There is a diptych in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Kali on its left side and Tara on its right side. It was printed sometime in the late 19th century in West Bengal by the Calcutta Art Studio Pvt. Ltd. The Mahavidya Tara has eerie blue skin (I remember enough from undergraduate art history classes to tell you that the blue skin of Hindu deities skin is simply meant to be dark, and the blue color is not particularly important) and a swollen belly. She wears a necklace of skulls and is stomping through a charnel ground. The Tara is fearsome and revolting. The Kali, on the left side of the diptych, evokes something more complicated. It's intimidating and it's erotic. The description explains that the "four-armed Kali, wearing a skirt of severed arms and garlanded with severed heads" is standing on two representations of Shiva "one brown-skinned corpse-like and the second, white skinned, with whom she appears to be in sexual union." The Kali image is meant to be erotic. Stop, gaze into her hooded eyes, look at her dark hair, parted above the single jewel in the center of her forehead roll in waves down her shoulders, and look at her perfect breasts, and look at her shapely thigh crossed modestly across her. (Another depiction of Kali from the same time period, in the same collection is on a poster advertising cigarettes. Kali is dark indigo, draped with severed heads, the same bloody sacrificial sword held over her head, long black hair flowing down her back, standing over her husband. The ad copy, partially translated: "If you care to improve the manufacture of national products, if the welfare of the nation’s poor laborers is your concern, if you have a sense of good and bad, then O Hindu brothers, smoke these Kali cigarettes." Who better to represent a cigarette brand than the devourer of time herself?)
"Come, Mother, come!" Swami Vivekananda's poem goes, "For Terror is Thy name / Death is in Thy breath, / And every shaking step / Destroys a world for e'er."
It's hard not to read the image of Kali as pornographic. My mind leaps to Mizutani Kokone 水谷心音 on the cover of a late-2015 issue of Tokyo Bad Girls《トーキョウバッドガールズ》that I purchased in a Family Mart near the beach in Hiratsuka. I was experiencing a crisis of extreme loneliness when I bought the magazine. I had ridden my bike down from the mountains, all the way down a suburban expressway, and ate lunch alone on the dark volcanic sand of the beach, looking out at the ocean. When I look at the cover now (I discarded the magazine shortly after buying it, despite my intense reaction to the cover, since Japanese porno magazines are of very low quality and mostly consist of several unglossy pages wrapping a DVD, so I only have an electronic version to go off), the image I had in my mind doesn't quite match "reality." I remember her as tanned darker, her face more fearsome, her nails sharper. The cover image is so heavily edited that it becomes almost cartoonish. It doesn't match even the more subdued version inside the magazine (it cuts a shock of pubic hair that protrudes above her pink thong and makes her breasts rounder and wider). It's pure imagination, unnatural, beautiful, linking the West Bengal illustrator and the suburban Tokyo photo editor in their devotion to a goddess. Like Kali, the skin of Mizutani Kokone is unnaturally dark. She is a "suntanned black gyaru" 日焼け黒ギャル (let me quote from W. David Marx's The History of Gyaru: gyaru "...started as a delinquint look for rich girls at top Tokyo private schools, but ended up as the new face of yankii non-urban working class delinquent style, blending seamlessly into the preferred aesthetic of kyabajo" ... and the black gyaru 黒ギャル were the flipside, with big blonde sujimori スジ盛り hair, skin extremely dark from hours in a tanning bed or laying out at Zushi, a lot of leopard print, and eventually forked into the yamanba ヤマンバ who were doing minstrel routines and the glamorous koakuma 小悪魔, essentially cabaret hostess style with a tan and long nails). Her skin is not as dark as Kali's but just as unnatural. There are tanlines cut by the editor into her skin, accentuating the shape of her breasts and the curve of her hips. Kali has her bangles and her necklace of skulls but Mizutani Kokone has pewter crucifixes, leather Chanel purse strap dangling gold chains of varying weight and design, Tiffany keychain charms, a bracelet of translucent plastic with steel beads floating in it, a bracelet of white and gold plastic, a wrist full of barbed wire bracelets. Kali has her bloody sword but Mizutani Kokone has black talons on her thumbs and jeweled acrylic blades on her fingertips. Look at the ring of light in the center of her face, and the strange sheen to her hair, and the dimples beside her pink, plump lips. Her face seems to have been shaved down, her nose lengthened. Mizutani's eyes are more expressive than Kali's, but they are perhaps even more unnatural.
