Fiction / Rachel Levy
:: Severin ::
Severin is a character in a novel. He is a Galician gentleman and landowner. He is thirty years old, a smoker. He is sexually inexperienced. He craves eggs, soft-boiled, and likes to press his face against statues. He likes statues. He loves fur. He dabbles in poetry and science. He collects animal skeletons, stuffed birds, and plastic cats. He does not want to be hanged by a woman, so he trains women. He rests his chin in his hands. His hands are delicately veined. According to his neighbors, Severin is dangerous and odd. He has zero friends, unless you count the narrator of the book. Severin and the narrator are best friends. They smoke cigarettes at Severin’s estate. They talk about literature, domestic violence, and the figure of the cruel woman. The cruel woman ambles roughshod over the grasses in the artworks of wealthy heterosexuals of European descent. Severin confesses to the narrator. Once he used science to bring the cruel woman to life. Like the wife in the blockbuster film Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the cruel woman was ill-suited for love.
For example: The cruel woman chains Severin to a thick wooden rod. Then she orders a man of Greek descent to engage Severin’s body in a whipping without Severin’s consent. In addition, she breaks up with Severin while his body is still attached to the thick wooden rod. She refuses to have penetrative sex with Severin. No, they never have penetrative sex. The absence of penetrative sex is demoralizing to Severin, and yet it helps him to develop a political orientation which positions him favorably on the job market. I will elaborate.
“What doesn’t kill you births a more virulent strain of your kind,” writes Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Nietzsche is a German bachelor who rejects the companionship of people, preferring an assortment of hand-held fireworks and domestic tools, such as sparklers and a hammer. He is famous for his virginal mustache. You aren’t allowed to touch it! Oh, Nietzsche. While Severin is attached to the thick wooden rod, he is overwhelmed and close to death on account of the man of Greek descent who is whipping his body. Fast forward a few days, and Severin is on holiday in Rome tapping the virtues of socioeconomic status to process the traumatic romantic experience. In short, Severin endures. He perseveres like Queen Mab and pushes the hazelnut carriage of day laborers through the harrowing tunnel of the absence of maidenhood, dipping into the family coffers to buy himself a ration of the most exquisite cocaine. Later, in the heat of an Italian nightclub, Severin snatches a neon glowstick from a lesbian! Then he is dancing. Severin dances to express his sense of humiliation and loss. It isn’t long before Severin’s dancing draws the attention of a well-connected group. In a quiet velvet corner, nestled in the rear of the nightclub, the group plies Severin with liquor and a flight of hens stuffed with surprising flavor combos like cheese and nuts. Severin swears the group to secrecy. Then he shows them the blueprints for organizing society along strict hierarchical lines. They decide to get brunch after. The morning is dewy and bright, veined with silver torrents. It’s beautiful! My god. It’s beautiful. Severin is crying now. He is slobbering. He’s choking a little. It’s just so. So. Beautiful. He commits right then and there to join the fight for men’s rights. In due time, he inherits his father’s estate. That’s how Severin evolves into the political persona we know and love today.
Severin owns classical paintings. Severin owns important books. Severin owns top-quality cigarettes. There’s also a silk-clad thingy, plump in a bodice, walking on stilted doe’s legs throughout the corridors of Severin’s estate. The silk-clad thingy carries a platter of boiled eggs and meats. As noted above, Severin is an active participant in the men’s rights movement. The author uses plain language to communicate Severin’s identification with the figure of the tyrant on both a personal and political level. For these reasons and others, the naïve reader might be tempted to conclude: “Well, there you have it! Severin’s a tyrant. This is a tyrannical book!” But the complexity of the text threatens otherwise. For example, when the silk-clad thingy presents the platter of boiled eggs and meats, Severin reacts in an unexpected manner. He is overcome by anguish because the eggs are not cooked to his liking. The eggs are hard-boiled, but Severin prefers soft-boiled eggs. His preference for the soft-boiled egg subverts the logic of tyranny.
I will elaborate.
Throughout the history of the West, tyrants have preferred to associate themselves with hard objects. Since there is no reason to assume this preference does not extend to eggs, the reader speculates that it is the natural tendency of the tyrant to choose the hard-boiled egg over the soft-boiled egg. If Severin were actually a tyrant, then he would have welcomed the hard-boiled egg into the sensitive inner-mouth space of his head. Severin does not welcome the hard-boiled egg into the sensitive inner-mouth space of his head.
