The Sexual Translator

Most books, he discovered, were about sex, whether or not the author knew it. The translator’s job was to uncover what the original author could not divine. I befriended the translator late in his life, approximately ten years before his death. His funeral I didn’t attend, because I took pleasure in inverting the social rules—just as I had violated the rules by befriending this august personage in the first place.

“I want to borrow your embodiment.”

Thomas Smillie, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Cheerful Scapegoat is out from Semiotext(e) today, March 23rd.

Sex itself he couldn’t translate, but he could translate books about sex. Most books, he discovered, were about sex, whether or not the author knew it. The translator’s job was to uncover what the original author could not divine. I befriended the translator late in his life, approximately ten years before his death. His funeral I didn’t attend, because I took pleasure in inverting the social rules—just as I had violated the rules by befriending this august personage in the first place.

The pivotal event in our friendship concerned Mallarmé. The translator, Abel Mars, had discovered the secret key to Divagations, and embarked on a translation that would reveal to the world the unsuspected sexual architecture underlying Mallarmé’s sense-confounding essays, which destroyed readers while seeming to titillate them. Abel (or Abelline, as I sometimes called him, in moments of intimacy) had a fear of blue objects (vases, shirts, flowers, paintings, rugs); anything blue horrified him, perhaps because his mother had once exposed him, during a childhood attack of meningitis, to a not-yet-patented blue light, which a quack acquaintance had pushed on the family as a cure-all device for their ailing, precocious son. The blue light, which his mother had trained on his naked body as he lay on the living room carpet, had caused him to bleed from the ears; the bleeding cured his meningitis—expelling it from his body—but instilled in him a fear of anything blue. More logical it would have been if Abel had grown to fear illness itself; paradoxically, he feared not the pathogens but the anti-pathogens. He feared the cure because it came dressed in a blue aura suggesting stories he was not yet mature enough to translate, stories whose avoidance of common sense would masquerade as yet a further stain on a household already traumatized by the strange presence of a naked blue-lit boy on a living room carpet itself an unbecoming shade of orange. Orange carpets were the rage in Abel’s youth, and his mother kept abreast of decor trends.

Abel’s father had died in a car accident a few years before orange had crested to the summit of contemporary taste; in moments of unreason, Abel would blame orange itself for his father’s death, even though orange’s ascendency had postdated his father’s tragic end. The network of symbolic associations linking death, illness, and color, in Abel’s childhood, bore fruit in the mature translator’s theories of synesthesia, principles he passed on to me, not in words, but in covert, perfumed practices. Such practices are the topic of this tale, but I am having a hard time attaining the right tone; I am avoiding any reference to the sexual action which constituted Abel’s most pointed statement of translation theory. In this sexual action, which I will soon describe, Abel passed on to me a synesthetic message that undermines my capacity to reason, just as the blue light, in Abel’s childhood, exorcised his meningitis while eviscerating his command of logical structures.

Abel lived in a carriage house beside a fetid yet nourishing waterway that circled the city. Nourishment entered the bloodstreams of the city’s residents through a substance that the water contained, a sublimate (inhaled unconsciously) that, like an invisible fog, rose from the water and insinuated itself into the nostrils and mouths of the unsuspecting and the blessed. The water’s fetid smell served as decoy; it destroyed the populace’s love for a waterway on whose healing fumes rested the mental health of every child within the city limits. These fumes entered the clerestory window above Abel’s study, where one evening I interrupted him, in the midst of his labors over Mallarmé, labors that sometimes took the form of naps. A Larousse dictionary was open beside him; in one sleeping hand he loosely clutched a pipe, still burning. Out the pipe came a cherry smell that slightly sickened me. I took the pipe from his hand, tamped down its foul flame, and prodded the translator awake.

I needn’t bother telling you every morsel of what happened between us that evening, but don’t I owe it to you, and to Iceland, to narrate the central sexual incident that dug a hole in my ratiocinative powers henceforth and undergirded my own pet theory of synesthesia, a theory I’m practicing now, as I try to make my way through this puny narrative, this parable about the co-presence of the fetid and the nourishing in every syllable a half-wit utters? I owe it to you to describe how I experienced the genitals of the translator who had cracked the code of Mallarmé’s Divagations; I owe it to you to describe how I found myself suffused with pity for the genitals of the man, Abel Mars, who could crack a code but could not embody the enigma’s solution in words that remained stable on the page. His ailment, as translator, an ailment reminiscent of his early terrified relation to the coruscating blue light a worried and quack-influenced mother trained on his precocious body, consisted in a preference for words that advertised their ambivalence by undergoing semantic and sonic changes as they seemed to sit quiescently on a page. The word terror, for example: how can I explain to you the sinuous behavior of the three r’s, as they tortured the vowels they surrounded?

That night, Abel Mars wore a silver silk bathrobe on which peacocks and alligators were embroidered in black thread; the black, loosened by red, approached purple. Abel couldn’t tell that the threads were nearing purple; his infirmity had advanced to that point, a cognitive laxity analogous to the looseness of the sash binding the robe’s folds together, a sash I found myself tugging, untightening and then retightening, as if wanting to exercise a power over his costume that I could not exercise over his affections. I was, to him, a mere journalist, though I prided myself on being the next great exemplar of synthesthetic sage, surpassing Abel Mars, whose theories only emerged between the lines of his translations.

