Champions of Pleasure, by Maya Alexandri

Art: Hyperallergic


I stole the penis of the Angel of the City.

My hands curled around it, the blunt end cool in my palm.  The heel of my other hand rubbed against the ridges and indents banded at the narrow end.  This penis was not merely an instrument to a screw, but a screw in itself: it screwed into the body of the statue.  What screws, ipso facto, can be unscrewed, and so it had been.

Not just once.

Not by me.

How many times had Peggy Guggenheim commissioned a new penis from Marino Marini?  The Collector:  “Marino, my Angel is again unmanned!”  Il Scultore:  “Thieves!  Thieves only you invite to your parties!”

Thieves, yes, but also hedonists, dramatists, drunks, catastrophisers, sycophants, models, lovers, Venetians, and artists.  People who, upon seeing an unscrewable penis, unscrew it.  Again.  And again.

Flattering, perhaps, but surely irritating if The Collector expects Il Scultore (for the same price!) to perform genital maintenance also for a party other than the statue.  Again.  And again.  Enough times that Il Scultore eventually adjudges his original design ill-conceived and welds the temptation in place.

By then the Angel had exhausted an inventory of penises, worn and dispersed to points forgotten and fallow, but fertile to the imagination: one iteration sank to the bottom of the Grand Canal after a gondola ride; another lay secreted in the boudoir of a high net worth individual; a third was tossed among the vinyl records, leather dresses, vintage t-shirts, opera posters, estate sale jewelry, antiquated electronics and ninnolos of Aldo’s second hand store in Venice.  Which is where I found it.

I recognised it with a quickening of my breath, a twinge in my fingers, and an image: the memory of visiting The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, standing on the terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, appraising Marini’s L’Angelo della Città, feeling on my face an expression of astonished amusement.  (Now, recalling the expression, the musculature of my face again molded my features to that gape.)  How completely L’Angelo embodied Peggy’s view of men!  The superfluousness of nuance; the virility worship; the immaturity.

Possessing the cast bronze phallus between my fingers, though, I reconsidered.  I recognised a certain harshness, an unfairness in my judgment.  L’Angello della Città is a distillation of joy.  The statue fragment emitted an elated triumph the way a religious relic pulses to the beat of the saint’s eternal heart.  In Peggy’s palazzo, I’d lacked the receptivity to perceive it; in Aldo’s shop, I was a believer.

“How much?” I asked Aldo, weighing the cylinder in one hand.

He giggled.  “Everything you want is so expensive.”

“You raise the prices just for me,” I pouted.

“No one can afford that,” he assured me, eyes twinkling.

“You must have paid something for it?”

“That would be vulgar.”

“Vulgar?  Because it’s a penis?”

He laughed.

I laughed.  “Why is it vulgar to pay for a penis?”

“Have you done that before?”

“No, but I want to now.”

“Oh no,” Aldo giggled, “you must never do that.”

I giggled because he was giggling.  “Why won’t you sell this to me, Aldo?  Because it’s stolen?”

“Stolen?  No thieves among my friends!” he rebuffed, waving his hands excitedly.  He was enjoying himself.

“If it’s not stolen, then what is it?”

“It’s for pounding spices,” he pronounced theatrically.

“Spices?” I persisted.  “It’s a penis, not a pestle, where’s the mortar?”  Then: “Aldo, work with me.  Name your price.”

Aldo waved his hand dismissively.  “What do you want with a blunt instrument?  An espresso you can use.  This bludgeon?”

“It’s a piece of an angel!”

“It’s for cracking nuts,” Aldo giggled again, taking the penis from me and tossing it over his shoulder in an insouciant motion.  It landed in a pile of 1970’s men’s suits, still to be sorted.  I noted the prominent representation of plaid among the mix.

After a deliberate pause during which I eyed the oggetto d’arte purposefully, I followed Aldo over to the corner of his shop, where he had a hot plate and a moka pot, and had begun to conjure our espressos.  “Did you ever go to one of her parties?”

“Who?”

“Peggy Guggenheim.”

Aldo laughed robustly.  “I am an honest man.”

“Honest men didn’t go to her parties?”

Prostituiti.”  He made a moue that expressed the pleasure he took in his disapproval, and he returned his attention to the espresso.

