Misaking A Mistress For A Violin - Poem by gershon hepner
MISTAKING A MISTRESS FOR A VIOLIN
The man who mistook his mistress for a violin
is the subject of a book by J. M. Coetzee.
Mistaking music for a mistress is a sin
more serious than to eat bread without saying motsi.
When sex becomes a contest in which you subject
erotic will to your opponent, wife or wench,
don’t treat her like a piece of bread, and don’t object
if she declares she is not ready yet to bensch.
Motsi is the Hebrew name of a piece of bread a Jew may not eat before saying a blessing, hamotsi lehem min ha’arets, meaning “He who brings forth bread from the earth.” Bensch means “bless, ” and in the context of eating bread it refers to the blessing that in Hebrew is called birkat hamazon, meaning “the blessing for food.” Coetzee’s description of himself as “the man who mistook his mistress for a violin” is clearly an allusion to Oliver Sacks’s story of the man with visual agnosia who mistook his wife for a hat.
The poem was in part inspired by Tim Parks’s review of J. M. Coetzee’s “Summertime: A Fiction, ” a novel that may or may not be autobiographical (“The Education of ‘John Coetzee, ’” NYR (February 11,2010) :
Following Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002) , Summertime concludes J.M. Coetzee's autobiographical trilogy. It is a teasing and surprisingly funny book, at once as elaborately elusive and determinedly confessional as ever autobiography could be. If Boyhood and Youth were remarkable for Coetzee's use of the third person (the author declining to identify with his younger self) and the present tense (a narrative device more commonly associated with fiction than memoir) , Summertime takes both distancing and novelizing a step further. Despite our seeing Coetzee's name on the cover and hence assuming the author alive and well, we are soon asked to believe that he is now dead, the book being made up of five interviews conducted by an anonymous biographer who is speaking to people he presumes were important to the writer during the years 1972–1975.
Coetzee writes about the affair he has, possibly fact, possibly fiction, with a psychotherapist called Julia:
John, she says, was actually “a minor character” in a drama played out between herself and her husband. While the latter was traveling, the lovers enjoyed an “erotic entanglement” in the marital bed. Yet John was peripheral to her life; at the one moment when she was ready to leave her husband and he could have become a major player, he “took fright” and snuck out of the hotel where she was sleeping….Certainly there’s comedy to be had in the description of this willfully unassertive man partnering a woman who sees sex “as a contest, a variety of wrestling in which you do you best to subject your opponent to your erotic will.” “He was not in my league, ” Julia complains. When John tries to persuade her to moderate her lovemaking to fir the slow movement of a Schubert string quintet, the better to “re-experience” the sexual feelings of a bygone age, Julia shows him the door. “The man who mistook his mistress for a violin, ” she comments.
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