The Stronger Sex
A slight yet perceptible tremor let itself be felt, distinct from the throbbing rhythm of the passenger car, at the base of Chawa Gelanternik’s spine in the moment when the train passed over, between stops in Dresden and Prague, from Germany into Austria. At one time she might have attributed this spasm to her anxiety over returning to the territories her parents and abandoned fiancé still considered home, but now with the benefit not only of science but also the reassuring, warm, strangely scented presence of the scientist who had enlightened her to the reality of her condition and its complicated relationship to her perception, both of the world and herself, she correctly diagnosed the sensation as the displacement of a nasal reflex caused by the interaction of the fluctuating atmospheric pressure brought about by the slow and steady descent toward Vienna with the sexual response that invariably occurred in the waxing days of her monthly cycle when she had consumed ripe cheeses at lunch. Life now acquired the elegance of clarity under the influence of such reasoning.
Physiology notwithstanding, it nonetheless was a momentous occasion that brought her on this cold, dry, windy January afternoon back to Austria: momentous not because of the surreptitious circumstance of her departure, more than seven years before, arising at dawn on what had been scheduled to be her wedding day—and here she recalls the caution she had taken to avoid the pressure points that would sound the censorious groans on the staircase of her parents’ home, as vivid as the smell of coffee and cinnamon from the kitchen which, Herr Doktor Fliess had explained to her, was instrumental in its disharmonious combination of sour and sweet odors to driving her away from both the family she had been born into and the family she had too hastily contracted to create—but rather for the auspicious reasons for her return, not to distant Czernowitz, where her escape from the family drama had been foretold, but to the imperial capital itself. A product of the new enlightenment she had received in Berlin, Chawa was bound now to spread that wisdom to the empire out of which she had emerged.
The sun shone brightly and warmly through the window of their train compartment, filling the dull and dark shadows with an amber glow, and its light caught the tip of her nose in a slight sneeze, to which the Doctor, seemingly preoccupied with his notes and speculations, gave a knowing smile. Chawa turned to her slight, thickly bearded, stiffly dressed, still young mentor, and another tremor of gratitude swept over her body, brought on by the dilation of her nasal tubes, connected intimately with the life forces of creativity, desire, love, and the procreative instinct, each of which in turn was coupled with its destructive twin—imitation, revulsion, indifference, and the impulse to cause pain—which alternated with one another at regular intervals over the course of the 24-hour day and the 23-day organic month, the latter calculation being a particular insight of his genius promising to unlock further mysteries of the entwined biological and metaphysical worlds constituting our universe. The nasal cavity brought in oxygen to the brain, which fueled the productive desires and expelled the negative ones, thus enabling her to understand his many interconnected theories, while at the same time facilitating her perception of the essence of capers, olives, and anchovies which clung to his heavy wool sleeves and the slick tips of his delicate pink fingers. These sour and pungent foods, which warmed the blood and ordered the brain, were the odor of his genius, and when she breathed them in she intuited by the nose the colossal complexity of his brilliance. “The smell of you,” she thought to herself, “is the breath of my love.”
The route that had taken her into Dr. Fliess’s intimate quarters had begun on a misty August morning when with a bag containing only a few changes of underwear, a volume of Byron’s poetry, and a dictionary for companionship, she slipped out of her parents’ large wooden home after exchanging the cash from an envelope sent from a distant relative to celebrate her wedding with a brief but explicit letter explaining that she was unable to undergo the marriage with Immanuel Roth, the ardent and sincere medical student who had darkened the days since the end of her girlhood, persuading her parents far more conclusively than herself that theirs was an ideal union.
Her first venture into the unexpected and unpredictable, in the gray light of dawn, splitting the difference between blue and white as the temperature hovered uncertainly between cold and warmth—a chill that seemed to stay with her regardless of the temperature—brought her past a middle-aged Jew, his long beard already streaked, speckled, and spotted black and white, walking in the middle of the deserted road. “What could this portend?” she asked herself: two centuries, his the eighteenth and hers the twentieth, passing one another in silent proximity. “We each share the same space, though.” That space was the border region between the east and the west, a threshold which Dr. Fliess took only half in jest as the source of her nervous tension and the barrier to her assimilation into the polite conventions of modern civilization. Was her silence toward the religious Jew meant to illustrate all that she was escaping, the grave that life with Immanuel would soon enough have become, despite his best intentions? Or quite the contrary, was this Hasid’s itinerary as open-ended on its scale as was hers? Were they in fact not so different, in spite of their exterior distinctions, at last bound by the same expansive desires? No, desire, she had still believed at that early date, was the one quality that distinguished everyone, and everyone was in the end alone and unique in his or her desires. But this conclusion, too, had faded with time and experience, so that now captive to her inarticulate yet animating desire, not for the genius but for the man who had demystified desire as the geometry produced by the intersection of the olfactory instinct with numerical cyclicality, she apprehended that what connected her anticipation of the twentieth century with the passing stranger’s nostalgia for the eighteenth was the certainty that in the eyes of a different passing stranger both of their desires would someday soon belong irrevocably to an expanding yet absolute past. It was a small truth that now characterized her understanding at the dawn of her new life, but to date it was the only assertion of which she could now be certain.
