(as Muriel Belcher)
With repetitions and improvised interpellations, as audience enters.
But you, deah, are the exception proving the rule.
Now don’t piss on the seats.
She’s not a pretty little miss, is she?
And what are you thinking, cunty? With all that green? That you might have made the most horrible mistake of your life?
Yes, miss, you! Don’t be boring.
Go and clash with the décor in the corner, would you.
There’s nothing more sorrowful than a hopeful girl without money or secrets to tell.
Move along, Clara!
Come along, cunty!
There are two types of girl I can’t abide at my place and I shan’t abide at a cocktail party. The too, too clean and the very dirty: cleanliness in one can rise to a pathology, or is that poverty? Whereas with dirt, it’s a question of emphasis, the emphasis being, money makes for better-looking dirt.
A standard of dress is required of a member. A girl will not be admitted without a member, be she a lady or what-have-you. We won’t have her. The proof is in licking the spoon.
You may think the drab little pudding, in the raincoat, with the sallow skin, might be improved with a bit of mixing…
(It’s like an oven in here, isn’t it cunty?) But if the mixture is mean to begin with, no amount of beating will make it right.
So it’s out the door, Lotte! Or else, Clara, open your bead-bag and let’s all have drinkettes on the lovely member!
Ian, the honours!
There, you see, Ida? The right word in her ear and the complexion takes on a new radiance, the hair a new lustre. A very attractive dish, that little miss, once she’s closed her legs and prised her purse open!
Not art. I don’t give a fuck about art! And not the whiff of a cunty fuck about those what lack it!
I’ve had a fair bite at both, fair and not fair, that is; members and non-members, a cunty fair, I’m glad to say.
As for being a beautiful woman… True, deah, perfectly true, I did have a Colombian gentleman who was in love with me. I’d have given him the key to my heart if he’d asked. But he didn’t.
There he stood of an evening, on the street, his umbrella on his arm, holding flahrs in his little hand, knocking at my door.
He was a diplomat, apparently, because I don’t know how it started. Or ended.
He’d tell me how he loved me. Oh, how he loved me! At the time. But he never asked. Or told me why… why he stopped coming… why he stopped.
Very diplomatic, if you ask me.
Mind you, where a girl keeps her key is a matter between mother and daughter.
And if she’s unlucky enough to have neither mother nor daughter, between her and her handbag, whether it’s the key to her flat… or her heart.
Or simply the key to what a certain ex-member might’ve had for a light lunch, by night, discreetly, hygienically, deposited therein, after a few too many stories on an empty stomach.
And with that, like said ex-member’s handbag, I’ll snap shut. My lips are pursed! Members only!
Come along, cunty!
Rumours that they made humans into soap are no more than that.
Let me be more precise…
Let me be more precise…
Let me be more precise…
The legend is of Mount Sapo, a Roman shrine to an unknown God, where it’s said that at some point the making of animal sacrifices became so frequent as to be excessive. One goat-kid was barely off the altar, than the next ewe or ram was being put to the knife.
It would seem that the God of the Temple was a punishing God, who had inflicted a terrible punishment on the local people.
Or else, the area around Mount Sapo, which is supposed to stand above the Tiber River, had been blessed with a sudden abundance and rather than enjoy it, as a boon of nature or as the fruit of their honest toil, the people suspected a trick, a caprice on the part of the God or a test, which they would refuse to profit from and by which they would not be demoralised.
Then again, the priest of the shrine would have seen the people grow prideful, the stockyards full, the granaries overflowing. He’d see his own trade in sacrifice dwindle, while those he looked down on, from his height on Mount Sapo, grew rich. On behalf of the God, whom he served, whom he’d represent sitting in judgement, he’d demand the God’s due, or else.
He’d exaggerate the God’s features and, like a jealous landlord, he’d demand more, to clear the people of their crime of pride; and, once it was pointed out to them, to wash away their guilt, he’d demand an orgy of sacrifice. Such a priest could not be satisfied by half measures and such ignorant people could not be converted by logical arguments, no, first fear and then guilt, sustained by the spectacle of an almost sexual intensity: a blood orgy, in which each individual took part, played a role.
