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"Can we, as a country, all agree

xmag.com : August 2005 : By Nick Tosches

Johnny, 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 question:
"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 me?"
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 this act.
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 the picture."
This is it. Johnny and I decide to search out antique hat-pins immediately. I feel that there can be no greater love.
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 now.
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 the words:
"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 weather.





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