Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to a few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar . . . — Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe
He remains hidden, even from a good height, completely hidden by stooped bodies. Hidden, too, from below by figures advancing on all fours. One sees only a great many arms swooping down from above like a flock of surgeons, or else the pack nosing in underneath, like famished dogs.
At a distance, the athletic mass, skin taut and glistening, is a picture of harmony. Zooming in, however, disorder becomes unmistakeable. Everything slithers and twists, strains and reaches, gaps no sooner open than are filled with muscle. A lock here, a grip there, the combat of calves, the tension of jaw and sinew. Limbs sliding and slapping, weight bearing down relentlessly. A tremendous struggle. Clash, flexure, friction. Welts, contusions, concussions. And, rising from the thick of it, a smell of intimate aggression.
They are coming in from all directions just to touch him. Though they have not laid eyes on him, they carry with them some image and know the principles he is to embody. Whether he appears real or ideal, he attracts them just the same, as a magnet does metal filings, or a sweetmeat does ants.
What I can see from the observation tower erected for foreign observers I describe for you. The occasion of my visit to the Republic of Opferling is, as you know, the induction of the prince-elect. My movements have been closely monitored since my arrival. Security is on maximum alert for the length of the ceremonial. All other government functions are suspended. Citizens cannot be interviewed at this time, no officials are available for comment, and we handful of reporters are strictly proscribed from comparing notes. I am thus left to my own devices, and nobody here seems to care what ideas I come away with.
In such conditions, with so little to go on, reporting stretches the imagination. Before we know it we have also stretched the truth. My report will of necessity be a short one.
It is the local tradition that the new prince receives a public “blessing” from the electorate before taking office. The custom, representing an archaic form of republicanism, is widely known and notoriously misunderstood. To an outsider looking in, it is even more cryptic for being conducted entirely out in the open.
The confirmation ceremony extends over many days, and takes a most bizarre form: tactile accolade. A tangible connection is sought by each and every member of the polity. Should the prince die from exposure to all this physical attention, which is almost to be expected, the Opferlingen simply choose another, repeating their rite until, eventually, a survivor is installed as ruler.
Even stranger than this primitive business of rubbing the body of the prince is the way the multitude goes about it. There is no procession, no filing in and taking of turns. They press forward in the most confused fashion, stripped to the waist on account of the heat. Their numbers swell and ebb depending on the hour—all the regulation I can discern.
On the other hand, the crowd’s focus and dynamic make a stampede unlikely. Contact with the future leader is clearly with them a matter of contest. But it is a fight from which but one man can emerge as either winner or loser, and that is the prince.
From the great heaving jumble comes a soft moaning. The occasional whimpering cry merges, if my ears do not deceive me, with distinct sighs of pleasure. Do they belong to him? Finally a brief parting of the masses reveals something—a nude torso that can only be his—horizontal upon a kind of altar. I am allowed only this glimpse.
Everyone craves to feel it, all want a piece of it. And as long as they want it, it is there. They have their hands all over the supine idol. In a casual onlooker who stumbles upon the scene by accident, the lustful noises could easily produce disgust. But to a reporter, whose job is to get beneath the skin of these people and track what is going on, their undulating motion soon seduces, their energy becomes irresistible, and the urge to join in can barely be repressed.
By this point, the incumbent offers no more resistance to their caresses. As the sun dips low on the horizon, those nearest the center of the fray appear blood-red, their bare chests and shoulders smeared with some kind of pigment.
The prince’s body, on view now beneath the sloping sky, bathed in the sun’s waning glow, looks beatific. I find the thought of running my hand across it, of pressing against it, strongly arousing. Touch has in the body one great organ; can the senses of sight, hearing, smell, or taste boast as much?
There is of course more of him I cannot see. I imagine my palms gliding slowly over the mounds and bulges, exploring valleys and hollows, fingers tracing orifices, probing them… Should I be embarrassed by these fantasies? Is it not my place to participate, if only imaginatively? I stand with my notepad conscious of the guard, who like the Capitoline Brutus looks both watchful and eternal; he has seen it all before: the concourse below, the foreigner with notepad in hand and eyes transfixed, pulse accelerating.
I see clearly now: those thronging about him are smeared with his blood. There he lies, the sacrifice, limp and ruddy, like something flayed or badly burnt. I look away as the spectacle begins to turn my stomach. There is a clear limit to being a mere observer, unable to go down among them.
The more flesh is fondled the more it chafes. Even caresses eventually draw blood. These are not the manicured feelers of aristocrats, but the rough paws of workers and warriors. In this constant turnover of hands, no scab can form on the raw skin of the prince. The experience must be quite painless—except when a drop of sweat falls on the vast wound that is his body, sending through it a visible shiver. When this happens, in a sympathetic reaction everyone encircling him convulses as well.