At the foot of Mount Sapo, according to legend, runs the Tiber. Wherever it was, because you won’t find it on any map, or whatever the cause, which the legend doesn’t relate, there, on its banks, while the men led their animals to slaughter, and the children looked on, the women were washing.
Perhaps they washed the bloody robes of the priest or those of their husbands and sons, who were called on to assist; and, as the sacrifice went on, perhaps the demand for clean clothes increased and the women tried to keep up; and perhaps their daughters ran, carrying wet garments to dry and dry ones, to replace those that were stained: the legend doesn’t say. It says only that it rained.
The rain sent down a mixture of blood, fat and wood ash from the Temple above. It mingled in the clay soil of the riverbank below.
The wild thyme, growing on the slopes of Mount Sapo, and the olive groves, might even have perfumed the “soap” that the women eventually found there.
About this the legend couldn’t be clearer…
As if the people and the priest, the Temple, the town, fear, God, guilt and Mount Sapo itself; the whole process of rain, fat and sacrifice even to the burning of the bodies afterwards, as if all this was simply a machine for making soap.
My theory of beauty is that it shouldn’t be easy to look at. If it was a smell, it would stink. It would have the stench of birth or a rendering plant, which have, in fact, the same smell.
I suspect because both are fatty processes.
People have said that the bodies are flayed in my paintings. I find this faintly ridiculous: the paint is flayed, nothing more. (Of course, I use big brushes.)
If anything at all, my work results from many happy accidents, accidents which are exterminations, accidents which show the wreckage intact.
It shouldn’t be difficult to look at beauty, either.
I always work from models.
When none is available to me, I might work from myself, in a mirror, or from a photo. But not so as to bring something from inside out. I’m not interested in the inner beauty of a subject.
It would be foolish of me of all people to say that, to give that insight credence.
If there’s any beauty to be found, it will be in the suggestion of the paint. (Meat isn’t pretty.
But a certain red is suggestive, isn’t it?)
If beauty were a tactile phenomenon, it would be difficult to remove from one’s hands. …
You see, I’m already presuming one has touched it!
(as Survivor. Muriel Belcher was the Jewish patroness of the Colony Room)
They gave out soap with the letters R.J.F. You cannot know what that meant. Reinjudenfett.
The letters stand for ‘Pure Jewish Fat.’ The soap was made of human fat.
You can imagine then how it felt, to be told to wash our clothes and even to consider cleaning one’s body, one’s hair, with the fingernails, the bones and flesh of our murdered loved ones.
For all I knew at the time there might have been a small piece of my father in that soap that I washed with. Or of our old neighbours in the little house. Or of my friend’s father, of whom no one spoke and not a trace was ever seen again.
One year after the liberation, Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi Hunter, reported a find of boxes, in a former army depot with the same initials, R.I.F. With ironic satisfaction he records that the wrapping paper around the bars only revealed the soap was manufactured from Jewish bodies, but how the systematic Germans left out of their list of ingredients the most basic information, whether they were…
“Children, girls, men or elderly people.”
No doubt you will have noticed with an objectivity gained from history that the first soap had the letters R.J.F., while the second was marked R.I.F.; that nowhere in the German language is Reinjudenfett grammatically correct. And if I tell you now that R.I.F. stands for Reichsstelle für Industrielle Fettversorgung (The Centre for Industrial Supplies of Fats to the Reich, which nowhere mentions human sources, Jewish or otherwise), you will see there are inconsistencies.
And with the cynicism of scientifically trained minds, with a smirk or a wry smile, you want to say, We now know to make soap from humans is an almost impossible thing to do.
But… in every generation there are magicians who are able to do this and similar things. …
And let me add, the burden of proof was as light at Nuremburg for the existence of the gas chambers as it was for human soap, that is…
Impossible to bear.
So, finally, weigh in your mind, in your imagination, the child, the adult, nearest you, beside you.
Touch him or her gently or even pinch them, not to wake them up but to feel their density.