Have you ever looked into the contact lensed eyes of a suburban Tokyo gyaru? Let me tell you about ** *** ******* **** **** ******, who was also tanned dark brown, a pure uneven tan from laying out at Zushi Beach every afternoon before taking the train into the city to dance at some Dogenzaka shithole. When I looked into her eyes across the table at Red Lobster, I felt like I was staring into the dead eyes of an android. She had long fake eyelashes and streaks of bright yellow across her lower eyelids. She painted a highlights of powder down her tanned nose and across the tops of her tanned cheeks, giving her face a strange extra dimension. (****** had an unnatural beauty, of course, in person, but like every woman under the age of 24, she looked better in pictures, and I think my relationship with her is somehow deeper when I can only moon over her Instagram, where filters and careful editing and angles accentuate her peculiar makeup make her look *** ** ******* ***** ******* *** **** * ***** ** **** ****! She looks like a goddess, heavily filtered, poolside at the Hotel Nikko in Guam.)
I was in love with a girl who wore soft contact lenses that came to her house in the mail once a month. They were a soft brown color with pixelated blocks in the iris. When she came home from work or from wherever she was, she would take them off of her eyes, sometimes in the shower and sometimes before stepping into the shower, and I would often come across them here and there, the disembodied eyes of my lover staring back at me.
I think of a passage from Vollmann's Kissing the Mask, which is supposed to be about Noh theater but is mostly about femininity and beauty:
A standing robed figure of gold shows her round-cheeked face through the oval window of her ornate golden headdress. Her face, proportionately much wider than any Noh mask, is a golden cube with rounded corners, with long tresses of a darker, perhaps tarnished color. The black pupils are alert in her gold eyes. Tarnish or dirt has given her a slight mustache. She upraises one hand and extends the other, seated cross-legged in a spill of concentrically pleated metal skirts above her various lamps, her eyes looking straight at me. First her brilliant golden eyebrow-crescents in that slightly verdigrised face snatch my gaze; then I see more golden sweeps of under-lids, very geometric and distinct, more so than the golden places where light is caught upon her cheeks and chin. … When I raise my binoculars to her, I find that her face is of a stunning beauty. Her golden lips are slightly parted, shining.
On page after page of a fashion magazine, the movie star Kate Bosworth, twenty-five years old, parts her dark pink lips, showing me a sliver of white upper teeth framed by darkness, her lower lip ornamented in each photograph with a segmented stripe of gloss-glow. Her skin is a flawless blend of pinks; I suppose it has been powdered and airbrushed. Her mascara’d gaze beseeches me with the appearance of melancholy or erotic intimacy…
That knowing, almost half-smiling face of Kannon, which first seems merely watchfully aware of me, then does perhaps offer me lurking gentleness or even pity, metallic pity, what does it project and what does it contain? How feminine is she? How human is she?The story of Vollmann admiring the Kannon in Nara shakes loose another memory. After visiting the Longmen Grottoes for the first time, I was stunned by the natural beauty of the faces carved in stone, and I saw in them the Vairocana lips and long, long Guanyin eyes of my first love, who was herself from Henan. I was sure the sculptors must have been making substitutes for themselves of women back home, carving the features they knew best. But that's reversing the Vollmann experience: admiring the natural, rather than the unnatural.
But what does Mizutani-san's dimpled smile contain? What does Kali's extended tongue project? For Mizutani, I suppose it's reticence more than anything else. "Yankii girls want the lights off the first time they have sex," Yoshihito Otsuka, an AV producer that produced a series of bad girl AV says, "because they’re shy. They don’t like giving blow-jobs, but they’ll allow it for that special someone they like." (Yes, he says yankii here and his films feature girls in tracksuits swinging bats, but with their dark tans and big hair, they're certainly 黒ギャル or close enough.) Mizutani stood out in a rack of porno magazines whose covergirls had chubby knees and pale thighs under school girls. It wasn't only that she was burnished into an ikon. I would say Otsuka is telling the truth. The average gyaru is provincial and conservative. The girls with chubby knees are the real libertines. (In AV, the gyaru ギャル category often has an aspect of strong women bullying pathetic nerds, but they long to be conquered by even the nerdiest of nerds, they beg for their comeuppance, and there wasn't even any of that element in Mizutani's debut as a 黒ギャル, which sees her submissively performing anilingus on an impressively hairy older man.) Maybe Mizutani-san's expression is "melancholy or erotic intimacy." Maybe not. Kali's expression is equally confounding. Her tongue is meant to indicate shame (P.C. Mishra has alternate explanation, with Kali going on a murderous rampage after slaying a buffalo demon, then, hoping to appease her, Siva lays in the path of the"furious, black and naked Kali," who, "in her blinded anger" does not notice Siva's penis slip into her: "At that instant Kali recognized her husband and pulled out her tongue in ecstasy and her anger disappeared." [This is quoted in: Jeffrey J. Kripal's Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna].)
There is vulgar desire and an appreciation of esthetic beauty and then something like veneration, admiring the images of Kali or Mizutani-san.