I brooded.  Aldo, of course, was correct: the relationships of exploitation resonated still in Peggy’s palazzo, though who was prostituting whom might be unclear.  Peggy was pitiable.  In her thirst to be worthy of Venice, she had revealed herself petty.  Her palazzo exposed her as a slave to money, its attendant power, and the insatiable neediness that it bought; while Venice, for all its warring brutality, oppressive governance, and arrogance, was about the glory of God.  But why wouldn’t Aldo sell me the penis?  Some part of his integrity objected.

He interrupted my thoughts: “How was your day with my American?”

It was like living The Aspern Papers, I thought, but thought better of saying.  Aldo doesn’t read Henry James.  “If his nonna was anything like him, her estate will be in excellent taste.”

“I knew her well,” Aldo reported, pleased with himself.  “She was an innocent.  Protection!  Always she needed protection.  Even after she married, she was vulnerable.”  He paused before lobbing, good-naturedly, “Not like you!”

“I’m vulnerable!”

“Not like her, no.”  The Italian “no” he gave me, more of a “non.”  Definitive.  Inflexible, the facts be damned.  “I don’t have to worry about protecting you.”  Smiling, Aldo edged my espresso towards me.

Grazi.”  I sipped, considering Aldo’s pronouncement.

L’Angelo della Città is also an innocent.”

Tangy, acidic, the espresso rang on my tongue like a bell.  I took Aldo’s point.  An innocent must be protected, all the more so an innocent among the prostituiti.  To traffic in the genitals of an innocent will not do.

“That’s why you want to keep the penis.”

Aldo giggled and clapped his hands together emphatically.  “I am the proprietor of a second hand store!  You think I believe in the endurance of possession?”

I gave those words space to pirouette around the inside of my skull.  I think, viscerally, everyone believes in the endurance of possession – whatever they say.  Most fundamentally, everyone, including Aldo, expects possession of life to endure: the reality of the encroachment of death is a perpetual surprise.  Perhaps to renounce attachment to the material world is to learn to greet that surprise, day after day, with aplomb and grace.  These qualities, Aldo had in abundance.  But whether his store was second-, third-, or hundredth-hand, Aldo had too much appreciation for the beauty of things to be immune to the illusion that, the more one possesses, the more one endures.

No, Aldo’s statement was not one of principle, but of permission.  Aldo was goading me, and I saw what he wanted me to accomplish: an act of subversion of Mammon; the rescue from the market of something that cannot be bought and sold; title-free transfer and circulation of a distillation of joy.  I’m not one of the vulnerable who needs protection, but rather one of the protectors of the innocent.  When Aldo went to the bathroom to wash the moka pot, I did as he invited: I hid the Angel’s penis in my purse.

I left giddy, blowing kisses and ducking Aldo’s affectionate and impish gibes about my “future” with his American.

 

 

 

With Aldo’s American, I had, earlier in the day, gone to the Palazzo Ducale.

Aldo asked me to go, as a favour, and I obliged; though I suspect Aldo thought he was doing me the favour.  Aldo was negotiating the purchase of a Venetian estate with its American heir, the grandson, a man named Percy, who was in Venice for this purpose.  Whether as a negotiations tactic or a personal preference not to socialize with his counter-party, Aldo dispatched me to guide Percy’s tour.

Of course, Aldo was playing match-maker.

Like everything in Aldo’s shop, Percy was first-rate and second-hand: handsome, cultured, and divorced. Attired in cotton and linen, he looked at ease in the Venetian summer.  He explained himself as a “professor of poetry at a liberal arts college,” but I gathered that he was a poet.  He appeared genuinely to understand my achievement, in surmounting regulatory and linguistic hurdles, to become the proprietor of a small gallery and framing shop in Venice.  He walked like a man unafraid to attend yoga classes.  His body posture, eyes and facial expression applied themselves to the task of listening whenever I spoke, and as a consequence, he seemed caring and accessible.  I coveted him immediately.

We met on the Riva degli Schiavoni, outside the Palazzo Ducale.  He clasped my hand and smiled broadly, like a person glad for the company.  I apologised that I was to be an ignorant guide, shamefully not having been before to the Palazzo Ducale.  “No one ever goes to the tourist attractions where they live,” he assured me.

He didn’t need my guidance in any event.  Percy moved through the galleries with the precision and patience of a connoisseur lavishing sustained attention to matters that escape the untutored eye.  Occasionally, he gave the appearance of sinking into a reverie provoked by the surrounding sumptuousness.  We might as well have been two strangers, both alone in the galleries, but for his solicitousness of my presence.  He made known subtly, with understated gestures and glances, that he was pleased to be with me in this environment of unrelenting beauty.

