Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pentimento

Lately, I've been thinking about a book I read when I was a kid and about how my first ever sex ed teachers may have been Frankenstein and the Wolfman. For some reason, a copy of a book called Monsters Who's Who sat on the shelf in my grade school library. How or why a Catholic school like Sacred Heart Elementary would ever have acquired such a book is beyond me, much less why they would ever put it on a shelf that children could reach. They didn't even let us play baseball with metal bats. But a key to the door to Hell? Sure, kids. Go nuts. I guess they wanted us to know our hippogryphs and gorgons as well as our archangels and martyrs.

Now last quarter — also known as "the last last quarter" — Prof. Waid lectured on a short story by Katherine Anne Porter called "The Grave." Waid said that the story represented a sort of literary pentimento. I had never heard the term before, but she explained it as the tendency for the top layers of older paintings to grow more transparent over time, often revealing images that the artist had painted over.

I find the word itself beautiful, but the concept is an almost magical one to me. In a painting where once only a tree stood, the ghostly figure of a man could slowly fade into view. A dog could appear under a chair where none had before been visible. Stuff like that. Mysterious, wonderful happenings contained wholly within the world of a painting.

Prof. Waid related the term to "The Grave" be explaining that the narrator realizes that she had been remembering a childhood incident for the wrong reason. What she had always pigeonholed as a memory of she and her brother playing in an open grave actually stuck out in her mind because it led to her first awareness of sex. During their games at the gravesite, the narrator and her brother examine and dissected the body of a dead, pregnant rabbit. Death is a presence though the entire story, for sure, but the really memorable part about the dead rabbit's womb being cut open and the contents of her womb spilling out. This, in retrospect, was the narrator's first awareness sexual reproduction. Upon seeing the dead rabbit, she even wishes she was wearing a dress instead of overalls, which the reader could interpret as a sudden hyper-awareness of her own gender. One might also say that the narrator had just never analyzed the incident thoroughly enough until she narrates the story in the book.

Waid's comparison of this to pentimento is a bit of a stretch, but I like it. Over time, something that had always been there — just masked — rushes to the forefront of perception and makes itself known.

I realized today that this concept relates to me and this strange book called Monsters Who's Who. This book was popular with all the guys in my class. We must have stumbled upon it in third grade or so, but one look at the card inside the book would indicate the levels of fame the book had achieved at Sacred Heart. It always had a new card. That meant it got checked out often enough that the card filled up and had to be replaced. (A book life Profiles in Courage, for example, could easily sit on the shelf and have the same check-out card from 1962. Kids.)

It's not hard to understand why a bunch of boys would like such a book. Because it worked like an encyclopedia for imaginary creatures of various world mythologies as well comic books and B-level sci-fi and horror movies from the 1960s, it had a natural appeal. Boys love that stuff. And in Catholic school, it gave us the freaky, grotesque creatures that the Bible couldn't. (They usually don't teach Revelations and its seven-headed beasts until high school.)

The image from the book I can remember most vividly was one of the Devil. If I remember right, they depicted him as a dark, almost silhouetted beastly figure on an orange background. The Devil was holding in his heads a screaming human head, but the head had pipes coming out of it at odd angles. One of the pipes went into the Devil's mouth, and I think the Devil was playing the poor man's head like a bagpipe. Again, I can't quite believe they allowed this book into a Catholic school library, but I can remember this image clear as day.

But beyond the book's base, puerile interest — "Dude! Look at that! Is that blood?" — I think Monsters Who's Who was my first exposure to anything sexual. I can clearly remember reading the entries for "succubus" and "incubus" and looking up words like "rape" in the dictionary afterwards. I might not have completely understood what it all meant, but I got something from it before I got it anywhere else.

I also remember the art that accompanied the entry for "unicorn." Because unicorns are often associated with virginity in western European folklore, the art depicted a naked woman standing next to the animal. Someone — I'm going to guess an old Catholic school teacher with an unsatisfying sex life — had scribbled out the woman's vagina and nipples with a blue ball point pen, but even that was still more than I had ever seen before. And for all I know, I may have actually thought that women had tight, blue swirls down there. Lilith, of course, was nakes. Medusa had shed her toga. The lamia and the sphinx and the mermaids and harpies had exposed breasts. The satyrs hopped around with giant erections, as they are wont to do.

So the more I think about it, the more I think Monsters Who's Who and its ghastly subjects taught me about sex. I've never forgotten the book, but I always processed it on the level of being the kind of book that got me interested with mythology and folklore and the freakier creatures people can piece together when they tell the same story over and over again.

It's odd that something natural and normal would have been paired with the imaginary and profane, but it would explain a lot about how I think about sex. (Plus all the years in Catholic school.) I just wonder whatever became of that book. I made quick search online and couldn't find any sites selling old copies, but I'm sure they're there, somewhere. I just wonder if some uppity school official hasn't already tossed my copy out of the Sacred Heart Library.

I hope not. I'd hate to think future generations of Catholic youth would have to hear about sex for the first time the normal way. You know: from a priest.

EDIT: I looked again and found some copies for sale. Apparently the author's name is Dulan Barber. Please note that the description for the first one notes it being a "coffee table book." Yes, in the house of the McNerdergoth family.

[ grimalkin got your tongue? ]

1 comment:

  1. So you know, the vagina is the tube part of a woman's genitals. What was scribbled out was the virgin's vulva. We wouldn't call a penis a testicle, would we?

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