Jeffrey Betcher: “Billy Dew Meadow”

 

 

This is the second in a series of posts remembering the work of poet and activist Jeffrey Betcher (1960-2017).

 

Preface: Left “believing in the pack mentality of strays,” the poetry of Jeffrey Betcher speaks from the entire collective of American queer stray culture, that very lost-and-found narrative of reinvention on the docks of survival. These docks, being the green-heeled sanctuary of San Francisco from 1986-2016, these docks gave birth to an examination and liberation of meaning, as wildly honest and true-to-mirror as every queer breath weʼve danced. From this collection of Jeffrey Betcherʼs poems, “The Fucking Seasons, Selected Poems 1986 to 2016,” we hear the journeys into witness, touch the lips of knowing “love has been here. Hungry footsteps, breath released, and touch can change the land forever.” A San Franciscan born of rural Ohio, Jeffrey Betcherʼs poetry informs the landscape of nature, saying simply, “Iʼm a witness. Love has been here.”

– Toussaint St. Negritude,
Poet, bass clarinetist, composer

 

Billy Dew Meadow

Mountain meadow,
sonant place (and
I thought of love, of
wanting it so) that
only the locals

know. The pass: im-
passible, Barbara and
Robert, old lovers,
say. But they like us,
four wheel drive us

over the folded
earth, along the
tree-toothed grin of
grass. We laugh as
everything is young, or

time doesn’t mean much.
Named for a miner. “A
frenchman.” Ah, then
Dieu, perhaps. Billy, dear,
What is your name? What 

man amongst men were
you? And where are you
buried? With whose lock of
hair? Here’s history un
kempt. Fir shacks sagging. Mer-

ci, Billy, from friends at
play in your sweet
meadow. Jim lying
stoned in grass, and
me perched ready to

fly through men, their
names and touches and
fields and shag of
beard where a stream
presses the center of

story scorched by
prairie-fire, orange
yellow and purple
rods and golden
faces bristling with repro-

duction as dragonflies
swarm. My shadow,
standing on shadow
rock: I’m shirtless and
could be twelve or

Icarus. Expectation
winging long as
afternoon, backlit 
ass on fire! A
halo you may re-

call, dear Billy.
Above the wooded
ridge: it’s blue sky
moon, Billy. Vastly over a
century old. Still,

find my billet-
doux tomorrow, Billy,
find your meadow
tomorrow in every
shaven face.

      -July 25, 1996, Fish Camp, California

 

(C) 2017 Jeffrey L. Betcher Living Trust

 

About the Author: Jeffrey Betcher donned many hats over more than 30 years in San Francisco, yet maintained an integrity of purpose. A writer, an educator, an advocate for the prevention of violence against women and children, and a grassroots community organizer, he gained national attention as a leader in the “guerrilla gardening” movement, helping transform his crime-ridden street in the Bayview neighborhood into an urban oasis. His intimate poetry was also cultivated over the decades, exploring survival and engagement, and the labyrinth of the heart. Though he dodged the HIV bullet in the plague-torn years, a terminal bout of cancer cut his life short in 2017. In addition to his chapbook of Selected Poems (1986-2016), he completed an epic sonnet, Whistling Through, an odyssey into the cancer machine and death itself

 

More By Jeffrey Betcher:

Dear Allen Ginsberg

 

Image Credit: Vincent Van Gogh “Wheat Field at Auvers with White House” (1890) Public Domain

Saint Turing: A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

Saint Turing:

A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom

on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

By Chase Dimock

 

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s birth. In celebration of his enormous contributions to the fields of mathematics, computational science, cryptology, and artificial intelligence, the scientific community has dubbed 2012 the “Alan Turing Year”, commemorating the occasion with numerous conferences, museum exhibitions, a series of articles on his life in the Guardian and BBC, a Google doodle, and even a functional model of his famous Turing Machine made of Legos. By his mid 20s Turing developed his theory of the “Universal Machine”, thus ushering in the age of modern computer science. A decade later, Turing devoted his studies in cryptology toward cracking the German naval enigma. By developing machines known as “bombes” that could decrypt the messages the Nazis relayed to their U-boats, Turing’s intelligence gathering re-shaped World War II. Historians have argued that cracking the Nazi code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Such accolades coming 58 years after his death evidence not only his importance as a historical figure, but also how his ideas continue to influence contemporary research and debate on computer science in our increasingly digitized society. As the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” foresaw how rapid advances in information science would produce a future in which the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence would become blurred. Asking, “can machines think”, Turing postulated that ultimately the true mark of artificial intelligence would be whether or not one could tell the difference between communication with a human versus a machine. Turing’s standards for evaluating artificial intelligence have not only framed the scholarly and ethical debate in the scientific community for the past six decades, but they have also proven to be a prophesy of daily life in the 21st century. Living amongst automated phone banks, internet chatterboxes, GPS navigators, and Apple’s Siri app, everyday life has become a series of Turing tests as we increasingly rely upon forms of artificial intelligence and speak to it as if it were real.

Yet, less emphasis has been placed on the tragedy of his untimely death. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man, the same 1885 statute under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned more than half a century earlier. Instead of serving prison time, Turing chose to undergo an experimental hormonal treatment prescribed by the British government. While this chemical castration via a synthetic oestrogen hormone curbed his sex-drive, it had dire side effects. Turing began to grow breasts and developed a deep depression. His conviction also caused him to lose his security clearance, thus barring him from continuing to work with the British intelligence agencies. The man who did as much from inside a laboratory to defeat the Nazis as any general did on the battlefield was now considered a threat to national security solely by virtue of his sexuality. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, Turing took a few bites from a cyanide-laced apple–an elaborate end designed to let his mother believe that his suicide was actually an accident due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for Turing’s “appalling” treatment, but a 2011 petition to pardon Turing’s conviction was officially denied by the British Government.

While infinitely more qualified scientific minds have written amazing tributes to Turing’s contributions to computer science and mathematics this year, I am interested in what Turing’s life and legacy mean to gay history and queer thought. I first heard of Alan Turing when I was 14 years old and just starting to reconcile my sexuality with the images and stereotypes of gay men in the media. He was mentioned in Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Persons of the Century” and with just a brief blurb on his life and death my concept of what a gay man could achieve and contribute to the world was forever changed. I came of age in an era of unprecedented gay visibility, but the Elton John and “Will and Grace” imagery of an ostentatious, campy gay world did not seem to fit my shy, nerdy bookishness. Although I never excelled in math and science, Turing became one of my first gay heroes because he proved to me that a gay man—a nerdy man, can change the world through the power of his intellect, invent the future, defeat the Nazis, and stand up for his rights.