A woman or a girl will have slightly more essential fat – an amount necessary for maintenance of life and reproductive functions – than a boy or a man, even if she’s worn out, worn down to a sliver…
Knowing it to be her equal, her sister, could you take and use, if by a magic trick or a rumour I could give in to your hand – you, I’ve told that they made from her – this small sweet-smelling thing?
(after Franz Kafka)
The taste of the scar, when I lick the word on her face, is not what I expect.
Joseph shakes his head.
For a start the stitches distract me…
The stitches we sew into everything!
And where the two skins join, I can discern a third texture or colour…
Which my tongue remembers. It stabs out to left or to right. It advances over the convex relief of her eye and strays so far as her mouth…
I’ve lost you.
Before returning to the offended tissue.
A rough piece of work…
As if different hands had tied each thread; as if the butchery lay not in the official…
… wound, carved bluntly on her face…
But in the healing frame. …
Although I’m under no illusions about that! There’s always going to be a scar, the flavour of which, if I may say so, will always pervert the taste of the surrounding skin.
(a song the buggers’ Veras Lynn sing)
Fun at the soap factory
Four boys with
One bar of soap
Four girls playing
Four little mouths
Washed out for cussing
Four great soap mistakes:
Grey soap or red soap
Soap on a rope or soap
With a single hair
A family of four ducks
With a bar of soap
On each foot
Novelty soaps in the sock drawer
Kept in their original boxes
On the mantelpiece
Four years old
Marks on the soap
In 1948, four bars of soap
Wrapped in a funeral shroud,
Buried at Haifa in Israel
According to the solemn ritual.
I’m not a writer. I’m a mole. My house will be my grave. It was my father’s.
My mother still lives in the city, in a small tidy flat. These days her needs are simple, enough to eat and drink and the company of friends.
It’s a self-sufficient life, both mine and hers and, to some degree, a selfish one.
She never met my girlfriend. I call her that but… never mind.
On the bright side, I wonder if she thinks of me. And what she’s doing when she thinks of me. (My mother, you idiot. I can guess where your thoughts are leading!) I often think of her when I’m cleaning.
My last girlfriend had some real issues with the kind of life I lead. I found her… I was the one to find her in the end.
Are you in some kind of trouble?
My father met her shortly before he died. He got along with her very well. They shared an interest in interior decorating. It’s only thanks to the two of them that my surroundings have any sense of style at all.
Not that I pay that much attention. I bury myself in my work, which is probably what she objected to… Which is what she did, initially.
“It’s not a habit!” I used to shout, testily.
I liked to think of it as showing strength of character.
I understand …
I know that what I do for work is absurd. But it’s the way I do it. My application has always been irreproachable.
Even when pursuing courses that would make most flinch and turn back to the ordinary business of being human, I’ve remained steadfast and true and without a goal. And, in a way, selflessly. To the extent that when I made love to her (this is after all what you wanted to hear, isn’t it, about my love-life underground?), I did so with the kind of abandon that has to be more than habit, that must be the thing itself.
It was a reckless love. Destructive, even, for me. But why not be extraordinary?
I was. I am. And if she saw my weakness, I could accept that, but what I couldn’t, was what she didn’t see that my weakness was also love, that my coldness was love and that my distraction was love.
You’re not quite there …
Now there’s no one against whom I can gauge myself. I don’t know whether I’m strong or weak.
But I can see you clearly …
I move around…
Too clearly …
… half-naked… covered in dirt… swearing like an old sailor, although I’ve never been to the sea. … I cough my lungs up. And feel my legs give way, like rotten timber.
I can do these things without a thought of being seen. If I have any talent at all, it resides in not being seen. I don’t have to. But I can. … Because there’s no one telling me I don’t love, I don’t care, and no one, exactly, following me.
I can squirm and roll in whatever ugly liquid spills out of me into the ground.
Too clearly …
And like my mother, in my way, I’m looking after myself.
If I were a writer and went to write my story, it would say, Even as a mole, he was a good son – dirty but good.
If I ever wriggle to the bathroom, I’ll find that I don’t even own a bar of soap.
