The World Exists for Me
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Such upas-trees can only grow in the poisonous mire of fear and shame.”
The Banned Lecture, Gilles de Rais
The Be-PaPas comic, World of the S&M, official English title, The World Exists for Me (and literal translation: S&M World), would be difficult to talk clearly about, directly, even if it did not have two separate English titles. The sexual and social politics are either complex or as with diamonds, the more facets the easier it is to hide color. Written in 2003, by filmmaker, Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Sailor Moon) and Seinosuke Ito, drawn by Chiho Saitou (First Girl, Revolutionary Girl Utena), Saitou also must be credited as a storyteller, the pacing, page structure, the use of symbolism and non-diegetic visuals contributing as much as anything to how we understand the narrative or progressional flow of the comic. Costume design is by Kiwa Takado, a doujinshi artist/author and display figurine designer, but how much of the costuming? A few outfits? All?
A comic following a Japanese teenager, recently rejected romantically by her best friend, who finds herself transported back in time while on a school trip to France, to the mid-Fifteenth Century and immediately embroiled in a dizzying mix of magic, conspiracy, and post-war trauma.
The English-language editions are translated by Shirley Kubo, Suzanne Waldman, and Hope Donovan, with backmatter by Donovan clarifying some of the literary and historical allusions. The title, as given early on, and as I understand it, direct translation, was The World of S&M, but the official, published title, adds a “the” to S&M, emphasizing the S and M paper dolls, the S and M names (Sekai, Souvieul, Montespan, Midou, Machiavello), the S and M motif of sekai and mundi (Japanese and Latin for, “world”), but also deemphasizes the explicit connection to the most common connotations of S&M as a phrase, sadism and masochism.
Aimed, I feel, at a teenage audience, the US editions stamped with a marker denoting an over thirteen audience, the issue of sex and sexuality is entrenched, culturally specific even as it presents as cross or multicultural, and something that I imagine the American publisher, Tokyo Pop, had no interest in displaying too loudly, even back in 2006. The comic ran, originally, in Monthly Asuka, a magazine aimed at mid and older teens, which has also, at times, featured CLAMP’s X and Snow Goddess Tales, Setsuri Tsuzuki’s Broken Angels, and Yukiru Sugisaki’s DNAngel.
Publisher’s Weekly referred to The World Exists for Me as, “sub-par fantasy fulfillment,” but whose fantasy? An “adolescent daydream,” while criticizing it for “short petticoats and frilly garters,” and that it is, “played too straight,” while seeming parodic. But, without turning as intense as Dr Frank N Furter, maybe they didn’t make this comic for that reviewer? If you hate young girls standing up to adult rapists, folklore, romance, and petticoats, you probably will not like the comic, but why would you think it was ever aimed at you?
I recently found myself wondering how we would treat Samuel Steward as a figure of queer history, how much emphasis should be given to him, say, for teenagers. I think, a lot, but I am maybe of a generation that would, while others would be less inclined, due to his roles in documenting the sadism and masochism (and the sadomasochism) scenes, the dress up fetishist scenes, as the premier tattooist for the Hell’s Angels, a diarist and documentarian, keeper of the Stud File for Dr Alfred Kinsey, and academic and a pornographer. Samuel Steward cultivated a look that is the ideal stereotype of the mid-Twentieth Century white gay man, from mustache to chest tattoos, and would not look or be out of place in this comic, a comic that presents a heartbroken teenage girl from Japan, transported during a field trip to France, three hundred years into the past, to be guided by living paper dolls that present as childlike figures, tried at court for witchcraft, assaulted by devils using glamours and the horrible evocations of responsibility that adults know can frighten youth into cooperation.
You cannot have a comic set a few hundred years ago, in France, with the literal title of, S&M World, and not feel the presence of the Marquis de Sade, even if it is not his time period and there is no in-comic acknowledgment. And, with the weight of Sade comes other layers to the use of a young girl, put upon by men and the world, as our protagonist, our victim and our heroine.