This brings me to the first of my appeals for Turing’s importance to the modern gay rights movement: Gay nerds deserve a gay icon. In this month of June, the month of LGBT pride, I am reminded of our community’s production of iconography. From Mae West to Lady Gaga, we have been inspired by strong, sexually transgressive women that challenge gender roles and have supported their gay followers. Entertainers have Freddie Mercury, Ian McKellen, and a new generation of young talent like Neil Patrick Harris to look up to. Literary gays like me have Oscar Wilde. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk sold Hollywood on the idea that Harvey Milk was the gay Martin Luther King Jr. and Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign has launched him as the digital gay guidance counselor for queer teenagers. Yet, no place in the world of gay iconography has been carved for Alan Turing.

As I stood two weeks ago and watched a heavily commercialized gay pride parade trumpet reality TV stars, shill major beer companies, and celebrate banks that crashed our economy, I realized that the notion of gay pride has become more about celebrating the materialism of the present than honoring the past and galvanizing the community toward the cause of social justice for all individuals. This is not to say that we should cut down on the frivolity, merriment, and general debauchery of Pride. One of the most important liberties that the LGBT movement has helped to realize is an expanded right of the individual over the use of his or her own body, including pleasure and bodily expression. Rather, I am arguing for the de-commodification of pleasure (i.e.: using sex to sell) and the integration of the intellectual into sexual. If knowledge is power, and power is sexy, then we must renew our focus on how sexuality informs the genius of an individual like Turing. What made Turing gay and what made Turing a brilliant scientist were not exclusive or accidental traits; they informed and nurtured one another. It is not an accident that the defining essay on artificial intelligence was written by a man who inhabited a human mind that some psychologists and biologists would have deemed degenerate or corrupted by human vice. Rather, it is outsider status—the ability to demystify the “normal” as a gay man, as a nerdy man, that fortified Turing’s genius.

For the balance of this essay I have four arguments for the importance of Turing as a gay icon. The first two are from his biography, what we can learn historically from his persecution as a gay man, and the second two are ways in which his philosophy of determining artificial intelligence have prophesized issues of gender and sexuality in the 21st century. In short, Alan Turing is part martyr, part theorist and an inspiration beyond the sum of those parts.

Turing’s Hormonal Treatment and Sexual Orientation

As mentioned earlier, Turing opted to take hormonal injections as a treatment for his homosexuality in order to avoid a prison sentence. Although the injections curtailed his sex-drive because they amounted to a chemical castration, they did nothing to treat the real root of his homosexuality. The rationale behind the injections conflates homosexual acts with homosexual identity, assuming that annihilating the libidinal desire for sex somehow freed the individual of the effects of homosexuality. In the 1950s, the concept of a sexual orientation independent of all other behaviors was still yet to become universal knowledge. Previously, homosexuality was widely considered a gender disorder. Gender identity was so tied to desire for the opposite sex that it was naturally assumed that a man who would desire another man would have to somehow be a woman on the inside. Homosexuals were often called “inverts”, individuals with the body of a man, but the soul of a woman. Turing, was by most accounts, not particularly feminine and thus he was not legibly homosexual according to the standards of his era. His guilty plea to gross indecency came as a surprise to many because he did not fit the accepted profile of the homosexual.

What we understand today is that a homosexual orientation is more than just an act or an urge. While we know that there is a biological component that predestines most to a proclivity toward attraction to the same sex, gay identity also includes one’s individual history. Same sex desire may be in-born, but the way in which that desire is channeled, what types of men, what kinds of acts, how one thinks of one’s self in relation to other men, and all of the infinite characteristics of our sexuality are products of attachments and affects that we develop over the course of our lives. While the injections may have curbed Turing’s interest in a sexual act, they did nothing to reverse his attachment to men as figures of desire that informed his sense of self and world around him. Turing’s case is a reminder of both the resilience and malleability of sexual orientation and the dehumanization that ensues when we reduce the human mind to a mere organ running on hormones.

Cold War Paranoia and the Problems of Queer Citizenship

Due to his conviction, Turing was stripped of his security clearance and thus he was barred from his work on cryptography with the British intelligence agencies with which he collaborated during World War Two. This revocation of his clearance was not due to having a criminal record, but instead because of fear that his homosexual identity would make him easily corruptible. It is important to remember that Turing’s conviction happened at the dawn of the Cold War. The British government worried that Soviet spies could easily blackmail government agents with shady personal lives. This fear was not unfounded, at least not as a fact. Turing’s conviction came on the heels of the discovery of Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean (both gay) as spies for the KGB. This paranoia was echoed in America with the Red Scare ushered in by the McCarthy hearings and the House Committee on Un-American Activities that sought to root out communists from government positions, the media, and Hollywood. The Red Scare was paralleled by what David K. Johnson terms “The Lavender Scare”, characterized by a series of purges of homosexuals from government offices and renewed enforcement of sodomy laws. Johnson writes:

In popular discourse, communists and homosexuals were often conflated. Both groups were perceived as hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, literature, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. Both groups were thought to recruit to their ranks the psychologically weak or disturbed. And both groups were considered immoral and godless. Many people believed that the two groups were working together to undermine the government.

During the Cold War, to be homosexual was not just contrary to social standards or vice laws, but many considered it treason. The homosexual’s morality and physiology had always been in question and now his very citizenship was questioned as well.

Turing’s descent from war hero to potential traitor in less than a decade solely on the basis of his sexual identity dramatically illustrates how deeply society had come to see sexual practices as constitutive of one’s essential identity. Homosexuality signified the complete break from any moral fortitude, leaving the individual not only susceptible to, but also craving of corruption and destruction of all forms, including treason. Turing’s treatment during the Cold War also sheds light on why the modern gay rights movement that developed 15 years after his death was perceived as so radical. If the homosexual’s allegiance to his own nation was in doubt, then seeing gay men exercise their civil liberties as a citizen seemed to be a radical departure from the accepted image of the homosexual. Harvey Milk’s “radical” gay activism, which consisted of public gatherings and running for elected office appeared radical because he was using classic, democratic measures protected by the constitution in order to campaign for civil rights. Turing’s story reminds us that not long ago, the question was not if homosexuals should be granted equal rights to marriage, adoptions, etc., but whether or not they could even be considered loyal citizens.

