Reading C by Tom McCarthy #5

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C. Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here.

Chapter 6 brings us to the end of ‘Caul’, the first part of C. Serge, now a teenager, has been packed off for a water cure somewhere in Eastern Europe, to treat what is glossed as ‘stomach complaints’ but might more properly be described as constipation, mental as well as physical. As Serge puts it, ‘it’s like a big ball in my stomach’, ‘[a] big ball of dirt’ (90). This, of course, picks up on that sense, at the end of the previous chapter, of having taken something of Sophie into himself. He designates the condition as ‘it’, and ascribes to it an independent will. Similarly, Serge finds his sight mysteriously veiled by something, like one of his mother’s silks, making his vision ‘gauzed’. Dr Filip, his doctor, is known for attempting to treat mental as well as physical symptoms: as he puts it to Serge, ‘you serve its needs, make them your own. This we must change’ (95).

Given the welter of detail from earlier chapters, and now this, we must inevitably make some sort of link between Serge Carrefax and Sergei Konstantinovich Pankejeff, the ‘Wolf Man’, one of Freud’s most famous patients. There are similarities between them: sexual abuse by a member of the family, the inability to have bowel movements, the death of the older sister by suicide, the sense of a veil between him and the world, not to mention Freud’s belief of the Wolf Man having been disturbed by seeing his parents having sex (which in turn makes me wonder now whether Sophie had in fact been acting as a go-between for Mrs Carrefax and Widsun rather than herself forming a liaison with Widsun; though I prefer the ambiguity of not being quite sure about that one).

The details are not precisely mirrored but the close correlation positions Serge as a person whose alienation has become medicalised in such a way as to place him on the threshold of a new ‘science’, much as he has, throughout his short life, always been on the threshold of new scientific and technological developments, without ever being involved, rather like Simeon, who pops up during this chapter to claim he is on the verge of another breakthrough, and suggesting his son become part of his proposed family firm.

We suspect already that this will, like all of Simeon’s other schemes, come to nothing. Meanwhile, Serge indulges his fascination with networks and connections by observing the pipes and machinery that distribute the spa water, and later looking at the cracks that thread through the different parts of town. His interests are mirrored too in the medical machinery; the segmented bodies of the tables echo Sophie’s fascination with insects. He is adrift, but pleasantly so, lingering at the spa, following his treatment, dallying with the charming Lucia, whose blood is too light whereas his is too dark. Filip accuses him of finding the rhythm of the illness pleasant, arguing that he needs a transformation. He is the silkworm cocoon, trussed, waiting. It is only at the end of what seems to be his first sexual encounter, with Tania, the dark, deformed masseuse who regularly treats him, that the veil is removed from his sight. It is, in a way, a rebirth, echoing the removal of the caul in which his face was covered when he was born, but it sets too the pattern of future sexual encounters, in that he will always insist on taking his partner from behind, as though unable to bear looking at their faces.

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3 thoughts on “Reading C by Tom McCarthy #5

  1. peake

    This calls to mind the moment in the last chapter when someone in Cairo says he knows Serge's father, and we realise that he means Widsun. I hadn't made the connection between Serge's constipation and him taking something of Sophie into him, but it makes sense. Particularly when the constipation is actually relieved by sex.

  2. Paper Knife

    I think we're supposed to consider constipation as some sort of phantom pregnancy, echoing what we assume to be Sophie's pregnancy. If you remember, he is described as rubbing his stomach like a pregnant woman towards the end of the section covering the funeral, as though Sophie has somehow impregnated him, the final sexual abuse.Thinking of Widsun as Serge's father (and possibly Sophie's too) accentuates the feeling one has about Simeon as a third child in the household, wildly enthusiastic about his inventions and his teaching but somehow not quite adult.

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