With little option but to look at the art seriously, to think profound thoughts and hope to be able to remember and articulate them at the socially appropriate moment that was inevitably going to arise, I started to feel unnerved.  The ratio of masterpieces to wall-space was a numeric expression of density: the Venetians hung pictures even from the ceiling.  And appreciation of only a fraction of the paintings on display could not fail to expose me to the corrosive Renaissance Venetian confidence.

What did they mean, for example, in allowing St. Christopher to carry the infant Jesus on his shoulders while wading through the Venetian lagoon, as he does in Titian’s fresco in the doorway of the Doge’s apartment?  Is there a benign interpretation?  The assertion of Venetian claims to have supplanted the Holy Land struck me as inescapable.  Il Doge:  “A visual depiction, please, of Venezia as the locus on Earth of all power and glory due to God, Tiziano.  But with a baby in it.”  Il Pittore:  “It shall be so, Serenissimus.  Who is to say that when the holy family found no room at the inn, they didn’t board a boat for Venezia?”

Or: how to comprehend Veronese’s mythological trio of Justice and Peace, embodied as women, bowing to Venetia, a queen elevated on her throne, her face in shadow to highlight her humility.  Humility?  I felt my throat tighten in recognition of the corruption implicit in the presentation of the greatest arrogance as its opposite.  The methodologies of political propaganda know no progress.  But more troublingly, I was jealous.  To have lived in a Golden Age!  To have enjoyed the psychological benefits of integration in a powerful and rich community, rich in the strength that accrues with homogeneity of belief.  To have the confidence that individual action enjoyed its share of the sanction of God by virtue of its contribution to the larger Venetian mission, itself crowned by Heaven.  To have been arrogant in a context where the attitude was not socially offensive, but justified.  Never will I know that high!

The lament for the unattainable pleasure breeds a special sort of moroseness, in which state I found myself standing in front of Veronese’s Rape of Europa without seeing it, which was no matter.  I confess myself incapable of viewing any painting of the rape of Europa with fresh affect.  My reaction is always the same: what the hell?  Rape of Europa is where I part ways with the male project of heterosexual arousal: the superfluousness of nuance, the amorality of the virility worship, the immaturity.  I do not understand why Jupiter would want to take the form of a bull to copulate with a woman; I do not understand why Ovid would want to write the prologue to this act, the consummation of which defied his command of words; or why so many painters found the aftermath a suitable subject – but their failure to capture Europa’s horror reveals where their sympathies lie.

My eyes came into focus on the canvas with the realisation that Percy was standing within my personal space, reciting poetry: “I swam in the Pleiades-lit night / drinking in the transforming wines / that the Champions of Pleasure drink.”  He smiled at me.  “A little riff on Cavafy,” he explained.

I don’t have at my ready disposal verses of poetry on which to riff, so I remained mute, and tried to convey by my posture my awe of his facility.  After a lapse suggested the inadequacy of my response, I ventured, “They were champions,” I gestured vaguely around the Sala del Collegio, “of a pleasure of a sort lost to us now.”

He nodded.  “The excess is glorious.”

“Was it excess?  We’ve lost,” I paused to grapple my instinct into language.  He watched me in a way that made me feel that what I was about to say was important.  “We’ve lost the link between power and beauty.  You don’t get aesthetic achievement like this without government ordained by God.  You need your power, your government, administered by church or aristocrats, to the extent there’s a difference.  Beauty is the province of the God-anointed aristocracy.  Get rid of the divine right to rule, and you get rid of,” I swooped my hands in a circle, “this.  Power without God lacks beauty, and art without God gets you to Peggy Guggenheim.”

He appraised me.  Had I been ranting?

“I like that you think so much,” he smiled.

He looped his fingers between mine and took my hand.

Later, when he was kissing me, on the boat we rode to Lido, he murmured an afterthought in my ear, “I like Peggy.  She was a modern Doge.  She was all of it.  Prisoner.  Scion.  Lover, connoisseur, emblem of power – all of it.  All gloriously intoxicating.  It’s even intoxicating to think about how intoxicated she was.  It’s just that time is unkind to champions of pleasure.”

 

 

 

Inside each of us is a time-keeper, or two, or more.  If we’re unlucky, there’s just one marching drummer, rapping out the measures for linear procession, pounding out the downbeats for decline through the stations of social propriety to the ditch at the end of the line.

