Fish-tailed Toxic Masculinity in Melissa Broder’s ‘The Pisces’
Rachel Ashenden’s response to Melissa Broder’sThe Pisces (2018).
What is it with 2018 and its cultural attraction to fish-men? I examine the surrealist legacies of siren mythology in the contemporary novel.
Women, male and gender-queer surrealists evoked ancient siren mythology in their artwork, which fed into their representation of women as an aggregate of two incompatible parts: in the upper half we see the feminine, the perfect body and the patriarchal ideal, and in the bottom half we see the phallic potency of the satanic serpent. The mythological creature embodies the most negative female archetype: the male nightmare of the castrating woman, who is simultaneously mesmerising and lethal. The siren captivated the surrealists because she represents the two primordial Freudian instincts: Eros (or libido) and the death instinct. She is the personification of devouring sexuality.
During the cultural period of European modernity, the surrealists looked to ancient mythology to rekindle deep-seated instinctual, and often frightening, responses to human existence. Women surrealists did benefit from the new century’s sociocultural changes, as they were able to construct relatively independent and sexually free lives, beyond the confines of domesticity. For instance, they could actively participate in surrealism, albeit on the fringes, and in spite of not being considered fully-fledged members. The male surrealists were afraid of this, and clutched onto their status as surrealist “managers”, as it were, by rekindling the ancient siren myth to displace their anxiety onto the women participants. Homer’s The Odyssey serves as an effective and debilitating cautionary tale, warning men to to resist women’s dangerous seduction and to fear their voices. This meant that women’s protests for enfranchisement in surrealism often fell on deaf ears. For René Magritte, when the siren’s top half is swapped with her bottom half, her speech is taken away – she is silent, swept up on the shore, disabled on both land and water:
Rene Magritte, The Collective Invention (1935)
For women surrealists, such as Meret Oppenheim, the siren symbolised the endless process of becoming feminine. Her phallic tail emasculates the male, but also represents the ongoing battle to suppress the non-feminine aspects of her being, and exclude all that threatens the masculine subject. Oppenheim used Siren imagery during a depressive period where she felt her artistic powers were redundant. As Gwen Raaberg notes, “following [Oppenheim’s] early discovery by the Surrealists, [she] suffered prolonged periods of silence and inability to work creatively”. Raaberg argues that Oppenheim’s work gained a different and unintended meaning within the discourse of the male surrealists, and that the masculine theoretical framework of surrealism, in effect, stifled her creativity as a female artist. Stone Woman (1938) represents her personal crisis whilst she was operating in terms of a dialectic between ‘woman’ and artist; it opens a gap between woman as male object of desire and the female subject who facilitated it. Washed up on the shore, the stones that shape the limp ‘woman’ are indistinguishable from the siren form, particularly her legs which are attached together like a tail, with her feet resembling fins. Sirens will perish if they are not listened to by men, and here she is, deceased and swept up on the shore:
Méret Oppenheim, Stone Woman (1938)
I have shown two examples of the morphological inversion of the siren in classical surrealism, but what about its subversion in contemporary literature? In recent years, we have seen the publication of The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren (2013), the production of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro (2017), and my focus today, The Pisces by Melissa Broder (2018). In a Hélène Cixous-esque way, the creators of these cultural texts reimagine the siren or mer-creature as male.
‘Wouldn’t the worse be that women aren’t castrated, that they only have to stop listening to the sirens (for the sirens were men) for history change its meaning?” – Cixous, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’.
Lucy, the 38-year-old protagonist of the novel from Phoenix, has deep-seated insecurity issues, escalated by the addictive phenomenon of Tinder and social media stalking. She yearns for intense emotional attachments to men who show any glimmer of sexual interest in her – even her ex-boyfriend whom she fell out of love with years ago. She lacks a concrete sense of identity, and this extends to her volatile doctoral thesis on theorising the gaps in Sappho’s poetry as intentional space, which she admits to not actually believing in. She is a one Tinder date with a tail-less male away from a breakdown.
Until she meets Theo, a beautiful and youthful-looking “swimmer”, on the rocky edges of Southern Californian seas. A man who spends 45 minutes eating her out, while buoying himself up, with her legs dangling in the saltwater. In comparison to her Tinder dates, who cannot locate her clitoris nor her heart, he is out of this world. Lucy soon discovers that Theo’s most substantial saline member is not his penis, but a giant, scaled and barnacled tail, conveniently situated underneath his genitals and buttocks. When a woman falls in love with a man who inhabits a separate, mythical universe under the sea, it’s an indicator that it’s time for some internal reflection and a lot of therapy. With Lucy’s self-esteem rock bottom, she takes to Theo like a fish to water. For some time, their relationship is extraordinarily perfect in spite of the tail; he even eats her out while she is menstruating, which Lucy equates to unconditional love.
Our protagonist is emotionally vulnerable and has the libido akin to Odysseus. Theo, our contemporary day siren, recognises her as a target. I posit that Theo represents the emotional abuse toxic men inflict onto their female partners in mythological form. My reading conceptualises Theo’s actions in terms of contemporary conceptualisation of psychopathic relationships.