Gender, Closeting, and Online Communication

In an article from 2010, I used the Turing Test as a way to make sense of a job I once had posing as a female sales agent on an online retail store. What I found fascinating was how when customers typed their questions to me, they conducted their own Turing test to determine if I was real or just a computer program. The fact

that my chats were accompanied by the image of a blonde woman named Jessica attempted to use gender to not only assure them of my humanity, but to use femininity to “soften” internet retail. In reality, “Jessica” was a real person, a marketing ploy, and a computer program all rolled into one. What Turing’s essay on artificial intelligence made me realize is that the difficulty of telling the difference between man and machine resides in the fact that so much of our human responses are practically mechanical—rehashed clichés, talking points, and stereotypes that we employ to make our ideal self legible to and validated by others. Humans try just as hard as machines and in equally artificial ways to prove our humanity. “Jessica” ultimately signifies the co-operation of human and machine to prove “human” to others so as to seem trustworthy and to ease the consumer on the other end into purchasing a product.

Turing’s inspiration for his determination of artificial intelligence was based on a parlor game called “The Imitation Game” in which individuals guess the gender of a hidden individual based on responses to questions. Turing defines it by the following:

“It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator(C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either ‘X is A and Y is B’ or ‘X is B and Y is A. The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be:

“My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.”

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as “I am the woman, don’t listen to him!” to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make  similar remarks”.

Turing’s model relies upon the subject of speculation being closeted. This closet, which can be seen by the interrogator, presupposes the content of either a female body, a male body, or in the case of the AI test, a machine or computer of some sort. The ability to detect the contents of the closet depends on the player’s ability to visualize a presence, knowing that something must be there to send the notes. Even when the machine is nothing but a box that can produce a tickertape, we project our sense of agency upon it. Because the mind works with sound images and visual signifiers, we cannot possibly imagine pure information without a visualization of authorship or some origin of the words. Therefore, we must attribute some sense of our selves via personification onto the product that produces the information in order to understand it

With the goal of the game as to fool as many people as possible, gender performativity becomes the ultimate modus operandi for victory. Without the context of voice or handwriting due to a neutral individual or teleprinter reading the responses, the only way to prove gender results from the content and phrasing of the information given. Per Turing’s example, if a woman were to have short hair, it would be in her best interest to lie and talk of long hair if she believes that the audience would expect a woman to have long hair. Therefore, the actual woman may not be bodily woman enough to correspond the signifier of woman formulated in the mind of the interrogator and must perform to what the interrogator pictures as a woman so as to prove her own authenticity

Just as artificial intelligence uses repeated programmed responses contoured around the expectations of the user to appear natural, so too does a woman’s gender appear natural as it countlessly repeats the same gestures and affects that we have come to associate with authentic femininity. The more a gesture is repeated, the more natural it feels until that gesture becomes ingrained in the unconscious as instinctual when it is in fact learned behavior. Thus, gender performance is both an unconscious involuntary process and a tactical employment of signifying acts of masquerade

As a final point, what I find additionally fascinating about the Turing test and the gender imitation game that inspired it is how closely it resembles the forms of online communication that we use to meet others on social networking sites. This is especially true for gay men because we increasingly use gay-targeted sites to meet other gays due to the stigma of meeting in public. Just as the gender imitation game occurs in a closet, so too do chats on a gay social networking site happen in a digital closet. We must make our ideal ego (or at least what we think the other man may want) legible and attractive via online communication. We can send textual descriptions, pictures, and even live chat via Skype, but the interaction we have is always managed to present the self in the most flattering light possible and supported by various forms of (soft) artificial intelligence such as the computer programs that broadcast us and the digital manipulation of photos. The person in Turing’s gender imitation game must prove he is male. In the online game of cyber courtship, we must prove through technology that we are a specific type of male that the other would want.

Turing’s Onion Model and the Queer Mind

One of Turing’s most startling, yet overlooked arguments in the aforementioned article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” is his questioning of how we define human intelligence and the human mind in opposition to artificial intelligence:

In considering the functions of the mind or the brain we find certain operations that we can explain in purely mechanical terms. This we say does not correspond to the real mind: it is a sort of skin that we must strip off if we are to find the real mind. But then in what remains we find a further skin to be stripped off, and so on. Proceeding in this way do we ever come to the “real” mind, or do we eventually come to the skin which has nothing in it? In the latter case the whole mind is mechanical.

Here, Turing creates a distinction between the anatomy of the brain and its compartmentalized functions and what we may call the “mind” as the psychology of the individual composed of thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. The mechanical functions of the brain resemble the capacities of information storage and the mechanical operations of a machine like a computer. Just like how we know which parts of the brain control certain motor functions, so to do we know the role of each part of a machine and where information is stored on it. Yet “the mind”, which we presume a machine not to have, is not merely the sum of these motor functions and stored information in the brain. The mind is metaphysical; it is a social construction, a product of individual consciousness, and a subjective experience. The mind is an onion because it has no true core; just mutually informing layers of consciousness.

What I am arguing here is that Turing justifies his subjective model of determining artificial intelligence by reminding us that the “mind” that we all have that separates us from the artificial is itself a mysterious, socially constructed concept. The brain is naturally organic, but the mind is as artificial as the language, ideology, and various embodied states of subjective consciousness that we use to understand it and inhabit it. In this process, Turing “queers” the mind. Turing reminds us that there is no such thing as a normal or stable mind that we can access or locate if we just peel away the layers of subjectivity. Instead, this subjectivity defines the mind itself and defines our humanity.

For a gay individual, the demystification of a “normal” or a “real” mind is the key toward dismantling the notion that heterosexuality is the natural state of human sexuality and that homosexuality is an unnatural degeneration. As a function of the mind, homosexuality is as much of an invention of the cultural as heterosexuality (both words that did not exist prior to 1869) and thus both are “artificial” or “unnatural” because they are categories we fabricated to describe and categorize human psychology. To call one man’s mind natural and the other unnatural is to attempt to take human constructions and concepts and somehow force the rules of nature to comply with ideology. In featuring subjective judgment as the determining factor between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, Turing opens the door for an argument that all forms of intelligence and all faculties of the human mind including sexuality are products of subjective reasoning and individual consciousness.