The author of the book outfits Severin’s sensitive inner-mouth space with the trappings of a bachelor’s boudoir. The boudoir is lined from floor to ceiling in the richest pink velvet. Ever since reading the book, I have caught myself salivating at the thought of spending the afternoon in Severin’s mouth. One day in the future, after I’ve put in my time and ascended some of the rungs, I hope to take an entire weekend. I’ll bring along a novel, plus several of my colleagues and friends! We’ll discourse on literature, ethics, and the necessary exclusion of some groups from the public sphere. Unable to prevent our hands from caressing the walls, we’ll wipe our fingers on the thick pink surface. Then the room will begin to vibrate, and a deep-throated purring will fill up our ears.
In addition, and it goes without saying, the tyrant’s preference for the hardness of hard-boiled eggs, and for hard objects in general, evokes the turgidity of the phallus when it is erect. This thrilling detail connects to a common misconception held by tyrants the world over: the disavowal of castration. The tyrant does not understand that he is castrated. But what about Severin? Does Severin understand that he is castrated? Severin absolutely understands that he is castrated! For example, before Severin realizes he must develop a method for training women in order to prevent women from hanging him, he takes orders from a woman. For this reason and many others, Severin is not your typical tyrant. Severin is a good person.
Granted, this book is a complicated book due to the fascist overtones. Severin openly lays claim to tyranny. Severin supports his claim to tyranny via action. In one scene, for example, Severin threatens the silk-clad thingy with domestic violence because the eggs have not been cooked to his liking, but everybody knows that in the olden days Europe was unseemly. The Sovereign put people to death. He didn’t understand that he was castrated. Before casting judgement, I ask that you consider the following: Has Severin ever tried to conceal his unsavory political commitments from the reader? No, Severin has not. In fact, Severin has always been incredibly open and honest about the most troubling facets of his personality. His forthrightness is commendable in and of itself. In return, we owe Severin a similar debt to honesty.
Let us strive to be honest. It feels good to be honest.
Honestly, my memories of Severin are grim. I didn’t like him. We met as graduate students in a middling creative writing program out west. The school no longer exists. It was cheaply affixed to the side of a mountain. Weakened by drought and fire, it eventually succumbed to gravity and was quietly shed like a scab. Nobody noticed it was gone.
Severin was a terrible writer and an emotionally manipulative personality. High on philosophy and art, he could reorganize the world just by glancing at it. I still remember how much it hurt to get caught up in his line of sight. I had to go and lie down. If I accidentally sat across from him in a seminar or workshop, then I’d be knocked out for days. “Influenza,” I said. I was always saying that. I couldn’t stand him, and yet we were friends. That’s how friendship worked in school. Then it was over. Severin and I fell out of touch. The school fell off the mountain. Yeah, I’ve thought about reaching out. Because I wish I could tell him that the whole time we were friends, I was busy despising, him. Severin, I despised you and everything you stood for. I’m sorry about that. The truth is, and I know this now, I despised myself. I despised the sight of me, and you wouldn’t allow me to turn away, you never allowed me to turn away, and so I was in tremendous pain pretty much all of the time. I was a person caught in the throes of pain. I’m not like that anymore, Severin. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to empathize with your point of view. I’ve even incorporated your publications into my teaching and scholarship. I’ve tapped your book like a keg, Severin, and funneled its life force straight into my career. Thank you, Severin, for giving life to my career! Thank you for giving life to my career! Thank you, Severin! Thank you!
Okay. To be honest. To be totally and completely. Honest. For a minute I thought we could be friends, real friends. Severin and I, we had a lot in common. What happened was he caught me in the act. Past midnight. Starry sky. Dark, dry air. Cold. Out west. High up on the side of a mountain. In the center of campus, on the lawn of the admissions building, there’s a statue of a beautiful woman ringed by evergreens. She’s one of the wives of the founder of the state religion, the first wife or the main wife, and I’d wrapped her, beautiful statue, head to toe, in toilet paper that I stole from the student union.
You have to understand. I’ve always been drawn to the wife in Bride of Frankenstein. But before she’s opened. When her body and her head and her face are wrapped up in gauze. Gift for a monster. I want her or I want to be her or I’m already who she is but I don’t like being me so I’ll wait it out. I’ll just wait and see. What’s underneath.
