Friday, 22 February 2019

A right dummy

Oskar Kokoschka, Self-Portrait with Doll, 1922

I have a crossdreaming friend. He’s a little shy of joining the online forums but, as we’ve corresponded over the months, I’ve won his trust and he feels freer about sharing his experience, even licensing me to share it with a wider audience, provided I keep his name out of it.

Here’s a tale he told me recently: tricky to explain, and perhaps beyond the experience of most gender adventurers.

We’re all familiar with the situation where a single male crossdreams intensively; he then embarks on a new 'relationship' and the crossdreaming reduces, or appears to disappear altogether, at least in the 'honeymoon' phase of romance. That was his situation (sort of) a few months ago. At least, the feminine 'spirit' which shared his mind and body departed - fled - migrated into another object, leaving him both bereft and slightly relieved. He hoped she'd come back. He missed her, even if she was a pain in the arse.

He wasn’t reckoning with what happened next.

The background is that he would sometimes pass by shop windows and find himself momentarily transfixed by the mannequins used to display clothes. The erotic response surprised him. Back home, he searched online for ‘mannequins for sale’, and ordered one. He was braced for disappointment. So often, the goods he bought online, when delivered, looked nothing like the illustration. But this one did not disappoint: a pretty face (with choice of heads), a pleasing figure. Excited, he assembled his new simulacrum. When he’d done so and dressed her, he had an illusion of a “whooshing sound” as of escaping air (so he describes it). Rationalising the event afterwards, he decided this was the feminine spirit (‘F’) departing from his body and into the dummy. An act of exorcism. For so long F had felt like a parasitic existence sustained by his own body; flown into a lifeless object, she expired within a few seconds. This both pleased and disturbed him: pleased him because he was finally free of this succubus, allowing his male self to recolonise the body; disturbed him because she had been inside him for many, many years. If his feminised body resembled a cartoon movie of a female, this dummy was more like a still portrait. Although she was a more plausible host for F’s personhood than his own body, she was immobile (apart from twisting her head and flexing her arms) and expressionless, whereas the F he carried within himself could go wherever he goes and do whatever he does. In short, he’d gained by acquiring a remarkably lifelike replica of a body outside himself which he could admire and direct consoling words at (“I find her fixed expression rather sad,” he admits). But he’d ceded most of the territory on which his imagination likes to roam.

A nice conundrum he lay before me. His relationship with his Inner Woman, ever fragile but intact, has been threatened by the appearance of the proverbial ‘Other Woman’. Except that this newcomer is an even more spectral presence than the one he’d carried within him for so long. “Sometimes I feel like a right dummy,” he writes (I think a sense of humour must be a great asset in times like this).

His situation struck a chord, but only from my reading, not from my experience. I remembered that exquisite story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘The Sandman’, which so inspired nineteenth-century composers and led Freud down dark alleyways into his exploration of ‘the Uncanny’. In the story, Nathanael, a student, becomes irresistibly attracted to ‘Olimpia’, an automaton created by his physics professor Spalanzani. He interprets her immobility as elegantly demure  and her silent acquiescence as sign of her deep, thoughtful nature. He is about to propose marriage to Olimpia, when he stumbles on the professor destroying his creation; the sight of her artificial eyes on the floor drives him insane.

In real life, the painter Oskar Kokoschka was brought low by events not dissimilar. When the artist’s love affair with his great muse Alma Mahler ended, he commissioned a life-size doll, modelled on Alma, from the dollmaker Hermine Moos. The letters between the two concerning its construction are among the strangest you’ll ever read. “Please make it possible that my sense of touch will be able to take pleasure in those parts where the layers of fat and muscle suddenly give way to a sinuous covering of skin” is a typical instruction. When the commission was finished, it was a sorry object (judging by the photographs), and although Kokoschka used it as a model in paintings and even took it with him to the Opera, it never satisfied. It drove him to the point of delirium; in a reverse process to Hoffmann’s hero, finally he rescued his sanity by destroying the fetish object.

I guessed that the qualities Nathanael valued in Olimpia two hundred years ago - passivity, ladylike complaisance - were not the characteristics to attract my friend in 2019. They were not the qualities he read into or onto his female self. That self he described to me as “active,” “talkative,” “creative” — in all respects she sounded more like Alma Mahler (who was, let’s not forget, a composer in her own right, her potential snuffed out by her first husband’s fame). Thus, like Kokoschka one hundred years before, my friend would struggle to give his ‘doll’ the kiss of life.

“So what should I do?” he asked, after I’d burdened him with all this intellectual baggage. I wondered if the process was reversible. Undress the mannequin, disassemble it, put it back in the packaging… would the spirit of F return to him? Perhaps so, he agreed. Such proceeding, unlike Olimpia’s fate, wouldn’t be unexpected and shocking, or wilfully destructive, like Kokoschka’s action. Reluctant to undo his hard work, however, (“Have you ever tried putting pantyhose onto a dummy?!”) he resorted to covering her entirely with a bedsheet. At first, the effect was not unlike that of sharing space with a woman in a burka. Anyway, over time, it seemed to help: he tells me some sense of F’s presence has returned. Yet he remains dispirited.