“From the Same Source as Her Power: A Threnody for Adrienne Rich” By Chase Dimock

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How do we account for and preserve a writer’s power after she dies? At the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, any researcher who wants to access the lab books and notes of the legendary scientist Marie Curie must first sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of leafing through her papers. Over a hundred years after Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, her lab book is still radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter. Perhaps this is why when I heard of Adrienne Rich’s passing last month, I immediately thought of her 1974 poem “Power” about Marie Curie. Just as Curie’s words literally radiate from her pages with the physical properties of the power that she discovered, so too does Rich’s six decades of poetry continue to empower the reader with her social critique and introspection.

The Poetical is the Political

In the past few weeks, several obituaries and memorials have been written to commemorate the life of Adrienne Rich after she passed away from rheumatoid arthritis at age 82. In every remembrance, Rich’s status as a “feminist poet” comes to the forefront and in the process of assembling a biography, the age-old rift between politics and poetics, art for art’s sake versus art for raising social consciousness, is still being waged over Rich’s death. Most of Rich’s critics and detractors over the course of her career dismissed her work as overly polemical, accusing her of sacrificing poetics for politics, as if these are somehow mutually exclusive entities. As Rich herself once said, “One man said my politics trivialized my poetry…. I don’t think politics is trivial — it’s not trivial for me. And what is this thing called literature? It’s writing. It’s writing by all kinds of people. Including me.” For Rich and other feminists who came of age under the belief that “the personal is the political”, it was impossible for the deep introspection of poetry to not find the political oppression of gender and sexual non-conformists as inextricably determinative of one’s psyche and soul.  Rather, Rich would contend that to believe poetry could be written outside of the political is to naturalize one’s worldview and political privilege. Being “apolitical” is the privilege of those who have power.

The poetical is the political, but according to Rich, the poetical needed protection from the political. In 1997, Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts as a protest against the House of Representatives’ vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She argued that ”the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” adding that art ”means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” While Rich believed in poetry’s ability to illuminate the political, she was unwilling to allow politics to use her poetry as a token gesture to feign interest in women’s issues while camouflaging the growing disparity of power in the nation and the fact that, as Rich put it, “democracy in this country has been in decline”.

Rich did write political essays as well, including the seminal “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” in 1980, which predicted the anti-normative analysis of queer theory that would be pioneered by Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick a decade later. Her essay identified the power of heterosexuality in our culture to define and naturalize standards for acceptable social and sexual practices and to marginalize and pathologize those who did not comply. She contended that this power not only harmed lesbians, but all women because it reinforced a sex-segregated delegation of social obligations that denigrated the power of women to pursue their own desires. Rich declared that all women should think of themselves as part of a “lesbian continuum”, which valorizes all same-sex bonds from the platonic to the erotic in order to create new practices and knowledges outside the constraints of patriarchy. It is in this respect that I understand Adrienne Rich’s power to be more than being a poet: she was a theorist on the very nature of power itself, scribing in verse and lyric what Michel Foucault wrote in volumes of philosophy.

Excavating Power

 

When Adrienne Rich wrote her landmark poem “Power” in 1974, the concept of Women’s History, the study of women’s historically marginalized contributions to society and the experience of women living under patriarchy, was still taking form during the second wave of feminism. “Power” performs much of the work that the study of Women’s History has done in the past four decades. Rich does not just call attention to Marie Curie’s contributions to science, but she also examines the social context of her work in the male-dominated world of scientific inquiry at the turn of the century and how her status as a woman and her research on radioactivity created a mutually informing, and ultimately fatal relationship. Her research on radioactivity granted Curie the worldwide fame and prestige in the academy that few women had ever enjoyed; yet as radioactivity empowered her social being, it weakened her physical being as it ate away at her body and slowly consumed her. Writing in the great rising of feminist consciousness, Rich updates Christopher Marlowe’s famous maxim “quod me nutrit me destruit” (that which nourishes me destroys me) for a generation of women challenging patriarchy’s Faustian pact that offers material comfort at the cost of social agency.

Rich frames her poem as an excavation of that which is “Living in the earth-deposits of our history”. This sets us up for a reconciliation of two aspects of history, its socially constructed aspect built on master narratives and received knowledges and its material aspect composed of the actual artifacts left behind and the impact it had in shaping the present . Both aspects mutually inform each other to create a palimpsest of discourse and knowledges, both conceptual and as material as the very ground in which we bury the past and build the future upon. The privilege of excavating this past and to reconcile it with present cultural narratives and mythologies is the power to create knowledge and truth.

In the first full stanza, Rich burrows into a material engagement with the historical palimpsest: “Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth/ one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old/ cure for fever or melancholy a tonic/ for living on this earth in the winters of this climate”. This bottle found in the ground would seem neutral enough just as a mere object, yet when placed in its historical context, it becomes a clue toward illuminating the lived-experience of women a century in the past. As Christopher T. Hamilton writes:

“the bottle of tonic is likely a symbolic reference to quackery, an indirect analogy to charlatans who looked for opportunities to exploit others for financial gain, and ultimately for power…A common feature in many towns in the 1870s was a type of male “doctor” who preyed on the sick, capitalizing on their vulnerabilities to make a quick reputation and a quick dollar before moving on to extort more money in other towns and cities.”

I also add that the 19th century was a time of renewed interest in the physiology and psychology of women and that a tonic that could cure melancholy may also be a reference to hysteria, a now discredited feminine psychological disorder or catchall diagnosis that lumped together depression, anxiety, and other nervous constitutions as one overall condition that stemmed from the perceived inferiority of the woman’s body. These symptoms of depression that very well could have resulted from unhappiness under patriarchal control were treated as a disease with tonics, dietary restrictions, and even electrical vibrators by doctors who believed women’s unhappiness was the result of sexual dysfunction. In short, the rise of interest in women’s health in the 19th century was guided by the patriarchal bias of feminine inferiority that attempted to naturalize the subjugation of women through pathologizing their anatomy. For Rich, it is not enough to just preserve artifacts of the past; we must also preserve the social context of the artifact in order to become literate readers of history as determinative of the present.

