Saturday, October 15, 2005

NAPOLEON'S PENIS

Napoleon’s penis is supposed to have been amputated during the autopsy of his body. This object, which is said to look like a cross between a buckskin shoelace and a withered eel, is now in someone’s private collection. It’s possible that you’ve heard this story. If you have, I hope you didn’t believe it. It seems to be one of those urban legends that is always floating around. There were seventeen people present at Napoleon’s autopsy. Some of them were French and some British. If you believe the story, you have to conclude that they were all involved in a conspiracy formed for the sole purpose of removing Napoleon’s member before the body was put in the ground.

No, this isn’t going to be a book abut Napoleon’s penis, or about Napoleon, or about sexual parts, or the British, or the French. It isn’t going to be a book about withered eels or buckskin shoelaces, for that matter. It’s going to be about a lot of things, but not those particular ones. I mentioned the story because my mind seems to jump around from one thing to another these days. Just now, it happened to land on that subject. Mentally, I’ve gotten caught in a kind of shoes-and-ships-and-sealing-wax-and-cabbages-and-kings syndrome. If I start thinking about the Albigensian Crusade or cats or tamales, before I know it I’m meditating on the subject of quantum cosmology or blowjobs instead. There’s no help for it. I find everything to be equally interesting.

So it probably won’t surprise you if I say that I had hardly started thinking about Napoleon’s supposedly purloined penis when unrelated images began to pop into my mind. First, it was neutered cats, then it was pickles and before I knew it, the first landing on the moon. "One small step for man, one great leap for mankind," someone was saying. But I wasn’t paying much attention when he said it. I was watching a couple of people fucking.

I was in my twenties and an almost-unpublished writer. I had an apartment in a building owned by a Mrs. O’Brien. She had converted it from a residence hotel to a building with rooms and apartments. After she did, it really wasn’t much different than it had been before. That night, one of the people on my floor had invited several of his neighbors to come into his room and watch the great event on television. As the telecast was going on, a guy and a girl got tired of watching. They slipped into a sleeping bag and fucked. They had obviously planned it in advance. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have brought the sleeping bag with them. They weren’t planning to spend the night on the floor of our host’s room, after all.

Oh, no one was exactly horrified by what they did. If they wanted to get it on in a sleeping bag while someone was saying one great leap for mankind, that was fine. As good a time as any other. Or maybe even a better time than any if you don’t like listening to grandiose statements that would have been eminently forgettable under most other circumstances.

There’s so much that is forgettable today. People used to be more poetic. But nowadays it seems to be a lost art. They used to swear before God and say things like Fee Fi Fo Fum and death be not proud and I am a citizen, not of Athens or of Greece, but of the world. You would hear them say things like ars longa, vita brevis and let them eat cake and is there no balm in Gilead and you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish, you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck! Nowadays it’s hey baby, do I make you horny or a great leap for mankind.

No, I’m not trying to claim that everything is going to hell today. That’s something people have been saying at least since the time of Socrates. We were probably saying it when we were australopithecines running around on the African savannas. And there’s no more justification for it now than there was then. Oh, we have our problems, but so did Australopithecus afarensis, and so did the Greeks. You know, problems like the Peloponnesian war, what Zeus was likely to do if he got mad at them, and people who ate themselves out of house and home because they gave too many parties, or because they liked boys a little too much. And then there were all those crazy philosophers with ideas that no one could make any sense of. It used to be that you could understand what people were saying. There weren’t people like Socrates and Diogenes and Zeno running around. And there really wasn’t much that could be done about it. You couldn’t give all of them hemlock, after all. No, I think we have to conclude that things aren’t so bad today. At least they’re no worse than they ever were, even though nobody says much that is very poetic.

Well, anyway after I thought of the lunar landing, I thought of Stanko saying, "La lumière est la vie, et en même temps la mort." Light is life and at the same time, death. It sounds a little trite, doesn’t it? Oh don’t worry about who Stanko is, or about what he said. He’s a Serbian-French sculptor, and that must be the kind of thing Serbians say. And Stanko is a pseudonym anyway. I have one of his works in my living room. I bought it one time when he needed some money to stay out of jail.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this book isn’t about Stanko either. But you’ll discover what it’s about soon enough. As soon as I figure that out, I’ll let you know. As I’ve already said, it’s likely to be a book about a lot of things. Like computers and Puccini operas and monsters in lakes and vampires and the Trojan war and God and religion and saints, among others things. It’s will also be about life and about death and about sex. It would be impossible to leave ....

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