Despite her perceptions regarding the different eras that she and the Jew inhabited walking toward one another along the same street, she was struck with the sound of her stiff black heels falling with a light scrape against the sandy pathway by how slowly time seemed to move at the dawning of this new dispensation. Would the twentieth century never come? It would, in fact, have to be greeted, so that if her grandfather had cautioned Chawa, cryptically, against going out to greet the daughters of the land, then it could be deduced that nothing new or exciting could occur unless it was first sought out. The road to the new century would be crossed first on foot, all the way into town on a brightening morning and then after so unfeminine an exertion to the main railway station, for which she rewarded herself in the café there with a smoked sausage, her first taste of pork and her first disappointment in this new life, she purchased from the remainder of her considerable though limited funds a one-way ticket on the 11:00 train to Berlin.
“What class of ticket?” the station clerk asked.
“Second, please,” she said, reminding herself of the need to economize.
“Are you traveling alone?”
“My fiancé has just died there.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Have you any bags for the porter?”
“I’m only carrying a change of clothes for the funeral. Family there will provide the rest,” she said, reckoning that everyone was someone’s family.
How different that 11:00 train ride from Czernowitz had been from the one on which she rode now! So different were they that she wondered, following the philology of Nietzsche, whom she had discovered too late to encounter before his current degeneracy, if the insight of the ancient Greeks—that one could never set foot in the same river twice—might not be improved upon with the recognition that one never truly set foot in a river even once. Rivers, trains, truths, were only linguistic conventions maintaining a casual relationship with the real. The genuine reality was felt beneath the skin of language, in the rhythmic pulse of the extremities, the protuberances connecting the spirit inside with the world beyond. What pleased her best about the new science she studied was how effortlessly it flowed from hard, bony fact to supple, limpid poetry.
She had done well in the first decision of her emancipation to bypass, for reasons as yet known only to herself, the metropolis toward which the train, having cleared the mountainous border, now sped: as Dr. Fliess had often told her, on the testimony of his wife as well as several colleagues, Vienna lacked the necessary atmosphere, a concept central to his entire bio-philosophical system, to foster the boldness, independence, and clarity of vision necessary for heroic action. “Vienna,” he had said with deeply drawling emphasis, “is a city that says No. Why,” he asked, “must they always insist on No? Is it not better to say instead Ten?” This was a favorite witticism of his. “The 1 and 0 that make up this numeral illustrate not only the return of the sequence, resumed yet amplified, but also the masculine and feminine essences necessary to make every organism, and every spirit, complete.” Chawa wondered now what his frail, nervous, entirely passive wife—her hair pale brown, her skin pale white: every aspect of her pale, fragile, brittle—made of such rhapsodies. Could she understand this strange, small man as Chawa did? Could anyone?
She can scarcely recall the physical symptoms of her panic and dread toward the future when she arrived in Berlin during the final hot and fetid days of August, before the cool, damp rustle of autumn settled anxiously over the city. She remembers only when falling to the floor after one such fit, clutching the patterned rug underneath her until tufts of blue, purple, and scarlet thread clung to her fingernails, that her landlady at the time plied her with cup after cup of tea—nearly the single source of nutriment she could ingest in those days—and urged her to seek out a specialist. Sitting in the morning shade under the lindens in the Tiergarten, she scanned the classified ads of the Berliner Volksblatt, where she came across the notice of an ear-nose-and-throat doctor soliciting a lab assistant for new and experimental procedures. Though the language of the request was compressed and cryptic enough to have been Hebrew to her, she surmised, for reasons as yet known only to herself, that even an interview with him might provide the advice and solace that she was otherwise unable to pay for, and should he take her on as his underling she would not only have a continuous source of counsel, but might also replenish her already sorely taxed savings. Desperation had made her very judicious in seizing opportunities to her advantage, however momentarily.
It was the first Thursday in September when Dr. Fliess had agreed to meet with her, and although she had been surprised by his eagerness to see her in his examining room, she reasoned that his choice of days was as propitious as any. For her appointment she wore the same lace-collared cream-colored dress with black stockings and short brown boots that she had arrived in Berlin wearing, since it was the only outfit in her wardrobe not cast off from her landlady, a situation far different from what her custom had been in Czernowitz, and which she hoped to reverse if the promise of employment by the inscrutable physician were to bear fruit.
