Essay The Filth issue

The Monster

By Madame Nielsen

Translated from the DANISH by GAYE KYNOCH
Two pink faces, painted like clowns with blue eyeshadow and caps, resting on a table and staring at a punnet of strawberries in cream, in a still taken from Tom Rubnitz's 1989 film strawberry shortcut
Still from Tom Rubnitz’s Strawberry Shortcut (1989)

In the autumn of 1993, the protagonist takes the subway from the airport to Canal Street in Manhattan and asks the way to the Performing Garage on Wooster Street, where Elizabeth LeCompte and Willem Dafoe’s Wooster Group is based. He’ll be volunteering at the theater, but for now he has no money and nowhere to stay. He does have one very important resource: a photocopied A5 he’d been given by a lady he’d met somewhere in Europe, containing all the members of a highly discreet organization known as “the hosts.” As an authorized “guest” on her say-so (she was, she said, the local or European “coordinator/facilitator”), all he had to do was ring the number listed, and if the “host” in question was at home then he could stay for a number of nights, which, the woman said, was often negotiable, “our hosts are all very hospitable.” The only obligation as a guest was to keep the host company and demonstrate openness with regard to his or her “sphere of interest,” whatever that might be. In this installment, the protagonist meets his first hosts.


Two minutes past midnight he rang the buzzer at the entrance to 412 West Twenty-Fifth Street and a wildly caricatured woman’s voice said, “Who is it?” Thinking this might be the stupidest thing he’d ever do in his life, he said his name. “Oh?!” said the voice. “Is it you?” “Yes, of course,” he said, “we agreed that I should show up tonight around twelve.” “I know,” said the voice, “but it’s very late, and I didn’t think you’d actually really show up.” “Well, I’m here,” he said, “and it’s cold; could you please let me in? It’s just for one night.” “Okay,” the voice sighed, “you just take the stairs all the way to the top.” It was a rather old, shabby stairwell, the lower part at least, after the third landing there wasn’t any light, and he felt his way upward with a hand on the banister. He came to a halt with the impression of standing in front of a door, but when he raised his hand to knock, it slowly opened and a narrow crack of light like one from a museum display case fell out onto him. “Please don’t take off your shoes,” said the parodic voice with which he was already familiar from two types of telephone, now live & direct. He entered and took a look around. Or tried to. It wasn’t dark inside, it was black, walls, floor, even the ceiling was covered with thick shiny black velour, and the only light came from above, ten to twenty slender laser beams, which didn’t actually illuminate anything but just descended as piercing threads through the cramped space. A treasury, he thought, here should lie a string of pearls, a scalpel, or a thousand-diamond skull. But standing in front of him wasn’t some kind of cult priest or executioner, it was a slightly built, bleached, short-haired little creature somewhere between twenty-five and fifty in a pair of light blue silk pajamas, a bit like the ones the boy visited by Peter Pan wears. The little creature looked at him with curiosity. “You look goood!” he said. The creature carried on staring at him and he thought he should probably answer, “Oh, thanks!” or, “You, too,” but that was too stupid, he just glanced around, there was nothing to look at, not even doors, not in front and suddenly not behind him either. “Oh my God!” the guy laughed overexcitedly. “We’re just standing here; why don’t we just plunge ourselves right into it!” He turned and placed a hand on the wall, a door opened, and they entered a large room, also windowless, just six surfaces, all clad in the same lush, shiny, soft velour, but with a completely different deep-red sheen. “Just make yourself at home!” the guy said, and carried on across to the opposite wall. “I’ll get us something to drink, what d’you feel like? No!” he said, turning around. “Say nothing, I’ll make it a surpri-ise!” And coquettishly concluding his spin he vanished through an opening in the wall, which closed behind him. He looked around. The room was rectangular with a high curved ceiling, like the lid of a casket. One of the end walls was hung with a large reproduction of Andy Warhol’s 1963 Car Crash, lit obliquely from above by a single spotlight, like in a museum (or a cabinet of curiosities, a reliquary, he thought). At the other end, similarly exposed in a single spot, there was a copy — or maybe the original — of the electric chair from the selfsame Warhol’s Electric Chair or Lavender Disaster, also 1963, complete with leather straps, footrest, and a fat cable winding its way from the front right leg of the chair through the glistening claret-colored (or lavender?) velour into the center of the
room and then vanishing.