That fellow has not fared well in my cacophony.  My heart is more capacious than regularity will tolerate, the time between beats as long as the moment demands.  My lungs, too, like sousaphones, pump oxygen at irregular intervals, sometimes with, sometimes between, the heartbeats.  My guts respect no pendulum, but track instead the chaotic swings of my numerous appetites; forwards or backwards, circular or fragmented, three dimensions or four – take any shape that time may, my viscera will have its quarry.  And my poor brain, a hopeless conductor: one organ, two governments.  The variability of perception is a dictator that enslaves mind; while the balance of the grey matter obeys the laws of physical reality.  The dictator and the law of course never agree about time, or much else.

This idiosyncratic, a-synchronic coexistence, co-functionality, and cooperation of my many time-keepers renders time a defiant quantum, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, Polyphemus; and whatever else, always music.

Music be the food of love; so time is the nourishment of compassion.  The more pluralistic and elastic time, the more space for recognition, and for connection.  The more rigidly time runs in a single direction – out – the more collapsed the room, until it admits only a solitary, anguished soul.  And so it must be that time is unkind to the champions of pleasure: the rapidity of time’s elapse is their true drug.

So I mused, as my giddiness dissolved upon parting from Aldo, replaced by a contemplative absorption.  I began to hum softly, and wondered whether Percy was one of time’s mainliners.  Was his internal monologue in verse, or in metaphor?  Was he his own favourite poet?  Had he been close to his nonna?  Had he visited Venice frequently?  Did he know from whom she needed protection – or even, was he among the menaces?  Was he easily attracted to the many females who lust after him (as I did, as no doubt his students do), or did the numerousness beget boredom or fickleness or games-playing? Did he need money?  Why did he ask me to get him the Angel’s penis from Aldo?

He’d said that he’d first seen it (or an iteration of it) at his nonna’s palazzo, when he was ten and just starting to think seriously about his own penis, and that he’d been despondent to find that it was not amongst her possessions on her death . . . and then had felt the grip of Fate when he’d spied the penis in Aldo’s shop, Aldo, the man to whom his nonna had instructed him, before she died, to sell her estate.  Percy had been overwhelmed with sentiment, with an effusion of grief and relief when he’d seen, again, the Angel’s shard, knowing that it was to be his after all.

Perhaps Fate had made Percy cocky.  Aldo undermined his sense of entitlement by refusing to sell.  But surely Aldo would not deny his own very beautiful friend?

I realised that I was humming an old Italian song, the words of which streamed between my own currents of thought: se tu sospiri sol per me, if you sigh only for me . . . and wondered why Aldo had allowed me to steal the Angel’s penis.  Of course, Aldo’s paternalistic affection for me made him an advocate of any gambit that would promote my chances of success in love.  But Aldo, of all people, would have had the measure of his American.  Percy sighs only for himself, poor, lonely creature.  Was Aldo testing me?  Had I failed a moral examination?  Or passed?  Or was Aldo playing an angle that I didn’t see?  What was Aldo’s relationship to Percy’s nonna?  What kind of protection did Aldo provide her?  Did it somehow involve L’Angelo della Città?

I became aware that I was walking to walk, without progress or destination, motion perpetuating motion.  My breath might have been effortless, it was so light; while my heart beat with the slow confidence of a regal procession.  I was enthroned in a state of heightened, and joyous, awareness; the soles of my feet, even, were aroused from quotidian numbness, and were electric with sensation.  I saw that my state, moreover, was sun-blest; the star had paused in its trajectory and was revolving in place, prolonging the gold of the late afternoon.

Ma se pensi . . . facilmente a t’ingannar, if you think . . . you are too easily self-deceived.  I had been humming that passage for some time.

I smiled at my lack of subtlety in sending myself a message.  Did I think that Percy’s interest in me would deepen if I brought him his prize?  That his manipulative impulse would soften into love?  And if it did, so what?  Wasn’t loving someone continually desired by others one of the rings of Hell in Danté’s Inferno?

Yet my actions puzzled me: I saw Percy’s stratagem, and I played my part anyway.  Why?  Did I think that stealing the penis would be fun?  How could I have talked myself into believing that Aldo wanted me to steal the penis?  Aldo is my dear friend!  How easily my head was turned!  Except that Aldo dismissed my weakness – at the very moment that I was in a slump of reflexivity, opaque to myself, and capitulating like a naïve youth at Carnival – Aldo helped me add theft to the roster of the day’s pleasures that might require reassessment, if not repentance.