The Doctor was younger than she had envisioned, although his black hair had already begun thinning, exposing a white gleam where the radiating electric light of his examining room shone on his expanding forehead. His beard had yet to reveal a trace of gray, and its whiskers were so coarse and thick that they buried his full, red lips in the brief and provocative moments when his smile vanished, lost in a brooding for which he would soon reveal an incomparable gift. His features were otherwise well-proportioned, even delicate, and his hands particularly were small and perhaps effeminate, advertising for those impervious to the loose, heavy, dark satin of his bowtie, enlivened by the yellow embroidery of a perhaps Masonic pattern, that here was a man whose physical exertions consisted of writing, reading, and at an outer extreme perhaps playing the piano, awkwardly yet earnestly. The room filled when he entered it not with the strong scents she had grown accustomed to in the presence of men, of soap, brandy, and sweetly stale tobacco, but instead with a combination of sour pickles, rosemary, and lavender. The mouth emerged from the darkness and parted to reveal small, even, ivory-colored teeth: “Propriety prevented me from specifying the precise parameters of my research in a solicitation prepared for a general-circulation newspaper, however agreeably progressive its political and cultural outlook might in fact be,” he said. “I assure you from the outset, however, that every procedure in which you will be participating will be conducted at the highest level of professionalism for the exclusive purpose of expanding and developing our knowledge—of self, of other people, of the known world.”
“Herr Doktor, please be certain that I have come here motivated exclusively by the desire to assist you in your noble undertakings, and I place my trust unconditionally in your hands as an apprentice of science, to another far, far wiser than she.”
“Would you please undress for me?” the Doctor said, ostensibly in the grammatical form of a request, but in actual fact the question had been articulated in such a perfect simulation of academic nonchalance that it registered in Chawa’s ears both as an instruction and a suggestion of such little consequence to himself that to refuse would seem to undermine the qualities necessary to engage in serious scientific research. Chawa understood at once that this was a test, and she had no intention of failing it. She was, of course, a week behind in her rent.
And so with neither fuss nor false modesty she stood from the chair and stooped to unlace her boots, then remove her stockings, then carefully undo each of the 36 tiny pearl buttons at the back and sleeves of her dress, silently, not glancing at the doctor as he stood, stoically observing now as she removed the bodice, then the loosely fastened corset and at last the thin, threadbare undergarments to stand before him as she had neither stood nor sat nor lied before Immanuel or any other man, resting her arms against her hips and holding out her hands slightly to invite his gaze over her pale, thin body—the hard, dry, pink nipples of her small breasts; the deep, round, dark navel at the center of her soft yet flat stomach; the scant, straight, delicate auburn hair too intimate even for her to contemplate without feeling the warm yet frightening wave of shame and pleasure at the triangular pattern it formed and its damply sour yet freshly washed scent and wiry texture—curious to learn what reaction this stranger might reveal to her about a body that she herself was only incompletely familiar with, yet which, despite the swelling, bruises, and tiny cuts one could with little effort find on her arms and legs and back, she nonetheless harbored hopes of being considered, even in the absence of adornment, attractive.
But more even than this desire, which could at best be fulfilled for only a fleeting moment before time would not so much ravage her appearance as chip away its façade to reveal that underneath whatever mask of beauty might rest there for a while was the same failing flesh that had clothed all her ancestors—there is, she worried, no beauty without deception on someone’s part—she sought for another person to know her body, as a body; to make of her physical presence an address from which and through which this other body could orient itself.
Dr. Fliess approached her and began to run his hands precisely and gently along her ears, nose, lips, and neck as he explained that his current line of inquiry addressed the problem of what some scientists were beginning to refer to as intersexuality, but which he preferred to call bisexuality. “There are masculine and feminine characteristics in each of us,” he said, running his palms under her breasts and pressing the tips of his warm fingers against her nipples, which had grown erect in his cold office. “Just as in our language, as has so frequently been observed, we assign ostensibly arbitrary designations of masculine and feminine to seemingly neuter objects, which in fact betray the profound ambivalence of our compulsions and the inevitable proximity of eros to logos: our words der Muskat, for example, but also die Muskatnuß; we are each of us both nut and meg.” Chawa blushed for the first time since undressing when he said this—nutmeg had been Immanuel’s pet name for her, on account of her dark red hair. “Though we find in all members of the species a dominant sexuality, often enough corresponding in psychological comportment to biological designation, nonetheless there is in each of us a battlefield, a war, a struggle unto death between the stronger and weaker sex. From this struggle of our own divided nature come all of the psychic ailments: hysteria, morbidity, neurasthenia, asthma, inversion, all the… sufferings of the spirit.” Warming now to his subject, he traced, again with his palms, the outline of her torso from under the arms to her narrow yet rounded hips. “These emotional dissatisfactions acquire a social dimension when men and women with imbalanced psychological ratios are mismatched with one another, so that masculinized women come to dominate effeminate men, resulting in the vast social disorders so evident in the Slavic lands, for example.” Now he began caressing her gently with his fingertips, yet with a scientific precision born more of practice than ardor, where no one, not even Immanuel, had dared touch her before. “What the world calls out for is a method of rationalizing desire—an algorithm whereby the procreative instinct might be planned, schematized, demystified in its simultaneous biological and psychological dimensions: this is the motivation for my research; this, the first great discovery of the next century. What will follow the revelation of this system will be nothing less than Paradise. Does this give you pleasure?”
She nodded, afraid to be heard, to let even a sound escape from the back of her throat, where all the sensations beneath her stomach seemed to be collecting. But though the pressure of his hand triggered a sequence of sensations for which she lacked either the vocabulary or the external perspective to describe with specificity, nonetheless she could articulate the insight that more than a scientist’s knowledge of the body, what motivated this man of medicine’s gropings was a desire to be known for possessing knowledge of a woman’s body. Just what she had desired a moment ago, to be the location of another person’s desire, was now in its fulfillment the source of her current dislocation.