So, A detour here to the Yulan Guanyin 鱼篮观音, the Fish Basket Guanyin, since there is no better example of a supernatural being who inspires devotion and lust, or lustful devotion or devoted lust, and to Woman of Yanzhou 延州妇 and the Malangfu Guanyin 马郎妇观音.
A monk asks Fengxue Yanzhao 風穴延沼: What is the pure Dharmakaya? 如何是清净法身? And the master says, 师曰: Mr. Ma's Wife of Golden Sand Beach 金沙滩头马郎妇.
The Fish Basket Guanyin arrives in Shaanxi carrying a carp and offers herself to any man who can memorize a sutra ("In the early versions of the story, the woman was not explicitly identified as a manifestation of Guanyin. There was also no mention of the fish basket. Neither was the region where the miracle occurred given a name. All these details were added in the succeeding centuries, and, as her cult developed, these all became common knowledge..."):
She first offered sexual favors, but then denied gratification. She used sexual desire as a skillful means, a teaching device to help people reach goodness. However, there is strong evidence that she did not simply remain a sexual tease, but in fact she, or originally another woman somewhat like who whose identity later became blurred with Mr. Ma's Wife, engaged in sexual activities in order to carry out the mission of salvation. Known simply as the Woman of Yanzhou, this woman lived in eastern Shaanxi during the Dali era (766-779), several decades earlier than the time of Mr. Ma's Wife. She had sex with any man who asked for it. But whoever had sex with her was said to become free from sexual desire forever. She died at the age of twenty-four as a dissolute woman of ill repute, and was buried without ceremony in a common grave by the roadside. A foreign monk from the western regions later came and, offering incense, paid respect to her at her grave. When asked by disgusted villagers why he should bother with this husbandless woman of loose virtue, he told them that she acted out of compassion. He predicted that her bones would be found to be chained together, and when her grave was opened, the bones of her entire body were indeed linked together like a chain. The two stories are clearly variations on the same theme: sexuality, either offered outright, or first promised and later withheld, can serve as a powerful tool of spiritual transformation. (This is from Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism 850-1850)There is a contemporary illustration of the Yulan Guanyin, which is kitschy and also clearly meant to be slightly erotic: she tilts her hip to hold up the fish basket, she wears flowing silk pants but her round breasts and red-brown nipples are exposed, her face is not the dowdy face that Guanyin is usually depicted with but the face of a young Southern Fujian girl whose videos of life in a fishing village have gone viral on Bilibili. "How feminine is she?" Vollmann asked about the Kannon at Nara. The Fish Basket Guanyin in this illustration is pure femininity at least. "How human is she?" This is Kannon or Guanyin adapted to folk tales, basically, and perhaps stories based on flesh-and-blood women. I can almost smell her: "Poems written about Gyoran Kannon," who was the Yulan Guanyin when she arrived in Japan, "often make reference to her fishy smell, which is thought to symbolize her womanhood/sexuality." (This is from: "Merōfu Kannon and Her Veneration in Zen and Imperial Circles in Seventeenth-Century Japan" by Patricia Fister in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.)
The illustration of the Fish Basket Guanyin, the Mizutani-san cover, the Kali devotional poster—all of these are "not art," Hans Belting would say, if I am understanding him correctly (please refer to Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, translated by Edmund Jephcott, or A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350–1750 by Margaret R. Miles). These religious images and cover girls invite us to look and feel, rather than to look and think.
Margaret R. Miles pulls out Titian's Penitent Magdalene from 1553. Against a moody backdrop of browns and greys, a woman with soft features looks to the sky, her right hand clutching at her throat, her forearm bisecting her breasts, one nipple pointed at the viewer and the other pointed away. Her hair cascades down her neck and becomes improbably thicker—thick and long enough to cover her entire body. "The religious Magdalen is implied only by her eyes, which are raised to the skies; to twenty-first-century viewers, her body is unambiguously erotic. Was Titian's Magdalen erotic to sixteenth-century viewers?" Of course, it was. When he later reworked the image, he made her gaunt, wrapped her up, covered her breasts, and had her eyes red from crying ("...it moves not to lust but to compassion..." Giorgio Vasari says in a line quoted in "The Invention and Development of 'Secular' Mary Magdalene in Late Renaissance Florentine Painting" by Heidi J. Hornik in Mary Magdalene in Medieval Culture: Conflicted Roles). "The character of Mary Magdalene is both temptress and penitent here," Hornik argues, looking at Titian's first Magdalene. She is the glorious saint of The Golden Legend and, like the Woman of Yanzhou, she is a fallen woman ("...and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner") and is modeled on a fallen woman (perhaps it's a stretch to call a Venetian courtesan a fallen woman).
