Sunday, October 28, 2018

Foot Fetishism

A fetish is, according to one definition, an object or body part that elicits adoration or sexual arousal, and may in extreme cases be necessary for complete sexual gratification. It involves usually a man’s idea of what is beautiful or sexy about a woman’s foot, foot fetishism by far outnumbering other kind of fetishes.

Most desirable are medium-sized feet. On a large one, toes look like ridiculous, petty appendages; on a small one, they appear ready to devour the entire foot. The main types are the Egyptian foot, with toes of decreasing length from big to little toe; the Roman foot, with the first three toes of more or less the same length, the other two decreasingly smaller; and the Greek or model foot, wit the toes from big to small forming a sort of semicircle. But what constitutes the basic prettiness of a foot?

It is the narrowness, the arch, the coloring and the pliability, what might be covered by the term grace. It constitutes a fine, worthy pedestal for the legs, and so for the entire woman. And it has to belong to a beautiful woman; on an unsightly one, it is merely wasted. Becoming sexualized, it does not transmit social diseases, and does not impregnate, even as it takes over much of the role of the penis under manual stimulation. This is especially useful at a time when social diseases like AIDS are rampant.     

Ultimately, the preferred foot constitutes something delicate and well-proportioned, but definitely not brittle and frangible. And there is also the mystery, that unlike, say, the hand, it is not permanently exposed. What is it like then, hidden under a long skirt or encased in a shoe or boot? How exciting is its revelation when it does become bared. What does induce its being kissed, its toes licked or sucked? Or even, as Freud has emphasized, how attracting by its smell? Moreover, it may be indulged without incurring the onus of profligacy, adultery, or mere unchastity, let alone undesired impregnation.

But finally, it is a special tribute that may signify accepted submission, i.e., satisfy a masochistic trend in the male and a corresponding ascendance of the dominant female. Or, damn it, is it just a tribute to sheer beauty? Otherwise would it be there in so many paintings, particularly in the Renaissance, when beauty was truly appreciated? And beauty does depend on the sensibility of the beholder. Otherwise there would not have been qua ideal the Junoesque, as in Rubens, or the corpulent, as in the Hottentot Venus. Is today’s obeisance to a beautiful foot based on more recent Western aesthetics?

Like it or not, slenderness is a large part of shapeliness, and the foot is where it originates. It is also the locus of ticklishness, which, practiced in moderation, can be aphrodisiac. This is where the reaction of the idol may become relevant. Does the owner of the worshipped foot enjoy it, or merely accept it, or even dislike it? As for the performer, it is what elicits complete though perverse sexual gratification, even if it cannot be rationally explained. But then, can any perversion?

For the performer toying with, or expressing obeisance to, the toes, those five minipenises can guarantee kinky sexual satisfaction. But the woman may enjoy it too as possessor of an additional, adstititious sexual
attractiveness. Let us not forget the more passive, platonic form of sexual fetishism, consisting merely of pleasurable looking at bare female feet. Speaking for myself, I remember sitting next to one of my most beautiful girlfriends as she was driving us to a summer Long Island lease. She was barefoot, and the black pedal provided her very white foot with an enhancing frame. I commented on the beauty of her foot and she was both surprised and, dare I say, tickled pink.

Other girlfriends did not particularly like their feet, and did not especially care about any involvement with them. I may have played with their toes, but certainly went no further with that sort of thing. And I definitely did not share Francois Villon’s seeming attraction to, among other beauties melted away like yesteryear’s snows, “Berte au grant pié,” i.e., Berta Bigfoot. Which brings me to actual or possible foot fetishism in literature.

Let’s start with Sir Thomas Wyatt (1603-1642), Anne Boleyn’s lover, and his most famous quasi-sonnet, beginning “They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber.” In the plural where the singular would be expected, suggests frequent and casual sex, reinforced by that “stalking.” Is it not interesting that these amorous women are described not by, say, their bared breasts, but by their naked feet, where “naked” is clearly sexier than “bare.” Whatever else this may indicate, it suggests the sexualized feet, otherwise why point to them, “stalking” yet, on plural occasions?

On now a couple of centuries, to Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.” Later turned into Richard Strauss’s celebrated opera. Wilde wrote the play in French, which his lover, Alfred Douglas, translated into English. We read of Herod, lecherously doting on his stepdaughter Salome,about to dance for him. He exclaims, “Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet. ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well. Thy little feet will be like little white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees . . .” This, coming from the randy tetrarch, surely indicates sexualization of the feet. Not too much can be made of the “naked,” since the French must have “pieds nus,” there being no other word for bare. But still . . .

