All one can ever imagine of Eve is the fig leaf, but the whole issue is more universal, and at the same time somehow more prickly, than any isolated contretemps in the Legoland of the senses. Say “glutton,” and in your mind’s eye you’ll see a mutton joint being brandished by some Rabelaisian hand; say “hunter,” and you’ll see a shotgun and the obligatory hat; say “courtesan,” and you’ll see a dressing table, a vase of bonbons, the lamp in the window. Try saying “beloved,” then. As in “my beloved.” What is it that you see? Wait, don’t tell me. Just give me a minute, and I’ll try to imagine it for myself.
Imagination builds, it constructs, it designs and redesigns. It is unstoppable as commerce, pervasive as advertising. It is also dirty, like politics, and shady, like business. In Lower Binfield, the Oxfordshire town where the protagonist of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air lives as a child, his father’s poultry-feed trade is ruined when a slick competitor, a big retail chain called Sarazins, sets up shop down the road. It springs up like a figment of some baleful imagination, an alien and unappeasable phantom, claiming its share of reality as though by draconian right. Before long the price of fodder is undercut, while the family’s psychological response—calling to mind the resigned stupefaction, relieved by occasional cattiness, of a circle of female acquaintances before a resplendent newcomer with a surgically enhanced bosom—epitomizes the popular attitude to big business outlined and presaged by Marx in Capital. “Bright green paint, gilt lettering, gardening tools painted red and green,” reminisces Orwell’s protagonist with a shudder of epochal tristesse. How unfair it all is, how sordid.
Cheap fodder! True, the word cheap, when applied to a woman, still retains the negative connotations that are nowadays decidedly out of place in any commercial context, but this, quite clearly, is an anachronism, an obsolescent convention, a tired prejudice hanging in there by the skin of its chemically bleached teeth. In a truly brave, truly new world, there ought not to be room for such squeamishness, for if silicone breasts are not immoral as a way of undercutting the competition, how can the long-standing practice of price slashing raise any permanently blackened eyebrows? No, in the truly brave, truly new world there ought not to be lines drawn in the sand.
“Oh, please, I don’t want a cheap woman,” says the man who has been asked to imagine his beloved, as he clutches to the last shred of oldie-worldie morality. How pathetic he is, this hunchbacked Rigoletto, in his childlike obstinacy! How like the proprietor of a corner shop on the verge of financial ruin, who grumbles that he will go this far and no further, not even if it means hiring an assassin to do away with the profligate Duke! Questa o quella, imagination’s brave new world seems to be ululating all round him, I can get any woman I want, take her, steal her, buy her, have her, and have her again; and how sane, how robust, how thoroughly rational and logical, is this line of reasoning, when at last confronted with his own set of musty old notions, at once fragmentary, inconsistent, and ever so laughably outmoded.
Let me answer him. “So, a resounding yes to purplish lipstick, and yes to the way she keeps brushing back that loose strand of blonde hair—by the way, it takes three-and-a-half hours for her colorist to get it to just the shade you’re in love with, a monthly ordeal that costs more than a nurse’s weekly wages, and very bad for the hair, too—and also a tentative yes to her having rather enjoyed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but a firm no to liposuction and other invasive procedures, no to looking cheap, and no to seeing the Colombian who says he’s a film producer on Tuesday afternoons between the hours of four and seven? You really are an old fuddy-duddy, you know.
“Once in the world there existed the concept of inalienable properties, or features, such as the length of a nose, the color of eyes, an hereditary title, a hunting estate in the Black Forest. Or the concept of property in general, upon the immutability of which political economists, Adam Smith for instance, relied in their writings as they came up with novel ways of rationalizing it. Then Marx came along, and explained that all economic property was but a figment of class imagination, that the mirage could be wished away in a blinking of an eye, that just as feudal landlords’ idea of property has been supplanted by the mill owners’ or the bankers’, so too will this, more progressive, idea vanish with them once progress has razed their satanic mills and banks to the ground.
“And now you turn round and say no to progress. You protest that you want this woman for what you imagine to be her inalienable properties, like the fashionable tint of Chanel lipstick she uses, and that you love her for what, in your tawdry little conservative mind, are her immutable features, like the smell of peroxide in her hair, without once stopping to reflect that progress is another name for inexorable, escalating, eventually totalitarian alienation, indeed that the whole woman exists in your imagination as tenuously, as conditionally, as private property exists in the world pictured by Marx. You are playing at Lego all right, just like the feudal landowners and the commercial bankers of yesteryear, picking and choosing which building blocks of reality to breathe life into, and some of the blocks are spurned as being off-limits, taboo, against nature. In the end you will end up like your predecessors, swept away by the rising tide of totalitarian consciousness, by the futurism that is quite immune to such scruples and will crush a child as easily as it crushes the child’s toy.”
A Modern Prometheus was the evocative subtitle with which Mary Shelley had supplied her tale of Frankenstein. According to the testimony of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Prometheus was the political thinker’s favorite hero, while his favorite work of literature was Goethe’s Faust. If anything, emotion is even more nakedly a politically incubated creature than I make it out to be in this euhemerizing rendition of a private mythology.