The World Exists for Me is about dichotomies, and that dichotomies may not be dichotomous, but separated by design, by articulation. Too, sexuality cannot be divided into clean or true and perversions, variations, fetishes. Sexuality is, and purity or a realness, primary-sex is as much a fetish as anything. Too, too, our relationship to sexuality is defined not internally, or by nature, but through our situation, our conditions. The title of the comic may have been changed to downplay the sexual aspects, but the cover of Volume 1 displays the roseate and white underpants, slip and garters of our teenaged protagonist. The outfits worn by Sekai are either sexualized or pretty, about the body inside them or distinctly separate from any body.
Parody? Each section is buffered by an out-of-story one-pager comic focused on the artist of the series, and her interaction with male colleagues, deadlines, and cats.
“The World Exists for Me,” but who, “me,” and what, “world”? In a comic about the desperation of a denied love, of grieving the dead, missing the past, pursuing an unattainable future, as well as the book(s)/world(s) of S and M, and S&M, these fundamentals, self, existence, and world take on both their large scope and an infinitely inverse that probes surgically, deeper than any scalpel can.
In The World Exists for Me, Gilles de Rais is described by a character, as, “a really kind person… who worships beauty.” Baron de Rais, a real historical figure and a “real” historical figure, was a comrade in arms to Joan of Arc, convicted by the same people who convicted her, but – as Aleister Crowley famously and not un-biased-ly pointed to, was not absolved, legally or culturally, in the same fashion.
In frighteningly romanticized scenes, de Rais lies with his choir director, of an unnamed age, but a boyish teenager. Baron de Rais is motivated daily, and haunted daily, by the loss of the Maid of Orléans, herself having died approximately seventeen, and five years younger than him.
Are these grown women and men representing teenage sexuality for teenagers? For teens and adults? Are they dealing with adult sexuality for adults or teenagers? An uncomfortable complication, and it should make us uncomfortable.
While we pursue, in the narrative, the culmination of Baron de Rais’ retrieval of some lost innocence, that he claims for himself even if it is embodied in another, the comic does not encourage us to forgive him. Nor, as some critics have suggested, is there any evidence of the narrative as rape fantasy for Sekai, and a conflation of immature sexual confusion and confusion about the social requirements of sexual activity, the sociopolitical ramifications of rape, sex, sexual commitment, sexualized violence with a rape fantasy is dishonest at worst; at best, lazy and unhealthy.
The end of Volume 1 and beginning of Volume 2 are a scene that begins as a seduction we are inappropriate voyeurs to, as Sekai is enticed and pressured into sex, that grows to horribleness as we and she realize that there is a glamour cast over her, and the man she is with is not who she believed, but a diabolical other. Meanwhile, the paper doll who looks like a young boy who insists he is her husband hurries to rescue her, to be beat to it by a teenager, and instead enrolled in a choir, by a choirmaster who makes not greatly veiled sexual threats to him in order to promote the idea that he, this child who is a paper doll, owes the adult work for living and a debt for not having to make a living with sex work.
I must note that these sexual matters are handled without graphic biological detail or eroticism. A sexual comic, it is not particularly erotic at all. Sex is duty, sex is fear, sex is oxygen and atmosphere. But, what of sexualization? Not all scenes are not sexualized or eroticized, and why should they be? It is a difficult balance to achieve, requiring some acrobatics for any author or artist of an adult age, making work for teens (or teens and adults), but undoubtedly a necessary act to attempt.
As the comic continues, the use of teens and adults, debt and love and sex and fear becomes both ritualistic and by all evidence as much about Gilles de Rais and the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, as it is the dolls, magick, time travel, or the students, Sekai and Midou. It is about trying to do evil to achieve good, but how well can one who does much evil appraise good? A serial rapist and sometime murderer if not a serial murderer and rapist and more, Baron de Rais has agenda, means, and a method, but all of them are questionable.