 

The Toxic Remnants of Power Exercised on the Body of the Earth

 

Before I move to Rich’s address of Marie Curie in the next stanza, I want to draw a parallel between the perfectly preserved amber bottle of tonic and the still present radiation in Curie’s lab books. Last weekend, I had the privilege to hear an excellent talk by Phillip Dickinson of the University of Toronto at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference on Michael Madsen’s documentary “Into Eternity” about the Onkalo nuclear waste facility in Finland. The film documents the construction of a deep geological repository for nuclear waste, which will seal drums of radioactive material 2,000 feet into solid bedrock “into eternity” and take until next century to fill. The repository will not be safe for human entry for another 10,000 years, and accordingly, the film raises questions about how we will warn generations thousands of years into the future about the radioactive danger we have buried for them, given the fact that no human structure has ever existed for that long and that human civilization could be radically different from our present state, just like it was at the dawn of recorded history 5,000 years ago. How do we both bury and warn the future about the damage our generation has done when we ourselves can barely understand the social conditions of history from only 100 years ago, let alone thousands of years ago? How do we preserve our present social context for future generations when we seem so inclined toward always burying and concealing the unpleasant aftermath, the toxic spillover of our civilization?

I believe that Rich’s poem is addressing a similar issue in trying to investigate and preserve the social context of found artifacts and historical discourse for women. Just as we may fear that generations thousands of years from now may find Onkalo, the refuse of our ability to produce power, and think it may be a historical treasure akin to our “discovery” of the tomb of King Tut, so too does Rich reiterate that the bottle is not some benign novelty, but evidence of the damage that the power of a generation had inflicted on the bodies and minds from a century ago. Unlike the nuclear waste, the contents of the bottle were chemically benign, but the social politics built around it were oppressive and, like a radioactive fall-out, we have yet to experience the half-life of the damage that it has wrought on the future.

In this context, the radioactive properties of Marie Curie’s lab book become sadly ironic. Shifting from the amber bottle to the biography of Marie Curie, Rich’s poem at first gives us the illusion of a stark contrast between a scene of women’s oppression at the hands of science and a scene of a woman empowered by science whose work would revolutionize the practice of medicine. Yet, as she further investigates Curie, we see that even in the hands of a genius, power (both in the social sense and in the scientific sense of the term) is a complicated relationship between forces without any possible mastery. Rich writes: She must have known she suffered from radiation sickness/her body bombarded for years by the element/ she had purified/ It seems she denied to the end/ the source of the cataracts on her eyes/ the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends/ till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil”.

Curie’s discovery challenged the 19th century law of the conservation of energy, and her resulting fame challenged the laws of the land that subjugated women. Curie discovered power in its very material essence–the power that would be refined into running the engine of 20th century civilization through its nuclear power plants and fight its conflicts when dropped from the heavens to annihilate entire populations.

This intellectual power to discover physical power made her a woman of nearly unparalleled fame and power, yet as Foucault reminds us in philosophy and Rich reminds us in poetics, power is not something one can possess, but it is instead a relationship between entities that determines knowledge, discourse, and constitutes our identities and social realities. We can direct and influence power, but we cannot control it. Curie discovered the effects of radioactivity and helped to channel its use toward productive means, but she herself could not control it or keep it from infecting her. For Rich, these relationships of power are inherent in patriarchy. Patriarchy builds civilization, but its cost has been the subjugation of billions of gender, racial, class, and sexual minorities, generation after generation. Civilization has harnessed the generative powers of radioactivity for medicine and for energy production, but it comes at the cost of nuclear waste that will outlive us and scar the planet for thousands of years.

 

Denying our Wounds

 

Ultimately, we, like Curie at the end of the poem are left denying our wounds, denying our wounds came from the same source as our power. We bear the scars of civilization’s oppressive foundation, but we powder over them with talk of democracy, humanitarianism, and spirituality—preferring to dwell on the powers it has given us instead of those that have been taken away. Yet, I do not believe that Adrienne Rich set out to make Marie Curie a tragic or pathetic figure. Rather, she makes it clear she believes that Curie, “must have known she suffered from radiation sickness”, meaning that she was fully aware that the source of her power was killing her, but that she decided to pursue her research regardless.

Writing from after the advent of queer theory, which owes much to Rich’s work, I have to think that Curie becomes “queered” toward the end of the poem. Her orientation toward futurity and self-preservation inherent to normative heterosexuality becomes deferred in favor of the pursuit of knowledge and a devotion to her research that will ultimately kill her. She chooses a truncated, but brilliant and fulfilling existence, to channel and exercise a power that she understands will cripple her. According to Rich, this is not just the fate of Curie, but of all women rising up during the second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s who understood that the same institutions of empowerment guaranteed to them by liberal democracy to articulate themselves and redress their grievances will also be used against them by state authorities to silence and intimidate them. Rich saw in the 60s that freedom of speech and public assembly would greeted by the state with riot gear, fire hoses, and police dogs.

Yet, Rich knew that these wounds came from the same source as one’s power and by speaking back to these institutions, like the state and patriarchy that grant us freedoms on paper but endeavor to restrain us in practice, Rich articulated the inner-workings of power and revealed that power relations exercised by social institutions work because they operate from within. We internalize them, shape ourselves by their imperatives, then deny the violence that they wreak inside us. Rich’s greatest revelation is this denial—and that this act of denying is in of itself an exercise of power.

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Saw Palm, Hot Metal Bridge, The San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More By Chase Dimock:

“In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased”

“Removed from Society: The Prison System and the Geography of Nowhere”

“Growing Up on the Island of Misfit Toys”

“Different From the Others: LGBT History Month and the Almost Century-Old Legacy of an Early Gay Rights Film”

 

“The Surreal Sex of Beauty: Jean Cocteau and Man Ray’s “Le Numéro Barbette” By Chase Dimock

 

 

The Surreal Sex of Beauty:

Jean Cocteau and Man Ray’s “Le Numéro Barbette”

By Chase Dimock

 

 

In 1923, the American acrobat Vander Clyde better known by his stage name “Barbette” made his theater debut in Paris at the famed Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère and captivated the French artistic community with his show. Yet, his success was not merely due to his death defying high wire or trapeze acts. What built his reputation and fame was his uncanny female impersonation as he performed his stunts. Most who saw Barbette for the first time were completely unaware of his true sex, but as Barbette’s renown grew in Paris, audiences poured in knowing they were witnessing the feminine graces of a man, yet they were captivated by how willingly they bought into the artful deception. During his days on the American Vaudeville circuit, Barbette’s revelation of his male gender at the end of his show may have shocked the audience, perhaps with laughter and the occasional moral offense, but in Paris, his act transcended the carnival aesthetic of oddities and shock value and was understood more as an art akin to ballet.

