Sea Slugs

  • Charlotte Roche. Feuchtgebiete. DuMont Buchverlag. February 2008.

Many native English speakers will report a great ease in using German profanities, in contrast with those of other languages they may have attempted to master and to swear in. When it comes to these words, English remains pre-Norman, pre-Christian: our words and the Germans’ words both reach back to a time when it would have been clear that the island and the continent were both inhabited by different branches of the same Germanic tribe, who in their blissful illiteracy happened upon some powerful, almost onomatopoeic grunts to denote the things we aren’t ordinarily supposed to talk about: ficken, pissen, furzen, Scheisse, Arsch, etc. In most cases, these are just a phoneme and a dropped consonant away from our own words, and in any case should feel to any Anglophone much more natural than, e.g., baiser, faire pipi, péter, merde, cul. For the most part, the reptilian, id-driven region of our English, American, Canadian, and Australian brains still thinks in proto-Germanic.

Even when it is not slumming in the dark back rooms of obscenity, German is remarkably graphic and to-the-point. English has euphemized, by way of Latinate borrowings, what has remained Germanic, which is to say explicit, in modern German: thus “mucous membrane” in German is Schleimhaut, which translates literally as “slimeskin.”

Ficken and Pissen are part of our ancient Germanic patrimony, while Schleimhaut is a product of German’s Latin-resistant modernity. There are still other words for describing the body and its functions that have been invented by German youth, who care nothing about patrimony, and know nothing about modernity. Muschi is a term of endearment for a cat, but it is also, as various electronic sources will tell you, a German slang term for “vagina,” as well as a main-belt asteroid. In spite of its proximity to that adjective that English-speaking children use to describe the principle property of peas and mashed potatoes, this is a word that does not speak to me, that it does not feel natural to say, that leaves me with that same sense of having spoken against my very personality as when I utter a profanity in French. Charlotte Roche’s debut novel, Feuchtgebiete—which would best be rendered as “moist regions,” but was recently published in English translation under the approximating title Wetlands—is filled with words I could never utter, and Muschi is the queen of them. This, I insist, is not at all because I am a prude.

Feuchtgebiete is a novel that one fears to criticize, lest one appear as just that. It is a “straight talking” novel, and it preempts criticism by framing the discussion of it in such a way that anyone who does not like it therefore does not like straight talking. It is a novel that faces up to things. “If you love someone and sleep with them,” Roche says in an interview with Granta, “you’ll have to face those dirty bits—otherwise you might as well not get started with the business of sex in the first place.” Yet the serial monogamists among you—and all serial monogamists are also empiricists malgré eux—will no doubt have noticed a wide range, not of dirtiness, but of degrees to which a universally and perfectly equally distributed dirtiness is permitted by different people, with different personalities, to enter into interpersonal affairs. We might also notice differences in the degree to which this dirtiness is permitted to come to center stage in the fictional world of a novel. Roche gives it a starring role, and this seems to me neither right nor wrong. It’s there. It’s always there, even as other things, deemed more interesting by other novelists, are unfolding in the lives of their protagonists.

If Roche has hit on something true and heretofore unsaid, it is the insight that to write about bodily fluids is not to describe something exceptional in the course of human life. It is, rather, to describe something that is always there and always felt to be there, through all those other things people do and experience at that level that used to be the subject of novels (falling in love, challenging others to duels, talking about the buying and selling of land, etc.). The fluids were there and flowing, for example, in the carriage scene in Madame Bovary, yet Flaubert managed to let us know as much without even mentioning anything going on within the carriage, but only the outside ambience (the birds chirping, the breeze). Flaubert did not need to tell us, in order to be deemed a great novelist, that the ill-fated trompeuse was, at that moment, in that carriage, producing copious amounts of vaginal lubrication.

