The Disappearing Subject: An Excerpt from The Factory of Russian dolls – Daniel J. Cecil
May 31, 2021
Dad practiced card tricks on me.
Lawyers, he said, with a wink and a Groucho Marx-like invisible cigar waggle, need to know a little sleight-of-hand. He disappeared handkerchiefs. He made coins and combs and wallets vanish. He created trust. He manifested love. Once, he even made the big oak desk in his study disappear. This spoke to a reality I’d never seen, but rode on in waves of lucid dreaming. I’ve never understood how he made that trick work.
There were also optical illusions. One he used to doodle whenever he was distracted on the phone with a case aide. He would wink at me, my cue to join him, and dad would show the drawing to me, his thumb and fingers opening and closing in mock imitation of the voice at the other end of the phone.
The same year dad forbade me to climb up to the attic, the birth of a desire in myself to visit secret places, he went missing. I was eight and young enough to believe that dad’s act was a bit of his magic. I looked for him in his hiding places. Down in the basement where he took his cigarettes, blowing the smoke through a circular fan pointed at the cellar window, fog rolling out to the garden. I searched in the closet of his study behind the coats, a place he’d sometimes hide when we played tag. I searched and searched. What a child I was.
I refused to eat dinner. Breakfast. Lunch. When I continued wandering through the house — for days, weeks — opening closet doors, looking for secret hiding spaces, crying, disappearing also, mom sat me down. I was so hungry that my stomach had turned on itself, creating nausea inducing bile, and I had a hard time listening to her without belching. Mom smoothed my long hair and told me, tucking my dirty shirt into tiny jeans that no longer fit, that dad’s suitcase, his clothes, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter had gone missing. She cried but said oh yes, Al, but this is good riddance. We don’t need things in our life that disappear.
Mom rarely spoke of dad’s abandonment. She planted her garden. She read her prayer books and hummed. She made a drone that resonated in the fluids of her swollen heart. Dad had performed magic on her. He’d convinced her that he was the type not to disappear. So, she hummed — but she also held the belief that he might still reappear, perhaps through a secreted door. She held onto the belief that the trick was only halfway complete. That he might manifest in a puff of smoke, wearing a velvet cape and a top hat, yelling — “Surprise!” — delighting in our astonishment that he was there all along.
But what was he if not a disappearance artist?
I imagined all sorts of fates. Visions of dad self-combusting. Dad, slowly walking into the woods of Findley State Park, meeting the tree line before blowing away with the thick, yellow pollen from the trees. Dad, out in the wild running alongside the animals. Dad in his tweed jacket, his too-big glasses, his tie fat at the bottom, in the wilderness scrambling along with wolves.
But this question of whom father was …
Dad was a lawyer. Dad smoked strange cigarettes that smelled of pine, smoked them end-on-end. Dad listened to Richard Hell while doing his case work. Dad seemed unhappy. Dad didn’t care about other people’s opinions. Dad had gumption. Dad had brothers in Law. Dad read Kafka. Dad thought he could disrupt things every which way he could. Dad put great value in disruption. Dad studied the self-immolation of Thích Quản Đức. Dad studied the habits of the hippies. Dad didn’t trust them. Dad blamed Nixon for a lot of things. Dad blamed half-assed protests for the rest. Dad thought blood and sacrifice was key. Dad thought Carter was a good man. Dad was born during the second war and grew up on a farm. Dad related to Carter. Dad couldn’t understand why Carter didn’t fight the agricultural reforms. Dad let the agricultural reforms, of all things, disrupt his sleep. Dad said if Carter couldn’t do something about the plight of the small farmer, he would. Dad ventured a big middle finger to the man. Dad went after Earl Butz. Dad hated Earl Butz, Nixon’s commander of agriculture. Butz, Mr. “get big or get out”. Butz, who cut away restrictions on corn growing made by FDR. Butz, who made corn so cheap a commodity through subsidies that farmers, who had tons of it sitting in grain silos going to rot, started grinding kernels and putting it into our milk. Butz and his corn, the unseen enemy, clinging to us on the molecular level. Dad, who sat me on his lap and told me all these things. Dad, who was very open about his gripes. Dad, who told me that once he had a dream: Butz, standing in a sun-soaked cornfield, peeling back husks to reveal wads of unmarked cash. Butz, his face on every dollar bill.
There was that book I gave you in Berlin. It was a reader, a summary of Lacan. I didn’t understand it much, but I found the ideas fascinating. I gave it to you — this I know now, though I didn’t know it back then — because it would reveal something of me, just as we were forming our intimacy.
I don’t know if you ever read that book, but Lacan had a theory: that there’s a stage in an infant’s development when the child will glance into a mirror and see a body. Rather, the concept of a body. Meaning that, at first, they only see this “body” as an object outside themselves. It isn’t theirs, you see, this body — it’s just an entity. Like a cat. Or a pile of bricks. It’s an object that they don’t associate with. The child can’t comprehend that they’re more than just a series of impulses, that they’re a composition in the world, of the world, one that they can place into an imaginary order. They have the power to be in the world and that power comes from that body.
Now imagine a man who never quite associates himself with a body. He is floating impulses. He is nothing but desire. The structure has fallen away. The Subject has disappeared.
I think this is something for us to consider now. I think this is the first thing you need to understand about me.
Adira, do you see the Subject?
I am stumbling through a snowy field. This is a netherplace I sometimes visit while searching for you. One of those secret places like the attic where I too go and disappear.
The snow is to my knees. I think I might sink.
Suddenly, the earth opens like a giant mouth. I fall into the snow. My stomach rises as I sink into hundreds of feet of freefall. The further I fall, the darker it becomes. I fall into a pitch black you’ve never known, Adira. Like, imagine how the countryside used to be on starless and moonless nights, before the darkness was banished by the street lamps. But a deeper blackness. Harrowing and breathtaking. The kind of darkness that makes you quiver. I fall and fall until there is impact. Inertia landing in my chest, rattling like a bullet. Beneath me, a mattress. I am in my childhood room. A Cleveland Cavs poster hangs on the white wall before me. The quilt my aunt had sown for me, using old Ohio State Buckeyes t-shirts, is draped over my legs. I look up at the ceiling and there! A red door, slowly receding from view.
I heard a door knob turning, the past and the present the same. It was my father, entering the room. Dad was there to wake me. It was the day after the Butz case was thrown out of court. I remember it clearly: It was five in the morning and he smelled like booze. He had me dress. I asked what we were doing up so early and he shushed me. He begged me not to wake mom. They had argued all night. I had fallen asleep sometime around four, the pillow over my head. I’d been crying, and the pillow was still wet. Up from the bed and dressed, Dad and I tiptoed outside to the car, hot coffee in hand — a beverage he only let me drink when I was sick. I became convinced that I was sick, my hands clammy in the icy morning. I coughed in a false way and my father looked at me disapprovingly. I was so embarrassed.
We drove for hours along back roads lined by fields of wheat and soy and corn. Dad pointed at it all and identified it for me. Look at the diversity, he said. Say goodbye to it. All these fields — it’ll be corn as wide as the sun. That’s what it’ll be with Butz and his cronies getting their fucking way. Dad sighed. For a while, his disappointment was the only sound in the car. When we drove into the next county, Dad rolled down his window and lit a cigarette. I loved the smell of the smoke on the cool air, which smelled itself of burning wood and manure.
Everything, he said, will fit into one narrow chute. Everything controlled from one place. Everything will be knowable and boring and where will we be without mystery? Without magic? I think it was the only time I ever saw him give up.