This Magdalene is almost naked; her gown and hair are designed more to reveal and suggest her body than to cover it. Her hair falls wildly and unbound over her shoulders. Her hands are crossed on her breast but the fingers of the left hand are so cleverly spread that the viewer's eye is drawn irresistibly to her nipple. Everything about this figure—its body language, the swing of the hair, the sensual mouth—its movement, surrender, longing, sensuality. ... The artist shows a woman who contradicts all the norms of society. No woman looking at the picture, even if she were filled with pious ecstasy and love for Christ, could desire to slip into the role of this saint. As for male viewers, they saw what must not be; their eyes beheld the half-concealed and their fantasies could go still farther. The woman is not depicted her in chaste nudity; in an artistic play of concealment and revelation she is handed over to every shameless and calculating eye. (This is from: The Image of a Woman through the Centuries by Ingrid Maisch, translated by Linda M. Maloney.)But with Titian and Rubens, we are getting further away from the uncanny beauty of Kali and Mizutani-san. Christ and the Repentant Sinners and Penitent Magdalene are too erotic and Magdalene is too fleshy and human. All of this is about vulgar desire and esthetic appreciation and there is something deeper here in the admiration of the "furious, black and naked" Kali, of course, and the acrylic talons of Mizutani-san.
In Migita Toshihide 右田年英 woodblock print from 1894, Hidari Jingoro 左甚五郎, the Edo sculptor, carpenter, and all-around craftsman, sits cross-legged in his empty studio, enjoying a drink, looking at a woman in a box. Hidari Jingoro's work adorns the Ueno Tosho-gu 上野東照宮, less than a mile from where I'm sitting right now, and it is said that he Ascending Dragon and the Descending Dragon attributed to him are so lifelike that there is a legend about them waiting for night to fall, and the tourists posing with the lotuses and the cross-dressers waiting outside of the Okura Cinema thinning out, before flying out to sip from Shinobazu Pond. There are other legends of his creations coming to life—and that includes the woman in the box, modeled after a woman he had glimpsed walking down the street (perhaps I'm adding this detail myself, but it is a legend, after all), who, while he drank with her, started to move.
Unlike Pygmalion or Hidari, we can't have any hope that the inanimate objects of adoration will blink back at us. And here is Vollmann again, admiring an Etruscan statue this time:
I myself prefer to meet imperishable femininity. From 350 B.C. or thereabouts, a winged nude goddess stares stolidly ahead, her dark and mottled skin its own armor, her breasts and nipples their own breastplates, her V-shaped pubis one more facet or plane which might perhaps open from within, like the air vent of a tank, her pupil-less eyes equally impenetrable surfaces flecked with greenish-gold. She is, apparently, Lasa, an approximate Etruscan equivalent of Venus. ... Her hair resembles swirling sun-rays. She is hard and slender. Call her a true flower incarnated forever. She allures me, but I can scarcely pretend to know her as an Etruscan would. Devoting the remainder of my life to learning to love her through her context might bring me joy, but I would be decaying ever farther from her with every instant...Titian, masochism, adoring imperishable femininity in the form of an ice-cold Venus. Of course: Severin in Masoch's Venus in Furs:
In the garden, or rather the small neglected park, there is a charming meadow where a few does graze peacefully. In its center stands a statue of Venus, the original of which I believe is in Florence. This Venus is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen; of course this does not mean much, for I have seen few beautiful women, in fact few women at all. In love, too, I am an amateur who never gets beyond the first brushstrokes, the first act of the play. But why talk in superlatives, as though beauty could ever be surpassed? It is enough to say that she is beautiful and that I love her madly, passionately, with feverish intensity, as one can only love a woman who responds to one with a petrified smile, ever calm and unchanging. I adore her absolutely.
Often, when the dappled sunlight shimmers beneath the trees, I lie in the shelter of a young birch, reading. Often at night I pay a visit to my cold, cruel beloved; clasping her knees, I press my face against her cold pedestal and worship her."I adore her absolutely" goes the translation above, but another renders it as, "I literally adore her" (the original reads: "Ja, ich bete sie förmlich an," so why not, "I worship her"?)
Deleuze says masochism is about suspension, about the frozen moment: "The whip or the sword that never strikes, the fur that never discloses the flesh, the heel that is forever descending on the victim, are the expression, beyond all movement, of a profound state of waiting closer to the sources of life and death." The Venus in the garden, Mizutani-san posed perfectly forever on the cover of her magazine, Kali frozen with her sacrificial sword over her head give each subject an "eternal character." (I can't draw it into any of this, but I particularly like the way Deleuze describes Masoch as "'desexualizing' love and at the same time sexualizing the entire history of humanity.")
It's not as satisfying if the statue comes to life, or to see Mizutani-san come to life on the DVD attached to the back of her cover.