“I am convinced that what has eluded the physiologists, philosophers, and poets who have endeavored in this quest before me is an adequate account of the role played by the respiratory system. The sketchings of Leonardo must in this regard be dismissed as intuitive speculations, not scientific inquiry. Long years of contemplation have led me to conclude that the nose holds the key to desire. The nose is the most bisexual organ in the body, both structurally and functionally, and as such it is the missing link that connects our subjective desires to the objective world. Like the fabled purloined letter, it is the clue to our internal mystery, hiding in broad daylight. Does this bring you pleasure?” he asked, placing fingers from both hands into her lower openings, rocking them back and forth so that when one hand was pushing inward the other was pulling out, in a quick yet steady motion.
Chawa placed her arms delicately around his narrow sloping shoulders, and buried her eyes in the thick and ripely scented collar of his coat until his exertions produced a fluttering feeling in her knees, and she began to stamp her left leg rhythmically yet silently against the cold, dusty tiled floor.
“Just as I expected,” Dr. Fliess concluded, removing his hands and placing them against his deeply contracted nostrils. “You have a most unusually pronounced case of bisexuality: despite the exterior significations of a wholly feminine sexuality, the unmistakable response to manual stimulation betrays a masculine temperament. Yours is a most unusual case.”
Chawa fell into a wooden chair placed on casters, which she rolled to where her disheveled clothes lay on the floor. While collecting them into a heap on her lap, she asked him if he had come across other patients who had revealed similar paradoxes. “I don’t know,” he said. “So far you are the first person I’ve interviewed who has consented to the examination.”
It was late on a Friday afternoon when the two colleagues arrived at Berggasse 19, the home of their contact in Vienna who had solicited the renowned Dr. Fliess’s services. Though Chawa had never quite accepted the title Frau Doktor that her mentor had bestowed on her when her official employment with him began—I am, after all, neither, she had said—she enjoyed the fit of the lab coat he had given her to wear in the office, which masked her figure and conveyed a kind of neuter quality on her. “This is decisive,” he told her, “for reasons that so far only you and I aren’t aware of, but which, when I have collected the requisite comparative data will signal a revolutionary advance in our understanding of the nose and female sexuality.”
So far, however, she could tell only that whatever information the Herr Doktor collected, between the duties he had assigned her of conducting preliminary interviews with patients, taking their vital signs, transcribing his memoranda and notes, keeping his office and examining room in good working order, and assisting in routine corrective procedures, confined the categories of research to her sexuality and his nose: his scientific curiosity toward the smell of fading leaves and warm vinegar, the unstable compound of organic and chemical properties, that either hemisphere of her body emitted when stimulated, at his behest no less than twice daily, propelled his always inconclusive research with inexhaustible curiosity. Typically he directed her to stand above him as he applied his surgically trained fingers to the field of inquiry, while he brought his face to hover beneath her greater and lesser waters; despite his subordinate posture, the experiments over time intensified his powers of attraction to her, so that she ascribed to him, however imprecisely, not a panoptical command of her body, but a pan-olfactory knowledge, no matter how awkward the juxtaposition of Greek prefix with Latin adjective rang in her ears. There was so much, after all, that she didn’t yet know, so much she longed for him to teach her. It was all in the name of science, the tingling soreness of skin rubbed pink—his desire to touch found its echo and affirmation in her desire to learn. “I did all he desired for I desired it too, because I desired him, and even if he never desired me he desired knowledge of me. Our desires fed and consumed us.”
When they were shown into the dark, dimly lit parlor, thickly covered by a bright red Persian rug, their host rushed at once to greet them. He was a tall man—beautiful he was not, or at least was no longer—who with the help of a thickly applied pomade was able to control all but the frontmost strands of his full, long, black hair. His thick beard was already beginning to gray, and when he smiled, the fullness of his face lifted his coarsely twirled mustache up to expose the pale skin at the corners of his mouth. He shook Chawa’s hand vigorously with the impression of friendliness approaching an unwarranted familiarity, but in fact his sparkling and squinting dark eyes bore through her, and as soon as he released her fingers from his traveling salesman’s grip he led Dr. Fliess with one hand entwined with his and the other guiding him forward by the elbow through the open door of his study, which closed with a dead thud. Soon an elegant woman who had remained thin despite the inevitable accommodation of her hips to consecutive childbirths, whom Chawa instantly understood to be the stranger’s wife, entered the room, followed by a maid who unobtrusively set down a coffee service for the two women.
“I don’t usually serve coffee so late in the day,” she said, “but I’m happy to make an exception for visitors arriving from so far away. May I offer you cream or sugar?”
“No thank you: I’ve grown used to drinking it black in Berlin,” Chawa said.