In the idealisation phase of their unhealthy relationship, Lucy is lost in a passionate fantasy with Theo, who energises her emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. Her mind and body is consumed by unrivalled pleasure, as he mirrors everything she wants in a partner. She is his latest target of endless adoration and sexual gratification. He has tricked her into falling in love. Even if we ignore the tail, it is dysfunctional to its core. Lucy understands love in terms of evocative possession: “I put my fingers in my pussy and smeared blood under his eyes…I wanted to paint him with so many of my fluids: sweat, spit, blood. I wanted to brand or mark him.” One thing is for sure, however – you cannot own a psychopath. And if we have learnt anything from the myth of the sirens, love and desire leads to the ultimate form of all-consuming possession: death.
Once she is swept off her feet by a legless man, her guard is broken down and her whole life is consumed by a man she met a matter of weeks ago. Without realising, she is isolated, cut off from her entire support network. It helps that she has temporarily relocated from Phoenix to California to house-sit for her concerned older sister Annika. It is supposed to be a therapeutic, soul-cleansing summer for Lucy. But in the aftermath of Theo’s love-bombing, Lucy refuses to help her friend Claire when she confesses she’s suicidal and needs a friend to stay for the night to stop her from killing herself. Not tonight, in case Theo wants her. She stops attending her therapy group. She starts drugging Annika’s darling dog with tranquillisers in case Theo wants to stay the night, and increases the dose in accordance to the level of her dopamine-induced intoxication, which ultimately leads to the canine’s death. Lucy cannot integrate Theo into any intimate circles of her life, because of his fishy lower half, and that works to his advantage. She has no one she can confide to about their romantic relationship, because any rational human being would believe Theo was a dangerous figment of her imagination. She is now his completely. This draws parallels to the situation victims of emotional abuse are thrown into; confused by tactics of gaslighting and silenced by shame, they are isolated from everyone once near and dear to them.
When Lucy informs Theo that she will be returning to her hometown in three weeks time, she expresses a sense of independence removed of Theo, and he reacts with irrational anger:
‘It was like he’d become a Siren. As Homer said, the Sirens had gorgeous, melodic voices, but they could also howl with pain and agony. It was not pain as I had romanticised it: him beautifully bereft with aching for me. It was not the Sirens as we humans imagined them, armed with divine power. This was vulnerability, a bit of madness even, and what it revealed was that he truly loved me, and that love could be grotesque.’
Theo’s “divine power” over Lucy equates to his ability to control her emotions – here, she is faced with unparalleled guilt, in what he stages as her ultimate betrayal. As punishment, he suddenly abandons her, withdraws any affection that he once fervently bestowed on her. Victims of emotional manipulation will do anything to be on the receiving end of their perpetrator’s affection once again. He disappears for nights on end, and she sleeps on the rocks waiting for his return, endangering herself. Her anxiety reaches otherworldly levels, and she only feels at ease in presence; when he decides to return, like a drug addict, she feels ‘a surge of euphoria, a deep peace inside [her], but also a return to normalcy, fixed, as though [she] were supposed to feel this way all the time.’ She is now pliable, his play-thing, and her sense of self is worn away, like the ruins of a ship in the ocean.
After idealisation, then abandonment, the final stage of a toxic relationship is destruction of the victim. Despite being a Sappho expert, Lucy is ignorant, or in denial, of the reality of the Homeric tradition. Theo informs her she must now make a sacrificial choice between life without him on land and life with him underwater; he is an abuser who forces ultimatums onto his lover. She chooses the latter, which means death by drowning, as her brain as been rewired to believe that life without him is not worth living at all. About to be led to her death, Theo explains: ‘I will never pull you down under harder than you want to go. In the past, with the others, this is how I always did it. I need to feel you are there of your will.’ In this contorted version of freewill, the abuser must know his power has sunk into every corner of her mind, and that she would do anything to be possessed by him. But his slip-up about ‘the others’ jolts her back into her own mind. Who are the others? How many are there? Questions a victim asks after realising they are in a relationship with a monster. The realisation that you are one in a chain of many tormented souls. In Theo’s mythical lifespan, there has been seventeen women who have successfully drowned. She decides she won’t be the eighteenth, and in that act of self-affirmation and independence, she transforms from a victim into a survivor of emotional abuse. The novel ends on the cusp of her starting a new chapter of her life without a man to drag her down. Her mind will surely be baffled by the actions of her abuser for years to come, but she will gain strength while struggling to the surface of the water.
Possession of women’s minds and bodies is abusive behaviour. Magritte’s reversed representation of the siren is a dark, hyper-masculine take on the siren as a feminist symbol for reclamation of women’s voices, and Oppenheim shows us the painful, deathly consequences of masculine control. In a surrealist legacy fashion, Lucy rebels, plugs her ears with wax, and refuses to listen to the siren.