From Chapter 1:Giving It: Simmel and Chanel
In a distant land, Rebecca received the servant of Isaac, and he came bearing jewelry. He sat down by the well and she offered him water and offered to bring water to his camels-the servants of his servants whom she generously serves. He knew by that sign that she was the bride chosen for his master Isaac, to whom the Lord had led him. Such a woman gives without being asked, gives more than is necessary to in order to have given generously-of water, the most precious thing of all in the desert to a thirsty man. And in return for her giving, he gives her jewelry. As far as I can tell, that's the earliest moment in the Bible in which jewelry makes an appearance. "And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a gold earring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekel weight of gold." That's a lot of shekels to lay on her. The jewelers in the Bible immediately translate the worth of the ornaments into gold, into money. Of course the earring and bracelets are more than that; their great value is symbolic of the high holy destiny that has fallen upon Rebecca. She will be the mother of a race. Out of her spontaneous generosity she gives a gift that prompts a gift of jewelry and with it a promise that gives her the power to be the progenitor of "hundreds of millions," as the King James says-to give life to a nation. The jewelry she receives is the visible sign of the whole chain of giving in this complex economic exchange between man and woman and God. Rebecca accepts the gifts of jewelry and agrees to leave her land and family and go off with the servant of Isaac, across the desert to Hebron.
There may be an intention to give, but there is no gift without someone or something to receive it. (I wonder: Can you ever give a gift to some THING? Maybe not. People give their dogs Christmas presents, but that's because they treat them like humans.) If the beneficiary of a gift doesn't accept it, can it be said that a gift has been given? Knowing how and when to receive is a greater kingly art than giving, says Louis to his son. Rebecca is a hero and a founder of nations not only because she gave water to camels, but because she also knew when to accept and how to wear the great earring in her ear (one earring is enough-if it's a good one), and because she agreed to surround her arms with the precious gold of Isaac. She becomes a kind of slave to him, part of his baggage, but in becoming his wife, the Bible implies, she gains an almost infinite power of life. Not to mention a lot of shekels to keep. And, leaving town, with Isaac's servant, she starts on her about-to-be-married life, weighed down with his money, already riding hard on his ass.
I start my understanding from the premise postulated a century ago by Georg Simmel, a philosopher and sociologist, that jewelry is the first form of property possessed by women. Simmel thinks that what men first possessed was not women, as Marx thinks, but weapons. For him, all sexual difference follows from that original division of property. A man in possession of jewelry is not at all the same thing as a woman owning it, since in a way it defines her as a woman-she is it. But never having been a woman (until recently, perhaps), I have therefore never really had any. How can a man-whose happiness depends on it-learn to wear his jewelry?
Men first use weapons to impose their will by force on others, above all on women; women use their first form of property, ornamental jewelry, to seduce, to charm, and to please others with their beauty, chiefly men but also other women. Ordinarily, you don't wear jewelry just for yourself, since most of the time you can't see it or don't notice you have it on. A woman's property is therefore a form of generosity she bestows on those who observe her wearing it, a gift she gives to the admirers of the beauty her jewelry enhances. Illuminated by gems and precious metals, her beauty is magnified and so is her power over others, who are reduced to awed subservience before the immensely generous spectacle of her bejeweled loveliness. In this age of late vulgarity, people cynically think that it is the cost of jewelry that impresses others with its power, but traditionally the cost of the jewel was determined by the value of its beauty. The beauty of jewelry is thus a gift that the wearer gives to those around her. Her jewelry is a form of altruism, says Simmel: Wearing it, she gives more than she gets.
At the same time, and conversely, Simmel doesn't fail to notice all the benefits in power and wealth that redound to the woman for the generosity her jewelry bestows. It singles her out, makes her "outstanding," he says-not by any manifestation of political power or strength but by virtue of the pleasure it arouses in others. What gives her power over others, over men, is her gift of beauty, inspiring appreciation and gratitude in those she delights with the glittering figure she cuts, beautifully adorned. She gets (a lot) more than she gives.
For Simmel, jewelry represents a rare point of intersection within society between two opposite human tendencies, altruism and selfishness, each in this case mutually dependent on the other. Beautiful jewelry is the image (and sound) of radiating brilliance with which the wearer dazzles the spectator; it is also-like the counterpart of men's property-a weapon that women wield by emitting a vibrant, almost palpable aura that causes the will of those who encounter it to submit to its devastating radiation. What man wouldn't give everything he could to a beautiful woman undressed, dressed only in large aqueous emeralds at her wrist, at her ears, and dangling in large drops from her breast? But why does a woman wear emeralds? To make her lovers drown?
O Esmeralda! I remember that café, l'Esmeralda, at the tip of the Ile de la Cité. Its name, you know, comes from the character in Hugo's novel, the goat girl saved by the hunchback of the cathedral on to which the café half faced. I would sit for hours in the evening and look across the water, watching barges motoring by, imagining what life was like on the river. I dreamed of living on a snug péniche
, as it drifted past innumerable fields and crumbling city walls, never quite knowing where I was but never far from some place downstream-idly looking out for dangers or spying on lovers under bridges. From time to time my reverie was blinded by spotlights on the passing tourist boats, which would turn the dusk into noon. I drowned my sorrow for you in the green water of the Seine, Zeem. I obsessed for hours about that sonofabitch of a father of yours, who has kept me from you to the end. There's no way he can keep me from leaving you my jewelry or you from reading this once it comes into your hands. I have no wish for revenge anymore. I understand your dad was just a vessel, the enemy God put me in this world to make, the embodiment of the whole twisted system of moralizing violence and unthinking prejudice summed up by the word "straight." Like a thyrsus, he and I are locked in the embrace of the twisted and the rigidly straight.