Perhaps you could integrate the dummy into your existing stories so that it augments your crossdreams rather than undermining them? “Tried that,” he replies. “It’s like they exist in parallel universes.”

Now it’s my turn to feel like a right dummy: I’ve run out of helpful advice. At least after reading around the subject I’ve learned a new word - ‘agalmatophilia’ - coined by that old dog of Teutonic sexology, Richard Krafft-Ebing, to refer to ‘a disorder affecting individuals who derive sexual arousal from an attraction to statues and, to a lesser extent, other inert human forms’.*

*Jane Munro, Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish (2014), p148

Monday, 14 January 2019

Forwards... and backwards

Shantel VanSanten: red-hot even in black-and-white
I haven’t posted on this blog for a couple of years now. Regular readers – I seem to have a few; thank you, one and all! – may wonder what’s been going down since then.  Well, I can only describe it as ‘coming full circle’. Thirty years ago I started to get seriously into crossdressing. About five years back, prompted by a ‘midlife crisis’, egged on by reading and online chatrooms, I began to question whether the crossdressing was a symptom of transsexuality, a guilty secret that I had long hidden, even from myself. The year before last, when for the first time I ventured out in public ‘dressed’, I realised that I’d reached my limits. If (heaven forfend!) someone addressed me as female, I wasn’t flattered, or ‘confirmed’ in my identity, I was disoriented; I scuttled away as fast as my mid-height heels would permit. Since then, I’ve fallen back on earlier certainties. At home, I am in control. Whatever is this identity I access when I crossdress, whether it be fantasy or alternative reality, it is an emanation of my ‘self’, and that self I continue to identify as male at core. Curiously, once I’d accepted that, some forgotten pleasures began to return. In particular, the pleasure of wearing sheer hosiery: the tight casing of the legs and even tighter constriction of the crotch, so necessary for someone who has never been able to ‘tuck’ without discomfort. At the same time, the herbal regime I’ve followed now for half a decade has ‘feminized’ my body as far as I’m happy to go. Thus, after going all round the houses for several years and even thinking hard about transition, I seemed to be back at my starting-point: a guy who likes to wear 'female' clothes and dream that he's the person inside the clothes. Only it wasn’t the same point, when I got back to the start. As a result of my tour d'horizon, the familiar landscape now looked different. Armed with new self-knowledge, I hoped to move forward. 

But, despite my greater self-acceptance, still the questions remain.

I continue to ask myself: is what I feel now the long-suppressed expression of a trans identity, or is it something I’ve willed into existence as a solution to a state of unwelcome bachelorhood? My taking up crossdressing seriously in the late Eighties was a deliberate decision, a response to the failure of my efforts throughout my twenties to form alloerotic relationships. Having failed in relationships, I took to crossdreaming; being a crossdreamer, I was unable to form relationships: a feedback loop. Arguably, my gender dysphoria has developed out of that state, because, with no escape from the loop and little diminution in the sexual feelings that keep it charged, I have fallen in love with, or lust with, my own creation.

Or, to go back to an earlier ‘turn’ in my life, at the end of the Sixties… Being in a single-sex environment at home and school and inhibited by a shyness that made it hard to break out of that environment, I was placed in a state of involuntary celibacy. My earliest dabbling in ‘transvestism’ from that time was about finding an outlet for unexpressed hetero feelings and trying to satisfy my curiosity about the opposite sex by wearing items of their clothing. Anne Vitale* talks about ‘gender expression deprivation anxiety disorder’; mine was more like ‘desire expression deprivation anxiety disorder’. The question then arising is this: why, in my twenties, when I’d lost some of my shyness and did have opportunities for intercourse, I didn’t take them. Something was ‘getting in the way’. Was it a trans persona breaking through to the surface, or was it that the habits of self-sufficiency developed early on had become second nature, leaving me permanently closed? The ‘otherness’ of other people – which I suspect for most folk lies at the heart of sexual attraction, even in same-sex relationships – for me was alienating.

But perhaps this ‘unexpressed’ desire was inexpressible? It was always directed at unrealistic, unattainable objects. And out of the frustration thus produced, I started to map the fantasy onto my own body, reasoning that if no part of it was achievable out there, then some shadow of it might be conjured from my own physical resources.

Which comes first – the trans component or the inability to ‘close the deal’? Frustrated in alloerotic expression, did I turn to an autoerotic substitute? Or was an ‘autogynephilic’ disposition present from adolescence or earlier, so that, unbeknown to me, conventional relationships were always destined to fail?       

Saving yourself for the special ‘One’ can be counter-productive, since the longer you hold off, the greater the expectations that build up: in the end you’re waiting for a nonpareil who is unlikely to exist. If it’s possible to make the postponement of gratification into a fetish, then I fetishized it. This, I speculate, was a relic of post-war (even wartime) austerity inherited from my parents; the attitude was that ‘if something’s worth having, then it’s worth waiting for’. In our throwaway culture, we forget that people in the 1950s spent a lot of time waiting for things. And this condition could readily be adapted into a virtue: at a time of material scarcity, a single possession was more valuable; and the longer you anticipated receiving something, the greater your excitement when it finally came into your hands. 

*Anne Vitale, ‘The Gender Variant Phenomenon - A Developmental Review’ (2003)