This appreciation for Barbette’s artistic sensibilities came as it was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde and explored in the works of two surrealist artists, the French writer Jean Cocteau and the American photographer Man Ray. In 1926, Cocteau commissioned Man Ray to take a set of photographs chronicling Vander Clyde’s physical transformation into Barbette before a performance. In these photos, Man Ray presents Barbette in a stage half-way between average man and the over the top show girl outfit that completed Barbette as a character. Barbette’s wig is on and his face is made up, but his chest is bare and unmistakably a man’s. For Jean Cocteau, this state in between genders, sexes, and identities constitutes the essence of Barbette as neither a man impersonating or transformed into a woman, but instead as a being that takes advantage of the fluidity of aesthetics and theatrics to render gender and sex amorphous, constantly in a state of movement. Through the pen of Cocteau and the lens of Ray, surrealism supplied a poetics of language and an aesthetics of vision for expressing Barbette’s play of gender and the repressed queer dimensions of the unconscious his act revealed.

Vander Clyde was born in 1904 in Texas where he first saw trapeze artists in the circus and as an adolescent began to recreate their acts on his mother’s clothesline. By his teenage years, he was already touring with the circus, most notably as a replacement for one of the “World Famous Arial Queens”, the Alfaretta Sisters after one of them had died. It was as a member of this act that Vander Clyde first performed dressed as a woman. Later, as Vander Clyde developed his solo act, he chose the name “Barbette” because it sounded exotic and could be a first or a last name and thus also could signify both genders. By the time Barbette had achieved international fame and had taken his act to Paris in the 1920s, his performance appeared generally as Frank Cullen describes it in his entry on Barbette in his encyclopedia of Vaudeville,

“In his glory days of the 1920s, he entered the vaudeville stage or circus ring like a Ziegfield showgirl, swathed in ostrich feathers, stunningly gowned, bejeweled and bewigged. He then removed his headdress, cape and gown, and garbed in as little as possible to suggest near nudity but not run afoul of the law, Barbette began the acrobatic part of his act. He walked a tight wire, slack wire, and performed on the rings and the trapeze. He was a master of the dramatic, seeming to fall only to catch himself by a last second hook of his foot. He kept his audience aghast and amazed until he left the stage. When he returned to acknowledge the sustained applause, he doffed his wig, revealing his bald head and reminding all that they had marveled at a man playing a woman.”

In an interview with Francis Steegmuller as an old man retired to his native Texas, Barbette explained the impetus for inventing the character, “I’d always read a lot of Shakespeare…and thinking that those marvelous heroines of his were played by men and boys made me feel that I could turn my specialty into something unique. I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty—of course it would have to be a strange beauty”. This “strange beauty” Barbette speaks of might translate today as a desire to create a queer aesthetics on stage. Though we do not have any definitive proof of what he would consider his gender or sexual identity by today’s terms, Barbette did have homosexual relationships. He was kicked out of London’s Palladium after he was discovered in intimate embrace with another man, which caused him to never again be able to receive a work visa to perform in England, and Barbette even had a brief romance with Cocteau himself. Barbette was more than a character portrayed on a stage; she was a tactical use of the conventions of theater in which the audience implicitly embraces the breaking of conventions of gender. Like so many queer people of the era, it was beneath the limelight where he could realize and enact elements of his own identity prohibited to him off stage.

 

The Surnaturel Sex of Beauty

 

Early in his famous 1926 essay Le Numéro Barbette published in the Nouvelle Revue Française, Cocteau likens the transformation into Barbette to both a Jekyll and Hyde construction and the metamorphoses of people into flora found in Greek and Roman literature. While some criticisms of Cocteau’s writing have seized upon these metaphors as evidence that he saw gender in terms of a binary, I read these more as acknowledgements of how we have as a western culture theorized the notion of a transition between states of being in order to prepare the reader for a more radical concept of gender. Cocteau understood that Barbette’s act was more than a mere circus act or cheap exploitation; it illuminated the possibilities of thinking gender, sex, and sexuality outside of conventional binaries through aesthetic and theatrical innovation. He argues that the reason for Barbette’s success is that “he pleases those who see in him woman and those who perceive in him man, yet to others, their souls are moved by the supernatural (surnaturel) sex of beauty.” Barbette satisfies the drive of the audience to gender and sex him both as male and female, and at the same time for others, Barbette reaches a higher sex “above or beyond nature” legible only through an aesthetic practice of beauty that comes alive through theatrics. Cocteau thus takes the “strange beauty” that Barbette appropriated and modernized from Shakespeare and places it within the modern scientific discourse of sexuality which in the 20s was dominated the model of the “invert” as the chief paradigm for understanding homosexuality. This idea of a separate sex also borrows from the concept of a “third sex”, which contemporaneous researchers in sexology used to categorize the invert as neither man nor woman, but a distinctly different sex.  The “invert” model perceived the homosexual as simply being a woman trapped inside the body of a man. It would appear that Barbette fits this description perfectly, but the more we read into Barbette’s performance and Cocteau’s analysis, the more it becomes apparent that Barbette was neither a woman trapped in a man nor a man parodying a woman, but a figure of grace, agility, and beauty interested in challenging how we gender these concepts.


Cocteau’s invention of a third, surnaturel sex of beauty marries Immanuel Kant’s concept of the beautiful from Critique of Judgment with the aesthetic and philosophical practices of surrealism. Barbette as a character created by Vander Clyde meets Kant’s most important requirement for “the beautiful”—that the object pleases us because it is beautiful and not that we deem it beautiful simply because it pleases us. For Kant, the beautiful exists as pure form and design and retains its universal quality of beauty irrespective of subjective taste. While Barbette initially lures the desire of those drawn in by his pleasing make up and costuming, he is still able to retain the beauty of femininity after removing these items. Therefore, the attraction of Barbette is deeper than the pleasing veneer of femininity that he wears; it comes from an attraction to the pure form of beauty that he realizes through his acrobatic stunts and graceful movements. If Barbette could sustain his feminine form after all of the socially constructed signifiers of femininity had been stripped from his body, then it stands that Barbette had discovered some universally attractive structure of beauty that kindles desire irrespective of gender constructs.

