Olivia Durif

Erotics of Narcissism: How to Be a Daddy and a Woman


In my junior year of college, I lived in an overpriced one-bedroom apartment in a trendy Portland neighborhood, a treasured refuge from campus life. My roommate and best friend, C, set up a makeshift bedroom in a corner of the living room. One Saturday night, C and I decided to organize our bookshelves. We were probably already too drunk to want to go to the bar and not sober enough to consider sleep, and so we decided to rally ourselves for the task we’d put off since C’s moving in several months prior. The categories we created included some of the following: “Formative,” “Novels,” “Sapphic,” “Confession,” “Modernist,” “Trash”… the process was instantly amusing, a Saturday night well spent. Our shelf categories evolved from a way to kill time into a veritable art piece—an exhibition, brilliantly curated, not only of my and C’s impressive undergraduate library and a sublimation of our own sexual frustration (at least our Sapphoes got to rub jackets)—but most of all it was an exhibition of the way C and I understood likeness, and a tool for our houseguests to begin to understand how our own codes for identifying meaning worked. That year, C and I had a habit of hosting “ladies only” dinner parties for our friends and girls we wanted to be friends with. Girls we had seen from afar and admired, girls we had desperate crushes on, girls we knew had desperate crushes on us. However chaste or Sapphic our parties themselves ended up, our bookshelves became a key tool in sharing the intimacy of our space with others. Whether by flipping through a “Confession,” noticing doubles in the “Formative” section, or forcing us to explain why we had sacrilegiously put some canonical text in “Trash,” our shelves enabled our guests to experience the webs of meaning woven between two close friends, a network of (big and little) significances that could not have been so effectively spoken by themselves.

Two of our book categories had the word “Daddy” in them. “Brown Daddys”1 was comprised of Charles Darwin, St. Ignatius, Leonard Cohen, American Transcendentalists, travel writers, farming manuals, Hesiod, BKS Iyengar, Walt Whitman, pop-culture Environmentalist manifestos (Michael Pollan, Stewart Brand, etc.). I only vaguely remember who was in “Plato & Other Daddys,” but I’d put my money on Milton, Marx if he wasn’t definitely in philosophy, and Gertrude Stein would have definitely been an “Other Daddy” if she hadn’t featured in both “Modernist” & “Sapphic.” Let’s extract from these categories some definition of the epithet “Daddy.” Some foregrounded traits include: an interest in physical movement (Hesiod, Iyengar), a close affiliation with the outside world (Thoreau, Pollan, Brand), effusive sexual pride (Whitman, Cohen, Stein). I want to suggest that the Daddy is not merely an authoritative character to be thwarted. A relationship, I think, between Daddyness and a particular type of homo/sexual self-assertion ought to be explored.

* * *

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout,
  and  laughingly dash with your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes
I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour;
My words itch at your ears till you understand them

I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the time while I wait for
    a boat,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you, tied in
    your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosened.)

(Whitman, Song of Myself)

The Daddy glorifies, celebrates himself—often in a sexual way, and very often in a way that uses sexuality. While I’m not saying that the only kind of genius is a person who can proclaim his own genius, this is the kind of genius that a Daddy is. The kind whose trust in himself, in the lines he draws, words he speaks, and the movements he makes with his own body, create a power that renders him, if not a hero, certainly a role model.

Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein both embody this sense of the “Daddy” type. While a Daddy is probably in good shape, he is not himself an athlete. The Daddy is a coach, an instructor. Think about a father who teaches his son to play catch, or learn how to swim. In these instances of physical instruction, the father is as much of a Daddy as he will ever be. Whitman is interesting because it isn’t his sons he teaches to swim, but his lovers.

The Daddy exudes confidence: “I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?” Later on in Whitman’s poem, the speaker says of the ocean “I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers, / I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me.” The speaker makes a lover out of Mother Nature herself. This isn’t pathetic fallacy, but rather a kind of self-love that is at first autoerotic—the pleasure the speaker experiences at the touch of the ocean is rendered an erotic experience by making the ocean a subject and objectifying the self. Whitman’s is a narcissism imagined without its pathology, formed from elements of generous self-love. It is a celebration of the subject so intense that it overflows and permeates others with self. This is either the opposite of objectification, a reification of some primordial selfhood, or it is the ideal of objectification, a dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside. The speaker dares the ocean, as he dares the lover, to “stray,” beaming with a presumption that is the lesson itself—the knowledge, as a given, that the beloved thing will come back.

And why doesn’t the speaker’s lover stray for long? What makes the speaker so irresistible? “I follow you whoever you are from the present hour; / My words itch at your ears till you understand them.” Here is a paradox: the lover returns because he has been instructed to stray, but the speaker is his role model and the point of a role model is that the student wants to be where his teacher is standing. The Daddy, then, is a teacher of movement. Movement in space, certainly, but also movement through desire. The student doesn’t so much learn about the nature of his desire through his role model, but he does learn how to satisfy it.

Maybe it’s helpful to think about the lover’s return metaphorically, not unlike how we must think about the agency of the ocean. To “return” to your role model is to have assumed his position. The speaker teaches his lover to jump into the sea, swim well, and come in with the tide. But it is as much the speaker’s confidence in the boy as it is his confidence in the movement of the tides themselves that leaves him unworried about this cycle of release and return. The speaker teaches his student how to swim in the sea, but models his methods on the movement of the sea itself; the capacity to move with strength and grace through the medium of the ocean is embodied by the movement of the tides.

