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

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