I should not have to mention that sexual explicitness alone is nothing new. Henry Miller described from experience the precise details of the contours of the vaginal walls already in the early 20th century. There was an obscenity trial, freedom of expression prevailed, etc. Roche however seems not just to want to describe the “moist regions”; she wants to describe the fundamental fluidity of our corporeal existence, which is to say of our existence. It’s not just that one occasionally “gets wet,” but rather that one is positively fountainous. For her even the skin is not so different from the orifices: it is not a real barrier, but is constantly pushing out all sorts of secretions, and can in any event easily be punctured to reveal a fluid that gushes, bright red and always shocking to see. If Roche’s novel were not a 21st-century German pop phenomenon, but instead an ancient Galenic medical treatise, it would be titled De succibus corporis, “On the Juices of the Body,” and the key to its success would be in the plurality of the juices it describes: not just the obvious ones like menstrual blood and semen, but the bit-part players too, like sebum, smegma, and pus.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent of this pop phenomenon in its initial, German incarnation. In the spring of 2008 the book spent seven weeks at the top of Germany’s bestsellers list, and by May it had reached number one on Amazon’s international sales list, one of the rare books in German to enjoy this distinction. The chatter on the talk-shows was incessant, as everyone tried to figure out, or pretended to try to figure out, whether this was a work of erotic literature or of craftily marketed pornography. This pseudodebate was the engine of sales, and Roche knew just how to rev it. “[W]hen people ask me whether it’s pornography,” she revealed in one interview, “I always say, ‘It depends who’s asking.’ If it’s a man, I say, ‘It’s pornography.'”

As the marketing strategy had it, men would seek the novel out in their never-ending quest for non-traditional beat-off material, while women would seize upon it as a sort of manifesto, declaring once and for all the autonomy of women’s bodies and announcing a firm defiance of the masculine demonization of these bodies’ excrescences and odors. But if there were any demographic regularities in its critical reception, these had to do much more with age than with gender: as noted in an interview in Der Spiegel Online in February, 2008, the novel revealed a stark Altersgrenze or age boundary among feminists, setting off the younger generation, which responded positively to the anti-deodorant, anti-douching message as a bit of liberationist politics, from the veteran feminists, who may have recalled a day when politics was a rather more encompassing domain of life. To the likely chagrin of the younger feminists, their forebears were unwittingly aligned with the critical stance of the establishment conservative feuilletons. The right-wing daily Die Welt, for example, described Feuchtgebiete as “a satirical novel with little content, except to demonstrate that the media function by searching for scandal.”  The establishment liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung, by contrast, channelled just the message the odoriferous and realistically shaped youth wanted to hear, namely, that the book amounted to “a protest at the Heidi Klum world.”

Roche’s novel affords me a long delayed opportunity to say a few things I’ve noticed about the sex lives of Germans. If I may be frank, they’ve long seemed to me far too healthy. German youngsters have sex with the same matter-of-factness with which they sign up for classes at the university, join clubs, cultivate hobbies. To this end, Germans have incorporated condoms and lube into their bathroom cabinets right alongside the dentifrice and mouthwash and floss. These are all undifferentiated prophylactic tools, none more shameful nor deserving of being hidden beneath the mattress than any other. Sex truly is just a part of life, rather than being that condition of life itself that spreads out and infects, that charges with an extra, magical, unspeakable something all that club-joining and school-going and everything else one does, when one is not German, in a futile struggle to keep at bay those dark forces that have risen up and taken hold of one’s body and soul since the secondary sex characteristics first sprouted.

Many readers are by now thinking: Wait a minute. Germany? Isn’t that where all that old fetish porn comes from? Aren’t Fassbinder, Klaus Nomi, and that guy who lip-synchs in the motel in My Own Private Idaho all, in their own way, German perverts? Yes, but that was a generation ago, or it was the stereotyped condensation of forms of behavior that one might have found a generation ago. These days, it’s all as normal as watching the World Cup, which means, for those of us who lack the sports gene, that it’s all as interesting as watching the World Cup.[1]

Roche might thus be thought worthy of praise, at least, for making Germanic sexuality weird again. Whatever else Roche may have achieved with her phenomenally successful novel, one might say, at least it signals an attempt to return to the Anna O. model of Germanic sexuality, which is to say problematic sexuality.

Now that we have invoked Freud’s immortal, pseudonymous Anna O., we may as well go ahead and characterize Roche’s novel as “anal,” in contrast with “sexual.” It is anal not just in the sense that the heroine’s anus is the primary motor of plot development (she nicks a hemorrhoid while shaving it and requires an operation; while recovering she schemes to stay in the hospital indefinitely by reopening the wound, in the hope that her divorced parents will eventually be reunited while paying her simultaneous visits), but also in the sense that this heroine, Helen Memel, is an 18-year old stuck in a regressive fantasy that involves controlling her parents, and winning their unconditional love, through her various manipulations of that terrible orifice, and of the mighty ring-shaped muscle that wins it over from the autonomic nervous system to the rule of the will.

