Veteran viewers of crime-scene investigation series know that the houses of victims and suspects alike can reveal unsavory truths about the life of their inhabitants: perversions, addictions and obsessions come to the fore through the things they have kept hidden from the view of all but the more intimate of their relations, and sometimes even from them: the handcuffs, porn and dope of a secret or second life, the ostraka of shame that signal a violation, if only perceived, of cultural or social values. Which is why they are hidden in the first place.
I have plenty of objects of guilt, but none, I think, of shame. I have my share of pornography, but nothing I am ashamed of. The few sex toys I have are common enough to be a source of amusement and nothing else; the more esoteric gear would perhaps provoke curiosity as to its intended use. No, there is nothing I feel I would need or want to hide from the eyes of a CSI detective. The closest might be a pair of old sweatpants I wear around the house, too comfortable to throw away but too frayed and kitchen-stained to be worn in company of others.
Guilt is another thing entirely. It is that nagging feeling of regret over a transgression or omission, a violation not so much of fundamental principles of decency but of the standards we set for ourselves. Shame says, I am bad; guilt, I have done something wrong or failed to do something right. Guilt makes us want to atone, rather than to hide.
And I have plenty of guilt objects. The 100 Best Swimming Drills (I don’t do drills often enough), the score to the Well-Tempered Clavier (which I keep thinking I’ll study but don’t), the second half of my friend Natalie’s first book of poems (unread), the second half of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (ditto), corkscrew (used too often), juicer (not used enough),… There are lots more. I see them from time to time, reminding me of my imperfections and failed resolutions. None is hidden so well that I can avoid encountering it entirely. I could just give them away, but then I would feel guilty about getting rid of things I was guilty about not using in the first place; it’s the weakling’s way out. Sounds complicated but it makes sense to me in a comfortably perverse way.
I know that for most people it’s the other way around. They don’t feel guilty about unread or unused books but are a little embarrassed about having a store of porn. It’s not because of some kind of internalized priggishness. I suspect most feel guilty about the very idea of using porn to get off (though of course they do use it), as if porn were something only zit-besieged adolescents and fat old men use because they can’t or don’t think they can get fucked. This, of course, is untrue. Porn is like delivery pizza. There are just some days you don’t have the time or energy (or opportunity) to do up a home-cooked meal.
I’m actually quite fond of the porn I have, mostly because the DVDs were a gift from a boyfriend I was very fond of. He was a sometimes-out-of-work and underpaid construction worker and this was the only gift he could afford. It was a homemade gift that embodied a pride in craftsmanship and the affection he had for me. They were never just copies of DVDs; instead, he carefully selected and edited scenes from a variety of primary sources. He, more than anyone else, knew what turned me on and he curated these scenes for an exhibition that was intended for one and only one viewer: me
His DVD recorder was the prized object among a very small menagerie of possessions. He was a minimalist by necessity, having neither the means nor the space to acquire much of anything. He was that mythic figure, a man of a hundred things. He lived in a tiny basement flat. A hall at the bottom of a short flight of stairs served as the living room, barely big enough for a small two-seat sofa. There was no room on the floor for his stereo speakers, so he had mounted these on the wall. His bedroom fit a bed and an armoire he had rescued from a building awaiting demolition. But though small he had made the flat his. He had painted the bedroom walls and ceiling in swirls of blacklight paint and lined the front of the armoire with mirrors. There were a row of hardy plants on the steps of the stairs, and a collection of curios he had picked up over the years at flea markets that included a lava lamp and a minaret-shaped bird-cage. He was proud of them all. I soon came to believe that his affection for the things he owned was directly proportional to the number of possessions he had.
Even though I’ve seen these DVD”s dozens of times and the edge has worn off, even though it’s been months since I’ve even spoken to Wacław, they are still too charged with his presence for me to consider getting rid of them. In an odd way they are among the life-affirming things I own. They are a testimony to a rare friendship and a witness to the ingenious nobility of a man without possessions who could nonetheless craft a gift, equally rare—a gift that was made for one and only one person in mind.
I won’t throw them away, not right now. Instead, I gather together some of my many guilt objects: a jump-rope, a Dutch grammar, Dietmar Dath’s monumental cult novel Die Abschaffung der Arten, which I’ve tried to read at least three times but never got beyond page 60, the Mahler symphonies I’ve told myself I really should listen to but never want to. I collect them as if preparing the kindling for an expiatory funeral pyre. I won’t burn these, of course, but I’m not inclined to give them away. Bad karma. I’ll put them in a box and put them outside the dumpster tomorrow morning. And when I come back from work, I’ll put on one of Wacław’s DVD.