This is where the influence of surrealism on Cocteau’s work comes in to inform this surnaturel sex of beauty. Although Cocteau was not a member of the surrealist movement, he nonetheless frequently collaborated with surrealists such as Man Ray and was a “fellow traveler” of their philosophical and artistic endeavors. The surrealists who were at their peak of popularity and innovation at the same time as Cocteau wrote this essay, based their work on the exploration of the unconscious and worked through literature, art, and film to render it legible to the public. Just as Cocteau’s use of the term “sur-naturel” speaks to that which is above or beyond nature, the “sur-real” addresses that which is on, above, or beyond reality, namely, the effect of unconscious drives and associations that inform our knowledge of self and the world around us. In their mission to unlock the creative potential of the unfettered unconscious the surrealists paid close attention to the role of desire as Freud and the psychoanalysts stipulated that all human drives are invested in libidinal desires. Sexual drives work in and through our unconscious associations and suture together objects, images, emotions and imbue them with libidinal impulses. Barbette’s prediscursive beauty spawns from this unconscious nature of desire. The aesthetics of his beauty elicits a desire that becomes gendered and sexed once the viewer becomes conscious of that desire and tries to fix it on appropriate objects and repress it from inappropriate objects.

Yet, once it is revealed that Barbette is a man and not a woman, is this desire determined to be a fraud? to be mistaken? Freud’s disciple Jacques Lacan, who wrote his doctoral thesis while associating with and finding inspiration in the ideas of the surrealists, would respond that all forms of desire are in fact “genuine” in so far as all desire, once it becomes conscious, is manipulated around our imaginary relationship with the outside world. Lacan’s theory leads us to understand that desire in of itself is neither gendered nor compliant with a sexual orientation, it is a pure drive that becomes cathexed onto an object of desire upon which social constructions of heterosexual and homosexual have been affixed. To bring back Kant into the conversation, a key element of “the beautiful” as he defined it is that it would be universally recognized outside of subjective interest. To this question of the universal quality of “the beautiful”, I add the universality of desire as understood by Freud and Lacan. All individuals regardless of their identities or subjective tastes are universally driven by their capacity to desire. Thus, what Cocteau earlier identifies as Barbette’s success, his ability to seem masculine or feminine according to what the individual wishes to perceive, gives him a universality that becomes in of itself a distinct form of sex through beauty. Just as desire exists before it is fixed on a gendered object, Barbette’s supernatural sex of beauty exists before it can be gendered according to social construction.

 

Barbette Shocks the Masters of Shock

 

Despite surrealism’s stated goal to shock bourgeois society by representing the unrestrained unconscious in its most ruthless forms, the movement nonetheless reproduced some sexist and homophobic thinking. Some of the most iconic images of surrealism present the woman as an object on which the sexual desire of the male artist and spectator performs violence. Some examples include Dali and Bunuel’s slicing of a woman’s eyeball in Un Chien Andalou  and surrealism’s founder André Breton’s novel Nadja in which he has an affair with a mentally disturbed prostitute for whom he pursues no psychiatric help, but instead praises as a “true surrealist”. Although one may argue that such disturbing images come as a result of the startling concoctions that the truly unfiltered unconscious may provide, the surrealist canon of art consists of few images that consider a male body and subject in these ways. The absence of such images indicates a certain reluctance or fear of the largely male and heterosexual movement to cede the mastery and privilege of the artist and become the object overtaken by their unconscious that surrealism was supposed to achieve.

Breton voiced specifically homophobic sentiments. In a series of transcribed discussions from 1928 among Breton and other surrealists on the subject of sex published in their journal La Revolution Surrealist, he accuses “homosexuals of confronting human tolerance with a mental and moral deficiency which tends to turn itself into a system and paralyze every enterprise I respect”. In the second session held four days later, Breton accused the new attendees of the “promotion of homosexuality” and threatened to disband the discussion altogether. Breton was particularly intolerant of Cocteau. Fellow gay surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford stated that Breton thought of Cocteau as a “sexual propagandist” and resented him for the mainstream popularity he achieved. Considering Breton tolerated both Ford and gay French novelist René Crevel in his movement, Breton’s homophobia could very well have been specifically targeted at Cocteau who not only employed the language and imagery of surrealism without allegiance to Breton’s philosophy, but also used it to openly theorize a queer eroticism through it.

Despite some surrealists’ sexism and homophobia, Barbette was not the first drag figure to emerge from surrealist aesthetics and theory. The earlier Dadaist and later surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp (best known for exhibiting a urinal in an art gallery and calling it “the fountain”) created a female alter ego for himself called “Rrose Sélavy” that he used as a pseudonym for some of his works. The name Rrose Sélavy is intended to be a pun, sounding like “Eros” and “c’est la vie” (Love…that’s life!) or “arroser, c’est la vie”, the verb “arroser” referring to the notion of toasting something, thus a toast to life. In 1921, Duchamp posed for a series of photographs dressed as Rrose Sélavy taken by Man Ray. Duchamp used some of these photos in a series of readymades in which he pasted the photo over an existing bottle of perfume he renamed Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, which translates as “beautiful breath” and by replacing the t in “eau de toilette” toilet becomes “veil”.

Rrose Sélavy, like Barbette, plays with the notion of uncannily hiding one’s self beneath a “veil” of another gender. Yet, Duchamp’s character is meant to be transparent, shabbily female so that Duchamp is recognizable beneath it. Rrose Sélavy is parodic of gender; Barbette is transcendent. This is most apparent via the different methods Man Ray used to photograph Rrose Sélavy and Barbette. Although Rrose Sélavy is adorned completely in women’s clothing while Barbette betrays his womanly identity with a bare male chest, Barbette nonetheless appears more legibly female while Duchamp’s decidedly masculine features draw attention to the man situated awkwardly behind a sloping wig and haphazard makeup.

Contrasting with Duchamp’s fairly incompetent attempt at drag, Man Ray accentuates Barbette’s aptitude at applying make up and a wig, using a backlight to give Barbette the surreal appearance of being haloed and glowing–supernatural. The viewer is drawn to the immaculately feminine facial features, an angelic apparition so perfect that we accept it despite the equally luminous, pale white chest of a man upon which it sits. Bathed in luminescence, the flesh of the man’s chest becomes a canvas upon which the feminine radiance of the face is projected and the flat musculature becomes feminine too, yet not unmanly and not womanly as it lacks curves and retains the form of a man.

