The sex life of objects: a romantic triste in the Sir John Soane Museum

Kat Addis
January 23, 2018
Online Only
"Candlelight Tour, Sir John Soane's Museum, London" by John Kannenberg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I have been a volunteer warder in the Sir  John Soane Museum for four months. Soane himself, of course, was the  warder to end all warders, inviting his architecture students over to  gawp every week or so, so that they might learn of a classical world  which, thanks to Napoleon, they had no other access to. If it was  raining, nobody was allowed in for fear of their muddy imprints. I am  pleased at the thought; its nice to carry something on that was  considered so very important by its initiator.

The weight of it is the thousands of fragments of plundered plaster  and stone that line the walls as high as you can see, intersecting with  light through cross-sections of yellowed glass in every enclave and gap.  The breakfast room is bursting with mirrors. When I am sitting in the  far left hand corner and you enter opposite, if I glance up to the small  convex mirror above your head there are nine of you. As you move  around, your twins multiply and subtract with a pleasing randomness  until you pass through and leave it, again, empty.

When I am stationed in the crypt, I stand at the exact midpoint  between the death mask of General Richard Parker and the life mask of  Sarah Siddons, which are hung facing each other on opposite walls of the  room. Sarah Siddons was an actress at the turn of the eighteenth  century. Soane was probably at Sarah’s final performance of Macbeth in  1812, the performance at which the crowd refused to allow her to get  past the sleepwalking scene, at which the curtain closed and reopened on  Sarah as herself, in her own clothes, delivering a ten minute long  farewell speech to her beloved fans. This is the ultimate retirement of  an actor: to be on stage as herself, to admit that the artifice was all  along reality and vice versa. It clearly had an effect on Soane.

General Parker was the son of a baker. He was posted to a ship called  HMS Sandwich on the Nore in 1797. A horrible ship, full of rats and  vice and squalor – a Kingsmill marmite sandwich, if you will. He did not  really do much in the mutiny of the Nore, but because he was  intelligent the sailors made him their leader. He told the navy that if  they did not give in to the sailors’ demands, ‘such steps by the Fleet  will be taken as will astonish their dear countrymen’. What a sweet and  retiring threat.

An actress and a baker’s son might have seemed like a good couple,  though. Two people who were a little rogueish, a little risqué, but  highly inoffensive, two people of whom one could be rather fond, as one  paced about one’s private personal crypt of a Sunday evening.

Where I am standing is always the point at which their genitals meet.  What you don’t know is that their grotesquely distended bodies are  actually locked in a carnal embrace. This explains several observable  facts. The main one is that both of their expressions are orgasmic. More  precisely, they are appropriate to the moment just after ecstasy, the  exhalation of exhausted pleasure. It also explains the positioning of  the masks, which to me is weirdly confrontational and prompts the  question of what these two faces have to do with each other.

What is really there is just two faces oddly lined up amongst other  fragments on opposite walls of the cavernous room. The room is vaulted  and at the far right side, in an enclave of its own, is the great  sarcophagus of King Seti I of Egypt (d. 1279 BC), discovered in the  early 19th century by George Belzoni who was an off-duty  clown. I am fond of standing in from of the fragment of a woman’s leg,  raised and bent as if in childbirth, and looking at the man’s leg  nearby, taught, muscular and running away. This makes me chuckle  bitterly to myself (a good look for a warder). Behind it is the large  Classical god’s head, which is either Pluto or Jupiter depending on what  I can remember and what I think is correct. All the action of the scene  comes from me. There are no extended limbs locked in sexual embrace,  and I agree, it’s a weird sex position. They would both need to be on  their backs, legs scissored across the room like two sycamore seed pods  slotted one into the other.

The reason Sarah Siddons and General Parker are having sex is immensely complicated. We will return to it.

There is part of me that wants to give in to a sort of  eighteenth-century soft porn now: ‘said the actress to the General’… The  General is ushered into her dressing room at the end of Macbeth:

‘Miss Siddons, you were wonderful.’

‘Oh, I don’t know about that, General. I am terribly sorry about the  wardrobe mishap. Bess won’t be hearing the last of it for a while,  neither will I.’

‘I must confess…ahem… I was not sorry.’

‘Oh…General!’

But it’s not like that at all. They never met, Sarah and Richard,  they did not hang around in the same circles. But, now I’ll let you in  to the greatest twist of all. Soane was mistaken about the identity of  his death mask. Hilariously mistaken, given the circumstances. The Soane  Museum’s brochure tells us that what we are looking at ‘is in fact that  of Oliver Cromwell’. So, Oliver Cromwell, the one who seized and  whipped actors who dared to tread the boards, is the one to be caught in flagrante  in the crypt of Sir John Soane’s museum clenched between the  outstretched legs of Miss Sarah Siddons, who trod the boards to death.  Remember General Parker’s benign threat to ‘astonish’ the navy? Now  forget it. We are dealing with a very different manner of address: ‘Ye  sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned  the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and  wicked practices?’ Soane was actually in possession of the death mask of  one of the most excoriating and vicious figures in English history.

Cromwell, I think, did not like dying. He was probably the sort of  man for whom that messy and human process would have been a dreadful  trial. His final words were apparently, ‘my desire is to make what haste  I can to be gone’. This is a face that died in haste – that got it over  with (god forbid that he should give in to the theatricality of  death!). I am thinking now of that famous Tosca who cried her, ‘O Scarpia, devanti a Dio‘,  and leapt off the parapet only to come bouncing back up again and  again, her net replaced for a trampoline by devious stage-hands. That’s a  theatrical death.

Sarah Siddons, though, was a great tragedian. The mask was not, for  her, ‘warts and all’, and all death. For her it was as much a part of  life as crouching in the corner of her dressing room, pissing in her  chamber pot one minute before she is Lady Macbeth marching out in sleep  to scrabble at her damned spot. Sarah once famously fainted at the sight  of the Elgin marbles. All those naked bodies in stone, the writhing,  enslaved, agony of the bodies were nothing stone to her. There is no  simple boundary in Sarah between life and statue: her life mask  proclaims it. Funny that Oliver’s mask looks so similar to hers then,  given that he was dead and she was alive when they were respectively  made. This is something Oliver cannot control, just as he cannot control  the look of luxurious bliss that settled on his features after death.  Captured forever, oh the humiliation, in beige plaster.

It seems appropriate that at the moment of sexual climax, Oliver  Cromwell is dead and Sarah Siddons is alive. It poses no problem to the  whole set up. Oliver – a man – cannot be out of control. It is too  undignified. His life juices are to be channeled into what’s important:  faith, justice, leadership, the nation’s honour, and his own. It would  have been the same with General Parker. His ejaculations were heavy with  shame and the consciousness of wasted vitality. He needed that for  battle, for mutiny. Both men surrender themselves to a deathlike state  in sex, a state that carries with it the knowledge of impending  judgement, purgatory and gloom. They have headed into the underworld of  their carnal desires and mingled juices with the Cerberus of a woman’s  sexual appetite. It is hardly their fault, but it is nothing to be proud  of — ‘my desire is to make what haste I can and be gone’.

It was Sarah’s gift, on the contrary, to bring life to the lifeless. Thomas Campbell wrote in his adoring Life of Sarah Siddons,  ‘with the sorriest text to justify the outpouring of her own radiant  and fervid spirit, she turned into a glowing picture what she had found  but a comparative blank’. Nothing could be more necessary for the  situation she finds herself in now. This is not about Oliver. This is  her moment of ecstasy and she is making do with what there is. Sarah  Siddons is a ‘splendid fiend’. Her Lady Macbeth, as she describes her in  Memoranda, is not a written character. She is a wonderful  creature with a living body, a character that re-lights the fires of wet  men. As she hatches her plans: ‘now vaulting ambition and intrepid  daring rekindle in a moment all the splendours of her dark blue eyes’.  Her husband Macbeth is ‘yet amiable, conscientious, nay pious; and yet  of a temper so irresolute and fluctuating, as to require all the  efforts, all the excitement, which her uncontrollable spirit, and her  unbounded influence over him, can perform’. Quite so. When the curtain  drew back on Sarah, not Lady Macbeth, standing on stage at the Covent  Garden theatre that final night in 1812, wasn’t she just Lady Macbeth as  Sarah Siddons?

***

So here I am standing, absolutely still on one leg, because somebody  told me it is good for me, my head is squeezed somewhere in the sticky  embrace of Oliver and Sarah, entangled in  their groins. A boy on a  school trip leaps away from me in terror as he notices my pen moving  across my notebook. ‘I thought it was a statue, but then it was  writing!’ It – there is a thingness to me too, here. Wherever I  move about the room their bodies twist and extend to allow the  continuation of the coupling around the nexus of my skull. The embrace  exists in my head. I am genderless, I am stone, I am simply the vessel  of something very sexy and illicit happening right there in front of you  all, and none of you know about it.

Plaster casts of human faces may be the most inanimate possible  objects. Like plastic fruit which are the less fruit for resembling it  so closely, plaster faces announce their lifelessness incontrovertibly  against the backdrop of what life-full face is really like. So what I’ve  done, in the Soane Museum – what I think a lot of people do – is a real  feat of animation.

I stand among objects and find myself arranging the unfixed points of a narrative.

The parts exist and the stories behind them exist, but the  connections between them are not yet created. I am not more powerful  than the parts (the objects) because we exert equal control over the  governance of the narrative. They can change it just as easily as I can.  For example, when General Parker turned out to be Oliver Cromwell, what  power did I have then? A property of the object changed the story for  me, and though the change could not have happened without me, it could  not have happened without the object either. The objects are writing and  reading me, they are reading my opinions on sexuality, on history, and  whilst I am reading them, I am writing them, too.

Here I am – here ‘it’ is – deliriously both author and authored. But though I have been mistaken for a statue too, a lifeless thing, and  though, in a way, I am as much object as Sarah or Oliver, I am still a  woman. The story I have told has been a way for me to explore female  sexuality, and what I think about male sexuality. What I wish I could change.

It is clear that I must think only women are coached to find  fulfillment in the sexual act – to live through and throughout it. That  is because they are coached to exist for and among other people, to make  allowances, to accept, to enable. Have you ever heard a  forward-thinking employer extol the virtues of female employees?  ‘They’re such good negotiators, so much more empathetic, real team  players.’ No doubt. In some ways no act could affirm this more  powerfully than the receipt of man’s sperm, or his deepest secret. I am  going to quote Lady Ottoline Morrel at you to bolster this point. She  lived long enough ago (early 20th century) to have had her  memoirs published, but not so long, I think, that her position in life  can be written off as out of date.

Carlyle’s letters to his wife are good. Never was he  serene. He was forever groaning and travailing in pain, and her  self-centred nervous temperament could not stand the strain. He needed a  big, great-hearted, understanding woman.

I do not find myself surprised, given that Ottoline herself was an  extremely powerful individual and self-centred (not at all necessarily  in the negative sense), that she later says this:

Why, oh why, does the question always and forever haunt  me like a menace of the utter uselessness of my life? Why don’t I feel  that Philip and Julian [husband and child] are enough raison d’être – a  tie to earth?

A woman who believes she must be oriented entirely around others, but isn’t, is sure to feel that way.

Having said all this, it is also clear that I love to think women are  more capable of ecstasy and more powerful in their pleasure than men.  That they rejoice in the sexual act and that there is a power in that.  This puts me in tension with my own first point. Doesn’t it then mean  that I too see women as exciting and dangerous precisely in  their capacity to relate, to receive and give, to exist with and for  others, and not as free-standing individuals? If a man is a bust or a  David, is a woman, then, some sort of frieze?

Motherhood cannot stay out of this any longer. This precise viewpoint  – the woman as frieze – is determined in part by her creation of other  bodies, bodies which are both her and are not her. I am parroting  Adrienne Rich because the sentence is permanently lodged in my head,  ‘the child that I carry for nine months can be defined neither as me nor  as not me’. Is that to do with the questionable status of the unborn  child as object or as a person? When it is an object, is it part of its  mother? When it is a person, does it belong to itself? If the child  inside the mother is a person, doesn’t the mother then become an object  herself – a vessel? Or is it possible for them both to be people? We  would hope so. The question is both unanswerable and absolutely central  to a woman’s experience of her own motherhood or the termination of it.  Rather than answering it, which would be brash of me given that I am not  a mother, I want to extract something useful from the confusion: when  we exist in participation with objects, both governing and governed by  them, we become nebulous ourselves in a way that is profoundly important  and liberating.

A person’s authorial and readerly participation in creating a  narrative among objects will always be more or less self-consciously  gendered. The same goes for their participation in any act whatsoever,  even if the act is to cast off any gender (oh the endless loop – can we  ever deny something without affirming it?). But it will be a freer mode  of expression, and a freer exploration of gender, if they want, than  they can have in writing or reading. This is because they are not using  someone else’s tools, they are using someone else’s parts. What did  Audre Lorde say? ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the  master’s house’.

I am an ‘it’ amongst objects. I am neither writer nor reader. The  story is built in and around me. The tools I use are my own; they are my  thoughts, but the parts with which I am building are supplied to me  with all their baggage just as they appear on the walls of Soane’s  house. Before the narrative takes written form it is precisely, and in  this case quite literally, the servant’s tools dismantling the master’s  house. Smashed between groins. A good negotiator, I guess.

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