Jean-Jacques, and I are sitting
together. The talk turns to Proust,
and Jean-Jacques tells his tale.
In his nocturnal roamings, Proust
was a furtive frequenter of the
old brothels and hammams of Paris.
One evening, he posed a strange
"Do you have rats here?"
The manager of the establishment
was taken aback, defensive, as if
Proust were questioning the cleanliness
of the place. But the look in Proust’s
meek eyes was one of hopefulness.
"Of course we have rats."
"Can you please bring one to
Then, in a chamber upstairs, things
unfolded according to Proust’s
desire. There was the big black
rat in a cramped makeshift cage.
There was the child of Eros, holding
between thumb and forefinger the
pearl head of a needle-sharp hat-pin
of nine or ten inches in length.
Proust, cock in hand, gave precise
instructions: the hat-pin must be
directed slowly but steadily through
the snared rat, so that death would
come to it likewise, slowly but
steadily. Proust tried to synchronize
the process, so that when the point
of the hat-pin exited the underbelly
of the rat, the drops of his semen
fell simultaneously with the drops
of blood that fell from the point
of the hat-pin, and his orgasm and
the death-throe of the rat were
as one. In the secret course of
the years to come, Proust perfected
Johnny and I are transported by
this tale. Here, we feel, is sex
supreme. Here, we feel, is Proust—beyond
the stiff collar and cork-lined
room—revealed to be, yes,
spiritually free. As we sit wordless,
savoring the beauty of it all, Jean-Jacques
delivers the coup de grâce:
"I think there was also a picture
of his mother. A small photograph
of his mother. Yes. In a frame.
He placed it by the rat, so that
he could look at both the rat and
This is it. Johnny and I decide
to search out antique hat-pins immediately.
I feel that there can be no greater
In my search for the perfect hat-pin,
I have learned that these pins likely
began, in the early nineteenth century,
as decorative hair-pins, which grew
into the longer hat-pins to accommodate
the bigger and bigger hats that
dominated women’s fashion
from the last decade of that century
through the second decade of the
twentieth century. As the size of
hats increased, so did the length
of hat-pins, from an early average
of five inches to known specimens
of nearly twelve inches, with pin-heads
that were often ornately jeweled.
All of them made for lethal weapons.
Injuries were inflicted frequently
throughout Europe and America, and
legal measures were taken against
their use in Germany and in New
Orleans. In Germany, the police
threatened that safety finials must
be affixed to the points of all
hat-pins worn in public. The long
hatpins of the late Belle Époque
could do in even the fattest and
biggest river rat quite nicely indeed.
The life of Proust (1871-1922) coincided
with the golden era of the hatpin.
But the tale itself: is it true?
Johnny and I wonder about it. In
the end, we resolve the matter.
If it were not true, it is true
An intriguing passage in an obscure
book is brought to my attention.
In High Diver (London: Blond &
Briggs, 1977), Michael Wishart,
in the chapter "A Shakespearean
Snail," concludes his observation
on Maurice Ravel’s sexual
involvement with hermit crabs with
"This rather macabre revelation
is hardly more surprising than the
delicate penchant of that other
frail creature of spats and perfumed
kid gloves, Marcel Proust, for watching
young men stick pins into the eyes
of rats. Clearly even the most fastidious
have their releases...."
The summer passes. It is good rat