Scylla and a fighting chance

by Yule Heibel on November 26, 2003

Yesterday I bumped into an old friend with whom I’d shared an apartment in Montreal many years ago. He has many, many ideas, many really good ideas, too. I suspect that he sometimes reads my blog, ’cause he knew I’d mentioned his idea about the sad actors here. I asked him about difference, and how he deals with the requirements of differentiating, because, you see, he has intimate experience with mental illnesses, with being institutionalised, with battling every single day against the suck and pull of the whirlpool pulling him under. He told me that once, for a long many years, there was a man (let’s say not him, let’s say a stand-in) who was involved with a woman who also was right off-centre, and that this man couldn’t tell anything apart anymore because he and the woman were relying on being codependent on each other. He needed her to be a mess so he could be a mess, and he needed to be a mess because she was a mess. That was the story, to an extent. But if codependency is a danger, part of a whirlpool sucking you under, there are other dangers at hand: the rocks upon which you can smash your head…. or kick against, as the case may be. (This is of course ancient Greek history: Scylla and Charybdis, a favourite trope of Adorno & Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, embody this idea.) Of the two, I prefer Scylla, even though she is just as dangerous as Charybdis. But she’s more anger-directed, more masculine, which is how I’ve behaved to stave off Charybdis’s lure. My weakness is getting hung up on the overt, covert, lurking, advancing, stupid, clever aggressiveness of the culture, not on the sad pulls sucking at my heels as I walk through the world. (I have an engraving of Scylla — the one here, by John Flaxman, hanging in my dining room. Scylla is the one pictured here: rocky, angry; Charybdis, not pictured, is the sucky, pull-you-under one. Click on the image for a better view on another page.)

As we talked about this and that — success, work, failure, being extinguished — I mentioned Patricia Barber in passing, whose work he didn’t know. So, just in case he visits this blog again, here are the lyrics for “A Touch of Trash (Homage to Beauty)”, Barber’s brilliant dissection of modern success, the kind that has everyone wondering who is really crazy here:

the perfect shade of lipstick
a red that belies
carefully weaved into a style
eyeliner drawn with an artisan’s hand
replication makes perfection
she’s just a button short of trash

matching toes and fingers
the peek-a-boo shoe
as subtle as the perfume
a south beach tan under a sun-streaked do
orchestration and precision
the girl works harder than you

primitive inspiration
packaged in modern disguise
permitting a glimpse of the thigh
masculine resolve with a feminine plan
domination and submission
she smells the gas then lights the match

stylish deliberation
the chattel of Calvin Klein
calculation of color and design
glamour defined by supply and demand
education and graduation
she’s just a culture short of class

a moment of indecision
cool wind from the edge of the cliff
feels like love when it looks like this
if truth is the price for a superficial charm
the night is laughing
watching us turn absolutely nothing to form

I think Patricia Barber is a genius, the way she charts a course through the straits inbetween the monsters… So David, choose your poison: Scylla or Charybdis, one or the other is going to be too close for comfort. I don’t have to the strength to resist Charybdis, her massive interiority, her crushing single-mattered weight, I’ll take my chances sailing closer to Scylla.


Anonymous November 29, 2003 at 5:36 pm

Interesting posts and good links to follow. Thanks for that. Will visit again.

Yule Heibel December 2, 2003 at 2:10 am

Thanks! Please visit again…

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