This paradox of teaching to stray is related to a paradox of translation: “It is you talking just as much as myself… I act as the tongue of you, It was tied in your mouth… in mine it begins to be loosened.” What does it mean to be someone else’s tongue? To have someone else’s tongue “tied” into your mouth? The pun here is key: being “tongue-tied” is the opposite of being articulate. The role model does not teach his student to speak his desire, but to act on it. This looseness is also crucial: the kind of action the speaker teaches is, like the movement of the tides, a movement that requires a certain amount of space (and trust in that space) within or amidst a substance that is liquid or slippery (a rough ocean, a tongue-tied mouth) and uncertain.

This is where the question of gay role models gets particularly exciting. The difference between identification and sexual desire is always ambiguous, and in this case it is especially cloudy. The speaker’s methods of teaching and loving are both akin to translation. A good translation, like a good romance, involves identification, whereas a bad one, like a bad romance, is projection. What is the difference between identification and projection?

* * *

Gertrude Stein writes an autobiography for her lover. “For,” in both the sense of about and also in the sense of instead of. Stein wrote an ode to her lover, but also an ode to herself, through her lover’s tongue. Through her lover’s tied tongue.

I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say that in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In none of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began. (Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas)

Stein plays ventriloquist, using her own distinct literary voice but borrowing her lover’s metaphorical tongue to tell her own story. Phrases like “I must tell what I saw” abound in Stein’s novel—the implied author exhibits an overt insistence that the speaker’s observations are objective and true. What does a reader make of an insistence on the veracity of an autobiographical experience that we know, because Stein is the author on our book’s cover, isn’t? We can recall Whitman’s translating tongue and the notion of return. Stein’s use of Toklas’s identity is a metaphor, but for what? What kind of role model is Stein and why does this make her a Daddy? The answer is related Stein’s proclamation of her own “genius,” which, delivered through Toklas the character, only serves to increase the brilliant audacity of Stein’s claim. But it is the last sentence in the first chapter of Stein’s Autobiography that interests me most: “In this way my new full life began.” This is where we see the fullest expression of Stein as a role model—a teacher and a Daddy. Unlike a mother, who gives life, the Daddy opens up a space for his student/child/lover to birth themselves.

* * *

One time in Mexico, a gorgeous, lesbian yoga teacher (M) who I barely knew and who certainly knew nothing about my sex life, sat me down and told me that I wielded “lesbian power.” Obviously, this strong, assertive athlete was a total role model. Finally coming down from my high on M’s thrilling and daunting praise I thought a little about what she meant. What kind of power was she talking about? Was she telling me I was a seductress, or a role model myself? Was she coming on to me? Whatever her impetus, this comment was to be the first of many similar, though never quite as amazing, instances of my own coding in the world as a woman who desires women. It seemed to happen all of a sudden. I had been sleeping with women since I was 16. What was different now? There must be a relationship between this “lesbian power” and the female-bodied exhibition of a “masculine side.” But what is this masculine side? I wondered. At the beginning of college, I cut off my long curly hair into a compact buzz cut—a pretty dykey haircut if you ask me. But although I was more often mistaken for a boy, my desire for women did not seem any more legible. The answer to what had changed, I think, returns to the question of role models and of a certain kind of narcissism.

A human anatomy textbook geared towards yoga instructors suggests that a student should “go deeply inside oneself” in order to experience spirituality. M said she linked coming out to herself with her own yoga practice. She said, “It’s all about touch!” She meant self-touch, knowing how to move your parts, but she also meant touching the bodies of her students. “I mean,” M said, “in what other profession am I allowed to touch your ass?” C once remarked on this amazing phenomenon: “When I was in high school,” C said, “I had two gay role models. One was my yoga teacher and the other was my poetry teacher. I could write a poem about sex to one of them and the other could touch me and it could never be the other way around.”

* * *

I used to think: why can’t a woman throw herself at the feet of a man without thinking about it, at least not in the same way that a man can prostrate himself at the feet of a woman?

There’s a subtle difference between jealousy and envy. Jealousy is of the thing; envy is of the other guy. It’s the famous “be him or fuck him” problem.

I once fell in love with a farmer and thought that maybe I wanted to marry him. I woke up in the middle of a breezy, northern California midnight in the cabin with a sweaty realization that I wanted to be a farmer, not a farmer’s wife. The next morning, I packed my bags.

* * *

Could I be turning into a Daddy? My queer legibility coincided almost directly with my taking yoga “more seriously” and getting good at farming. Since I’ve been conscious of my own sexual desire—even as a little girl, before I could name it—I’ve recognized my attraction to women in the sticky web of my desires. How could these relatively non-sexual practices (yoga and farming) so intensely contribute to the exhibition of my own sexual desire? It has to do with the physical demonstration of moving my body intentionally through space, and the fact that this demonstration is sexual. Desire is obviously sexual, but the capacity to satisfy it is sexy, at least in the Daddy sort of way. The Daddy uses his student/lover as a means through which to return to the self, but since he also anticipates and encourages self-replacement (as a role model), the Daddy’s apparent narcissism is a model of self-touch. Whitman uses the ocean as a medium through which to demonstrate movement through desire; Stein uses her lover’s identity. Both exude and celebrate a capacity to satisfy themselves in coded exhibitions. Instead of waxing poetic here about the freedom of truck-driving and the power of a perfected Chaturanga pose, I’ll just let my body be a tongue, or a bookshelf, and speak for itself.

1 It would take another essay to fully explain and defend the “Brown Daddys” category. Suffice it to say, the qualifier “brown” as used here emerged from another shared language.

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