If I look in the mirror, but I haven’t any, but if I look in, I’ll see, reflected in a pool that has collected in the red shadows from the constant dripping, nothing I haven’t forgotten: a blur, which is not me looking away.
I’ll find a piece of pumice, as if the soil around here had been put down by layers of volcanic activity.
Whereas soap is a body, solid, manufactured these days by a method of continuous production – meaning that fresh ingredients are added to the mixture up above, while down below, the finished product is drawn off – pumice isn’t and has no such connection to the body.
Before I can use it, notwithstanding this, and scrape away at my skin, I’m reminded of my confinement…
At the centre of a porous surface, pierced by countless malevolent eyes.
My friend is following me. He is picking up the pieces. Just in case they lead to a conclusion.
The moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.
My friend is not alone in this activity. I’ve simply picked him out for special attention, shined a spotlight on him.
He’s certainly not someone I could hold a conversation with about anything more than cleaning products.
Is he clean? Undoubtedly.
I’m often asked by people how I put up with the constant fussing.
It’s not constant, for one thing, and I’m flattered. It’s nice to have someone to pick up after you.
He watches me keenly, like a Judas-character. And when I stumble, there he is.
Will I do as I promised, after a serious bout of his interest – like an infection – and leave him everything?
One doesn’t know.
The yard is empty today, the square. There’s absolutely nobody to talk to.
I’d always hoped to make a great number of figures without a narrative. I suppose this is it, a stockyard.
I haven’t been able to get outside it. I don’t know who today has.
(It would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to.)
He watches me stumble, again and then again, on the way to my conclusion, standing with the other figures, wearing his red armband, like a character in a play who has dressed up as a Nazi.
The stupid thing is, it would take a moment to cross to him and tell him I know, with a kiss. I want dreadfully to do so. But it seems I have to go on stumbling like this for ever. (I yearn for someone to tell me where I go wrong!)
Swastika armband notwithstanding and also that a Nazi-character will shoot a stumbler, he makes the offer with his eyes; he smiles at me, no: his mouth is open, as if he’s giving an order!
I hurry on, like a painted coquette, tottering flirtatiously (what a tease!), while secretly desiring him, who conscientiously forbears to do so, to find – my friend, my brother – that strength to beat me down beyond the point that I should feel, and to pick up whatever is left after feeling. …
Because that way it’s easier.That way they can say of me, when I reach my end, “He didn’t give a damn, did he?” And throw my body in the gutter.
Saponification can also refer to a more uncommon, although naturally occurring, phenomenon than that of soap manufacture or than that related in the dubious legend of Mount Sapo. It is the process resulting in the production of adipocere or “grave wax,” whereby the fat of a corpse and other soft tissue converts in the ground to a waxy soap-like substance, closely resembling that familiar from daily living. Like your basic wash soap, it is almost odour-free and colourless.
In those rare cases, in which adipocere or “grave wax” has been recorded, in which the conversion of saponification has been observed, we find the following conditions: firstly, the overall amount of fatty tissue must be high; secondly, the agents of decomposition are present only in minute quantities or entirely absent; and, lastly, the soil around the body is found to be highly alkaline.
The question that dogged the footsteps of the early humans when they were first upright must have been:
Is it possible to make soap from the body while it’s still alive?
The second would have been:
How many bodies would we have to have to make enough?
And the third:
In what way would they need to be alive?
These thoughts, the mere products of claustrophobia, isolation and inertia, arise from the practical consideration that you can’t make an escape route that leads into the gound… Albeit that it’s become impossible to build above it.
The races flow together; the mingled waters rise and cover the earth: now at 6.6 billion, soon at 7.
In what way do they need to be alive for this to happen?
Like the slave owner, who thought negritude, that blackness could be bred out, we’ve thought purity, that love and light could be bred in… And installed under conditions of hygiene.
Black and white, Arab and Jew, Asian, Caucasian, African, the colonist, the colonised, and the occupation, applauding individual efforts in this direction, we’ve knowingly endorsed a worldwide programme of eugenics, opted for the sexual selection of the daytime soaps.
