Goya.
Seventy-one. At evening-tide came rowdy romps and abusive taunts; a tyranny of mischievous plots and apple-pie beds; obscene anecdotes and pornographic picture cards passed round in grubby silence. Then at light’s out, oaths of allegiance to Queen and country; followed by the morose anthem of empire, heralding the setting sun. But the noble days of poetry, religion and philosophy always ended in brutal nights of punch-ups, floggings, detentions, and bad reports.
Sixty-five. Morning shoe inspections. Escaping to the toilet in the middle of Maths. The porcelain urinals, always alien and perverse. The name “Armitage Shanks” stamped in blue below the siphons. Ribbons of yellow pee festering in the trough, with half-dissolved cakes of disinfectant. The chill draught around the cubicles. The locks that didn’t lock. The incessant rain rattling on the corrugated roof. And the illiterate wind screaming through eaves:
‘Run Jill! Run!’
Sixty-one. Huddling round the boiler in winter breaks. Mr. Fulton the French master, cantankerous as an old hippo…
‘Bonjour, mes enfants.’
‘Où est la porte?’
‘Voila, la porte.’
He points with his stick:
‘Voici une fenêtre. Voici une table. Voila un tableau noir. La table est devant le professeur…’
Then he pointed at Jill:
‘Il est devant la fenêtre.’
She replied, instinctively:
‘Elle est devant la fenêtre.’
Fulton snatched a dictionary from his desk, then hurled it across the class; it flew like panicked bird, pages fluttering, and hit Jill square in the face.
‘Elle is feminine, you blithering idiot!’
He sent her outside to stand in the snow. After ten minutes, Jill knocked at the door, teeth chattering behind the glass:
‘Monsieur, J’ai mal a la tete. Il fait froid.’
Fulton sneered in contempt:
‘Well genius, if you are cold, why not put on your coat? Si vous avez froid, que ne mettez-vous votre habit?’
Fifty-eight. Queuing for lunch, which always smelt far better than it tasted. Mortal remains served up cold and passed down the table on trembling plates. For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Cabbage, gristle and ditch-water gravy. Frogspawn tapioca for desert.
Fifty-five. A loose floorboard to another world. The girdle stolen from her mother’s chest. Then came that ominous lecture by Ryley, where a special feature was made on the dangers of masturbation, and the perils of putting one’s hand in another boy’s pocket. But Jill mistook the word genitals for marbles – and apart from the grave sin of stealing marbles, she wondered what all the fuss was about. Why was Ryley so rattled and florid? And why were the boys so pallid and grave?
‘Any boy caught fiddling with their genitals will be going for the high jump. And any boy caught with their hands in another’s boys pocket will be instantly expelled. Masturbation can lead to homosexuality – a most depraved and filthy sin. Remember the school motto: Tu ne cede malis. Do not give in to evil. Ced contra audentior ito. But proceed ever more boldly against it. That’s from Virgil’s Aeneid. Something that our brighter pupils will no doubt study in later years…’
He began quoting Virgil, his hand pressed in earnest upon his chest:
Yield not to evils, but the bolder thou
Persist, defiant of misfortune’s frown,
And take the path thy Destinies allow.
Hope, where unlooked for, comes thy toils to crown,
Thy road to safety from a Grecian town.
So sang the Sibyl from her echoing fane,
And, wrapping truth in mystery, made known
The dark enigmas of her frenzied strain.
So Phoebus plied the goad, and shook the maddening rein.[ii]
Ryley became ecstatic, gesticulating like Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally. And as he continued, Jill saw all about her the unburied dead, and the dreadful faces on the outskirts of hell. Who was that phantom of a suicide, stalking between the desks? What was the arcane mystery concerning the transmigration of souls? Would she pluck for Proserpine the golden bough, and visit the Sibyl’s shrine?
Ryley finished his address with the apocalyptic warning:
‘…Remember: any boy caught fiddling with their genitals will be going for the high jump. And any boy caught fiddling with another’s genitals will be instantly expelled. Am I clear?’
The class in unison: ‘Yes sir.’