The woman—Martha, she eventually volunteered—frowned slightly, curling her thick, dark lower lip under her teeth. Their small talk, never a well-developed specialty in Chawa’s repertoire, soon enough turned to her professional relationship with Dr. Fliess, and when at last the personal tone of Martha’s questioning reached an outer limit of propriety, Chawa said, “I assure you, Madam, that my service for the good doctor is undertaken in the name of science, and that my employer is a decent and respectable man.” As she said these words she asked herself if these had not been precisely the qualities she had felt most compelled to escape, so many years ago, from Immanuel Roth. In all those years of verdant youth, there had been no man in her life other than the decent and respectable Herr Doktor. What would the fibers of Martha’s rug feel like beneath her fingernails?
“Your doctor is a decent, respectable man,” Martha said, pouring more cream into an already tepid cup of half-drunken coffee. “My husband is also a decent and respectable man: even a wonderful man to his family.” She sipped. “But they are gruesome when they come together. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.”
Dr. Fliess had of course conducted no research on Chawa over the weekend they had spent in Vienna, and in fact had treated her with a monkish reserve, saving all his energy not for the task at hand, but for speaking about it with their host, whom Chawa would have cast as her rival for Fliess’s intellectual affections, had it not been clear to her from the first minutes of their arrival that this competition had already left her vanquished. It was not just the industrious rhythm that set Berlin apart from Vienna: it was also the absence of social and intellectual distractions that made work possible in one metropolis and not the other; Berlin was a city of action where Vienna was a place of endless and seemingly directionless talk. What value, then, did Fliess’s monologues have, when addressed to her behind the bolted door of his office? She would not attest to his brilliance the way this Viennese interlocutor—himself no stranger either to the monologue as a mode of discourse, or to the pedantic turn of phrase that reduced his audience to the level of a remarkably dull young child—might someday affirm. She was only a specimen studied in the laboratory for which she had assumed the responsibility of keeping clean.
That Monday morning Chawa was the first person to meet with the patient on whom these revolutionary men of science had converged to make history. Though Chawa would gladly have volunteered to take the plain, dark, squirrel-cheeked young woman’s place, Dr. Fliess had preempted her altruism by explaining that her case demonstrated a different etiology—bisexuality being distinct from the nasal reflex noxa, even as it inevitably was a related condition and just as debilitating in extreme examples such as her own—and therefore he would need to collect much more data before a precise diagnosis of her nasal condition would suggest the cure for a syndrome that at present could at best receive temporary relief through manual stimulation and pacification.
At the surgery, the patient, dressed that wet morning in a simple, flowing gray dress of a faintly shimmering fabric, confessed at once to Chawa her apprehension regarding the word experimental, as it applied to the day’s procedure. “Rest assured,” she replied, “that these two young scientists are the most thoughtful and conscientious researchers in all of Europe; every therapeutic decision at which they arrive is the consequence of great contemplation, study, and consultation with one another. If their conclusions seem radical, it is only because their thinking proceeds so far in advance of what anyone else in the scholarly world has yet dared that they can fall back only on their own intuitions and the mutual support that truly inspired thinkers achieve in concert with one another. They propose untested remedies because the need they observe is so great; not just for the individuals whom they treat, but also ultimately because our society, our civilization, our species requires their expertise. Like the great explorers filling in the blank spaces on the global map, these doctors are discovering the unconquered territories of the human psyche. Their research is, if anything, more dangerous and more momentous than the adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, for at least regions such as Suriname, Tierra del Fuego, and the lower Niger delta are known instinctively by their own natives. Our mind is unknown even to ourselves.”
The patient undressed before Chawa, who observed the fall of her sagging, conical breasts against her soft and slightly protruding stomach—her luminously pale skin discolored by fine black hairs, even around the nipples—with the same detached pity with which Dr. Fliess must have studied her own body. Specimens, she thought; science. The patient smiled at her, flashing small, crooked teeth, when at last she donned the white surgical gown and said, “It is comforting having you here to reassure me. You know I have a nervous temperament to begin with, obviously. The fact that these gentlemen have taken a woman into their confidence, as partner to their research, confirms for me the progressive motivation of their aims.”
The two scientists anesthetized the patient with a combination of ether, camphor, and cocaine, the latter of which was a particular preference in Dr. Fliess’s practice, one which he had occasionally used with Chawa in the course of their experiments; she had enjoyed the tingling it ignited in her extremities and the warming acceleration of her heartbeat which resulted, but they had agreed that it seemed to inhibit the genital and rectal response to his manual stimulation, a fact that he had duly recorded in the accumulating notes for her case history. The usual prescription for their therapy now called for him to inhale the cocaine and her to respond to his probings in what he termed a “state of nature.” She had anyway come to dread the feeling of melancholy that descended once the effects of the anesthetic had worn off.
For the first time Chawa donned the same white surgical gown, cap, mask, and gloves as Dr. Fliess and his associate when the operation commenced. Throughout the procedure Dr. Fliess explained to them both what he was doing and why: how the opening of the nasal cavity was like the opening of the womb, with all the anatomical features of the lower order finding functional and structural correlates in the upper; how the removal of a vestigial bone would not only improve, in this instance, respiration as well as drainage of post-nasal drip, but would also serve as a hygienic and chaste means of relieving the pressure of the pubic bone on the no less vestigial yet congestive filigrees of the female genital architecture. Chawa could not remember him ever speaking with greater ease or fluency. This was surely a lecture for which he had spent the last seven or more years preparing, and she had never felt more enthralled by the seductive yet reassuring sound of his voice—a rapture she could observe equally in the attentiveness of the Viennese colleague—nor more dedicated to the cause in which he had enlisted her. For one moment she was certain that she bore witness to history.