One does not have to be an orthodox Freudian to appreciate the significance of the discovery in early childhood that the amount of control we exercise, or fail to exercise, over that rear passage has a tremendous effect on our intimate relations, and most importantly (given that we’re two and haven’t forged many intimate relations yet), those with our parents. This much has been in wide circulation and widely vulgarized for mass consumption by parents of toddlers since the dawn of the 20th century, and for this reason one can’t help but think that this novel is much less about transgression than unwitting regression. It’s not the bold new discovery—made every week on talk shows and in check-out-counter magazines—that an eighteen year old is, sexually speaking, quite adult; but rather that she is, anally speaking, quite infantile.

Lying in her hospital bed, waiting for someone to come and look at her anal fissure, Helen tells us that she is dressed only “in a hiked up skirt, with underpants pulled down, ass to the door. So that whoever comes in will know what the deal is. It must look very inflamed. Everyone who comes in says: ‘oh’.” “Oh” in German means something closer to “wow,” but by this point in the book (page 11) many readers will no doubt have emitted an “Oh,” as in: “Oh, I get the idea.”

But what is the idea? Is what Roche seeks to do in Feuchtgebiete simply to remind us that the fluids are always there, flowing, even as we strive to present ourselves as something drier and more dignified? Many, including Roche herself, have intimated that Feuchtgebiete is to be understood not as merely descriptive, not as tapping into something true and universally human, but rather as a political manifesto of sorts, a declaration of the autonomy of young women and their bodies, with Helen Memel as their leader.

Roche wrote a novel, but she is by profession a VJ (a “video jockey” that is, on the German music-video network, Viva) and a talk-show host, and one suspects that she was permitted to write a novel in the way that rappers are permitted to act. She does display a fluent sense of the formal structure of humor, and of how to deploy it, that calls late-night talk-show hosting easily to mind. Consider Helen’s description of the semen that leaks back out as she is sitting in a classroom, just a few hours after copulation: “I sit smiling quietly in my puddle of sperm, as the teacher stands in front, talking about proofs of God’s existence.”  There are many such instances of what Kant long ago described in the Critique of Judgment as the incongruity that provides the scaffold for all possible jokes. The incongruous elements move abruptly, in Roche’s world, from the profane to the lofty, but more frequently they move in the reverse direction. Thus Helen relates: “The next proctologist who comes in says briskly, ‘Hello, Professor Dr. Notz is my name’. And then he shoves something into my asshole.” (Perhaps it should be explained that Professor Doctors in Germany are roughly as high in the hierarchy of being as God, connecting this example to the previous one about sperm and the ontological proof). Funny perhaps, but then again Dr. Notz is a proctologist. What else was he supposed to do? Check her pulse?

Consider also Helen’s imagined conversation with the “green angel” who volunteers in the hospital where our heroine is recuperating after her rectal operation: “Nice conversation: ‘I am a green angel.’ ‘Yeah. And my ass hurts.'”  Standard-model incongruity-humor is employed again and again, in order, among other things, to underline Helen’s preference for encounters with bodies over encounters with people. Thus she mentions the hospital orderly, Robin, who has a blackhead growing in his ear. “I’m not letting this one get away. I mean the blackhead in Robin’s ear.” She longs to pop his blackhead, you see, not to be his soul-mate.

Roche devotes much of Feuchtgebiete to exposing the inanity of the language of glossy magazines, with their hypernormativity and their over-reliance on a hackneyed strain of English. Thus the incident that sets off the narrative, the anal shaving accident, is described as having happened during a session of Ladyshaven. This is an Anglo-German neologism that, much like Departmentstore or Wellnessconcept or Fitnesscentre, signals that someone is trying to tell you how to live, to make you feel bad about yourself, and to make money in the process.

