BY LIZ VON KLEMPERER
To love someone is to want to give them your body. To love someone is to want to be given their body.
No one illustrates this point more grotesquely and tenderly than The Victorians, who bundled the hair of their lovers and wove it into jewelry. Men, for example, often braided their lovers’ hair to secure watches to their wrists. Women adorned themselves with coiled wisps in glass lockets. These would be worn on low hanging chains, allowing them to rest right over the heart. Hair jewelry, as it is commonly called, was a display of affection and devotion to both living and deceased lovers. Mourners incorporated these strands of the dead into black material such as jet, or more inexpensively, vulcanite (a hardened rubber) and bog oak.
This practice offers a variant spin on our current conception of the phrase “to have” someone. The Victorians claimed ownership over the bodies of their beloveds by transforming them into ornament. Not only was this ownership asserted very visually and concretely to others, it also symbolized a triumph over the inevitable: estrangement, death. Everyone knows that hair is dead from the moment it becomes visible on the scalp, but even so, The Victorians so delicately curated these lustrous and dead clumps to symbolize vivacity, sexuality, and the eternal.
Soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, however, hair jewelry became less trendy. People could now carry flattened, shrunken images of their loved ones. By the mid 1840’s, the middle of The Victorian era, the daguerreotype was made relatively accessible and affordable to the public.
The slow shudder speed, however, forced subjects to sit still for uncomfortably long periods of time. Thus, the daguerreotype was initially used to memorialize the dead, who had no qualms sitting without blinking for over a minute. Photographers concocted methods of propping up corpses or shrouding them in blankets to make it appear that they were leaning on a sofa or merely resting. Mothers could carry the black and white image of their deceased children with healthy rouge superimposed on their cheeks. In this way we got closer to our ultimate desire to possess the people we love, to own them in a constant, albeit fabricated, state, to lessen the sting of death and departure. Desire shape-shifted into a new era.
A century goes by. Our preoccupations morph but never evolve. Tonight, I fall asleep cradling my phone, which contains thousands of images of my former lovers. Now they are ghosts, swirling under a blackened glass frame. Sometimes the ghosts talk to me. Not to me, exactly, but at me. Your ex lover is 5 miles away from you now, my machine chirps. There she is now, for 6 seconds only, an apparition, a puff of smoke. Tonight, I am fed this video: she is smiling garishly against the flash before tilting her device upwards to capture the sea of revelers behind her. The scene ends abruptly as someone utters her name, and I am in the dark again. I know that my machine gains nutrients from the outlet it is plugged into, and that comforts me.
We’ve worked for centuries to keep the dead alive, and now they are, almost. The frame updates. Mechanisms work silently inside, allowing us to see those who have departed us laugh, drink, and stare with an agonizing adoration at a face that is not our own.
In the continuing lineage of desire, we have become the designers and facilitators of our own haunting. And everyone knows the secret to a good haunting is to make the mind play tricks on itself. Now instead of the illusion of eternal life, we have fabricated the illusion of eternal closeness. Death is not solely the passing of the body but also a severance of ties. We are haunted by the living dead, by the people who have vanished from our daily lives but not from our consciousness. In my desire to possess my beloved, I know where she drank coffee this morning. I have read the article she skimmed on her lunch break.
I try to put away this vehicle of my own haunting. I try not to carry it to bed. Still, it feels as though I am relishing the image of a corpse as I go to refresh my newsfeed on some park bench during my lunch break. It is noon, and I am drowsy, hungry, and seeking the comfort of a screen that contains all my bright and illuminated dead behind it.
Liz Von Klemperer is the author of the unpublished novel "Human Eclipse." She also writes for Art Report, and has work forthcoming in Autostraddle. When she's not writing or tweeting at @lvonklemp, she coordinates events at The Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn.