I was in high school the first time I read Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. The title was cool, the DeQuincey epigraph was inviting & I was quickly taken up by this weird little story of a writer living in San Francisco & his odd circle of friends nearby.
There is one aspect of the story I’ve always loved. As a widower living alone, Franz Western, the main character, keeps for company an assortment of books & magazines on his wife’s side of the bed. He dubs her his Scholar’s Mistress & often speaks little endearments to her.
Unfortunately, revisiting the story years later proves that some favorite things have the tendency not to hold up so well. Our Lady of Darkness is a melding of the occult, literary references, substance abuse & a search for forbidden knowledge that comes off more like Roger Corman than Christopher Nolan. (Which is still saying something, since I enjoy Corman in my own way.) But the idea of the Scholar’s Mistress is still interesting to me.
Inspired by that story & by a discussion I had with a friend about Written On the Body, I thought it would be fun to try & create my own paramour from the books I own or have read.
The problem is that although it started off as a fun idea & ideas came to me pretty quickly, I got as far as the navel before I was paralyzed by my own ambition. It’s all well & good to decide that an unchartable region like the heart should be every text I’ve ever been given as a gift. Or that the hips should open on Mary Caponegro’s story “The Father’s Blessing.”
But then I stopped to consider the feet, the foundation? From what words or letters should they be cast? Or the spine, the support of the body? What is the core of my collection, of my short (so far) lifetime of reading? Am I building a creature from my books? Or from my knowledge of language & meaning, what emotions they evoke & where they may match physically?
As if that wasn’t enough to think about, the associations I began to come up with became intensely personal. I value books not just for what they mean to me but how they came into my life. Deciding where to place my copy of Cherrie Moraga’s plays or Ishiguro’s works or Salvador Dali’s autobiography made me pause, think: Really? That’s how I feel about that work? Will I always feel that way? (Which then led me to wonder if this creature should even really be in human shape.)
Finally, when you start playing “The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone” with books, you realize where the gaps in your knowledge are. Like having an incomplete understanding of the Bible or the Greeks. Or knowing predominately Western myths as opposed to Eastern or African ones. Like having Invisible Man but not Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like focusing on lit & art texts but not historical or philosophical ones. Like really only being proficient in one language.
While I was scribbling notes & trying in vain to inscribe my paramour’s fantastical body, I kept thinking of my favorite fairytale by Oscar Wilde, “The Fisherman and His Soul.” The first parts of the story seemed like a warning for this little game. To gain his mermaid sweetheart, a fisherman casts off his soul & goes to live beneath the waves. The soul returns again & again to beg the fisherman to give it part of his heart as well. The fisherman refuses & the soul goes out into the world, only able to do wicked & hurtful things because it knows no kindness, compassion or love.
So, too, in Our Lady of Darkness, the Scholar’s Mistress ends up coming to life & rebelling against Franz Western, because of how she has been formed. Her parts & pages are born of obsession, control, an unguided desire for knowledge. She takes the place of the wife in bed, but not in the heart. & while I have no similar craft, to raise my paramour & send it out into the world, how can I even imagine that it will ever be complete & well-formed?