Just over a year ago, Alexandra Kleeman’s much-praised debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine was published and hailed as a new kind of feminist post-modernism, merging surreal elements with incisive commentary on the culture of womanhood and bodies. (Some people, of course, hated it.) On Tuesday, Kleeman’s short story collection Intimations came out, compiling twelve pieces that range from totally surreal to realistic-but-weird and concern that most intrinsic human struggle: existing. BuzzFeed has one of the stories, “The Dancing-Master,” in which the eponymous character tries to civilize a feral boy by teaching him the art of formal dance.
Perhaps knowing the proper execution of the gavotte would help the boy make sense of the world.
The story is set in the time of ascots and powdered wigs and formal gardens shaped into hard lines, when philosophy was concerned with what separated man from beast. When the feral boy wanders into town, dirty and wild and nonverbal, the local philosopher Portesquieu challenges the dancing-master to turn the boy into a proper gentleman. The dancing-master, holding a firm belief in the power of dance to shape and cultivate intelligence and social graces, accepts. What follows is a troubling regimen of training and abuse, dressed up in the narrator’s pretty words, high-minded ideals, and noble intentions:
I removed from his daily routine those few things that he favored—food, flowers, and chewable items. I set in their place a system of tutorials directed toward teaching him the most elevated of concepts and behaviors, which I believed he would interest himself in were he not continually able to please himself by putting objects into his mouth. It is in this manner that societies have caused their own advancement: by starving themselves of ready satisfactions, they stir their appetite for finer sustenance.
Kleeman has a talent for shaping single lines that stick in your head and trouble you for days, and that last sentence is one of them. Contemplative and aristocratic on the surface, it holds disquieting depths that hint at deprivation and an unnatural refusal of the essential pleasures of being human. Like all those waists crushed into corsets, malformed by “civilized” society, this shaping of the feral boy is perhaps harmful, cruel. When the boy drifts in his training, the dancing-master puts his hand on a rod he keeps at his waist: “The rod, I say, remember the rod. With this reminder, he regains a healthy alertness.”
As the story builds, more and more of the savagery in the civilized peeks through, such as when the dancing-master is provoked by Portesquieu: “The blood pools in my face and I feel flush with sickly warmth. His face before me resembles a pile of meat, arrayed in the shape of a grin.” (Meat, actually, comes up a lot in the story.) The story also brings up questions of the purpose of art, which is in this case dance but is necessarily self-referential, short fiction being a form of art, after all. In “The Dancing-Master,” Kleeman has created another thought-provoking and eerie narrative that hints at the deeper and darker parts of our natures that we try so hard to control, or cover, or civilize.
I say, Victor. Victor, the work you have been doing is not adequate, but it is admirable. There is no other like you, no other that may demonstrate to the world the civilizing power of art. You are the frozen mammoth, the crocodile. Your presence is proof. Some may hate you for what you bear out, but all will note your ability. To many, you will be a battlefield on which they strive to destroy and slander our accomplishments. But you will always be my garden: a shard of wildness bent into order, a geometric humility carved into the world, and adding to its beauty.
I remove my hand from his shoulder, and he runs off to one of his weeping nooks, I know not which.