Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

An Extract from Tommy Wieringa’s The Dynamics of Desire

In his reportage A Rough Trade the British writer Martin Amis investigates the porn industry on the American West Coast. For producer and former actor John Stagliano he has really only one question: ‘How do you account for the emphasis, not just in your … work but in the industry in general, how do you account for the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex?’ Stagliano thinks for a moment and then says: ‘Pussies are crap.’
I tell Verschoor this in the vortex of sunlight and blossom: ‘Pussies are crap’. A tram’s bell jangles, people get on and off, fan out across the square – Verschoor and I are like stones in the current. ‘Why have you always stayed in Amsterdam?’ I ask. ‘Wouldn’t you be better off in a quieter environment? Without all this … stimulation?’ My arm makes a circle around the Spui.
He shakes his head. ‘I’d die of boredom where you live. Birds irritate me. City air is free air, as they say.’
‘A saying from feudal times, after they’d fled the poverty and servitude of the countryside.’
‘Culture and people, always people around you, plus here you can buy milk and cigarettes twenty-four hours a day. Where you are … it’s dark at night. There’s no distraction, nothing. I seek the light, my friend, like a moth.’ He burps softly. I smell cucumber.
My friend seeks the light and he looks for it in the dark. We once attended a party together, at an industrial park in Zaandam. A leather, lacquer and fetish party, called Wasteland. Verschoor had been there once before (‘you’ve no idea what goes on’) and I had gone with him out of what I called ‘journalistic interest’. He was going to tell his wife that he had spent the evening with me, in the grass by a fire. A ‘blind-eye evening’, he called it (he also knew all about ‘trap-shut’ weekends). We went into an old hangar where aircraft engines used to be assembled; abandon all hope, ye who enter here. There were thousands of people all of whom had come for their own specific kind of pleasure. On a stage naked women with breasts that didn’t move were dancing; in spaces where the workers once ate their lunch people were having sex with each other in public. I saw lovers going around chained together and body piercings in places where I had never seen them before. For each sexual bent a space had been fitted out and I stared wide-eyed at things that had been engendered in the darkest depths of the imagination and were worshipped here in a cult of sexual desire. It was my first encounter with porn as a lifestyle, with matching attributes, fashion statements, meeting-places and codes of behaviour.
But these are peripheral movements, the descent was not yet completed – slowly we circled downward, to the bottom of that funnel-shaped hell, the black heart of Wasteland: the dark room. We were drawn to it like carrion-eating flies to Amorphophallus titanum, the giant arum that smells like a cadaver when it blooms. I did not know whether these things were meant for my eyes, whether I really wanted to see what I was going to see, whether I would cross into a territory from which no return was possible, but I did know that I was going to look and look, the way I would look at a terrible accident on the other side of the road. Verschoor had that feverish, glittering look in his eyes as we entered the blackness of the dark room, the damp warm blackness filled with bodies searching for one another. It took a moment before my eyes were accustomed to the dark, before I could distinguish people and limbs that had combined to form odd-shaped fantasy animals. There were girls who were servicing four or five men at the same time, there were pairings of beautiful young people whose bodies gleamed in the blue dusk. These were sexual gymnastics of a very high order, this was pleasure at its highest pitch and the derangement of all the senses. It was the belly of a ship, it was a galley and you could hear the sighing and groaning of the slaves at the oars. And I – I was rowing with them, no doubt about that. I swung between extremes of disgust and lust, back and forth, back and forth, for all resistance, all defence, was useless in that darkness with its boundless possibilities.
That night I lay awake: horror vacui. I was back in the world of reassuring things, a sheep that coughed in the rolling mist above the meadow, a horse that snorted and stamped, but they didn’t reassure me. I had entered the labyrinth, in the shadows lurked the beast, the Minotaur, but there was no love-thread to lead me back to the outside. There, in the dark labyrinth of Wasteland, I had met myself, the bull-man, mostly blind, governed by his passions. Tat tvam asi, that is you.
‘I am not sleeping’, I wrote later, ‘I rub my arms, it’s cold tonight. You are nice, I say to myself, don’t be afraid, you’re not lost. You could have predicted this – this fear and this disgust, the inevitable torment that follows the little death, the way a dog is followed by its tail. Shush, shush, love. But it doesn’t help. For we are lonely. It is night. We are very afraid.’
That night I knew what a human life was: a rickety bridge, that spans an unfathomable gulf, a bottomless abyss. I had sought the furthest limit of my desires and had fulfilled them with very little holding back, dulled my nerves through overstimulation, and now I had come down hard. The little death was a foretaste of the big one. I had looked beyond desire and had seen Nothingness. Horrible, horrible. The emptiness of non-being, the silence before and the silence after your death. La petite mort is the collapse after the orgasm, after the fulfilment, when for a brief moment a person is beyond desire and a new one doesn’t immediately appear on the horizon. The god of sexuality laughs at you – with a death’s-head grin. And you know that desire is life itself – and that non-desire, that emptiness, yes, that is death; you are surfing on a sliver of time in a whirling infinity.

Heading home, I hadn’t seen Verschoor so happy in a long time. A blond girl had turned her backside to him and he had taken her. ‘Like Disneyland’, he said, ‘goddamn Disneyland, I got to go inside everything …’ He gave a slap to the steering wheel. He dropped me off at home, continued to his wife and children and I was left alone with my demons. I tried to think of Wasteland as a kind of up-market masturbation, a sterile, narcissistic form of sex that, despite the presence of other people, concerned only yourself. Later, when the memory was less weighed down by moral ballast, I realised that sterility is the hallmark of porn, to which category such parties, to my mind, belong. Sterility is already implicit in the name: Wasteland, the arid land, the vast barrenness where nothing grows.

From The Dynamics of Desire (De dynamica van de begeerte, 2007)
Translated by Pleuke Boyce

First published in The Low Countries, 2008