She nonetheless bore like witness to the apparent carelessness with which her master forgot to remove a surgical sponge from the nasal cavity while closing the incision from the procedure. It was all over so quickly, and throughout the deft yet inattentive mechanics of the operation, his voice, now so percussive and brash, continued to hold forth in a steady fountain of hot, red, fluid words. Chawa was for once grateful that she was not better trained in the intricacies of surgical technique, yet her ignorance refused to give way to obliviousness toward the oversight she had observed. When they left the operating table she placed a hand against the cold windowpane, on which hard pellets of snow and freezing rain tapped from outside, to cool herself from the overheated and under ventilated surgical chamber. Fliess and his crony remained in a jovial yet contemplative mood as they removed their gowns, washed their hands, and toasted the success of the operation with generous snifters of cognac.
When they returned to the house at the Berggasse 19 their host immediately retreated to his study to receive another patient. Fliess took Chawa to his room and kissed her there, suddenly and passionately. The whiskers around his mouth were not as soft or sleek as she had anticipated, and when he broke from their embrace she could smell the anchovies and olives he had eaten with breakfast beneath the aftertaste of brandy. This time it was he who undressed her and despite his familiarity with her body when naked he fumbled over the buttons, fasteners, and layers of undergarments that stood in the way of his intended intimacy. His hands, their delicate paleness notwithstanding, felt like paws on her clothing. Chawa was no longer flush from the overheated house and in fact wanted nothing better than to bury herself beneath a mountain of blankets and pillows; she felt at least sick at heart, if not literally feverish. Instead she soon stood naked with Fliess’s attention centered on the one area that in previous discourses he had described as the locus of bisexuality and the hypotenuse connecting the nose with the genitals in the triangulation of desire.
Chawa felt the warmth of his bony, hirsute chest, divested of its own layers of clothing, pressed against her back as he resumed his lecture on the bisexual act—the virtues of its transferability between genders, how it could be performed by a man on a woman or a man on a man or, well, if not a woman on a man then at least the woman could experience vicariously, as Chawa did now, the sensations of an inferred masculinity. The performance was not without its charms, and once again she responded involuntarily, by force of instinct and habit, rather than willingly and with an open heart as she had dreamed and imagined over the preceding solitary, clinical years, to the swiftness of his fingers and the deft, rhythmic movement of his hips. She nonetheless understood, definitively, that this was, for neither of them, love: not for him because the density of his peculiar theories had taken away the capacity for love; not for her because after having finally swept aside the Hanukah menorahs, Wagner transcriptions, and translations of Herbert Spencer by which he had defined his gentility to take what she had all along offered him every day for seven years in an act that he had promised would “improve the performance of coitus devised by God Almighty,” he saw but failed to comprehend that the designated object of his attention had just in the expanse of a few moments concluded, belatedly, that as much as he presented himself to the world as a man of science and culture, he was, as Martha had predicted, a monster.
Was this recognition, though, any different, she wondered, from the discovery Immanuel Roth had made so long ago, upon opening the envelope containing not the gift he had expected but the letter she had written which can only have inflicted devastating sorrow on him? Such were her thoughts even as the spiritless, technical stimulation of their silent dance reached its summit, a pantomime of passion, culminating first in the vigorous bucking of her hips, then, after having dislodged his body from hers, the rough digital manipulation of his outer nostrils, resulting after a few seconds in a thick, luminous flow of wet, warm mucus out of his nose and over his beard. He fell back onto the bed, his skin inflamed, his mouth moist and viscous, and his leaden eyelids closed in a look of debauched contentment. Chawa by contrast fought the heaviness in her legs and the long fantasized satisfaction of sleeping shamelessly by daylight, next to the man who upon replacing his role as beloved with that of lover had succeeded in becoming neither, and hurriedly dressed again.
“I must check on our patient,” she said to no one who could be encompassed with her by the first-person plural possessive. “She should be awakening from the anesthesia soon.”
Already when Chawa arrived at the recovery room she found the young woman, Emma, awake; her face was quite swollen and a tube had been inserted beneath the gauze and thick bandages covering her nose to drain the blood and pus from the operation. She was nonetheless in surprisingly good spirits—perhaps the effects of the cocaine had not yet worn off.
“I deduce from the discomfort I feel that the procedure must have been a success,” she told Chawa. “They must really have achieved something radical, and despite the pain I feel freer and less anxious than I have in months, maybe ever!”
“Dr. Fliess has stated unequivocally that the undertaking was an unqualified success,” Chawa replied, taking care to pitch her voice as softly and deeply as she could, “and I for one have never seen him handle his implements so well, nor express himself so clearly during the many years we have worked together.”
