ossia la storia di un cazzo ebreo

“It irritates me how to this day everything is designed around the so-called human body, the body with a dick, putting half the population at risk of death from everyday objects. And it applies to everything from toothbrushes to lifts, from hot water bottles to pianos, to tablets toilet seats.”

We are in London, in the office of a psychoanalyst, Dr.Seligman. The speaker is a young German patient. The fact that she speaks in English, and not in her mother tongue, helps remove her inhibitions, helping strip away every cultural superstructure, every convention that she, often with cruel self-mockery, strips off like layers of living flesh. The young German speaks uninterruptedly: hers is a monologue, and just as in Cocteau’s Voix Humaine, in which we are unsure whether there is actually someone on the other end of the phone, here we wonder if the analyst is actually listening to her. Dr Seligman is indeed with her in the room but he never interrupts her; he is a barely perceived presence.

Making a play from the long monologue that is Jewish cock by Katharina Volckmer (La nave di Teseo 2021, translation by Chiara Spaziani) is a considerable challenge. The text by Volckmer, born in Germany in 1987, is torrential, provocative, sometimes unbearably painful and incredibly funny.

On writing in English instead of her own language, Volckmer simply said: “it has given me more freedom. Freud, too, wrote in French if he had something unseemly to say”. The text is lucid and delirious at the same time, stretching from confessions of sexual fantasies linked with Hitler and Nazism to the description of casual sexual encounters in public toilets, from the deploration of the bad German cuisine to the impossibility of feeling comfortable in a woman’s body. Jewish cock is a monologue about identity that is anything but consolatory: the narrator’s voice does not know where it is going, does not follow a coherent narrative arc starting from its self-consciousness and leading to a happy ending. It only knows that it must continue to break down its identity as a female and as a German into smaller and smaller pieces.

Volckmer and her character have a single priority: to break the silence. And the analyst’s silence  the wall against which stubbornly, painfully, the protagonist keeps banging her head. What the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘getting over the past’) has been given an ominous voice. The Nazi past has become a barrier of anti-racism that blunts or denies any difference. “Thirty German children and not a single Jew in the distance”, recalls the patient, “and we sang in Hebrew to make sure we remained de-Nazified and deeply considerate. But we were never mournful. If anything we behaved by indulging a new version of ourselves – hysterically anti-racist and ready to deny any difference. (…) Yet we never restored Jews’ their identities as human beings, nor did we allow them to interfere with our interpretation of history, resulting in the sad pile of stones that was placed in Berlin to commemorate the Holocaust.” The author questions her Germanness and her own female identity in one breath: “once I learnt to think for myself, I started going to the male toilets,” she explains to the analyst. And the public toilet becomes for her, in a comical reversal of the US controversy about the use of female toilets for trans people, a place of self-discovery.

As we write, director Fabio Cherstich is creating the show with the collaboration of Katharina Volckmer. “I imagine the woman and Dr Seligman within a mental space,” she explains in her director’s notes: “not a doctor’s surgery but a visual device in which through the use of translucent lenses, opalescent glass, photographic filters, the protagonist’s body and her image can appear to the public in a fluid and continuously transformable shape.”

Cherstich will add the visual dimension to the written one, expressing the need of the protagonist to transform herself, to become other than herself, to leave behind what she was. British artist Tracey Emin’s art – with its visual stream of consciousness studded with crumpled Kleenex, unmade beds, used condoms, careless doodles – has been an inspiration. So have the medical-ritual performances of the French artist Orlan. Cherstich not only wants us to hear the voice of the protagonist but also to see what is forming in her imagination: she asks us to become witnesses to a process of self-destruction that is also a hymn to the complexity and fluidity of who we are, who we might dare to be and who we will become: “Let us be gold, Dr. Seligman. Let us shift shape over the centuries, but without disappearing.”

Daniele Cassandro