Until today, when getting into bed with the enemy seems a dubious prospect, replete with new dangers, risks, which could not have been foreseen only fifty years ago.
The bent wire of a universal human nature now looks like the instrument of an abortionist… And the skin forming inside it is no longer the minimal surface of our similitude but the maximal surface of the differences between us. …
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?! Confined inside the message that I’m being watched for signs of love, for showing sexual interest or having simply one unclean thought, by countless eyes. …
Well, you come here then!
I’m a mole. And it’s a dirty job.
When I found her, halfway in her preparations to join the teeming things that scuttle above our heads, for which we don’t have names, I saw an angel crouching over her.
I could at that stage have grabbed her ankles and pulled her out from under it. But I didn’t want to divert its attention away from her, as usual, onto me.
Well, you come here then!
As if she was receiving something from the angel, her mouth opened.
An order, a mouse, an official slogan… whatever it is angels have they can’t digest… a lump of fat. I no longer know what it was.
She didn’t look at me, let alone turn to me for help.
It was as if she stared into her own mouth… at her tongue, her teeth… at the wet and redness of her gums.
It wasn’t a violent act. And afterwards I kissed her face. And for many days after that, she just hung there, halfway in.
I wondered, as I’d once been told, if I wasn’t myself an angel, and not a mole, at all.
Well, you come here then!
I should never have lugged her down here. If my father had been conscious, he’d have put a stop to it.
My mother never met her, never knew of the efforts I made to live.
And I regret that I’m the only one she ever had. (My mother, you fool!)
But what if there are others inside her, just inside, waiting to replace me? (Inside my mother!)
Well … then!
Why shouldn’t there be? Even when she’s dead, they’ll keep a record.
But what if they’re there now? Slightly off-stage, in the hallway of her inner-city flat?
I’m sure they would imagine themselves exactly as I am… day in, day out, underground…
The only exception being that they have a way out, a door, which will, when the time is right, be held open for them and will shut behind them.
But then, they don’t! And so comes a closer resemblance.
The entry they expect is a doorway on a painting, which hands seize violently and thrust aside to see what’s underneath, because it’s actually a curtain.
Then there’s no way out, at all.
But they still come, these wriggling worms with feet, for whom there are no names. I hear their manoeuvres above me; already, the tramp of their small shoes, making tiny holes in my solitude, which is all I really possess.
I wonder if they know if it’s possible? How much? And in what way?
Whereas pumice is formed in a single spurt from a wound deep in the earth, soap is solid and continuous… and has no grain.
It lives on its own. It lives on its own. And is one hundred percent not serious. Because. It is not itself. And. It lives on its own. It lives on its own.
Ok. Add a breath. I, in my stupid way, in my accidental way, have helped to reproduce it. But I can’t take any comfort from that, in a word, a breath, because it was never in me.
Is it unfair of me to expect to be paid for it? For the action that made it? At the station it was made?
You cynics will say, it can’t hurt!
But it does.
If, at any stage of the game, I gave up, it wouldn’t mean a thing. I can’t move. Imagine being so useless. No, really, I can’t.
…Not a thing.
Look, you’ll also say, How he’s played at life! He doesn’t even have the right to call his body his own!
Just pay me, all right?
And I’ll get by as if I can.
Quite apart from becoming blind, I have my problems, which I now wish you to consider, without prejudice or sympathy.
Number one: We reach a plateau. There is a giant edifice, an imposing structure. We break off tiny pieces, as much as we can carry. We take them home and wash away the dirt of superstition, with which the centuries have encrusted us.
Good for something, then, you say, this soap!
Your opinions will no doubt differ as to what the building on the plateau is, whether the temple to a knowable or an unknown god. But for our purposes it’s a depot for the distribution of soap. One of a number found after the war.
You see, this soap, that was manufactured elsewhere and only later transported here, has some special properties, to which its users are mostly blind and which I’d like to make a modest effort to reveal.
I’m no magician. I can only share with you what I’ve picked up. And that is the literal truth of my condition!