With jewelry in mind, I spent the war pleasantly at Harvard reading widely. All my futility was supposed to culminate eventually in a senior honors thesis entitled "Les bijoux indiscrets
: Jewelry in 18th Century French Literature." Harry Mordant, my advisor, took me aside to warn me about choosing a topic, since I was probably bound to repeat it-endlessly write about the same thing under different guises for the rest of my life. A thesis, he explained, is a kind of toy you give yourself to play with. Without realizing, you implicitly trace in its margins, beneath its topics and arguments, the shape of your own desires-sketching tracks that lead deep into the tunnel of your most secret dreads, darkest wishes, and direst imagining. An academic thesis is like a waking dream-often a nightmare. He further informed me, with a smirk, that he was telling me this knowing that if I knew it in advance, I may never actually finish. And he was right. In order to finish you need to forget what you've been told as well as that you've been told to forget your inner self and stay focused on the external topic, the ostensible thesis, not on the subject but the object of research and study. Only then, by forgetting yourself, do you allow yourself unconsciously to engrave between the lines an autobiographical allegory of your aspirations and urges. It's only after the thesis has been written, after some years have passed, that you can reread it and discover how pertinently it depicts your inner life-how well it serves as a metaphor for everything you've become and will have desired to repeat. Harry had it right on all counts. I never finished my thesis, but I've done nothing else my whole life except rewrite it.
In fact it was only many years later, after Amad had died, that I finally reread what I had written at Harvard. That's when I took the conscious decision to spend the rest of my life finishing it. What you have in your hands, Zeem, are fragments of that senior thesis intertwined with subsequent reflections and the outlines of a life devoted entirely to jewelry. It's the only thing I've ever written and I will go on writing it till the end. It's become my knitting, or embroidery, a tissue tied with innumerable knots, intricately ornamented with little roses intensely curled and intermittently lit by unexpected glints of occasional gems. My life's work, all that's left to show for it, I leave to you, Zeem, assuming that you know by now how to read it-how to draw inspiration, perhaps some courage from it. In the end, you are my first and last reader, the only one about whose judgment I give the least damn. Excuse me then if I haven't perfectly succeeded in eliminating from these pages the burden of my old thesis style, with its expository mumbling and numbing drone. Despite all my efforts to enliven and adorn it with the fruit of my fantastic reading and the highlights of my erotic career, this memoir remains pedantic, i.e., teachy and prolix, like an old academic lecture, tiresome and diffuse.
Originally, the senior thesis had three chapters, each devoted to one of the philosophers whose theory of jewelry I revered: Kant, Hegel, and Georg Simmel, the great turn-of-the-century sociologist and philosopher of money. More recently, turning fifty, I added the chapter on Luce Irigaray, the French feminist thinker on sex, who also has a philosophy of jewelry. Early on, and with growing conviction, I realized that each philosopher proposes an idea of jewelry I associate with particular women whose taste in jewelry I most admire: If Emmanuel Kant were a beautiful woman he could have been Wallis Simpson; Georg Simmel often sounds just like Mademoiselle Chanel; Elizabeth Taylor is Friedrich Hegel in the flesh (so to speak); Katharine Hepburn's cockiness might have inspired Luce Irigaray.
The title of my thesis not very slyly alluded to Diderot's great pornographic novel of 1748, Les bijoux indiscrets
. In the novel, the bijoux
in question are not real jewels, literal jewelry; they are something closer to what we call "family jewels." In the novel, they generally refer not to those of a man, as they came to do in English, but to that of woman. A woman's bijou
-her jewel or jewelry-is her sex. A woman naked is already adorned.
At Harvard in those days, in order to discourage fantasies, they kept Diderot's book in the enfer
of Widener Library, where you had to be given special permission to read. You were permitted to approach its crumbling but still sulfurous pages, in the edition of 1781, only in designated places beneath mirrors in full view of the librarian, and only while wearing white cotton gloves, like condoms, which were helpfully provided.
The significance of jewelry may lie forever beyond the grasp, even of a man like me who has spent his whole life frequently dreaming of being a passable woman. It is not that I wished to dress as a woman in order to seek men to take me as if I were a woman. Wanting that I would have been desiring not only another man like myself but one endowed with the erotic power over men that I imagine woman have-still a male fantasy. Rather, my femininity came over me in strange ways. I remember finding myself in front of the mirror, dressing my breasts in straps, and curling my eyelashes with the neatly curved instrument I plucked from my mother's dressing table. Over time, the more I put on the accoutrements of a woman, the more I began to feel the power of that strange erotic sensation that comes from expanding erogenous zones, as different parts of me became alive to sexual feeling, as the new feminine body asserted itself out of the lineaments of the old. In the slightly dazed euphoria in which I swam before the mirror I once or twice thought I saw my hips grow larger and for an instant I felt something quicken inside my body like the first signs of incipient life.
But those feelings were rare growing up. I repressed most of them (unless they weren't fully there yet) behind a normal-seeming pubescent desire to get laid. You can imagine the panic and the pain when I started to think, with the fanaticism of youthful conviction, that what I really desperately wanted was to become a woman, definitively-to transform my gender and my self. I was living in a tiny but elegant room overlooking the roofs on the rue Jarry, in the 10th arrondissement, in the middle of Turkish fast food and African coiffeurs. I climbed the walls in moments of ecstatic arousal and terror when I realized the depth and persistence of the wish that would not go away. The desire to become a woman didn't come upon me without warning; after the fact it seemed as if it had always been there-lurking, fleeting fantasies that had been flashing across my daydreams for a while...
Excerpted from Jewelry Talks by Richard Klein. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Klein. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.