Joseph O'Brien 6 p.m., March 4
- Community Blog
- Banker's Hill/Mercy Outpatient
I love shoes, and as a couple of Reader bloggers know, I love to wear a pair of metallic gold summer flats, purchased for a song at Payless. Alas, I might as well mail them off to magics, as for the next six weeks I will only be able to wear the left of the pair. I’ve just been fitted at the doctor’s for a “Cam Walker,” a clumsy-looking, stormtrooper-like boot meant to help correct a foot injury healing badly, due to immune response problems. As I hobble along, remembering to roll the foot along with the boot, heel to toe, and bend the knee, memory turns to an amusing evening a few years ago, and an encounter with a shoe fetishist, who would likely regard this boot with horror, a big black coffin for the leg.
The fetishist held dubious court at a winter cocktail party held in a tiny Manhattan loft. He had set himself up on a stool in a corner, with a fresh sketchpad in his lap, a stack of blank Christmas cards and envelopes, and a box of charcoal and sharp-nibbed calligraphy pens; eager to sketch all the sexy high heels as they sauntered in. At first, I thought he had been hired by the hostess, Kim, to sketch portraits or caricatures of partygoers. She whispered that his wife was an acquaintance who had come down with the flu, and so sent her husband in her stead with a potluck dish.
Unfortunately for the fetishist, the few women at this party were hipster-grunge or fashion-negligent scholars fresh from seminar, or else masculine dykes, all wearing the standard conservative loafer. I arrived in a pair of black and silver sneakers, purchased on the way to the party at the Astor Place Kmart, to replace the stylish but ineffectual boots wet through in the freezing rainstorm now threatening to turn to snow. As I approached, the fetishist’s gaze fell in disappointment to my clunky sneakers, then briefly rose to meet my eyes in polite, perfunctory greeting. He spent the rest of the evening in concentration on his sketchpad, or sweeping the room hawkishly, nipping at our our hostess’s heels, while I interrogated him on his fixation with the female foot:
Well, is it the shoe or the foot that interests you? Is it real to you, like a talking organ? Or is the foot mute, carrying a load of significance it can’t speak to? Is it similar to a fixation with genitals? Or does it defer the idea of sexuality? –Or is everything around the foot or shoe imbued with a sexuality that is blatantly in the open, unlike genitals, which are hidden under clothing?
Kim, the hostess, had been for months undergoing heavy psychoanalysis; the kind that is like a cerebral journey through a forest of symbolic language, rather than the emotional holding environment of psychotherapy. As a scholar of the Holocaust and diasporic testimonial literature, she, like many Jewish intellectuals, felt that psychoanalysis was a kind of necessary tradition, a socio-historical duty to the memory of Freud and his disciples.
She alone was prepared for the fetishist, sporting a pair of skinny, strappy, bejeweled stilettos. Kim stretched a long leg up to the mantle of the fireplace, and slowly rotated her ankle, as the Swarovksi crystals winked in the candlelight. The fetishist lit up like a Christmas tree, and asked if he could borrow them later for his wife to wear. The hostess beamed a goodnatured 'yes,’ which effected in him a visible fever; his cheeks staining with spots the color of the cabernet in my glass. My immediate thought concerned whether or not Kim would have the shoes cleaned after he borrowed them. Satisfied, he turned reluctantly back to my incessant questioning of his ‘condition;’ albeit while stealing a glance now and then in the direction of the hostess, who modeled her heels coyly, every move now visibly surfeited with erotic meaning.
19th century sexologists and psychologists like Kraft-Ebing and Binet condemned the fetishist as a pervert; Freud saw the fetish as a complex and very creative form of denial (as he did many psychological phenomena) of some originary trauma, by which early sexual energy is displaced onto an object rather than the organs and body of the opposite sex. As the story goes, the young boy sees his mother undressed and interprets her genitals as castrated, then ‘forgets’ this event through a fixation on an object related to the scene—her dress, shoe, foot, underwear, etc.—anything covering the offending object, or something ‘other’ upon which his gaze falls when he looks down and/or ‘away.’
Our foot fetishist could not confirm an ‘originary event,’ and had enjoyed a pleasant childhood. He did recall eyeing rows of colorful shoes in his mother’s closet, like so many candies displayed on shop shelves, accompanied by the comforting personal smell of her, softly noted with gardenia perfume, a heady concentration in this tiny room. It was a room that gave birth to a whole system of interpretation, a view upon the world that a sensitive boy would apply the rest of his life to everything about him, as well as the women in his life.
It turns out that the foot functions as an abstract symbol of the woman’s entire body, containing in abstraction all of its curves and dimples. In exemplem, he sketched a bold line on the sketchpad, and asked me what I thought it was.
‘Perhaps the curve of a new moon, or someone’s jaw, or a concave lens,’ I ventured.
“To me, it is the arch, the instep of a feminine foot.” He deftly drew two more lines, and it became a woman’s ankle. “But this foot is naked, and presents no challenge to the eye.”