Well, most people are hoaxed all their lives. However much they use of the stuff in question, even when quite spent it slips from their perfumed hands, we can’t expect them of themselves to come to a moment of revelation!
No, my point is, eschewing knowledge, the importance they attach to belief; because I’m convinced all of us here recognise in the industrial warehouse, to which I’ve referred, a Temple to Scientia, a Temple to the sum of all that can humanly be observed and verified, according to the scientific method: ergo, a machine for making truth.
My problem is, what truth will suffice? But what truth does will suffice for each one who believes it, being neither opposed to the mistake or to the lie but to another truth. So how do we reconstruct from these fragments of our Temple that one truth, Gospel of hygiene?
Why soap again? My friends, why not? Look at the effects it has!
Take a lump, lather up and lave now your body! Who taught you how to clean yourself? And who is it who washes with you? Who is there?
Only the skin.
For my demonstration, I shall require a piece.
The honours, Ian!
Are you there?
Number two (for my problem is twofold: it is knowledge and ignorance, science and the blindness of the experimental method, which reaches to the divine by an ascent, to grasp just and bring back no more than tiny relics):
Thankyou, sir, madam – although I suppose by the kindness of your donation you are Madam, am I right? …
Before I continue, might I be so bold as to enquire who is this? …
No matter, madam, least of all one of magic; I’m no magician and what meagre insight I possess into the beauty of the female sex I owe to feeling only; a mere sensorial limitation need not blind one to immediate matters or to the matter in hand.
Indeed, where univeral nature accords with human nature is in feeling and experiment, a space of which the smallest possible surface area may be calculated to lie within the bounds of a bent wire. … And exist as a resonant field, a membrane or an M brane between the two spheres.
Resonant because communicative, it finds its ideal and therefore minimal, therefore most elegant form in the skin of a soap-bubble, like so!
This then is knowledge!
Good for something, yes?
To connect … over the curve…
But what filled with?
Breath, you say. The mysterious perfection of a divine aspiration.
But if perfect, why limited?
The mystery, the problem is, the mathematical shape of a breath that fills the interstitial, interstellar void of the Universe and Man.
Because I offer nought but the image; because the wire I’ve bent for you is nothing…
But a trap for a twofold subject, both knowable and unknown, at once cosmic and terrestrial: like a painting’s stretcher and support; like a stage setting crossed by a Christ-figure…
A subject who enters up on to the nervous system, as if up on to a plateau, over the curve of the horizon, precisely where it connects to every other… in fact, the minimal surface of connection.
And all that we can carry is it more than we can bear?
In a place we’ve seen before without seeing?
Number three: what has happened to belief?
When every effort is made to clean it off? And lift the animal grease and hide its stench?
The skin becomes the article, with which we keep faith, the organ on which it’s staked.
It spreads out and extends as the horizon of our human being: like a theatrical curtain before which all sensations are played out…
Or like, indeed, a skin of bubbles lit from within, iridescent and hardly uniform, constituting a great and complex geometry of emotion…
Of the feeling of one skin against another.
(Note on her name: from Dora and Felice Bauer, K.’s inamorati; from “Dora” and Ida Bauer, Freud’s subject; in addition, Muriel referred to her barman at the Colony Room, Ian Board, as Ida)
When we started all this, I was like an ant, crossing backwards and forwards.
Can you imagine me walking in a straight line, like an ant, with an arrow in its head, one centimetre at a time?
A tiny ant. Everything was circles. On the inside of a balloon.
But what if the balloon (because this is exactly what I am talking about) were a soap bubble? And all of you, especially you, were rainbows, refracted in oil crystals, shimmering on the curve of the soapy mixture?
A little person walking along it would return to the place she started, I thought, always. Always is a different kind of elastic than the kind used to make balloons. Crystals form and it snaps when someone doesn’t come back. And different again from a surface in a wire bent to make a frame to blow bubbles, because ideally we’re stuff strong enough to make wars on: steel, and not just light and soap!
I entered and I left through the fracture in my always, with this idea. While, over my head, the fertiliser in the air made rainbows and, below my feet, the world could at any moment burst.
And probably has innumerable times without our noticing it.