406 Readings

Face Up and Other Versions of Beauty


He said his name was Beauty. We were sitting on opposite sides of a table, in the lunchroom. Not on those red circular ones, with massive amounts of chewing gum tacked under that amuse people cause they remind them of that famous street in San Luis Obispo that’s supposed to stand for defiance, creative freedom and other equally inscrutable words, but seems as you go through a sad alley gum-spattered in random yet florid ways. We were sitting in the square-shaped green ones. He said his name meant beauty in Chinese and started talking about this experiment he was working on, out of the blue, getting all worked up and excited but I’m an amiable girl and giving fruit loops the cold shoulder feels ugly inside.

Also, being a systems architect, I’ve had my fair share of weird. Guys at my department fall in love with me day in day out pretty much because: a) I’m the only female they’re currently on a friendly basis with and b) I’m the only female they happen to maintain a lasting relationship with, besides their mother and aunt-Edna types. Imogene Coca, you know. 



Your last letter brought joy to the heart of this woe-ridden physician, humble servant of yours, lost in the innards of this prison-house that swallows both friends and foe of liberty alike. These are shameful times, indeed: we shall be reputed laughing-stocks to our libertarian heirs.

Have patience, Coline. Entrust yourself to God and we shall rest in each other’s arms soon enough. Rumour has it that the rule of that miserable pigmy, Maximilien, is coming to an end this Thermidor. Ah! What a pleasure to see his head roll, like the thousands he so liberally excised from their own rightful place, above a man’s shoulders, not bleeding out in a wicker basket at the Place Louis XV at twilight, surrounded by a cackling horde.

But pardon me, chéri, seclusion can make spiteful a blithe man. I can only imagine your own suffering, having to endure the ignominy of answering by the name of that heinous contrivance; to think I brought us to such dishonour… Speaking of which, you will be delighted, in spite of all, to know about the little wretch who now occupies the cell next to mine at the Conciergerie—you must have heard how they dealt with poor la Rouchefoucauld earlier this week—and with whom I have been sharing, late at night, a number of enlightened conversations. I can only hope the details of those conversations I enclose herein will at least lighten your burden: my name may hereafter stand for something wretched but it will be no more wretched than the man spoken hereof. He is none other than the infamous Sade.


It’s a prodigy. A self-fulfilling prophecy waiting to unfold. Only it came as a surprise since we were supposed to be protagonists, not dazzled beholders. The widespread assumption that sexual activity is a point of no return in the ontogenetic sequence of organic beings has been shattered.  

The specimen discovered is the first metazoan known to morph back into polypal or juvenile stage after reaching sexual maturity and then back again into full-blown adult stage, thus achieving a potential immortality.

In order to ascertain whether this ability is a property of the medusa or only of its organs and tissues, we excised its radial and circular canals, tentacles, manubria, tentacular bulbs and exumbrellar tissue.

We discovered that full isolated fragments of the medusae would form, at times, flagellated cell types, but full polyps wouldn’t appear unless tissue contained both exumbrellar and canal system cells. 


You have not failed to notice, I am sure, the manner in which our fellow Frenchmen, for all their revolutionary prattle, have plunged back into the most unpalatable of despotisms: self-restraint. So accustomed had they grown to the grindstone that they have delivered themselves back into submission on the first occasion, like comely wives – which I have taken in plenty, against their will and my own inclination, to sodomy, if you must know. Moderatism. They accused me of being a moderate! I who lived to cultivate excess.

Simpletons. Exactly so, Doctor… but it is rather unbecoming for us, spirits inclined toward the sublime, to voice disillusionment in this respect: being their natural enemies, why… we should anticipate their scorn and embrace the louisette or should I call it guillotine, as the populace does of late? Now, now, monsieur Guillotine, if they want to bugger us so be it! Our deliverance will pervade their memory and grant us an immortality of sorts: since our want is to be free and it so appears that the freest men are those in good terms with murder, murder can only better serve Nature and our own freedom…

Most certainly not! Do not be so tame as to confuse efficient and final cause! Creation is a mirage. The final cause is Destruction. The universe will devour itself inside out, turn against itself by virtue of its very name, enveloped at last in the nothingness it was always meant to be.


