Our first excerpt from Lynne Tillman’s excellent new collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do. The answer to the title’s question here is talk about Marx (Karl, not Harpo or Groucho), though writing is strung through with sharp, often funny observations, plus a keen take on the poetry inscribed in Marx’s Commodity Fetish. Written in the early ’90s, “Body Parts for Sale” feels as current now as it did then (despite the fact that the politicians mentioned are Reagan and Bush, Sr). Additionally, the body horror here (and tragicomedy to be found in it) is matched by that in another essay we nearly published, “The History of Shit,” whose title alone should make you go out and buy the collection….
ONE NIGHT PATRICK McGrath regaled a group of us with a strange but, he said, true tale: A man went into a bar in lower Manhattan for few drinks, was seen talking to a woman and didn’t return home. The man’s wife was frantic—he’d never done this before, not come home. A few days passed and there was still no word from him. Then, on the fourth day of his absence, a man awoke in Central Park, dazed; he didn’t remember what had happened to him. He was taken by the police or passersby to a hospital. The doctors found, on his lower back, a fresh and healing scar, evidence of an incision. It turned out that the man had been robbed— of his kidney. The hospital was not surprised. This was not the first time they’d encountered it. Body parts are for sale these days, what with organ transplants being a hot new technique and organs very much in demand.
We all thought it was a perfect story for Patrick to tell me— a modern day horror story. We all thought it was really ghoulish business, business for our times.
The tale took on added credibility when on September 23, 1991, I read an account in the New York Times of an Egyptian laborer who was selling one of his kidneys in Cairo to the highest bidder, so as to give his children an education. In the Third World, organ selling is a growing market that “relies on live donors and draws donors from throughout the Middle East.” The news story was titled “Egypt’s Desperate Trade: Body Parts for Sale.”
The body as a commodity wouldn’t have surprised Karl Marx. But what surprised me, in looking back at the “Fetishism of the Commodities” chapter of Capital, was to see that Marx himself had been influenced by the Gothic—and/or, that the Gothic had been for him a viable way to analyze the commodity form.
Here Marx writes of the mysterious quality of the commodity form. He says: “The table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness . . . it evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value . . . it is nothing but the definite social relation between men which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order therefore to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own . . . I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are commodities . . .”
A little later in his narrative Marx refers to a hidden secret. He imagines how commodities might speak. In these passages Marx, a Gothicist, refers to the “grotesque,” and spices his discourse with “transcends,” “mystical,” “wonderful,” “misty,” and “fantastic.” He animates the commodity form—anthropomorphizes it, as when he wonders how it would speak and then he goes so far as give it voice or dialogue. The things he imagines so vividly represent the hidden labor and relations of people and in the way he conjures them brings to my mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and further the Golem story that Frankenstein was based on.
In that story, the Jews create a man of clay to protect them, to represent them, the most famous Golem that of Rabbi Low’s creation in the 16th century. Rabbi Low has to destroy the Golem when he runs amuck and cannot be controlled by his human creator. In Marx’s version of capitalism, the commodity form seems to be its uncontrollable Golem. I like looking at what Marx wrote in this section as allegorical, as a kind of narrative fiction that uses as its antihero protagonist the Golem named commodity form.
It’s interesting to reflect on why Marx would use the Gothic to talk about and render the effects of capitalism. And, to bring the question up to date: What I am doing in an anthology titled The New Gothic. And why does it exist? Perhaps the current enthusiasm for the Gothic, for horror as a genre in the U.S. and England, is in part a reflection of contemporary life, specifically life under postindustrial multinational capitalism, a capitalism under, in and through which we writers labor and produce, and a powerful way of articulating and representing that condition. Inescapably, the new Gothic will also be a handle, a fad, a marketing tool, but this does not alter its value, to me.
These days the West gloats over the demise of communism, the premise being that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. The demise of totalitarianism from the left or right is something to be happy about, but I’m left wondering what capitalism offers, apart from a certain economic system, to the spirit that haunts our Gothic stories, and to a sense of how society should be run, to a sense of what common goals can be. Dog-eat-dog and survival of the fittest are appropriate metaphors for not just the capitalist ethic but also for the production of Gothic perambulations. In our country without adequate health care and housing, a country first decimated by Reagan’s criminal grotesqueries and Bush’s new world order, what more credible form is there?