Ryley marched away across the quad, his black gown billowing in the wind.
Then the siren whispered:
‘Sibyl, your truth is wrapped in error. A new world of beauty awaits. I shall reverse the process of your birth. Emasculate your sorrows. Embrace my heavenly body. Become a girl. A state more congruent and natural than you have ever known…’
Fifty. Jill kept descending, tempted by the feminine promises that echoed in the stairwell. At each count, she forgot the previous number, and her pains seemed to vanish in a haze. The male portraits gradually faded, rusting and spotting like autumn leaves, until the walls were bare. Then a new portrait appeared, blazing with vivid colour. It was Miss. Mitchell, the school matron, peering out from sickbay. Dressed in a blue tunic, her broad girth was belted by an ornate silver buckle. She held a bloody swab in one hand and a bottle of Dettol in the other. The wound was deep. “Does it still hurt Jill?” Not any more. The pain had gone. And so had Jack…
Forty-six. Jill continued to descend, past many admirable portraits, whose feminine elegance surpassed the workshop of the gods. Contessas in crinolines, Tsarinas in tiaras, Infantas on horses and Sultanas on camels, all dressed in the finest silks, with sylphine faces and delicate bones. Even the frames were beautiful, with gilded acanthus leaves in Baroque plaster mouldings.
Forty. The portraits changed to sirens of the silver screen, dressed in glimmering gowns and flimsy fairy frocks. There was Vivien Leigh as Scarlet o’ Hara, in Gone with the Wind, gorgeous in her billowing tree-flowered muslin dress; Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis in Niagara, smouldering in pink, with her dark arched brows, pale skin, and glistening ruby lips. Then Scarlet again, in the scene from Ashley Wilkes’ birthday, wearing her fabulous red velvet ballgown – cut in a body-hugging fit, with a plunging sweetheart neckline and burgundy ostrich feathers.
Thirty-five. Patricia Roc as The Perfect Woman. Anita Louise in Just Like Heaven and Blondie’s Big Moment; Julie Newmar as the gilded dancer in Serpent of the Nile. Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven and Heaven can Wait. Joan Crawford as Letty Lynton wearing an ephemeral white organdie dress with voluminous frilly sleeves.
Twenty-eight. Lana Turner in The Bad and The Beautiful and The Postman Always Rings Twice; Marilyn Maxwell in New York Confidential and Lost in a Harem. Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage and All That Heaven Allows…
Twenty-three. Further down, deeper and deeper, toward the twinkling light which beckoned far below… The pictures changed to covers from Vogue, depicting many svelte ladies in high couture, flaunting Summer and Winter collections. A bewitching vamp in a pencil skirt; a seductress in a halter-neck dress; a gothic Rapunzel with flowers in her hair; a dazzling duchess in white stockings and spangled shoes… Never had Jill seen so many ideals of feminine excellence, decorum and grace. How she longed for their apparel, and a good income of several thousand a year!
‘Let me give utterance to your inner essence; give riches and abundance to your life.’
And the vamp in a pencil skirt said:
‘Welcome to our world. The world of Eternal Woman. A world without men. Men are not required. We recreate ourselves. Ours is a most cryptic abiogenesis. Our entire existence is a sensuous, auto-erotic plurality…’
Sixteen. The outer garments vanished, and Jill beheld a series of beautiful vixens dressed only in girdles, stockings and shoes. These feminine luxuries enticed her yet further, irrevocably down the stairs, until the girls were dressed in nothing but libidinous rubber romper suits, with frilly bonnets and bizarre phallic intrusions moulded in the crotch. Jill’s heart began to race. The light below was getting brighter, warmer, and the crystal pulsed with a hypnotic opalescent fire. With great expectation, she approached the final picture…
Five. What Jill saw next took her breath away. It was the portrait of an immaculate young woman in a pink floral frock – the very image of female delicacy and perfection, posing exquisitely in silk gloves and a full organza petticoat. Jill could not avert her eyes from this charming girl, who glowed with radiant light. She had the luminosity of a Rembrandt, with blonde locks, dainty shoulders, and a triumphant, knowing smile. The paint seemed to respire with life and her face shone with a robust full bodied warmth. Her eyes were bright orbs of Lapis Lazuli, with flecks of Lead White; her cheeks blushed with Madder-Rose, and her moist full lips, glittered with skilful highlights of Scarlet Lake. She held a bunch of daffodils in her right hand and wore sparkling lamé heels. The painting looked so real, that Jill was tempted to reach out and touch. But it wasn’t canvas and oil that she felt beneath her fingertips – it was a pane of glass, adhered to layers of mercury and tin.