Yeah, so. I’d wrapped the statue of the founder of the state religion’s wife in toilet paper, and I was, you know. Worshipping her. I was waiting. Waiting to see. Show me. Show me. I pressed my face against the paper covering her skirt. Show me. That’s when Severin intruded, his arms full of furs.
“You like statues,” he said.
Why lie. At a time like this. “I do.”
“You wrap them in toilet paper.”
“I like statues, too,” he said. “I drape them in furs.”
“I see. You’re also queer?”
“Good. That’s good.”
“We must stick together,” he said.
He took me back to his place.
Kind of a shitty place. There were roommates. Everywhere. But whatever. They were already asleep. Some cats, too. I don’t like cats. It’s okay. We’d worked out a plan. First, we’d both take off our clothes. Next, I’d drape myself in furs and Severin would wrap himself in toilet paper. Then we’d just. I don’t know. See what happened. We had a six-pack. A six-pack. He had some cigarettes. I like cigarettes. So. Let’s see. We’ll just wait and see. Where the night takes us.
Severin handed me an ermine stole and a sheepskin muff. He pushed me into the bathroom. Closed the door. I was alone. Bathroom was a little shitty. No. Yes. Shit streaking the seat of the toilet. Shit rimming the tub. Shit on the mirror. Shit staining the grout of the tile. Hairs collecting along a streak of shit. Poking right up to God like asparagus. Okay. Here I am. What is a stole and what is a muff? I know what I look like. I’ve looked plenty of times. It’s fine. Someone should look like this. Someone should’ve looked like this. What the fuck. Do you want to know? Do you want to know what a person looks like? When they are wearing a stole and a muff? I already told you. I despised the sight. I got low. Then I got low. I was sitting on the floor. Like Barbie. Legs straight out. What did they want? My attention. No, I don’t want to hold them. Severin was talking. He was explaining how to care for his cats.
His cats. He told me to watch his cats. Over Christmas break. Hello. Keep up.
“Give them food and water,” he said. “More importantly, get to know them. Spend time with them. That’s crucial. Forget to feed them, and they’ll survive. Forget to touch them? They’ll fucking die.”
That can’t be right.
Okay. This is Severin’s bedroom. The window was frosty. Frost is beautiful. Frost is beautiful. I need to throw up. I needed to throw up. Christmas gifts, everywhere. Severin had been shopping. Now he was taking his time. Packing a bag. He was gonna miss his flight. Then there was that cat at my feet. Roosting on an open magazine. Pink. It was pink. I didn’t know you could get them that way.
“Which one is sick? Deleuze?”
I didn’t say that. Please. I didn’t. Is that what he calls his cat? I shouldn’t have come here. I should never have come. I needed to throw up. I needed to throw up. I needed to. I had a knife. Okay, I had a knife. I had a knife. I hated when thinking happened like this and I could see myself on the outside. I hated that. She was holding the knife, and then, I see, she cut a gash in her throat. She stood over the cat, the pink cat, just to bleed on it for a minute. She just bled on it? Yeah. Soon she was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. Don’t let her drop on the cat. It was pink. The cat. But why was it pink? I don’t know! Staggered. She staggered. She darted for the bookcase. She was looking for the book he liked the best. Which one did he like the best? The one where they slander the trees. They hated trees, Deleuze and Guattari. Assholes. She tore a page from the book, crumpled it up and fed the blossom to the gash in her neck. She didn’t throw up. I never threw up. It’s like I didn’t get how to do it. Do you understand?
Talking. Severin was talking. He said the cats aren’t called Deleuze and Guattari, not anymore. He renamed them. He renamed his cats. Yeah, he was always doing that. Giving them new names.
Severin shrugged. He sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed one leg over the other. What was he wearing? Indoor soccer shoes? I want a pair. I wanted a pair.
“Just tell me which one gets medicine.”
“The pink one.”
The pink one. The pink one. No.
No, no, no.
“What do you mean, no?” he said.
I mean, who has a pink cat?
I mean, no.
No, no, no, no.
“Look,” said Severin. Then he was up again, orbiting the bedroom. He was collecting the Christmas gifts in a gigantic paper bag. “It’s been a long day. I shopped. I wrapped. I packed. I’m about to fly across the country.” He stopped at the foot of the bed, hoisted a duffel over his shoulder. “And now I need to explain the concept of a joke to you?”