Make yourself at home! he thought. At that very moment the wall behind the chair opened and the slight guy came back in, without drinks, he had, however, changed his clothes and was wearing the same silk pajamas but now in pink. “Hi,” he said, “how are you?” “I’m all right,” he said. “Jerry,” the guy said, “my name is Jerry, I talked to you on the phone, you really look good.” “I know,” he said. The guy looked him up and down with delight, as if he were just-delivered goods, a freshly shaken toxic-red drink in a tall, slender glass with a black straw and topped off with a pale cherry. “My God, why don’t you sit down!” said the guy. He looked around, but there was nothing to be seen other than what he had already seen. “The chair!” the guy whined. “The chair?” he said. “The chair!” the guy said with a chuckle. “I think I’m fine for now, thanks,” he said. “Where’s Bruce?” “Bruce?” he said. “Bruce,” said the guy, “didn’t he tell you his name, oh come on! You look hungry, you like sushi?” “Yeah,” he said, “well, I don’t know, I guess I never tried it, but I’m a bit hungry, thanks.” “You never tried sushi?!” the guy whined. “I can’t believe it, he never tried sushi! I’ll get us some,” he said, and vanished through the same wall or door he had exited by the first time, “I can’t believe it, he never tried… ” Then the door closed, as if the guy’s voice were an audiotape being cut, and there was a moment of absolute hush, just a second during which he heard nothing but the whining of the nerve pathways in his skull, then the wall opened and the guy entered in his light blue silk pajamas, carrying a mirror tray with three green Sprite bottles, a light blue, a pink, and a black straw sticking up from their three respective necks, “I can’t believe it,” he whined, “you never tried sushi! Please take one!” and held out the tray. Sprite?! he thought. Why Sprite, why not Coca-Cola? and picked up one of the infantile green soda bottles. “Noo!” the guy whined. “That one’s for Jerry, the black one’s yours!” “Okay,” he said, and picked up the bottle with the black straw and stuck it in his mouth and sucked, it tasted exactly like Sprite, he thought, They’ve put something in it for sure. The wall opened and Jerry entered carrying a mirror tray with four white fingers of rice, and resting over each a simultaneously springy and limp raw fish tongue, all in matte and yet metallically glistening shades of flesh colors, one blood-dark red, a second glazed gray, a third pale white, a fourth almost rosy. “Why don’t you sit down?” said Bruce. He looked at them for a moment. Okay, he thought, there’s no way back. He put down his bag, took off his short red leather jacket and passed it to Bruce, stepped carefully onto the footrest and sank down into the chair and placed his hands on the armrests and looked straight ahead in his black jeans, the black polo-neck sweater, the black shoes. The two bleached creatures formed an equilateral triangle with him, each standing with his mirror tray, Jerry to the left with mirror tray on his right arm, Bruce to the right with mirror tray on his left arm, the one in pink silk pajamas and bare pale feet in the lush shiny claret-colored or lavender velour, the other in light blue silk pajamas and pale bare feet in the same shiny lush velour, and both with short, peroxided, almost white hair. They smiled. “Hi!” they said, and he thought he’d been wrong, here in the professed new world, which is on its way to becoming the new empire, it’s not a sudden everything-and-everyone-redeeming proposition, gesture, or action that will thrust History into a landslide, no no-matter-how-brilliant-and-charismatic performance, here all are performers, not just the professed “performers” in their little abyss in front of the stage in the Performing Garage, director and technicians, too, and the rest of the group members and associates and volunteers and all the millions of other New Yorkers and Americans out on the streets, in the bars, restaurants, the offices and apartments, lofts, penthouse and cardboard box homes and Saturday Night Live and Mad about You shows, day and night they perform their day and night and their own selves and their community and society and the dream about it all (“but really we are all actors”). Just a few years ago, he thought, on the other side of the globe, in an already-long-since-done-with epoch of human history, it had been him, the charismatic one-off, who was needed, the one who suddenly stepped out of the fossilized gray block of prevailing permanent stagnation of nothingness and, with one proposition, in the flash event, thrust History into a landslide, whereas here, he thought, here anything is event, every moment, every little gesture and utterance and everyone is their own