Egyptian Draughts, from a Papyrus in the British Museum. Illustration in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1890. Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Emily Ogden
A Greek soldier once said to me on a private bunk in a ferry boat, “You are a good whore.” Well, I mean to say. This was absurd. I had bedded him. I had watched his heavy ingenuity work to overcome the resistance that I was not, in fact, mounting. Who did he think was out-thinking whom? “It’s that in their own lack of intelligence they think they see you coming when it’s you who sees them coming.”
Clouding his mind was his conviction that a naked girl was a bagged partridge. Clothed—well, so long as I had been clothed I had been something next door to a worthy adversary in his eyes: sleepless guardian of a thing he wanted to possess. Nakedness was marred, for me, by his sense that he had finished with all that now. Besides the perpetual disappointment of perfectly functional penises of perfectly normal size, there was, worse, the relaxation of perfectly normal intellects from an alluring state of tension into their usual flaccidity. Then these men lost their quick glory the way a cat loses hers when she unpricks her ears, undilates her eyes, uncurves her paw, lets the dead mouse lie.
I hadn’t lost whatever he thought I had lost—which may have been so antiquated an object as my “virtue”—but I had lost something. My prize had been the contest itself. So long as it lasted, we recognized each other as adversary and trophy at once; at least, in a way; at least, I could compel that recognition sometimes. I played love as a checkers match. Checkers, Edgar Allan Poe thought, was the greatest of games for testing the acumen. You might expect chess. Not so. What mattered in chess, he said, was never losing sight of any of the knights’ 32 possible leaps, or of the intercontinental strikes the queens might make on the diagonal. Who was best at keeping all sixty-four squares in mind? People with a certain gift for calculation who had, at the same time, little on their minds to begin with.
Chess favored grinds. But checkers favored intuitive geniuses. “To be less abstract,” Poe said, let’s imagine a game of checkers “where the pieces are reduced to four kings.” How do you win a contest so crude? By the cruelest kind of attack: an empathetic one. In checkers, Poe said, the player “throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods… by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.” You could only win by using the fact that you were just like the other, in feeling and in thought. Your imaginative understanding of him was your weapon; your victory evidenced, above all, a humanity equal to his. If you could beat him, it was because you were like him.
More than one of Poe’s stories comes down to the following cri de coeur: Look at me, predator; I am your fellow beast of prey. Pairs of men press toward each other against their mutual repulsion, like magnets with the same charge. In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin, the original for all fictional detectives, plays with Minister D—. a cold game of diplomatic calculation to retrieve a damning piece of correspondence. When Dupin wins, he writes D— a note comparing himself to Thyestes: a husband cuckolded by his brother Atreus, who in revenge serves to Atreus the roasted meat of his own children. What satisfaction for Dupin in this savagery? The satisfaction of being seen by the enemy in the act of out-thinking him. The pleasure of suddenly, like a bolt out of the clear blue sky, jumping his fucking king.
Checkers was picking up the bartender at a tourist dive. You appear to be—in fact you are—alone. Could you be so stupid? Apparently you are. Final call nears and you keep staying; you stay past when he thinks you could possibly stay without Fatal Compromise. You look him directly in the eye. He watches you indulgently as the possible victim of his ravishment, if he even wants to bother. But as your brazenness worsens, he glances in involuntary panic at his friends. Can it be that he is doomed to fuck you? Now he ducks his head away from you when he opens the door to his walkup; now there is something flinching about the backward hitch of his head. Like a good dog being swatted on the nose, he would like to extricate himself without biting you. You see a picture of what turns out to be his girlfriend. You ask who it is. He snarls, don’t you talk about her.
Cruel on both sides? Absolutely, and even with all this cruelty, no one could quite land on the square they wanted. We wanted to be loved as something other than we were, and then, by the pharmaceutical power of a stranger’s regard, to become that thing. We waited, interminably as it turned out, for the stranger to reveal to us what the thing we were becoming was. Pharmakon: cure and poison both. But the wonder of it was that as long as the game was on, you could compel a kind of recognition. While they did not yet have you, they had to hail you as possessor of yourself. You played, like anyone, for sex. But then you played also to make them recognize you as a contestant.
I still encounter wars in this shape from time to time. They happen anywhere that two things are true at once: men wish for women to recognize their prowess; and men decline to acknowledge that women might be, even potentially, possessors of a prowess greater than the one they are asked to hail.
At a faculty cocktail party a year or so ago, I said my first book was about mesmerism. The man I was talking to commanded, “Tell me why Darnton is wrong.” Robert Darnton is the author of an important book on mesmerism in pre-Revolutionary France, though this was not explained; the idea was to see both whether I knew, and whether I had something to say. He meant both to test and to tantalize me with the vulgar omission of the first name. “Another teacher of women. You haven’t read Gibbon? How is that possible, you with such fine legs?” Up surged bloody murder. I said some things at a fast clip: event vs. discourse, French Revolution vs. secularism, this scholar vs. that scholar. Middle fingers all. Summa cum laude, high goddamned theory. I was livid; this man was pleased. Turned out he liked a little aggression. He reorganized his features as a stroked cat will do. We should talk more, he said. Let’s have a drink, he started to say, before transforming that invitation mid-sentence into a promise to send his female student to my office hours, she his footsoldier in case I might have my weapons free.