But the moment I started listening to him, to Lee, I really saw him, I mean see, like failing to notice anything else: his meeting eyebrows, his bony arms and nervous tics—he would jerk his shoulders slightly every now and then.

And all of the time while he expounded that Hans Moravec that quantum theory that spin of electrons that it was just like a roulette that if there was up-spin then life but if there was down-spin then kaput that if you were to place a pencil qua pencil on a table and release it you would only see one pencil falling that decoherence would destroy macrosuperpositions in your universe that all possible pencils would be there falling nevertheless that the pencil would fall always in all directions that a guillotine would do since all that was needed was a deadly contraption that quantum bit generation should be faster than human perception that one wasn’t supposed to anticipate death that an observer had to witness quantum collapse that hearing the click when the spin-outcome didn’t kill you was also crucial that the click would let you know there had been an iteration that the experiment had to be repeated ten times that the downside was death but the upside well the upside was immortality that you wouldn’t have proof beyond the assistant that saw you live or most probably die that if you lived well if you lived to hear that tenth click you would know you had survived to behold the multiverse that perhaps it was true that there was nothing beyond the solipsized subject, how you see how you are seen, and then he drew a wacky equation on the table top with a permanent marker.  

And all the while I seemed to be listening, pensive, but I had a whole lot of trouble understanding since I was trying to match the face in front of me, its solid jaw and crimson lips, with the words I heard. I pictured us kissing, then in several other compromising postures. None seemed awkward. As soon as he fell silent, gasping for breath, I handed him a used gift card with my number jotted on the back and stared hard, real hard into his eyelashes like I was a tough nut to crack but reasonably satisfied with what I saw after all –really because I try to avoid, most of the time, looking straight into anyone’s eyes– and I stood up and left. Clicking my heels away.


No matter how loathsome I find capital punishment, death is the result of a higher order: if Nature denies eternity to beings it must follow that its first law was destruction. I understand you have qualms regarding capital punishment… So tell me, Doctor, what should prevent us from letting people engage in the salutary endeavour of self-destruction? You are surely acquainted with Tobias Schmidt’s case. It is truly exemplary.

Antoine Louise may have been credited with the louisette but you, among all folks that were part of that medical commission know it was Tobias Schmidt, the engineer, who took your blunt notion and garnished it, by sleight of hand, with all necessary details: the weight and height at which the mouton should hang to secure a clean cut, the lunette that immobilizes the head and the straps in the bascule that will bind the hands behind lest the fellow try to escape Fate, the mouton that slides through grooves finding no resistance in friction due to a special ointment, the basket that collects the head that is then waved at the jeering assemblage, the handy déclic that just conjured up death before them.

Schmidt will be executed, together with Robespierre, in the morrow: the man devised his own death, his death will mean our Liberty and a particular will thus illustrate the universal. If I am right, Schmidt will be soon acquainted with beauty. If philosophy proves me wrong, it will not matter, not to Schmidt at least. Yes, yes, yes, yes… you take reason as your guiding principle but forget it is our mind and our mind alone that imposes order on a universe fraught with absurdity and detachment.

Good night, doctor… I leave you and Pythagoras to converse with the celestial music of spheres. I, for my part, find the humana musica more agreeable: the plaint of a young boy as he bends over and I deflower him for the first time. His suffering is never false and nothing false can ever be beautiful. 


It would happen every time and took the form of a slight hesitation. A slight trembling in her pulse that always went unnoticed by others. She only had herself to blame for her fear of catalepsy. And Poe, to some extent but of course Poe had only borrowed the preternatural hand in his story from the clenched fist of a real man—D. Evans Reese. Cases like those were exceptional today.

Like Reese’s, unlike Poe’s, the entrails of the man laying in front of her were real. True. Lukewarm. But she couldn’t help herself imagining all of them, each and all the corpses she had ever autopsied, face up and alive, nails scratching the box. She felt guilty of being a certifier of death. Guilty that her job was opening up and depriving those people of the slim chance of catalepsy; even if she was horrified at that chance. Her mind would always drift before the first incision but once she got over it, she had to admit, everything ran smoothly. After all there was nobody there, no-one to open the mouth to complain: Adam’s apple to underbelly, the beauty of a scalpel cut.