deliverer of the American Dream, here the requirement isn’t another no-matter-how-charismatic performer, but a void, an in a sense perfectly passive observer who simply goes with the flow that carries him and has no ambition or dream of playing any role, neither to be nor become anyone or anything or do anything at all (a kind of Jesus with no mission, gospel, disciples, love, or forgiveness, with no coming or second coming and no other cross to bear than the world, the flesh, the gaze or, on the contrary, the emptiness in it), one who doesn’t stand outside or above, but from an indefinite and constantly drifting homeless place in the crowd observes and accumulates absence, aimlessness, and nonbeing, an every-moment-more-intense vacuum or absorbing black hole in the everything-and-everyone-inclusive performance, which, when the time is ripe, will reach its point of saturation and not explode but implode and draw in the whole world and the entire American and after the disappearance of the Soviet Union increasingly imperial and worldwide performance through the zero point of nothingness and out into a completely different form of being — which? Jerry in his pink silk pajamas stepped forward and held the mirror tray in front of his chest, and he looked down at his pale, chiseled face and, hovering above it, the four horrifying tongues — one metallic deep red, one caramelized gray, one almost orange, and one white with a transparent rosy shadow — each lying so gracefully and  lovingly lolling across its slightly arched divan or plinth of sticky white rice. “What is it?” he said. “It’s sushi!” Jerry whined. “Yes, but what is it?” “It’s Japanese,” said Bruce, “the rice is cooked, but the fish is raw, it’s shark, tuna, red snapper, and eel.” “And why are there four?” he said. “Why not just three?” “You’d prefer if there’d been only three?” said Jerry. “No,” he said, “I don’t care, I thought you’d prefer that there were exactly three different kinds and not just one of each, as if they were outstanding or original or unique, but maybe thirteen or twenty, one hundred or two or whatever, just exactly the same number of each.” And why sushi? he thought, feeling suddenly dizzy and infinitely fatigued or just utterly indifferent, what’s sushi got to do in this world here, why not Campbell’s Tomato Soup or Del Monte Peach Halves or just the one hamburger, for him, in the perfectly standard wrapping of white waxed paper with little Burger King logos and a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup on the side. “Oh! We didn’t think of that,” said Jerry, “we just thought you were hungry.” “No,” he said, and the picture of Car Crash behind the two guys started quivering and flickering before his eyes, “I’m not.” “You’re not what?” said Bruce. “I’m just not,” he said, and closed his eyes. “God, you look tired,” said Jerry. “I haven’t slept since I came… ” he mumbled, “to America.” “Oh God,” said Bruce, “how long have you been here?” “I don’t know,” he mumbled, “I just arrived… maybe yesterday morning.” They both laughed hysterically. “There are people who’ve been here for sooo much longer without even closing their eyes,” said the one or the other. “I’m not people,” he mumbled, and opened his eyes. “We know,” they said. They both bent over and placed their trays on the grape-red or lavender-colored velour, stepped toward him and each took a leather strap and fastened it around his wrist and next the two ankle straps and finally, together, the big belt that would keep his torso upright and fixed against the chair. They took three steps backward and looked at him. “Are you readyyy!” they both shouted like kids in the middle of a game they’d played hundreds of times before. He looked at them. “What about one last cigarette?”he said. “Oh, you smoke?” said Jerry. “No,” he said, “it was just a joke.” “Smoke — joke!” Bruce whined. “Why would that be so funny?” said Jerry. “It isn’t,” he said, “I’m fine, I’m absolutely perfectly fine, let’s get started.” “‘Started’!” said Bruce, “over here we just say, ‘That’s all folks.’” “The End,” they said in unison and looked at each other, and he realized it was the first time, so far they’d looked only at him. “Are you readyyy!” they shouted again. “Oh, come on,” he mumbled, but at that very moment Car Crash on the end wall in front of him between the two brothers was dissolved by black-and-white footage from the launch countdown for the rocket that was going to take the first human being to the moon, and the two creatures or angels or perverts or kids shouted in unison, “Ten — nine — eight — seven — six — five — four — three — two — one… ” A heavy blow passed through his brain and eyeballs and lungs and genitals and arteries and squeezed his heart, that’s all folks, no more to say.