Let us skip now to 1894 and Gerald du Maurier’s celebrated novel “Trilby.” The eponymous heroine is a young Irish artist’s model in Paris, Trilby O’ Ferrall, introduced wearing a petticoat, “beneath which were visible her bare white ankles and insteps, and slim, straight, rosy heals, clean cut and smooth as the back of a razor; her toes lost in a huge pair of male slippers. She poses in the altogether . . . “head, hands and feet—everything—especially feet. As she kicks off her heavy masculine slipper, she proclaims, “That’s my foot . . . the handsomest foot in all Paris. There is only one in all Paris to mach it, and here it is.” Whereupon “she laughed heartily . . .  and stuck out the other.”

Du Maurier continues. “And in truth they were astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and color, all made up of delicate lengths and subtly-modulated curves and noble straightnesses and happy little dimpled arrangements in innocent young pink and white.”

The hero of the novel, Little Billee, is “quite bewildered to find that a real, bare, live human foot could be such a charming object to look at, and felt that such a base or pedestal lent quite an antique and Olympian dignity to a figure” etc. Further: “The shape of those lovely slender feet (that were neither large nor small) facsimiled in dusty pale plaster of Paris, survives on the shelves and walls of many a studio throughout the world, and many a sculptor yet unborn has yet to marvel at their strange perfection, in studious despair.” And still further, being covered in leather footwear, the foot “is hidden away in disgrace. A thing to be thrust out of sight and forgotten. It can sometimes be very ugly indeed—the ugliest thing there is, even in the fairest and highest and most gifted of her sex, and then it is of an ugliness to chill and kill romance, and scatter love’s young dream and almost break the heart.” I had that feeling when I saw backstage the bared ungainly foot of one of my favorite British actresses.

“Conversely, when Mother Nature has taken extra pains in the building of [the foot], and proper care and happy chance have kept it free of lamentable deformations, indurations, and discolorations—all those gruesome, boot-begotten abominations which have made it so generally unpopular—the sudden sight of it, uncovered, comes as a very rare and singularly pleasing surprise to the eye that has learned how to see!
Nothing else that Mother Nature has to show, not even the human face divine, has more power to suggest high physical distinction, happy evolution, and supreme development, the lordship of man over beast, the lordship of man over man, the lordship of woman over all!

Trilby had respected Mother Nature’s special gift to herself—had never worn a leather boot or shoe, had always taken as much care of her feet as many a fine lady takes of her hands.” To be sure, du Maurier does not write about actual fetishist sex play, nothing about fingering, licking, smelling, and whatever that can be very disturbing to the nonfetishist. It should decidedly pose no problem in a world that has accepted as normal much of what had previously been considered otherwise.

I myself have never become a true foot fetishist, beyond enjoying a beautiful female foot when I see one. This may have originated when I was a boy in Belgrade, gazing at the way maidservants there cleaned floors. They would use a brush attached by a metallic strap to their bare foot and rub away. I had no sense that my interested gaze was somehow sexual, still less that it would generate an adult proclivity. But there, with due restraint, it is.

Above all, there is nothing destructive about foot fetishism; no one is hurt by it, which is more than one can say for some other kinks. As for me, I watch “Dancing with the Stars” on TV, and especially enjoy it when a woman dances barefoot. I never even call it naked feet.

Monday, October 1, 2018


The text today is irony, from the Greek for dissimulation, as I learn from J. R. Cuddon’s marvelous book (more about that anon), from which I quote the following, enough for an initial definition. “For the Roman theoreticians (in particular Cicero and Quintilian) ‘ironic’ denoted a rhetorical figure and a manner of discourse in which . . . the meaning was contrary to the words, the double-edgedness appearing to be a diachronic feature of irony.”

Please don’t ask me to explain “diachronic,” which would lead me to one of my bêtes noires, the Swiss pundit Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiology. What was good enough for Cicero and Quintilian will be sufficient for me for the nonce. To recapitulate, saying one thing and meaning its opposite is a sophisticated device unknown to or uncomprehended by hoi polloi. Let me cite as example the beginning of a note from the subtle and sophisticated novelist James Salter, in response to a communication from me: “Dear John, What beautiful handwriting. If I didn’t know you, I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence.” Here the irony was as it were announced by that “If I didn’t know you.” Ordinarily, no such warning that an irony is intended is deemed necessary.

Of course irony should, more or less discreetly, reveal itself as such, as if, for instance, we were to say or write “As the great Stephen King would have it.” To be sure, it may be missed by unsophisticated Americans, the ones whom Hermann Hesse qualified as “blithe and easily satisfied half human.” It can be inferred also by such a remark as Oscar Wilde’s, “Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires complete ignorance of both life and literature.” Or, by way of a more salient example, take the following from Fran Leibowitz: ”Your responsibility as a parent is not as great as you might imagine. You need not supply the world with the next conqueror of disease or major motion picture star. If your child simply grows up to be someone who does not use the word ‘collectible’ as a noun, you may consider yourself an unqualified success.” Collectible as a substantive may not be your paradigmatic lapse, like, say, “Greetings from my wife and I,” but it will do. The subtle irony is clear enough.