Yet many of the words that are meant to signal the novel’s opposition to all of this have a remarkably similar structure and etymology: die Doggystellung [“doggy position”], das Brustwarzenpiercing [“nipple piercing”], das Petting, etc. This dependency reveals, I think, something important about Roche’s novel. Feuchtgebiete is supposed to be a bold rejection of the values and style of glossy magazines, but what was evidently not taken into account was that these magazines themselves are constantly purporting to subvert their own values and style, with front-cover announcements of some unprecedentedly frank treatment of the mystery of female sexual pleasure; or with some slightly chubby celebrity declaring that she “feels good just the way she is”; or some movie actress who wants to take time out of her busy career to “be there for her children.” All of these are meant to be disturbances of expectations—that female sexuality will remain taboo, that all women are obsessed with dieting, that movie stars put their career first—yet they are disturbances that somehow leave everything exactly the same.

One of Helen’s great insights is that hygiene rules are quite baseless. Hygiene wird bei mir kleingeschrieben has served as one of the marketing mottos for the novel: “I write ‘hygiene’ in lowercase” (this in a language in which all nouns, without exception, are written in capitals). It is at least true that hygiene rules are arbitrary, and difficult to trace back to any immediate medical benefit. I’ve known Russian women who will not sit on cement blocks, even if these are designed for sitting. They say that the cold collected in the cement will creep up into their ovaries, and make them sterile. Who can deny that it is a liberating discovery, and one likely made more often by German girls than by Russian ones, that this sort of rule is bullshit, and that one may sit where one pleases?

There is yet another distinctly German feature of Helen’s experience: the men in Roche’s novel are uniformly decent, officious, and even helpful to her. Dr. Notz the proctologist is a square, yet he remains the consummate professional. Dr. Brökert the gynecologist is a bit of a clown, but never seeks to do anything other than to make Helen a healthy, self-sufficient young woman. If this were a Yeltsin- or Putin-era Russian novel, these male doctors would have been the embodiment of the masculine enemy. They would have raped her, or compromised her in some other tragic way. But this novel is set in today’s Germany, where masculinity is not a threat, but at most a distraction.

One literary antecedent to Helen Memel, of which Roche is no doubt quite unaware (she has confessed to taking over three years to finish The Great Gatsby), is Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s bedridden, obese Russian nobleman and anti-hero. But Oblomov reflects on the world, and his poor fit with it, whereas Helen’s relation to the world is never articulated. She is not all that interested in the world, yet she never for a moment presents herself as being anywhere else but on top of it.

At one point Helen formulates a principle that briefly goes against the spirit of the rest of the book: Nicht immer nur mit untenrum. “It’s not all about what’s down below.” She goes on to talk about the staghorn sumac tree, relating facts she has retained from her father. This is all a set-up, though, in order a few paragraphs later to declare: “Enough about the environment,” and to return to the pressing matter of acne-popping (“one of my biggest hobbies”).

In addition to caring about the environment, Helen, we learn, is not a racist. She lets an Ethiopian shave her entire body, for example, and she likes to watch porn featuring black women. There is an invidious tendency in German youth culture that allows old-fashioned exoticism to sneak into contemporary sensibilities under the guise of multiculturalism. German kids positively love black people, they find themselves “boring” in comparison with black people, who are seen as having a certain extra je-ne-sais-quoi, identified variously as authenticity, purity, funkiness, etc. Consider Helen’s iteration of this myth: “Because [black women] have such dark skin,” she observes, “the inner color of their cunts stands out much more than with white women when they spread it. In white women the color contrast is not strong enough. I believe it has something to do with the complementarity of colors. Cunt pink next to light pink skin looks much more boring than cunt pink next to dark brown skin.”

In the 18th century, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt had argued that beauty is in part a moral quality: it is a matter of feeling the right emotions at the right time, including shame, which manifests itself physiognomically by way of blushing. Since being able to blush detectably requires having skin light enough to turn reddish pink, Humboldt believed that African women may thus be deemed objectively less beautiful. It turns out that Humboldt simply was not looking in the right place: African women are pink of cunt if not of face. It is down there, in other words, if we follow Helen’s line of reasoning out to its tawdry conclusions and back to its unconscious historical origins, that the black woman’s essence lies. Humboldt was only wrong to look to the aesthetics of the face, rather than to the pornographics of the untenrum.