To assert my status as synesthete, I undid his robe, and saw that he was wearing an undergarment that combined the traits of jock strap and festal shroud. On this strap, or shroud, feathers had been sewn, not in sweatshops, I presumed, but in ateliers staffed by acolytes of Mr. Mars. As I faced this undergarment, my own ability to distinguish imagination from reality faded; insistently I wished to uphold the actual—nonfictional—status of these undergarments, these feathers, but it was as if they were conspiring with the blue light that Abel had often described to me, the storied blue light of his childhood cure; and though I had never been subjected to extraordinary luminescences or extreme unctions, I felt Abel’s undergarment—the silken reality of it—to be deliquescing into allegory, entering a foggy continuum with a blue light I’d never experienced first-hand but had only received as a story murmured to me while I lay on the day-bed of Abel Mars, afternoon after translation-saturated afternoon, as Abel caressed my young body and I caressed his older body with a dignified equanimity of regard, neither of us stinting the other or “calling the other out” (as school bullies would say) by smacking a hand or “reading the riot act,” when no riot could be imagined as intruding on our adjective-soaked calm.  Or do I mean gin-soaked? Those afternoons on his daybed, we weren’t drinking gin; we were drinking poetry, a poetry embedded in lines of prose that, as Mallarmé dealt the tricky hand, were ostensibly chronicling a dance performance or a painter’s vernissage.

My ability to narrate a sexual scene leaves much to be desired. All those afternoons when I lay on the daybed with Abel Mars are now blurred into one; and that erotic blur is but a prelude to the scene in question, the scene that destroyed my friendship with the translator, the scene that destroyed my relation to the language I’m now using, the scene that equips me to pontificate about the relation of actuality to metaphors, which hug each other as a desecrated chalice hugs the cherry cordial it contains.

The point of this tale is right here before you. You can touch it, smell it, taste it. Let me make it plain.  I put my hand on the meek heart of the matter, the cock of Abel Mars, not for the first time. I put my hand there on this last night of our friendship, the last time I entered the carriage house beside the fetid yet nourishing waterway; I put my hand on a cock I’d often tasted on the word-stained daybed. As a gesture of conciliation and of passive-aggressive equivocation, I put my hand on the translator’s cherry-tobacco penis (it smelled of cherry-tobacco, I thought, because his study was infused with that odor, and I insist on false equivalences). In this moment of reckoning, I felt like a diplomat of a country not deserving of a diplomatic corps, a country that had so spectacularly failed, on the ethical front, that it was no longer entitled to a staff of translators, peacemakers, and treaty-signers.

Now I have only twenty minutes left; in the remaining portion of this dismal, rainy afternoon, I must describe the cock of Abel Mars, and I must emphasize the foreskin’s allegorical significance. His penis never emerged from its sheath; even when erect, the organ hid within the hood. Abel never reached full tumescence, because he didn’t want to force his cock to break out of its protecting mantle. During our congress, that final evening in his study, the translator’s penis oscillated between a state of hardness and semi-softness, a liminality for which he compensated by breathing heavily and by repeating the word frack, a non-signifying litany that seemed to distract him from his tenuous hold on hardness, and that seemed to reach toward a solid signification his words, on their own, could no longer achieve. “Frack, frack, frack,” went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of “frack, frack, frack,” Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word fuck into frack? Perhaps frack was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand? My relative youth—I was twenty-five years younger than Abel—was a natural resource he was trying to harvest; my dependence on him was a pool of subterrannean oil that his organ, growing feeble, wanted to extract. I’m telling you the truth; I have no investment in simulation or subterfuge. The translator’s cock doesn’t interest me. I wish I could be down-to-earth in describing my indifference to Abel’s phallus, but a violent eruption of ornateness impedes my tale’s delivery. That ornateness, like a ray of blue light, suffuses the room in which I’m now writing this series of disjointed reflections on the impossibility of befriending any human being who seems to possess a power lodged in an orifice, a protuberance, or a capacity. The protuberance—call it a cock—becomes the thing I want to borrow, even though the librarian of the universe knows that I never return the books, my culpable refusal robbing the other patrons of the universal library from making use of the orifices and protuberances that might make breathing possible. The metaphors I borrow entangle themselves in further staircases of metaphor; the staircases, like seminal ducts, grow thick with blocked matter.  “Frack, frack, frack” means, if I were to translate the phrase into sensible language, “I want to borrow your embodiment.” Borrow, here, I would translate as destroy. Why staircases? There are no staircases in seminal ducts. There are no seminal ducts in Mallarmé. There is no fetid waterway in the library’s vicinity. “There is no language to describe my fear of language,” said Abel Mars, as I left his carriage house. I climbed the steps to my alcove on the fourteeth floor of the Mercantile Building, in which there will never be an elevator, not as long as my metaphors are paying the electricity bills. Later, say more about the beauties of the Mercantile Building. Say more about my alcove. Speak with more authentic regret about witnessing Abel Mars’s cock, its tribulations and ambivalences. Try to render the spectacle of Abel Mars’s cock with a more palpable and believable eroticism. His cock is the most exciting thing ever to happen to me in my long career of harvesting significances from forgotten phrases, so please describe his cock with language more enthusiastic, specific, and heartsore. End the description with a word referring to the appearance of a desecrated church. Describe how I ministered to Abel Mars’s testicles. Be clear about how I degraded myself in the service of accuracy.


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