That one sure rules out catalepsy” –she said out loud, speaking to herself, to her fear, looking at the body of the young man and his head, separately, thinking, as she began the incision, about the news piece she saw on TV that same morning, the one about young physicist who had committed suicide at the University of Baltimore. Thinking that it was so fitting that “autopsy” should mean seeing for oneself. 


The day before the experiment Lee was in a very good mood. At dinner he kept leaning towards me, rubbing my cheek with his hand, acting casual as if someone was listening, quite possibly the whole restaurant, since he was almost speaking out loud saying I’m going to fuck the shit out of you when we get home, Helen into my ear: his voice pounding against my rib-cage, its deep harmonics finding a crevice in each bone and sinking right in, tickling my knees, my ankles. 

But he didn’t fuck me. As soon as we crossed the door he threw me on the bed, pulled my clothes off. Not all at once: after stripping each piece off he eyed me with disbelief. I almost cracked up. I took the tank top off myself, amused by his concentrated expression. Delighted as he placed his hand on my forehead as if checking my fever or my need. His hand sweeping down my neck where I felt its slight pressure, the somber tantalizing. His hand that seemed enormous, protracted, daubing me with invisible paint and then easing its grasp, palms wide open now, sliding down between my breasts, right down towards. Gasping for breath. Towards, further, until there was only air above and below and I seized him, fumbling with my blind need. He on his knees, enveloping, and I annihilated. Taking hold of him, cooing, filled by his tongue, by sweetness. Spasmodically searched. Wanting his body gentle but having only his mouth and staring into sadness. His tongue delving and me feeling amazed. Wanting to close my eyes but fighting it, knowing I had to fight myself back in order to plunge head first into myself. Amazed because I could never touch beauty before that night, and how could I? Amazed, plunging into you, into me, as you turned up to stare at me the moment I came.


The public in the square stirred in silence, absorbed in their communal gaze. Even the tricoteuses, who usually ignored all preparatory measures, dropped their knitting pins to look at the man, at the designer of the machine, who had requested to be executed face up, against the sky.   


Life is a mishap, he thought as the tram ambled on, closing his eyes, silently clicking his tongue click remembering father holding the hose, right-knee bent over the lawn watering the beech ferns that sided the arbor, smiling haughtily, speaking at length like only a biologist could of the profligacy of trees and the beauty in rhizomatic reproduction click ferns stretching their roots horizontally, upsetting the foundations of the vertical, vertical life toppled over click his father click and how he would always talk non-stop about his Turritopsis Nutricula, how it could revert it’s life cycle click the medusa feeling its daughterly ways around the water once more, clinging to ships’ tanks of ballast water click the Gorgon traversing the oceans, turning back on itself, petrified, seeing itself click smothering itself in its loving expansion click destruction paving the way to creation click the organic feeding on the inorganic that feeds on the organic it feeds on click.

She gave him a kiss on the cheek and Lee opened his eyes to see they were reaching the station at Mount Royale. A minute later they stepped down from the tram, arms around each other’s waists, headed towards the laboratory.

Posted 02/26/14
For more information on the "Turritopsis Nutricula", refer to the New York Times feature “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality” by Nathaniel Rich (http://goo.gl/4fgy8). Or to the original investigation by Bavestrello, Giorgio, Christian Sommer and Michele Sarà, “Bi-directional conversion in Turritopsis nutricula (Hydrozoa)” in Aspects of Hydrozoan Biology, Eds. J.Bouillon, F.Boero, F.Cicogna, J.M.Gili and R.G. Hughes, Mar 56(2-3): 137-140. (http://goo.gl/kSCR7Q). For more information on “quantum suicide” refer to Max Tegmark’s article “The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: Many Worlds or Many Words” in Fundamental Problems in Quantum Theory, Eds. M.H.Rubin & Y.H.Shih (http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/9709032).
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