Helen Memel is a girl gone wild, but as any American will know who has sat through an advertisement for video footage of undergraduates flashing their tits during spring break in Sarasota, to be a girl gone wild is something quite distinct from being autonomous. Roche’s heroine defies convention, yet in the end she too cannot help but make normative determinations, generally based on convention. Thus she observes that “nail-biting is recognized by almost everybody as a psychological weakness,” and she concludes: “I don’t like it.”  She leaves bloody home-made tampons lying around, in elevators, in corners of her hospital room. But this is in the end not all that liberating, and indeed only brings her a great deal of anxiety at the thought of being found out.

In one vignette, Helen describes conspiring with a girlfriend to take all the pills her dealer friend has left behind, washing them down with red wine. They do this until they throw up, leaving a bathroom trash-can filled with undigested pills floating in red-wine vomit. “Half-half?” she asks Corinna. “‘Yeah, you first.’ And so for the first time in my life I drank liters of someone else’s barf. Mixed with my own. In big gulps. Trading off. Until the trash-can was empty.” The sentence fragments are meant to convey, I think, the immediacy and intensity of adolescent transgression. Helen does not have a drug problem, however. The pills were more a pretext for drinking the vomit than an end in themselves. She will later go on to consume snot, zit juice, flakes of dead dry skin, and her own menstrual blood.

Most of us probably have the sense that these fluids, insofar as they are coming from our own bodies, can easily be ingested back into them without this being perceived as particularly transgressive. The transgression, if anywhere, is in the talking about it, not the doing of it. But Roche does not seem quite sure how to present her heroine’s predilections, either as quotidian things we all do discreetly, or as something only rare individuals—the bold, liberated, new-feminist kind, the anti-beauty-magazine kind—are free enough to do. It seems to me the first possibility is more interesting: there is a whole phenomenology of our embodied experience, of our constant excretion, that has yet to be captured in fiction. But the pull of the manifesto is too strong, and so other vignettes are inserted that seem far away from the everydayness of popping zits or of smelling our own genitalia. For example, we are supposed to believe that the 18-year-old Helen, insofar as she is a liberated young woman, frequents brothels, cultivating the Sapphic side of her passions with women prostitutes, and that she has thus learned about the female body in the way of any young sailor. Somehow these interludes do not strike me as at all plausible.

What Roche describes is, in the end, a child’s world, the pure solipsism of a girl who has yet to notice, let alone to take an interest in, the world beyond the limits of her integument. At one point, she describes some quasi-sexual technique she once learned from a boyfriend (stretching her labia majora out until they are “as big as a postcard”), and comments: “Mattes disappeared at some point; his good idea stayed.” This is the extent of Helen’s encounter with others, whether men or women, relatives or strangers: their role in her life is at best instrumental.

One partial exception to Helen’s solipsism is her father. Like many children, particularly the unimaginative ones, anything in Helen’s life that involves information about the world beyond her own body comes in the relation of a report from her father. Whenever Helen starts to say anything that a well-rounded adult might be found saying, she qualifies it with a sort of verbal footnote to her father. “Modern cars are so insensitive to shock,” she tells us, “that you can drive right over a bump like this one without anything even happening. Says my father.” “My father is a scientist,” the schoolgirl mentions at another moment. She tells us of the gift he made to her of a book about sea slugs: “I [took] it as an allusion to my asshole.” Her poor father explained that he had thought sea slugs might interest her since she had once asked him a question about them.

Did Helen once have an interest in something? “I definitely did ask him about them,” she recalls, “since with daddy I can only talk about replacement topics [Ersatzthemen].” At this point, I found myself thinking: thank God for Ersatzthemen! Come to think of it, I myself, halfway through Feuchtgebiete, would be delighted to be presented with a book about sea slugs, not because these might stand in for something more fundamental that I’m avoiding (e.g., confronting my own bodily excrescences), but because sea slugs are themselves of intrinsic interest. “Here too do gods dwell,” as Aristotle said, referencing Heraclitus, in defense of the study of marine biology.

When Fräulein Memel grows up, she might learn that the sea slug could be more than just a facetious allusion to her asshole. A sea slug might even serve as an occasion for reflection on what she shares with her fellow creatures: it absorbs and excretes, too, after all. In fact, the part of Helen’s life that is of interest to Helen does not differ that much from the life of a sea slug. We all share something important with these beings, and something worthy of being reflected upon, but not as Ersatzthemen, and not by those who think their own assholes are intrinsically more interesting than the life of a nudibranch.

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