She couldn’t get a read on his face. I couldn’t see it either. The sky was a snake. It sloughed off the skin of the sun. Dark. It was dark.
Now for a review of the literature. Some people argue that this book is a transgressive book because it features Severin. Severin is a castrated member of the ruling class and an aspiring poet with an impossible desire for submission. Other people argue that this book is a subversive book because it features Severin. Severin is a castrated member of the economic elite and an aspiring poet with a paradoxical dream to end capitalism. Plus, there are several persuasive arguments that call for labeling this book a queer book due to the superabundance of fur garments, which are gay. My take on the situation is radical. I believe it is wrong to argue about books. Even though I spend Christmases with conservative colleagues and keep in touch with an elderly mentor who still subscribes to the impossible dream of a white ethnostate, I believe that each and every member of the department is free to choose a literary heritage; I choose to join in the struggle to preserve the rights of the most important books of European civilization.
Ever since the dawn of the birth of the French person Roland Barthes, we have understood the college classroom to be an amphitheater for bearing witness to pleasure. Barthes worked hard in the public sphere to devise a repertoire of gestures for testifying to pleasure without explicating the text. He managed to conduct his life’s work in silence. Total silence. It was important that Barthes stay quiet. He didn’t want to spook the jouissance. The jouissance is skittish. It darts like a doe into berry bushes. Sometimes, at school, we coax the doe to the center of our circle.
Thanks to Barthes’ hard work, we’ve developed a ceremony for gathering ’round, opening our books, and pointing at pleasures that can neither be described nor verified. What does this mean? I will tell you what it means. It means the unspeakable quality of our pedagogy is the condition for a radical, intellectual faith. Studies have shown that TAs of faith lead healthier, happier, more integrated lives. They’re able to make do on their stipends, with a little something leftover for the weekend. They outperform their peers on the job market. When they compose the formation of the sacred circle with their bodies at school, the pleasure touches friends touching books listed on the syllabus, reinforcing the mission of the university.
High up. The sky is a snake: it sloughs off the skin of the sun. Dark. It’s dark. In the once-vibrant city of Chernobyl, the snow is falling. We must be careful, vigilant, and tender. Because there are scholars who set traps in the snow and the berry bushes.
They aren’t really scholars.
They aren’t even readers.
They are bullish fur traders whose thick thighs rub snaggles into off-brand stockings! Ambling roughshod over mass graves of frost-bitten grasses! Spooking the pleasure, which leaps like a doe, to impale its soft, soft self on the crystalline edges of the berry branches—dead! She’s dead! Dead. Dead. Dead.
Severin lights a cigarette.
The narrator lights a cigarette. The narrator peruses Severin’s collection of animal skeletons, military hardware, and plastic cats. Oh, Severin!
According to the details of his biography, Severin belongs to the ruling class. But what about the narrator? Who is the narrator of the book? Well, the narrator’s status is ambiguous. He employs a valet to grab hold of his arm whilst he is sleeping. The valet whispers the word “Hegel” into the narrator’s ears. The intimacy of the gesture suggests that these two men are cut from similar cloths. If they are not, then we are definitely dealing with a class-traitor situation, which is incredibly thrilling and admirable. The narrator and his valet are not biological brothers, and yet they manage to coexist in a quivering jelly dome called “brotherhood.” Therefore, structurally, the narrator and his valet are brothers. They are brothers.
Let us pan out.
Severin, the narrator, the valet, and the reader each occupy different positions along the socioeconomic spectrum. Despite these unfortunate material circumstances, they have all uploaded themselves into the exact same tradition of arts and letters. Theirs is the sort of mixed camaraderie that garners harsh jeers from the members of the older generations. But is it not true that the most important books disrupt the laws of bourgeois decorum?
Severin laughs. He lights the cigarette.
The narrator laughs. He lights the cigarette.
When the silk-clad thingy presents the platter of boiled eggs and meats, Severin discovers that the eggs have not been cooked to his liking, and he subjects the silk-clad thingy to the threat of domestic violence. The silk-clad thingy flees like a freaked robot on bent doe’s legs. That’s the cue for Severin and the narrator to continue their conversation.
Okay. No more pretense.
We are friends, yes?
Then allow me to touch you where you need to be touched.
You are a person deserving of your life.
I’ll say it again.
You are a person deserving of your life.