Or how about this from the great aphorist Georg C. Lichtenberg: “Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede—not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can’t count above fourteen.” What a wonderfully ironic way of saying that most people are stupid. I would go so far as to claim that certain people invite irony by their very look or name. Take an article in the Times of September 5: “National Chief for Gymnastics Is Forced Out After Turmoil.” The chief in question, whose accompanying picture makes her look like a dimwitted blond kewpie doll, is named  Kerry Perry, which a right-minded daughter would have legally changed. Perry was forced out for championing the nefarious doctor Larry Nasser. She had succeeded a gymnastic president named Steve Penny, close enough, though I would have preferred Benny Penny, but you can’t have everything. Still, the article reads like ironic sympathy for Perry.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 I  myself have practiced conspicuous irony, describing Liza Minnelli as a potential winner of a beauty contest--for beagles. At least I picked the seemingly right canine breed: not too pretty, like Afghan or Briard, nor too homely, like bulldog or chihuahua. I regret even more a remark about Diana Rigg in profile in a play’s nude scene as “a basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This is always misquoted, even by Ms. Rigg, as a mausoleum etc. The building in question cannot be faulted, as basilicas do not have flying buttresses, any more than do mausoleums, which in this context would have downright sinister implications. At least a basilica is holy.

I am  inclined not to regret my reply to someone’s question about what good things I thought of Adrienne Rich after a poetry reading. I answered that to do justice to it one would need the attributes of a Homer and a Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness. This is a classic irony, as, without requiring elucidation, where what augurs well really disparages.

One of my favorite ironies stems from the wonderful critic Kenneth Tynan. In a review of “Titus Andronicus,”  he referred to Vivien Leigh as a Lavinia who “received the news that she is about to be ravished on the corpse of her husband as one who would have preferred foam rubber.” Thus in the American version; in the British, Tynan used the name of a popular rubber bed brand, which is even funnier, but would not have traction in America.

Another favorite irony is Hilaire Belloc’s epigram about a British lord: “I heard today Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come, come, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” This is perfect in its switch from evoked nobility to actual mockery without any warning.

Now how about the great Viennese writer and wit Peter Altenberg , a consummate lover of women (especially girls), who allowed: “Coquetry is the immense decency of a desirable woman, thereby, for the moment at least, to hold off the disappointment she is bound to bring you.” This irony is permitted Altenberg (1859-1919), who wrote some of the most affectionate and lyrical prose in praise of women as well as sarcasm. Be it recalled, however, that this often eloquent advocate was, unfortunately for him, a homely man.

Let me point out some obvious everyday ironies. “What a wonderful day” we exclaim as we look out on another gray morning. “How clever you are,” we comment on a dear one’s folly. “We will always be together” we tell a lover whom we no longer love. “I will never do that again” we say after a clumsiness we damn well know we’ll commit again. And so on.

But the really great ironies are in literature as in Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” about the poor selling their unwanted babies to England for food. Even the full title is redolent of irony: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick.” This piece of a few pages may be the greatest example of irony in the English language; altogether some of irony’s most distinguished practitioners lived in the eighteenth century. It is there also in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and much of the verse and prose of Alexander Pope. Take only this from one of Pope’s letters: “I never knew any man in my life who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.” This manages to make fun of people in general as well as Christians in particular.

J. A. Cuddon’s magnificent “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” is most easily available in America in the Penguin version of its fourth edition, edited by C. E. Preston. It covers six pages with its entry on irony. Delightful to readers and indispensable to writers, it contains, for example, the earliest reference to irony in English, dated 1502: “yronie . . . of  grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrary. “ I am amused by the reference to a “splendid essay” on irony  of 1970 by one D. C. Muecke, the name in German meaning mosquito, and being perfect for the subject. Of the many ironists Cuddon cites, from Aeschylus to Iris Murdoch, his favorites are Voltaire, Gibbon, Swift, Henry James and Thomas Mann. He is an expert in writings in the obscurest languages the world over.

There are various forms of irony, including the situational, whereby, for instance, Lear endows his hypocritical, worthless daughters but excoriates and expels his truly worthy, loving one. Similarly, Othello trusts the villain Iago, but rejects and eventually strangles the virtuous Desdemona. Dissimulation, i.e., irony, thrives as dramatic irony, whereby the audience knows things the characters don’t.

In conclusion, I would suggest, utopian as my plea may be, that teachers instruct their students in irony, perhaps even offer a course in it. It would provide an emotional outlet vastly preferable to guns and knives.