These thoughts, of course, were not uncritical.  But the whole inquiry felt clarifying, and the clarity was cleansing.  An internal wellspring of lightness uncorked.

I was effervescent.

And I was standing outside The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  I stopped humming.

I saw that the building was not The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, but Peggy’s palazzo.  Though I knew she was long deceased, and the house many years a museum, I simply accepted this reversion.  It was a rare invitation.

The entrance of the palazzo had a hushed aspect, but as I crossed the courtyard, sounds floated through the garden from the terrace: the splashing of gondola oars, the strains of stringed instruments, the clinking of crystal, flirtatious laughter.  The party sounds dissipated as the palazzo’s doors closed behind me.  Loneliness predominated.  The palazzo was deserted, de-peopled of staff.  Were they all serving the party-goers outside?  I moved through the galleries, and noted new paintings – some wrapped, partially crated still – leaning against the furniture, Peggy’s furniture.  A dog yapped downstairs; a fellow creature, calling for company.  I opened the doors leading onto the terrace fronting the Grand Canal.

I saw no party in progress and wondered about what I’d been hearing.  Did Peggy play a cocktail party background soundtrack, for ambiance, on her nights in?  If so, she’d turned it off.

She was standing beside L’Angelo della Città, facing the Grand Canal.  As I approached, she turned unsteadily to face me, her tinted curls fluorescing bronze in the light.  She was clothed in my judgments, synthetic fabrics and gardenia-scented powders.  A sleeveless dress exposed the sagging flesh on her upper arms.  Her make-up distracted with its theatricality.  Her left hand rested on the flank of the horse the Angel rode; she needed the support.  She glared intensely.

“Plenty of people have fucked their way to the bottom of their desperation without amassing the greatest modern art collection as a by-product!  It’s still an achievement!” she hissed.

Was that what I thought of her?

“As if all great collectors aren’t pitiable!  That’s why any collector collects!  Because he is terrified of death!  Because he is empty!”  She punched herself in the sternum, and the thud clenched my chest.

“You weren’t empty,” I assured her, unsure if I believed what I was saying, but wanting her to feel better.

Then she said something that I was sure was true: “I don’t care what you think, except in your fantasies.”

I laughed.  She was funny.  Likeable, even.

“I am here to return something to you.”  I reached into my purse and retrieved the Angel’s organ.

“Don’t be stupid,” she instructed me, her manner turning practical.  “He’ll never fuck you again if you give that to me.”

“That’s alright.”

“Think on death before you throw away a fuck!  You’re a careless girl!”

I flinch at carelessness, so I did as commanded.  I thought on death.  It wasn’t an arousing process – I’m not sure how Peggy envisioned it.  What I pictured was a sentence: How lucky I am to know!

A Lhasa apso, possibly the one barking when I’d walked through the palazzo, burst onto the terrace, friskily panting in a rush of good cheer.  Peggy scooped up the dog and cradled it like an infant, nuzzling it, and cooing.

I held out the Angel’s penis.  “Then please accept this is as a token of my gratitude.”

“For what?”  She looked up.

“For your example.”

She almost shrugged.  “I have more than one already,” she said, but she took it.  Cuddling the dog with her left hand, she held the penis in her right like a scepter.

The sun began its descent.  Halo-light saturated the terrace, filtered through the tree branches, softened the cornices of the palazzo, and imbued the terrace’s stones with a warmth soothing to the weary.  The light ornamented Peggy’s curls, the dog’s frizz, and the curvature of the Angel’s head: all were crowned.  Peggy averted her eyes modestly, and the dog barked, raising its paw to rest it on Peggy’s breast.  The Angel unmistakably pulsed with joy.

Modern in its aesthetic, the composition was a classic: Madonna-and-child-with-adoring-angel.  I knelt.  It was appropriate.

In Peggy’s unsteady hand, the tip of the scepter tilted from its upright position, and came to rest on Peggy’s lips.  Peggy thoughtfully licked it.

She had an idea.  “Why are you here?” she inquired.
I paid the saint the highest respect.  I went.


Maya Alexandri is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in 2015. She is also an organizer of the Amplified Cactus performance art installation series in Baltimore, Maryland, US. She has lived in China, India and Africa, and has worked as an actor, lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and emergency medical technician. She is currently writing a novel and a cycle of short stories. For more information, see http://www.mayaalexandri.com.

 

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