There was once something sharp and damnable residing in the folds of your personhood, but it’s been lovingly rewritten or redacted at school. Wish it well. Let it go.
Today is the day you submit your dissertation.
You’re doing what’s right, seeking gainful employment. It goes without saying that you’ve suffered and persevered. The struggle was real, but it helped you to develop a political orientation which will grant you a favorable position on the job market.
I will elaborate.
You haven’t hurt anyone.
You haven’t hurt anyone.
You have wanted, and your wanting makes you precious, but you have not taken what you want by force. You haven’t hurt anyone.
You are a peach.
You’re a lamb moseying home on pointy little feet!
You can afford to move so slowly.
Because it feels good to be you.
You’re homely and hospitable.
You feel good.
You feel so good.
This feels good.
Come. Now is the time to act. Let us not look back on this day and wonder why our eyes were content to be separated, stuck in their own jellied heads. Lonely.
This feels so good.
Forging thicker bonds.
Building better bodies for whispering the word “Hegel.”
For sharing the word “Hegel.”
Don’t worry, you haven’t forgotten how to sleep.
You’re sleeping now.
The sky is a snake. It sloughs off the skin of the sun.
The way is dark.
Ringed by evergreens.
Quiet. Be quiet.
Come to us on your hands.
Use your fingers to find it.
The pinhole, the puncture.
Gracing the skin of the birthday balloon.
That rides on the night of the sky tucked deep deep inside, deep inside the fold of your little lonely little lonely life.
Let it go.
It is the sound of the starter.
On its cue, on its cue.
Let us let us let us shed our flesh and shed our flesh and and and pool our resources.
Fig. 1. Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. 1935. Screenshot by the author.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This story is a satire of literary scholarship. A fictional essay about Venus in Furs. I drafted it while I was in grad school because I wanted to figure out why they were asking me to interpret overtly reactionary works of literature through theoretical frameworks that claim (when taken at face value) to subvert, deconstruct, or queer structures of power. Much of the scholarship on Venus in Furs exemplifies that contradiction. Exudes a pathetic energy that’s borderline hagiographic. Casts Severin as the patron saint of subversion. Claims he harbors a radical desire to undermine everything from heteropatriarchy to capitalism itself. Part of my discomfort had to do with the hypocrisy of affirming the anti-capitalist pose of a profession that was actively contributing to my exploitation and immiseration. It’s dishonest. Dumb. I don’t like to be dumb. I don’t like to hurt myself. Hate it more when my willingness to do so is praised. Also, the scholars’ version of Severin is just wrong. It’s nothing like Masoch’s version. You should read Venus in Furs. I read Venus in Furs, obsessively, for the same reason I read Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s obvious. Why does it have to be so obvious? That’s why it feels humiliating. To adopt the scholarly pose. It’s too obvious. Masoch’s Severin is a proud member of the economic elite. He’s an avowed supporter of men’s rights, a connoisseur of European culture, a disgruntled incel. Throw in the fact that most of Venus in Furs consists of Severin’s manifesto, which fixates on the degraded status of the straight white guy, and there you have it: Severin’s a TERRORIST. And I’m a satirist. I’m a satirist, hardcore. Sometimes I worry that I haven’t spoken genuinely about anything, myself included, in years. But then I banish the thought. Writing this account has been difficult. This is my seventeenth attempt. I’m trying. I am. So. I drafted this stupid story, a grotesque parody of fascist scholarship. Then I didn’t know what to do. With myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I was disillusioned with it, my fiction. It was dead, lacking in stakes. I needed to revise. I sat down to revise. I had YouTube streaming in the background (academic presentations on masochism) because I was hoping I’d hear something I’d want to lampoon. I heard this one thing. I ended up taking it seriously. How does the philosopher put his body where his pen is? I decided to give it a try, to put my body in the way of the story while I was writing it. It meant taking masochism seriously. Which felt like a big deal. Because I’m a sadist. But I took it seriously. Used my pain to craft a narrative. To fabricate an aesthetic. I gave my stupid story a wound. That’s part II of my story, the wound. The material. I wanted to make it visible. You don’t have to like it. Honestly. You don’t.
Rachel Levy is a founding editor of Dreginald magazine and the author of A Book So Red (Caketrain, 2015). Short fictions appear in Atticus Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, Western Humanities Review, and others. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose, Levy is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.