It’s not true, sorry, there was no blow, no abrupt flickering-past of moments from a whole life and no long dark tunnel leading to the light, that’s all just something we try to picture in order to have something at the point where there is absolutely nothing. A flash dazzled him for a split second, and Car Crash vanished behind a Polaroid photo of him at the very moment of death. Then it was gone. Left on his retina, the negative imprint of that joke, that gimmick, that fake and cheap little piece of Pop art called death.


When he came into the world, the twins were standing in front of him as before but reversed: Jerry to the right with the tray on his left arm, Bruce to the left with the tray on his right arm. They were laughing. “Welcome to the new world!” they said in unison. He didn’t feel in the least alert, far from it, he felt unbearably, insurmountably weary, and he thought this was ludicrous and not just jet lag and lack of sleep, they had of course poured some kind of powder into his Sprite (“Noo! That one’s for Jerry, the black one is yours!”), and there wasn’t any actual difference between this here and now and what had been before, in his absence they had simply, like the kids they were, swapped places or, if he had really been away for so long, kept their places and trays precisely as before but had time to swap pajamas, so now Jerry was perhaps the guy in the light blue pajamas and Bruce the guy in the pink ones. He’d undoubtedly never know. “I’d like to go to bed,” he said. “Oh no!” they whined. “You’ve only just arrived!” “You didn’t even want me to come in the first place,” he mumbled. “Of course we did!” they said. “We just didn’t know it was you.” “Well, it was,” he said, “would you please show me to my room.”

They stepped toward him and undid the straps around his ankles, wrists, and chest and pulled him up, as if he couldn’t stand by himself, and put his arms around their necks and shoulders, as if he couldn’t walk by himself, and half led, half carried him, feet in the black shoes shuffling through the now-with-certainty lavender-colored velour toward a wall he hadn’t seen before, perhaps it was the wall behind the electric chair, and opened a slim door and climbed up a narrow spiral staircase with him in their hands, and he closed his eyes and saw the actors who in a kind of hovering slow motion carry the dying master Molière up an apparently forever twisting staircase in the once-gold-plated now-dilapidated theater or palace, how he floats on their hands, already formless floating on their upward stretching hands, floating formless fluttering in a grimy-white nightshirt, like an angel with no wings other than those with which humankind supports it, and he thought it was ludicrous, it would never do in America, such an extravagantly powdered theatrical death would be possible or even imaginable only in Europe. At the very top (it couldn’t just keep going, it wasn’t a film or a dream, it was a building on West Twenty-Fifth Street, Manhattan, New York City, in the year 1993) they carried him through another opening into a rather small oblong room, the floor and walls (but not the ceiling) covered with the same soft velour as the rest of the rooms in the apartment, but now white, and placed him silently and with endless care, as if he were a newborn babe, a string of pearls, or the Redeemer’s lifeless body, in the soft velour, which felt even softer here, as if the floor underneath was a mattress or water, maybe the Hudson River or the sea. And while they gently stripped him naked, he looked up at the ceiling or through it into the December sky above New York, where clouds, which in the mist through which he saw it, and which was for sure not the world’s but his own mist, formed into cars with the strange shapes of the fifties and early sixties, like long bewinged boxes, sailing past in an endless motorcade.