Through the aesthetics of surrealism, Man Ray achieves the vision of making the desire of the unconscious that knows nothing of the biological impossibilities or social prohibitions that would forbid this seamless fusion of the male and female. While Man Ray positions Rrose Sélavy a figure of camp aesthetics where we mock conventions by reading the obvious masculinity beneath the wig, Barbette’s photos defy the violence or subjugation of the female body common to surrealism and presents femininity’s agency over the sensibilities and desires of the viewer.

 

Barbette Shifting the Aesthetics of Modernity


In his essay, Cocteau uses Barbette’s performance as a harbinger of change in the artistic world of modernism. Cocteau borrows surrealism’s analysis of dreamscapes for conceptualizing the space of Barbette’s stage, “Barbette moves in silence. Despite the orchestra that accompanies his saunter, his graces and perilous exercises, his number seems to be from far away, performed in the streets of a dream, in a place from where sounds cannot be heard, being carried there by a telescope or by a dream”. The space of the theater allows for the same suspension of reality and logic allowed in a dream where mutually exclusive constructs of distances, sounds, and shapes can coexist. “When Barbette enters, he throws dust in our eyes. He throws it with such violence so that he can concentrate solely on his acrobatic work. From then, his masculine gestures serve him instead of giving him away”. Barbette’s dust is whatever phenomenon in the theater that suspends reason and shifts out perception, allowing the viewer to seamlessly integrate what logic may deem disjunctive. Like in the dreams the surrealists represented in painting and writing that spoke to the inner workings of the unconscious, Barbette’s dust clouds objective viewership, allowing for the unconscious to take reign. Cocteau thus conceives of Barbette’s body like a piece of modernist art come to life:

“Cinema has dethroned realist sculpture. The personas of marble, their grand, pale heads their volumes of shadows, their superb illuminations, all this abstract humanity, this silent inhumanity replaces what the eye had demanded of statues. Barbette relieves these statues that move. Even when one is aware of him, he does not lose his mystery. He lives in a model of plaster, a wax model, a living bust that sings on a pedestal of velour.”

Barbette’s persona is a synthesis of the classical forms of sculpture that become animated and alive through modern innovation. A sculpture presents us not with real bodies, but the ideal form of real bodies. Barbette’s surnaturel sex of beauty animates this form. Cinematography presents us also not with real bodies but with the range of motions bodies can take as illuminated, projected shadows of film. Barbette is the opposite of film. Film captures reality and makes it a flat aesthetic. Barbette takes the conceptual forms of aesthetics and makes them come alive.

Commenting on the final leg of the performance in which Barbette reveals himself to be a man, Cocteau argues that Barbette “rebecomes a man”, stating roughly that he indicates the truth of his sex through the same acts through which she crafts the lie. Cocteau writes: “Barbette, immediately after removing his wig ‘interprets the role of a man, rolls his shoulders, spreads out his hands, and exaggerates the athletic motion of a golf player.” Barbette does not simply reveal his male identity and return to his true self, instead, he pantomimes and performs the masculinity supposedly revealed by removing his wig. His male sexed body and its expected postures and actions are revealed to be as much a product of artifice and performance as the female persona he adopts on stage. As the curtain closes, Cocteau adds that Barbette knowingly blinks, hops on one leg and does a childish, coquettish dance, taunting the audience with his ability to turn the persona on and off at will regardless of the way he is dressed. It is revealed at this final moment that the clothes, make up, and wig were all in of themselves a ruse, a decoy that lead the spectator to invest desire into the form and motion of Barbette’s body that cannot be divested once its powder puff camouflage is removed.

Although he spends the bulk of the essay zoomed in on Barbette’s body, the theater space, and theories of aesthetics Cocteau expands the enigma of Barbette to encompass questions of national identity and politics in his final paragraph:

“All the souls in distress, sick, desperate, worn out by the forces that plague us in and outside of death, find rest in the silhouette. After some years of Americanism, the wave where the Capital of the United States hypnotized us like a revolver, le numéro Barbette finally shows me the real New York with the ostrich plumes of its sea and its factories, its buildings in tulle, its precision, its siren’s voice, its finery, its electric aigrettes.”

By the term “Americanism”, Cocteau refers to the wave of American artists, performers, musicians, and athletes that came over to France in the post WWI years and whetted an appetite in the French public for American culture and products. The most famous of these American luminaries and perhaps the most influential on the public reception of Barbette was the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker, who performed erotically charged dances in the same French concert halls as Barbette just a few months prior to the publication of Cocteau’s essay.

I have chosen above an image of Baker in her infamous banana costume, which in a way manipulates images of male and female sexuality in the opposite fashion as Barbette. While Barbette commands the audience as man concealing his manhood, Baker appropriates manhood in the shape of the banana, suggesting that her magnetism as a performer commands and appropriates power over the viewer as she reveals (in a Lacanian way) that she as a woman possesses the phallus.

Yet, Cocteau’s quote seems to suggest that while Baker’s popularity came from France’s interest in primitivism, which was always already a colonial fantasy of exotic otherness, Barbette reveals the “true” America because his act is self consciously about the production of fantasy as the reality of human desire. Although Baker’s aesthetic is just as consciously constructed to perform a specific fantasy of feminine sexuality, those that ascribed to the primitivist movement (like Picasso who was influenced by African masks) did so under the illusion that the movement reacquainted them with the authentic “primitive” origin of human expression. Perhaps then, Barbette rang more true to Cocteau simply because his artifice was more apparent and not because either artist was more skilled at manipulating the semiotics of femininity. In this surreal synthesis of the delicately feminine and brutishly industrial imagery, Cocteau extends the scope of Barbette as a character to something uniquely a product of American culture and industry. His showgirl ostrich plumes and jewelry now adorn the factories and buildings that produce modern American industry. Just as the dazzling array of consumer products on the market disguise the means of their production, Barbette’s feminine finery conceals the production of her gender. However, revealing the real means of production does not make Barbette or any other commodity any less beguiling or desirable. Rather, as Cocteau has been arguing the whole time, artifice is the reality of beauty and far more compelling than the “natural” because the natural has always already been a human construct.