He was right, I did. I felt, above all, cheated: After all my work to please, did the patriarchy really have no fitter representative to send me than this buffoon? Didn’t the one supposed to know, know anything? Here I was, ready to beat the test as it had never been beaten before. I was killing it. I liked killing it. But the moment the contest was over, the prize evaporated in my hands. What did I get for winning? Only that expense-of-spirit-in-a-waste-of-shame feeling: the zipless fuck of the intellect. I am enjoying myself: a) a lot; b) a little bit; c) not at all. Both (a) and (c).
But I am not here to perform a conversion away from these ferocious games. No; I think the prize they offer, if ephemeral, is still worth having for as long as it lasts. To be beastly in the other’s eyes is something to me. It is a form of freedom, an unleashing. And unleashing does not necessarily have a bloodbath as its consequence, as we should know from the animals we domesticate. Sometimes the opposite; sometimes it has a gentling effect. Pull on my hound dog’s lead, and he will pull back against you, hard; he will get more and more unmanageable all the time, as he seeks to respond to whatever emergency it is that has made you want to choke him. Let his lead fall loose, and he may take himself to have been released. Now he can sniff around. He will not walk in a straight line or at a constant pace. He will follow scents; trot forward; double back. He is a predator, but his predation does not narrowly revolve around some prey. Before he finds the trace, he senses the high relief of everything. He hears the buzz of a wood bee. His years fall around his feet like water dropping from the body of a swimmer. He tips his head; he bristles with joy.
When he was a young dog, we would go on long walks in the deep forest, where we met no one to complain about his running free. We stayed faithfully near each other, except when he smelled a fox. Then, deaf to me, he would tear off into rough country at speed, crying a deep desirous bark unlike any of his ordinary calls, until his voice faded into silence. My heart went with him. Exhilarated for him, I endured, also, a frantic terror I can still feel like a balloon inflating inside my chest. Somewhere, up that hill, he was crossing a train track. It was possible he’d reach the highway. He was gone but I kept calling his name at intervals; I could not stop myself. It was not so that he could find me again, when the fox hopelessly outran him, as the foxes always did. He had no trouble finding me. It was so, while he was gone, I could believe in his return. He always did return, radiant with joy, his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. He fell in beside me and sniffed for dead animals as I looked for birds and mushrooms, our hearts hammering in our chests.
The clear pool you can reach by crossing through the tumult of erotic contest is something like this: you become capable of a rapt, unfocused wandering. Locked into the chase at portside bars, I too saw clearly the motions of bees. The violet color of the sky vibrated with meaning. I felt my hand on the martini glass as though it were impossible I should falter. Speaking, I knew as surely what the response would be as an actor does who has read the script of the play. I could experience the clicking satisfaction of correct recitation, even though there was no script, and we were free.
This quality of attention is friendly to aesthetic experience. We remember we are mortal, and we do not yet know enough—we never know enough—about whether we are loved. Every sensation must be gathered up, sifted for clues—which is to say, savored. This is why Poe’s greatest portrait of a predator, the detective Dupin, is also his greatest portrait of an aesthete. The eccentric Dupin shuts himself up in a dark mansion by day, reading the rare books he collects, then ventures forth at night, “roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.”
As Charles Baudelaire wrote of another of Poe’s predators, a convalescent who follows a stranger through the city streets, having lately “returned from the valley of the shadow of death, he is rapturously breathing in all the odours and essences of life; as he has been on the brink of total oblivion, he remembers, and fervently desires to remember, everything.” He is not chasing prey; he is chasing predation itself, and its nearness to the bleeding edge. There you can sharpen yourself enough to see beauty.
It must be that erotic risk feels like the risk of death. As if the withdrawal of the other’s regard—even this new other, to whom we have yielded nothing as yet—would leave us as completely shipwrecked as death could do. While I chase you, I gamble on your regard. In the last breaths I draw before the dice fall, I attend to every precious sensation of my waning life, all the life I have left until you look at me with desire.
 Anna Burns, Milkman (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2018), 233.
 Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales (New York: Library of America, 1984), 398.
 Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (New York: New York Review of Books, 2001), 57.
 Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales (New York: Library of America, 1984), 401.
 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (New York: Phaidon Press, 1994), 7.
About the Author:
Emily Ogden (@ENOgden) is the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (University of Chicago Press, 2018). She has written for Critical Inquiry, The New York Times, American Literature, the LA Review of Books Quarterly Journal, J19, Lapham’s Quarterly Online, Early American Literature, and Public Books. Her columns at 3 Quarks Daily (3quarksdaily.com) appear every eighth Monday. She has appeared on NPR’s The Hidden Brain podcast and The BBC World Service’s The Forum. The Mellon Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, and other granting organizations have supported her work.