The ambiguity of the sounds coming from the direction of the prince owes much to this saline sting. Pain articulated upon bliss, articulated upon pain… Truly, I have little pity for the man. His is only an exacerbation of what we all feel, his potential reward much greater.
Will anyone put an end to this senseless orgy? Has it not gone on long enough? But it is obvious it will take as long as it does. Each must get their share.
None of it is really surprising, I must say. I heard tell of the cruelty of these people more than once. In person they do not disappoint: clustered like vultures around their prey, hardly any meat left on him to satisfy their voracious appetite. Is this the community of brothers descended from the primal horde? Is it really all a re-enactment of the founding of civil society? The “prince” here is little more than a carcass, an inanimate object—not a credible stand-in for a despotic patriarch, whose children gang up to kill him for denying them sexual satisfaction. The old account is unilluminating and I am forced to discard it.
Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure.
I bring back the following explanation, pieced together from snatches of overheard conversation and the intelligence I received from you. With only the rudiments of lingua opfer, I was engaged more than anything else in guesswork.
The Opferlingen do not regard their ritual primarily as a collective endurance test. Competition for access to the desideratum merely affirms their commitment to the common good. The whole event is above all a symbolic measure against the abuse of state power. It is meant to immunize the people against idolatry and the prince against corruption. The carnal experience of submission, the total surrender of will, is to act as a moral brake on the head of state. Has not everyone in the realm seen him naked with their own eyes and, moreover, ravished him with their hands? It is that same flesh he displays to the public; there is no separation, no other body. It is through and through a res publica, a public thing (the art of governing needs the whole man). This all-too-natural body must shudder at the memory of its humiliation at the hands of the multitude. It must internalize that sensational vulnerability as transparency. In this new nakedness, it is as though the prince wears nothing at all. The least attempt to conceal the truth, the merest deceit or malfeasance, would be plain to anyone from the bearing of a ruling body that has undergone such radical exposure. At once penetrating and superficial, the words of this body require no interpretation. It speaks a language the prince cannot command. Its compromising truth is felt throughout the body politic; his deposition is swift, and followed by execution.
Alas, I had no occasion to verify this explanation. A new prince has been proclaimed and must have assumed by now the duties of government. I, however, cut short my visit, unable as I was to shake off the impression of what I had witnessed, from which the subsequent inauguration would have been an unwelcome distraction. After all, it is not often one sees a sovereign bleed through his robes like meat wrapped in paper! But this, I hope you will forgive me, was not an image I wanted to take away with me.
Let me conclude with my own thoughts on what, in the end, is so unique to Opferling. Was ever another monarch as violated, let alone molested, in the name of legitimacy? The disgrace of the Charleses and Louis pales in comparison to the lawful use of this prince by his people. If all touch power, does it gain luster, is it polished to a higher gloss? Or is it, to the contrary, eroded? What sort of popular sovereignty is at work in Opferling? Does it really express the general will of its people? We know that warfare is with them the highest principle; their attainments in all other areas of culture may be undistinguished, but their art has reached an apex with the citadels. This instinct for domination, the wanton group abandon I have described, seem to support the view that the Opferlingen are brutes.
And yet, are we not more implicated in grasping after power? From the butcher to the artist, are we not after it in some way? Compared with us, are the Opferlingen really after it? Are they not, perhaps, before it? Their odd and disturbing custom is, as I learned, the fruit of revolution, an overturning of centuries of state barbarism. The people of Opferling were once the victims of tyrants, at least in the official record. The sound-walls lining the main road into the city tell the story in murals: scenes of torture, slavery and degradation, each indistinguishable from the next. On the inside, it is reversed: miles of graffiti depicting leaders in shameful poses while a jubilant populace goes at them with unspeakable relish. In my country, the perpetrators of such acts would be summarily put to death. But in Opferling, one can easily imagine the greatest perverts as close advisors to the king.
Tonight, I shall sit down to dinner with friends and tell them about all this. They know I was away, but would not believe me if I told them where I had been, let alone what I had seen there. Few have imagination for the truth of reality; most prefer strange, mythical countries and circumstances they know nothing of. By these their imagination is not merely stretched, but expanded. Yet one suspects that their capacity for truth must suffer a proportionate loss.
And even if I wanted to tell the truth, you do not allow it. I am forced, once again, to tell the truth as fiction, as one might a journey among headhunters. And what use, I ask, is hearing the truth in this way, without the faintest credit for its veracity—what use other than to reduce truth to the unimaginative? This I must accept if I am to say anything at all.
So I will relate my mission to my guests as a nightmare, after which we will laugh and drink to you, O Lady and Master. And for your sake, as well as ours, we shall not think of it again.
S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission (2013), and Matches: A Light Book (2015). She teaches at York University in Toronto.