The World Exists for Me places the equal age romance, two teenagers, in the era of the publication, though in that relationship, the boy has rejected our protagonist. The sexual relationships, those of debt, those of hope, those of violence, even those of nostalgia, are occurring in the past, and not only in the past, but the past of a different country, a different culture than the Japanese protagonist.
Too, this is a past that is fantastic, in the sense of magick and magical beings, a past in which the folktale of Bluebeard, itself most likely based on Baron de Rais, and the novels of Alexander Dumas fils, are intermixed with the fictive and symbolic Christian Rosenkreuz, and the comics’ internal cosmogony, including the magic Book of M, which may be the complete Book of S & M, or might only be half of that earlier tome, but is definitely the book of the world.
Bluebeard (Barbe bleue), a Charles Perrault variation on The Robber Bridegroom and similar tales, is frequently attributed as being derived from the life of Baron de Rais, with no evidence and little connective tissue. Baron de Rais was convicted of mass child murder, child rape, and satanism. In the tale, a newlywed is told by her husband not to go in one room in their home, and when she finally does, all his other murdered wives’ bodies are there, hung up on display.
Machiavello, named for the term deriving from Niccolò Machiavelli, diplomat and writer most remembered for The Prince, a work whose nature as satire or earnest treatise is still debated today. Machiavello simply means one whose nature is as the nature of The Prince.
Combined with Aramis, named for the figure from The Three Musketeers and other allusions, the characters and references in The World Exists for Me are strongly tied to our inability to fully know the truth of matters.
Rosignol, so close to the French surname and term, rossignol, is literally the French word for bluebird, the family name of some famous cryptographers stretching the Seventeenth Century, and a very old term for a skeleton key.
Just as in the comic no one can be assured of the completeness of the Book of M as a translation or accurate representation of the Book of S & M, we cannot know the true crimes or innocence of either the Maid of Orléans or Baron de Rais, we cannot retrieve our youth, our innocence, our peace by surrounding ourselves by, or, one would hope clearly, hurting youth.
Let us be clear, it is hurt. It is attack.
When, Baron de Rais’ people find a young body, his “beautiful Rosignol,” apparently murdered, they shrug it off as, well, he has been emotional lately.
That is what we are seeing, even when there are not murders. The killing of youths.
It is the magician, Machiavello, put on the cross, impaled on the cross, the Devil himself, and it is that pitiable, scarecrow figure who smiles from his crucifixion. When Sekai tells him to embrace her blade, he, like she does to him earlier, grabs hold of the blade, itself, of her sword. There are impalings, but these are avoiding impalement due to a strong and fast hand.
Unlike her grabbing his blade and avoiding death, though, Machiavello tells Sekai to go ahead and murder him, only to try harder than she is. If she murders him, the disembodied voice of the boy from her time who turned her down tells her, she will have his power – he is so weak not even she, poor little she could do it – and she will have the boy she wants, if not as she wants.
The fourth chapter is titled, Bluebeard’s Salvation, and it is Bluebeard not only the myth and reality of Gilles de Rais, but also Sekai. The Devil has attracted not only Baron de Rais, but also our Sekai. We are all subject to the lure. Machiavello with fifteen arrows in his back, fired by those formerly under his order, as he protects Sekai only because he cannot countenance her dying before he “has her.” This is a royal sickness, an elitist sickness, the sickness of pedophiles and princes, of men of power and the unfortunate truth that in both ancient France and modern Japan and America then and now, men have power by cultural, by social fiat.
These are perpetual, unkind histories.
But, the histories are perpetuated, too, the histories are incomplete, the histories and the motives of men and boys and girls and the completely un-present women are oblique and obscured.
“Why he sought the Devil’s aid,” says the comic, “has not been recorded by history.” We do not, in the end, know the actuality of Gilles de Rais or the truth of the Devil, Machiavello, the future or earnestness of Midou or Sekai. The world does not judge, and the world does not feel or cause pain. We feel pain, we cause injury, but not all of us. These selfish gestures, rape, guilt, strangulation, these are not the human condition, but the conditions caused by specific humans. Their motives may not matter.
The World Exists for Me
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