“I knew that my confidence in him was justified, Frau Doktor: he’s simply a wonderful, brilliant man!” Emma said.
“Yes, no matter how difficult your complete recovery may be, and how long it might take before you are back on your feet, never lose sight of his surgical talents or your role in medical history. It is of paramount importance that you focus your energy on resting as much as you can and that you let us know precisely how you are feeling. You have my word that I will stay with you until you’re ready to leave your sick bed.” Having laid the patient back to rest, Chawa informed the orderly that her case was far more critical than she had let on, and that either she or the attending physician should be notified at once—“even in the middle of the night”—if there should be any change in the patient’s condition.
“Yes, Frau Doktor,” the orderly said. At last, she had been vindicated by the title Fliess had grandiloquently bestowed on her when there had still been a chance for happiness.
When she arrived at suppertime at the house where they were staying, she found that Fliess had not only awoken and gotten dressed again, but had already packed his bags to return to Berlin. “I must hurry home,” he said. “If I can catch the afternoon train I will only have been absent for eight days, and Thursday is the beginning of a new cycle for my wife. With her now enceinte, it’s all the more important to keep track of her 23-day periods.”
“She is lucky to have a husband as devoted as you,” Chawa said. “I’ll remain here of course until the patient has recovered, and I’ll communicate her progress to you as long as I’m in Vienna.”
“There’s no need for you to do that,” Fliess said, putting on his heavy, dark overcoat. “Our host has already said he would keep me abreast of everything. His wife has agreed for you to have my room while you stay, so I’ll see you back in Berlin.” On his lips a saccharine smile flashed before he closed the door on her without waiting for a reply.
Though the nurses and orderlies continued to address her as Frau Doktor, it took Chawa more than five weeks to convince her host to call in another specialist to examine their patient. As the young woman’s condition deteriorated—the abscess where the surgery had been performed turned black in that time—Chawa continued to promise her that recovery was within sight. “Yes, of course the doctor is concerned, but that’s just the nature of his professional responsibilities. When you think he’s making faces at you, just remember which is the stronger sex, after all.” It was the first time she had ever seen the patient laugh, and though tears soon welled in her eyes from the irritation this provoked, Chawa knew that this was the only curative she could prescribe.
It was already the first Monday in March when her host called in the specialist whom Chawa had implored him to consult every day since Fliess had returned to Berlin. The new doctor, Gersuny, shared with the attending physician a sense that Emma’s long-delayed recovery was a phantom persistence of the hysterical etiology that had prompted the experimental procedure in the first place; Chawa’s erstwhile competitor for Fliess’s affections was equally convincing when he told Gersuny that her malicious anxiety toward the patient’s well-being was the displaced envy over having been passed over for Emma’s dubious position in medical history. “This is not the only instance of inversion that my colleague in Berlin has diagnosed in her case,” he concluded. Their conversation turned to a consideration of the doctor’s newly purchased etching of Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel, a work which neither in its third copy now hanging in Berlin nor in the print cheaply displayed on the Berggasse had ever appealed to her.
In order to ensure that life not imitate art, at least in this instance, Chawa resolved at last to take Emma’s fate into her own hands. Her decision was prompted on the day after Gersuny had thrown up his hands, when Emma’s fever was so advanced that the only relief Chawa could provide to still the freezing convulsions that shook her weary body was to stretch herself at full length on top of the patient, mouth to mouth, eye to weeping eye, hand upon hand, until entering into a kind of therapeutic trance Chawa was able not only to ease Emma into a fitful sleep, but also plot the next course of action for her treatment. Searching a directory she had found on her host’s writing desk that night after Martha had gone to bed, she placed a telephone call the following morning from the hospital to an ear, nose, and throat specialist named Immanuel Roth: she knew to find him here because he had often told her that he wished to settle in Vienna after their marriage; this was why she had chosen Berlin as her place of refuge in the first place.
Immanuel’s voice registered only mild and emotionless surprise when he answered the phone. When he met her along with Emma in the examining room he immediately diagnosed the problem, and as soon as the attending physician could be summoned they began the surgery, which required not only opening the nasal cavity but also breaking another bone in Emma’s face to drag out the noxious, saturated, pulpy black sponge that had lodged itself deeply in the space on which the first operation had focused.
“Here the dog lies buried,” Immanuel said, using an idiom common in Czernowitz to their grandparents’ generation, and the only editorial indulgence he had allowed himself while operating.
Once the cause of Emma’s long and needless suffering was discovered and removed—and she, now identified not as Fliess’s tormentor, as Chawa’s host had characterized her in exasperation toward her slow recovery, but as his victim—the host ran out of the room, overcome by the realization of what had been performed on her and how this implicated him. While the patient was finally packed and ready to resume her convalescence, Chawa rushed to the room in which he had secluded himself and offered him once again a generous glass of cognac. Though ever since her arrival he had refrained from smoking cigars, a habit of which Fliess disapproved because smoking dulled the nose’s olfactory function, he now sat with one hand covering his bespectacled eyes, in the same posture which Chawa remembered her grandfather saying his morning and nighttime prayers, and the other clutching a dark, half-finished Virginia, moistened at one end and tipped at the other with a corona of weightless gray ash.