I asked him if he then found the ‘naked’ foot boring.
“Yes and no—to me the bare, well-groomed foot is classical beauty, simply unclothed; it is more tempting when covered, and accented just so.” He drew a fluid, weblike netting over the sketch of the ankle, making it into a kind of gladiator sandal, all the rage back then in NYC; presently come into style in southern California. The shoe encases or cradles the foot—that is an important aspect of this fetishistic desire.
What of the toes? The calf? For this shoe and foot fetishist, these neatly combine the yin and the yang; the shape of the male organ folded and fitted into the elusive feminine. Did he find glimpses of the foot in art? For example, phallic symbols abound in architecture, whether intended or no. Yes, and in nature, too. The gentle slope of a tree trunk and its knots combine the phallic with the curve of an ankle. Something about Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy’s cairns and ‘nests’ attracted him, making him think of the small rounded egg of the ankle, as did small country bridges spanning ponds or rivers.
Some years before the party, I had gone to a shoe museum outside Lyon, France, with a group of students and professors. We lunched at a village bistro, with the conversation at first a bit stilted, as it always is with a group of strangers, one half of whom are used to sitting on the other side of the desk from the other. But the sensuousness of food and wine loosened us; we feasted on plump chicken thighs in a rich butter sauce, a nicoise, and fresh bread. Plenty of local Rhône table wine was passed around and poured into little jelly glasses, until the roses bloomed in our cheeks, and laughter came easily and a bit louder than at the start of the meal.
After lunch, we toured the museum, which displayed the earliest known shoe; some thousand years BCE, it consisted of a flat, limp, leather sole, with a few frayed strings curled around it. We wandered obediently through the exhibit, stifling post-lunch yawns, until—shazam! A corridor let onto a room filled entirely with futuristic and fantasy shoes. Thigh-high silver boots, electric pumps, ‘screw me’ pumps, shoes made of exotic materials and textures including peacock feathers, lucite plastic, paper, and silk. Chunky, svelte, square and round; these shoes had personality! Yet all eyes were gathered as one to a particular shoe under a giant glass dome; as large as a small divan, it had a ‘heel’ like a corkscrew, twisting down to then saucily revolve upwards, wandering away—an erotic digression given tangible form. Faces flushed and the sterile white room was suddenly, consciously filled with the sound of human breath.
Our next stop was to see the stone castle of 'Le facteur Cheval.' Obsession led this simple country postman to build a stone and cement monument, full of religious and ‘heathen’ iconography, to the ideal of the ‘palace.’ His poor wife must have been bemused to see her husband work his worn hands, gnarled from a life of sticking letters and hoisting bags of parcels, into a bloody pulp against this handsome-ugly shrine. Grey stones were stacked and cemented into a labyrinthine structure of dead ends and passages, turrets and parapets, and curious epigraphs carved into its walls. The postman Cheval wanted his work to reflect all of the architectural styles known to man, and, curiously, wished that it would be entitled “Alone in the World,” which could relate to the many carved proclamations to the effect that he, Cheval, had built it himself; misunderstood, it was his dream alone. He built his own tomb among the towers and galleries, and was buried there when he died, a year after finishing the entire project.
Can it be said that we all have our fetishes upon which the world turns? Or do we label them something else? What distinguishes addiction from fetishism? The addict has no choice, and though everything in his world might carry the signature of the object of addictive desire, the addict does not live under the sign of certainty. The fetishist knows what is certain, and can read his own narrative in the objects of the world. But so can the ignorant crackpot, whose limited text suffers from anything but a healthy skepticism.
Some people appear to be fetishists for a deadly sort of nationalism; vision colored by the limited palate of a flag, they attempt to triumph over any intelligent doubt or questioning of the doings of government with accusations of traitorous or spoiled ingratitude. Some fetishize the trappings and doctrine of a dominant religious creed; uncuriously, most often when a violent history justifies a current crusade. Some fetishize authority and discipline; be it the equipment of domestic law enforcement, or the signifiers of a foreign and even long dead totalitarianism. Some fetishize an ethnocentric hatred of people of a specific race or an ‘invasion’ of immigrants, blaming all of society’s—and one’s own—ills upon them.
Others still fetishize a blind, rote hatred of the opposite sex. All of these kinds of fetish are quite often to be found in the same feckless individual, secure in his fetid cloud of certainty. These fetishists are also haunted by a rich, unexamined, and complex code of signs which excites them at the slightest provocation, and which seems to hinge upon the concept of “other,” the intimate, repressed, feared, and hated 'not me' upon whom one’s very identity is necessarily, and too frequently, bloodily inscribed.
It is enough to hobble the mind.
Against these ‘conditions,’ I gladly prefer to consider the scribbled, feverish desire, the harmless aesthetic of the shoe fetishist; forever chasing the subtle and slippery curves of a not-quite graspable feminine to the furthest corners of his imagination. I’ll have to go through some boxes in the hall closet, and find that Christmas card, with its sketch of a humble Kmart sneaker.
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