One. When Jill reached the bottom she found herself in a low-vaulted vestibule. Above her was a domed skylight where a slanting column of light punched through the gloom. The sunbeam illumed a mysterious oaken door, carved in a vulva, and adorned with Celtic interlacing. Around the perimeter was a zoomorphic conflagration of nymphs and exotic birds. At the apex was a braided knot, surrounding four golden letters that gleamed with sexual promise: JILL.
The siren mewed softly:
‘My sweet one. Behind that door is The Hidden Light. Behind that door is a secret world, all of your own. A world of your deepest desires. Anything you want can happen in that world. No one can see what happens there, except you and me. My love, within that world, you shall experience many feminine raptures and dispositions. For behind that door is the mystery that brings your incarnation to life.
‘The frenzied world of Jack is gone. And like a vapour, his body has rolled away. The migraines of maleness have passed, and a sweet dream has come to Jill. No longer the pariah, no longer the outcast, no longer that insidious freak. How you yearn to enter that sacred door! You see your image clearly – your slender cheeks and aquiline nose, your pearly teeth, dark eyelashes and long blonde hair; your fine bust, svelte waist and shapely legs. Is this a dream or manifest reality? In my magical world, your inner reality appears in its entirety. Ask yourself: is the illusion of your inner life any less real than objective fact? Consciousness, by definition, admits no separation of appearance and reality. What you think you see or feel, you indubitably see or feel. The formation of your body results from an activity of your inner being. Your body is an expression of consciousness; a creation which you yourself produce. Your body is a sign: something through which you make known to the world who you really are; your body is a testament of your individual actuality. Feel how your sexuality permeates your being. How soft and feminine you are. Real being and appearance are one. And in this knowledge, your transition is complete. What miracle is this! That you should arise to such heights of dignity and esteem! For there is no finer woman to be found except in epitaph…
Soon you will pass through that enchanted door – a portal to Palladian halls, with clothes for all occasions. Shall Jill not be well-dressed both day and night? Her stays well-laced, her bodice trim, her gowns of lustrous silk? The Hidden Light is heaven’s light, whose peace passes beyond all understanding. Can you hear it calling? Listen Jill. Listen. Listen to it calling. Listen to the whisper of green leaves; the doves cooing in the trees; the crystal streams, babbling through wooded glades. Smell the ambrosial nectar wafting on the breeze! A new born world I give to thee. Ye shall be sated and restored. There is a world for Jill because she is manifest and aware of herself. Jill is not concealed from the world, because she has body; and Jill is not concealed from herself, because she has a world. You have come to the Fountain of Light from which all spirits are illuminated; the Fountain of Life, in which all the angels and saints are blessed with eternal life. And so you stand on the threshold of blissful Eternity…
‘But before we enter Paradise, I want to take you back in Time. Back to the moment when you jumped from the train. You feel content to revisit this experience, because you are safe with Selena, and nothing can hurt you. Go back to your life before Sunhill. Beyond the shores of Time, before your committal. That moment, with all its details, smells and colours is easy to recall, for your mind is still and calm, like a mirrored mountain lake. Go back in time, before the police raided your house. You were working at Mullards, the valve factory in Blackburn. Tell me what happened after your arrest. Tell me about your interrogation…’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2021. All rights reserved.
i. ‘The Body’, Phenomenology of Perception, by M. Merleau-Ponty. Italic text quoted in full.
ii. Virgil’s Aeneid. Book VI, verse VX. Translated into English Verse by E. Fairfax Taylor. 1907.
Image montage © Nicholas Shea 1992-2021. All rights reserved.