When he finished the drink, Chawa led the shaken and humbled physician to Emma’s sickbed, where Immanuel was checking her vital signs while an orderly changed her bandages. At the sight of her mutilated face, raw and tender as if it had been disfigured by searing heat, the tall man at Chawa’s side winced, and Emma said, “So this is the strong sex.” Chawa smiled at her proudly, confident in her eventual recovery and her sudden moral victory.
That evening she left the patient’s room with Immanuel, who said, “I wished to consult with you first, but I’m planning to recommend tomorrow that Fraulein Eckstein press criminal charges against the two charlatans who have mutilated her so thoroughly.”
“You are to do no such thing,” Chawa said. “You have been summoned to perform a specific technical service: one I would gladly have completed had I possessed the requisite training. Having done your duty to the extent of your obligation, and with payment for that task already arranged, you are to have no further contact with the patient, nor are you to mention any aspect of this incident to anyone else.”
“As a doctor, I owe my patients complete honesty; to you, Fraulein Gelanternik, I owe nothing.”
“Listen to me, Immanuel: if you tell that poor girl that her physical appearance has been ruined permanently for a medically worthless experiment, can’t you imagine how devastating an effect your words will have on her? Not Fliess, but you will have destroyed her life.”
“Oh, Chawa—I see you haven’t changed at all. You are entirely untouched by womanly kindness or compassion. You are not even a woman at all—at least not a human woman. You are at heart a born deceiver.”
“Immanuel, do not turn this episode into an indictment of my character. It was your sanctimony and rectitude that drove me to desperation so many years ago. Time has left you unchanged, however much weight you have gained or hair you have lost since then. You look a decade older than you should, but that’s how you’ve always appeared to me. I did not want to hurt you, then, but I knew I could never marry you. I felt just as claustrophobic then, when you were trying to make me happy, as I do now. You suffocate me with your judgments and your incapacity to feel the sufferings of others.”
“My life is dedicated to alleviating the pain of others. To what have you dedicated your life, Chawa? As God is my witness, Chawa: you are a demonstrable thief and a liar, but the two confidence men you’re associating with have sullied your name far more than you have theirs. All of Vienna knows about that fraud you dragged into the operating room—Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus have contributed more to modern medicine than he has, and the science your specialist in Berlin advocates stands somewhere between alchemy and spiritualism. The mystery surrounding them is simply the fact that so far we know of only one life they’ve managed to ruin; one can expect that as they persevere in their folly this figure will climb exponentially higher!”
There were tears in his pale blue eyes as he spoke, and Chawa heard not anger in his voice, but great sorrow.
The windows lining the cold stairwell where they stood were fogged by their damp, hot breath, so that the busy Vienna street over which they gazed faded to an opaque silver glow. They might have been the only people in the world at that moment, and it was with regret that Immanuel saw that in spite of the ambition with which he stuffed himself, and the anxiety toward the opinion of his elders that furrowed his broad forehead, this was always how he had lived for Chawa, and always how he had hoped to live with her.
Chawa felt herself shrinking in proportion to Immanuel’s premature bulk. She had harmed him grievously seven, now almost eight, years ago, and here he stood, two steps beneath her, supporting his weight against the iron wrought banister, a bleeding, flailing, lurching animal at the end of the hunt. Should she at this late date try to heal him, or put him definitively out of his misery? Was it in her power anymore to accomplish either?
“The scientists with whom I work,” she said tonelessly, “have dedicated themselves to the mysteries of human feeling. Maybe they do not deserve to be called scientists. Perhaps there is no science to explain our feelings or their consequences. But there exists in the world intangible forces, and neither microscope nor telescope will uncover their physical properties. These men delve into an unseen world, because they know that the material senses do not hold a monopoly on the truth. They train themselves to see beyond the tangible. Tell me, Immanuel, is there anything intangible that you can see?”
“Yes,” Immanuel said, loudly enough to bounce an echo off the marble steps that now flickered nearly in darkness. “The only intangible I have ever apprehended, more real than my own limitations, was my love for you. Even now, Chawa, if you would only let me, even now I would abandon what little I have were you to permit me to try to make you happy. Don’t you understand, my Chawa, my nutmeg, that when you believe in something intangible, you don’t call it science, you call it love?”
“I understand it now,” she said, kissing his damp, thick, warm cheek effortlessly as she walked past him toward the doorway. “But when all is said and done I must return to Berlin—not to Fliess, only to my rented room. I am through, for the time being, with both love and science.” She stopped before opening the door onto the cold night. “I’ve been thinking over the past month that perhaps I should become a veterinarian. The suffering of other people has only created more mirrors for my own sorrow and solitude. Maybe taking care of cats would provide me with more satisfaction. What do you think, Immanuel?”
She paused, but without waiting for a reply she turned to open the door, once again prepared to leave Austria with nothing but a heavy winter hat, an overcoat, a handbag holding her cash, an untranslated volume of Baudelaire, and the clothes on her back.
~ Bella Cohen ~
(November 22, 2007-January 27, 2008)
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