The two actors or disciples or angels or monsters or slightly built blond human creatures straightened up and vanished, and he didn’t hear the sound of the door they closed behind them but the ensuing sound of silence, the American cliché of a perfect anechoic chamber, which made his blood swish (like a subterranean river) in his skull, and he thought that this was neither a stage nor a coffin but a reliquary with a glass lid like a display case, and here he now lay naked as a pearl, a pale oblong feces or a fountain pen waiting to be picked up and hung like a piece of jewelry from an ear or flushed down a drain or moved across a sheet of paper in the complex undulating coded shapes that constitute world history, and through the glass lid he saw the clouds drifting by in the sky, and he gradually realized that the sky wasn’t the sky and the clouds weren’t clouds but a motorcade of motorbikes and cars driving, in an almost black-and-white film from the early sixties, through the streets of a city, and that he wasn’t seeing them from down here but from the side and — now and then, in glimpses — obliquely from above, from Lee Harvey Oswald’s point of view, and that it wasn’t the sky above New York but Andy Warhol’s 22 November 1963, not the never-realized piece, nor the iconic photograph on which it was based, but the equally motion-picture-iconic TV footage of the motorcade with the open-top limousine carrying John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, driving through Dallas toward the historic moment the shot rings out or, rather, hits or penetrates, the film started over from the beginning, so above and below, then and now, he again saw the final two minutes and seventeen seconds of John F. Kennedy’s life play out toward the moment the shot rings out or hits or penetrates, it started over from the beginning so that he, once he had unknowingly been lying there in the soft darkness of the totally white room or reliquary or firmament looking up at the ceiling, which wasn’t a ceiling but a sky, which wasn’t a sky but a never-realized piece by Andy Warhol — a key moment in world history extended indefinitely — for an hour, had witnessed the moment of death twenty-six times strangely unaffected, on the other hand he knew with an almost religious certainty that what follows death, and that which humankind has for millennia pictured as everything from paradise and countless versions of hell to just as many countless versions of rebirth in other times and other worlds and as completely different people or beings or not-beings — flowers, smoke, rock — or the inconceivable or absolute nothing (whatever that might be), to “nothing but light,” was but a repetition of the final two minutes and seventeen seconds before death, again and again and again forever and ever… At that very instant the shot was fired for the twenty-seventh time, and the night was slashed in a lavender-colored fan, which closed, and the two slightly built creatures sank down and sat cross-legged one on each side of his head in a silky sheen of pink and light blue, wrists resting on knees and gently dangling hands like anorexic chlorine-bleached Buddhas, and through the slits in their pajama trousers their luminous white organs standing like upward-growing tree roots or throbbing melting altar candles or extraterrestrials without eyes and the naked bright shiny skulls split open in wide mouths or transparent blind albino fish on the bottom of the Mariana Trench. “No,” he said, “this is not what I have come for.” But it’s just words, words words words, the two guys were slightly built but matters of fact, their fingers were long and strong, and they latched on like roots around his bones and penetrated every little fissure and even rummaged around the eye sockets, he didn’t simply resign himself to it and didn’t simply let it happen, it was a fact, an occurrence in an infinitely expanding universe, which was perhaps just one of countless simultaneously, staggered, in parallel, implicated, or self-similarly developing universes, he didn’t take it personally, but when the one or the other’s organ penetrated him, he nonetheless and to his annoyance felt the “rush of pain and pleasure” that exploded from the anal sphincter and colon walls in a fountain of fire up through the spinal column and illuminated his skull from within like a cathedral (and was crushed against the dome in sparks, gold dust, and glowing melting bronze down over the inner side of his self), and he thought that the centuries-long Western obsession with desire and freedom was a mistake, and that it wasn’t what he had come to the new world to experience, not such a trite and far-too-human far-too-small a death but an immeasurably greater and thoroughly impersonal and inhuman rush he wished to release.


Madame Nielsen is an artist, a performer, a composer, and the author of numerous books, including The Endless Summer, The Monster, and the pentalogy Pentagon smeltet. Madame Nielsen’s work has been translated into nine languages and recognized with several awards.
Gaye Kynoch is a Danish-to-English literary translator, originally from the United Kingdom who lives in Denmark.